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Equal Billing (posted on: 30-05-16)    
Inspired by Falling Out of Love from Mary Gauthier's 2007 album 'Mercy Now'.

At last the applause died down. She wondered if she would be milking it if she did a third encore. Everybody said that you should leave them wanting more and she knew they were right. One more bow. One more gesture toward the pianist. One more enthusiastic applause from herself for that smiling young man. Yes, that was enough. Never try to milk it. She walked slowly but confidently back to the wings, saw him stand and bow, soak up his own applause and start to follow. It was over now. It had been good. He winked when he got to her. The applause was still too loud for them to talk over it. He kissed her on the cheek. Still beaming, he took her hand and led her down to the back-stage corridor. 'Best show of the tour, Monica,' he told her, still needing to raise his voice to make himself heard. She waited a moment before she replied so that she wouldn't need to shout. 'Thanks Ray. You did a great job. I really appreciate it. You were terrific too. We're good together, aren't we? What do you say we go and get a drink?' He didn't need to reply. It was their ritual after every show. It would take no more than fifteen minutes to change out of the sparkly dress that she knew was too young for her, wipe the stage makeup from her face, replace it with her basic civilian one, grab her purse and her coat and follow him to the stage door. One of the stage hands shouted to her as she passed by: 'Great show Miss Sterling!' She thanked him. He was right, damn it! That had been a great show. They had laughed. A few of them had cried. There hadn't been a sound in the theatre while she was singing. She could feel their adulation like a two-bar electric fire right in front of her face. Enjoy it, she told herself. Wallow in this. This isn't something that goes on for ever. These are the moments you have to remember when you're old and nobody cares any longer. She studied her face in the merciless dressing room mirror. The lines and imperfections seemed to stand out like a NASA photograph of the surface of the moon. The clock was ticking. She hurried off to find Ray, glanced at her phone three missed calls, but she could check those later. Nothing from Steve, but he'd come to his senses before long. They'd had their ups and downs right from the start and he always crawled back in the end. Mustn't keep that sweet young man waiting. It was cold outside and puddles from the recent rain threw the glare of the street lights into their faces. The nearest bar was down-market with an irritating recording of third-rate jazz playing in the background and a predominantly older male clientele, but Monica was on too much of a high to care. At least it was unlikely she would be recognised here, they would have peace. There was a corner table for two vacant, as far from the piped music as it was possible to get. Ray offered to buy the drinks but she put a hand on his shoulder and insisted. 'They pay me more than you, Ray. No reason why they should but they do. So I get the drinks. Okay?' He shrugged and sat down. For a few minutes they sipped their beers and didn't say anything. After the intensity of the two-hour concert they both needed to unwind. It occurred to Monica that Steve never seemed to understand this. Only a fellow performer can really understand what a person needs after a show, how it feels. It was good that she and Ray knew each other well enough that they didn't have to talk. 'You're too good to go around with me,' Monica said at last. 'You're ready to go solo.' 'You're kidding me.' 'I'm telling you the truth. You got at least as much applause for your two songs tonight as I got for any of mine. I hope you won't though. Not just yet. But I think we should insist on equal billing at least.' 'You're just being kind.' 'If you'll pardon the clich, I didn't get where I am right now by being kind. You don't need to cling on to an old woman on the way down. You're young. You've got buckets of talent. Steve agrees. They love you and they love your songs. Grab your chances while you can. One more tour with me maybe, but equal billing. Then, it's your turn. Don't let me or anybody else hold you back. You don't get a second chance in this industry.' He put his beer down and looked her straight in the eye for a few seconds without speaking. Even though she knew him so well it was a bit disconcerting. 'I know you're trying to be honest with me so I'm going to be honest with you. I was seventeen when I bought your first album. I'd just been dumped by my first girlfriend and I felt like a piece of shit. I went in for high drama back then and the first solution I thought of was topping myself. That was the kind of teenager I was. And I just might have been stupid enough to do it too. But when I listened to your songs I realised that other people felt the same way as me. Other people got dumped and it wasn't the end of their lives. Your songs spoke to me and what they said was, it's all right. It's all right to feel miserable and life doesn't end because a love affair does. Life knocks you down and when it does you have to get up again. Clichs maybe but you can only make a clich out of something that's true. And your songs said things about life that were true. They still do. All of them. More than that, they make it impossible to doubt those truths. They're kind of important.' He took another sip of his drink. 'And now, I've got to work with the person who wrote those songs. And quite frankly, that matters more to me than anything that's got to do with this industry or my so-called career. So please, don't talk about taking that away from me. Ever. Please. Okay?' Monica found herself choking up. Clichs, of course. All clichs. So why did it make her feel like this? She grabbed her purse and stood up. 'I've got to go to the bathroom,' she said under her breath. She washed and dried her hands. She couldn't hear the bad jazz in here, it was silent and peaceful. She paused and reached automatically for her phone. A recent text. Steve! She pressed 'read'. As she scanned the words a darkness spread over her countenance. She read the message a second time and froze for a moment before setting the device down gently by the side of the sink. Then she stooped and was violently ill. Walking back to their table she glanced down at her coat to reassure herself that the small splash of vomit had been thoroughly removed. Ray looked concerned. 'You were a long time. Is everything all right?' She didn't need to answer. He stood up and took her hand. 'Come on. Let's get out of here.' She managed to control herself until they were outside, then collapsed into his embrace. 'Remind me,' she whispered in his ear. 'What did I say in those songs?'
Archived comments for Equal Billing
Mikeverdi on 30-05-2016
Equal Billing
And there you are, showing us how it should be done. These are the things that have been missing from the site. This is how we learn. Thanks David.
Mike

Author's Reply:
Thanks Mike. Very kind of you.
David.

sirat on 07-06-2016
Equal Billing
Many thanks to whoever nominated this piece for the Anthology.

Author's Reply:

Pronto on 07-06-2016
Equal Billing
Well worthy of a nomination. A beautifully constructed piece that held the attention riveted without gimmicks, whistles or bells. 🙂

Author's Reply:
Thanks Pronto. Much appreciated.


Returned Mail (posted on: 01-04-16)
This is my offering in response to the current challenge in the Prose Challenge forum: A story in which someone suffers a similar transition to the one in Kafka's Metamorphosis. It should contain a moral or philosophical life lesson.

This is my final attempt to get a message through to my lawyer Mrs. Prudence Cooper. I don't have very much hope left that it will ever get to her but I have to make the effort. Pru, if you ever get to read this, I don't want you to think that I'm ungrateful for the work you did in getting me the settlement with the Omega Corporation in 2063. Speaking for myself I thought it was a first class settlement at the time. You counselled caution and I wouldn't listen. That was foolish of me. I was rash, I didn't look at all the angles. I acted like a five-year-old in a candy store. Go ahead, eat as much as you like, the Omega Corporation said, and that was what I did. You and one or two others tried to warn me that I would make myself sick, and I sure did. There isn't much point in going over it all again, but I want to ask you to use your imagination here, and your compassion. Can you put yourself into my shoes on the day they told me? I wonder if you can? I was the most average American imaginable: thirty-six-years old, good enough job in hydrogen distribution, pleasant enough home life with my wife and the two kids, even if a little of the magic had gone out of it, nice house in a decent neighbourhood with guaranteed aircar access, good health, no debts, a few guys I used to drink with, a couple of hobbies I enjoyed, nothing much to bring me down. Of course there was a reason why I was so average, I understand that now. Then they hit me with something like that. Can you even begin to imagine it? Being told you aren't real? I don't think so. That shock alone is worth something in terms of compensation. Something damned big. And I don't think it was even taken into account in the settlement. Now at first I could see the Corporation's point of view. Computer time isn't cheap, not on something the size of Ocean Blue. But then I found out that thing wasn't running me in real time, and I only ever took up about ten per cent of its processing power and memory. The only time they were running me in real time was when they needed to talk to me. My thirty-six years of life had taken place in nine hours and sixteen minutes of Ocean Blue's time, running at ten per cent capacity! So what was all the fuss about, for Christ sake? Give me another nine hours and I could live to 72. Give me eighteen more and I could get to 108, which must be about the average lifespan for a modern American. Eighteen hours of Ocean Blue's time at ten per cent capacity. What's that to a corporation the size of Omega? That was what I reckoned and of course I was right, they jumped at the offer. Even let me add all those little clauses, like I could have any kind of life I wanted, nicer children, a more beautiful wife who loved me more, a higher IQ, better teeth, permanent youth and health up to the moment of death how come they were so keen to please? So keen to get me to sign that settlement agreement? Well, we found out why pretty damned quick, and I was grateful at the time to Father Ryan for pointing it out to me: the fact that the majority of American citizens believe that they have an afterlife to look forward to in everlasting paradise. Nobody can prove that there isn't one, so why shouldn't I have that to look forward to as well? Why should I be the only human being without any hope of that afterlife of eternal bliss? Regardless of how much computer time that would need. And thanks to you, the court accepted it. You gave those atheists a dose of their own logic! I know you had personal reservations, but you were my lawyer and you did what a person's lawyer is supposed to do, you took my instructions and you fought my corner. You had already won official human status for me, something that had never been achieved before for a computer simulation. I didn't have to feel like some kind of glorified crash dummy for statisticians to study any more you proved legally that I was a free-willed person making moral choices and originating thoughts that were entirely my own. That's what I've always been, I can pass the Turing Test with one hand tied behind my back, but you forced Omega to acknowledge it. I used to feel so grateful for that. Like I could never thank you enough. If you hadn't won that case life would have ended for me right there and then. I wouldn't even have been dead, I would have been deleted a bunch of erased and shredded files reduced to total non-existence. But the next bit was a step too far. You were right about that and I should have listened to you. We all knew deep down that human beings aren't fitted for eternal life. We're born, we grow old, we die. That's who we are, the way it's supposed to be. The only kind of eternal life a human being can have is one of absolute misery and despair. I know that now. Even with all the perks that Omega gave me, all those extra agreements about designing my own women and ruling the world and experiencing ecstasy every moment of my life it just isn't enough to make eternity tolerable. Eternity is too long for human beings. It doesn't matter how good it is, how much pleasure we experience, how clever we are, how much power we have, how beautiful everything is eternal anything is hell, not heaven. There's nothing, and I really mean nothing, that can make eternal existence tolerable let alone pleasurable for a human being. I don't know how long I've been in 'heaven'. I haven't tried to keep records. But I know that it's too long. A lot too long. I've had enough now. I want out. I want it to end. I want peace. I want death. I know that wasn't in the agreement. I can't choose oblivion. It's the one option I never thought I would need. But I need it more than anything now. Omega can have their computer back. I don't want any more of Ocean Blue's time. Surely that's to their advantage too? Why haven't they given it to me aeons ago? Aren't they listening to me any more? Isn't anybody listening? Are you out there any more, Pru? Is there anybody out there any more? What year is it in your world? For God's sake pull the plug somebody! Anybody, please! IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?!!!
Archived comments for Returned Mail
QBall on 01-04-2016
Returned Mail
Very interesting idea. I am happy I am not in this situation. I think you wrote this just right. Congratulations.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Leslie. Much appreciated.

Mikeverdi on 02-04-2016
Returned Mail
I think it's excellent. I was a little unsure at the start, I should have realised I was in safe hands. I was not expecting heaven, that was inventive. I wondered if at the end,you needed the last three lines, just me I expect.
Mike

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the kind words, Mike.
Re the ending, I wanted my protagonist to 'lose it' a bit, to have a screaming outburst, and maybe to push the whole thing a little bit further in the direction of comedy, but I can see that you're right,it probably works just as well without those three lines. I'll see what other people think about them. Maybe they shouldn't be there. Thanks for reading and commenting.

pdemitchell on 03-04-2016
Returned Mail
Heaven in a CPU well expanded into the realisation of eternity in a processor. The last line is a cliche and I think overegged the coda-pudding a bit and could go as the penultimate line 'hangs' better as an ending. Brilliant short piece. Mitch

Author's Reply:
Thanks Mitch. Glad you liked it. The consensus on the ending seems to be that it needs trimming.

Supratik on 03-04-2016
Returned Mail
Brilliant! I just loved it. Health until death... I came back to that part a number of times.

Author's Reply:
I've always thought my ideal death would be to be shot by a jealous husband when I'm 104.
Thanks for the kind words.

e-griff on 04-04-2016
Returned Mail
Highly competent and complete story benefitting from your interest and knowledge of AI, very well expressed (as ever!) No glitches, no doubts on my part. Ten out of ten for what it is.

Enjoyed it.

Author's Reply:
Coming from you John that is praise indeed. Many thanks!

expat on 04-04-2016
Returned Mail
You're pretty good at these epistolary tales! Both of your short story collections had some if I remember correctly.
I wrote a similarly-themed story several years ago about a tube-festooned old man being kept unhappily alive in hospital purely as a chest-beating example of medical showmanship.
Me - I'm all for the Do Not Resuscitate option.
No gripes about anything - a good read.

Author's Reply:
Thanks. I agree with you more or less about not keeping people alive for the sake of it, but there is a bit of a minefield connected with voluntary euthenasia when people begin to feel like a burden on their families. Always a question mark over just how voluntary it is.


Life's End (posted on: 05-02-16)
My response to my own prompt on the Prose Challenge Forum: The last day of somebody's life.

Rose spotted her sister coming up the drive before she reached the door and hurried out to greet her. Lettie was as slim and elegant as ever but her features were becoming a little pinched, Rose noticed, putting it down to dieting and stressful living. She wore a completely matching deep crimson outfit business suit, handbag, high-heeled shoes Rose imagined her on the right-hand page of a fashion magazine for older women. They exchanged air kisses on each cheek. 'You look a real picture, Lettie,' 'Well, I try not to let myself go. Honestly, Rose, you're beginning to look positively frumpish, and you're not even forty yet. You've put on weight, you know. When did you last have your hair done?' Rose's spirits began to sink, as they always did when Lettie was around. She decided not to reply. They came inside and shut the front door before Lettie spoke again. 'I suppose he's upstairs. Any change?' She started towards the staircase. 'I wouldn't go up just yet, Lettie. The doctor is with him.' 'Did you get someone good? A fever specialist?' 'I don't know if there's such a thing as a fever specialist.' 'Someone good though. Harley Street?' 'No. His own doctor. Dr. Leaman. He's been Dad's doctor for years.' 'What are you trying to do? Save money? Get him somebody decent. You people can afford it.' 'It's nothing to do with money. Dad trusts Dr. Leaman. They know one another' 'Oh, don't be such a fool Rose. He must have the best. Leave it to me. I'll see to it.' She started up the stairs. 'Lettie, will you come down please. Don't bully us. We're more than happy with Dr. Leaman.' Lettie hesitated and turned around. 'Please, Lettie. This is a very hard time for us. Don't interfere. This is probably Dad's last few hours on earth. Have a bit of consideration, please.' Lettie turned reluctantly and came back down. 'You're too nave for this world. Leaman is old and doddery. Dad needs a proper doctor.' 'Please, Lettie. I'm not strong enough to argue at the moment. Come into the sitting room. Let me get you a drink. Give them peace.' Lettie settled grudgingly into a soft chair and Rose went to the drinks cabinet. 'Vodka and lime?' 'I shouldn't, I'm driving, butoh, go ahead.' Rose mixed the drink, handed it to her sister and sat opposite. 'You asked me if there was any change. Well, to tell you the truth, he had a pretty bad night. The fever has come to a head. He's been delirious.' 'Delirious? He's old. Old people babble and talk nonsense.' 'Don't be so unkind. You know Dad isn'tlike that.' 'He wasn't but it may have started with this illness. It may have affected his brain.' Rose held back tears. 'You can be so He's our father, Lettie. Don't you feel anything for him? You can be so hard sometimes.' 'Hard headed maybe. I'm not a sentimental fool, if that's what you mean. Dad is very old. He can't go on for ever. You've got a life too you know. Or at least you could have.' 'What do you mean by that?' 'Well, look at yourself for god's sake. What have you been doing for the last twenty years or so? Living here in this museum of the 1950s and tending to his every need. Do you call that a life? Look at you. Look at your clothes, your hair, your make-up. You're younger than me and you're turning into a middle-aged spinster. You could still have another child, get a job, get' 'A man? I had a man and I had a child. What's so great about men?' 'Nothing. That's the first sensible thing you've said since I got here. Where's Golden Boy then?' 'I wish you wouldn't call him that. He's upstairs with Dad and the doctor.' 'So he's allowed to sit in on this ''medical consultation'' but I'm not. Charming.' 'Of course you can go up, but not when Michael is there already. Two people at his bedside are quite enough. He's confused. Don't you understand? Our Dad is dying. Just have a little bit of understanding. Wait until Dr. Leaman tells us it's all right to go up. Stop interfering and taking over all the time.' A resentful look spread across Lettie's face. There was a pause before she spoke. 'These rooms are enormous, but just look at the furniture. One or two decent pieces I suppose, that sideboard isn't bad, but most of it is pure junk. With a little bit of imagination this place could be like a palace. I don't suppose you've got a clue what this house is worth?' 'No, Lettie, not a clue.' 'With this post code? It's run down of course, but I've seen houses smaller than this around here and in no better condition go for a million-and-a-half or more.' 'This is on a main road, Lettie. Traffic screaming by day and night cars, lorries, motor cycles they treat it like a race track. I wouldn't want to live here if I was starting out fresh.' 'Then why do you stay? Anyway, haven't you heard of double glazing? Triple even. You wouldn't hear a thing.' 'I've heard that it makes the house hot and stuffy in the summer.' 'Air conditioning. You can afford it. Dad's been on a High Court judge's salary for forty years or more and I've never seen him spend any of it. Where does it all go?' 'I've never asked Dad anything about his money. That's his own business. Michael and I don't want for anything. That's all that matters. Lettie, did you come here to talk about real estate and money or to see Dad?' 'I'm trying to be practical. One of us needs to be. Dad is an old man. Even if he pulls through this and of course I hope he does he isn't going to be here forever. You've got to give some thought to what you're going to do after he goes. My guess is that you and Michael will get the house. I want you to know that if that happens I'm willing to buy you out. You don't need a place this size, do you? What would be the point?' 'Lettie, I'm sorry but I can't talk about this sort of thing right now. You're so hard!' 'Maybe you're right. Maybe I am. Maybe that's how I survived two husbands and got myself a decent job in the city. Maybe you could do with being a little bit harder, Rose.' 'This job of yours. You move money around on computer screens, don't you? Is that really a satisfying thing to do? A useful thing?' 'It's a little bit technical for you, little sister, but let me explain. There's a great big cake out there. The better you understand how the system works, the better you are at managing things and spotting opportunities, the bigger the slice of that cake you end up with.' 'I see. And who bakes the cake?' 'The honest answer? Mugs. People with no ambition, no initiative, no imagination. The little people. That's never going to change.' 'You don't have much time for the little people, do you, Lettie? I know I'm one of them, you don't have to tell me that.' 'Do you want me to tell you what I really think? You're passive, Rose. You just let things happen to you. Lousy boyfriend, teenage pregnancy, end up here looking after Dad and Golden Boy, who'll fly the nest just as soon as he gets on the train for his first term at Oxford. Dad can't have much longer and then you'll be here on your own and probably get a lodger and a cat. You know who you remind me of? Those shiftless drop-outs when we were girls who used to piss off to India to some squalid ashram to ''find themselves''. I've got news for you, Rose. People don't ''find'' themselves, they make themselves. They decide what kind of life they want and then they get up off their backsides and go and do whatever it takes to bring it about. That's the truth about the world. You're responsible for your own life. You don't have to sit here and rot if you don't want to. It's completely your decision.' Rose felt wounded by this unusually fierce tirade but tried not to show it. She decided to change the subject. 'What makes you think Michael and I will get the house? Why shouldn't it be half and half?' 'Don't be ridiculous. When was it ever half and half with Dad? You've been the blue-eyed girl since the very day you were born. You know that as well as I do. I might get half the money but I won't get half the house.' 'Okay, let me tell you the truth too. You expect Dad to love you equally but you don't love him equally, do you? What have you ever done for him? How many times have you visited here since Mum died?' 'I had a career. You could have had one too if you wanted it, Golden Boy or not. Dad never really needed you. He could have employed someone he had the money or even married again. You stayed here because you need to be needed. No other reason. If it wasn't some dumb teenager with a permanent hard-on it was Dad, and if it wasn't Dad it was Golden Boy. What about you, Rose? When are you going to start living your own life? You're my little sister and I love you, but a lot of the time you drive me up the walls.'' Rose waited for her anger to subside before she answered. ''Well, actually there is something I'm doing and it is just for myself. I know you'll ridicule me but I don't care. I'm writing a novel.'' ''Writing a novel? How can you write a novel if you've never lived?'' ''Maybe I can write about a woman who got pregnant by a dumb teenager while she was still at school and ended up looking after her dying father.'' ''Very funny. Well, don't expect me to buy a copy.'' In the pause that followed the sound of male voices drifted down from the rooms above. ''Oh! Listen! I think it's Michael and the doctor.'' As soon as she finished saying the words Michael flung the door open and rushed in, positively beaming. ''Oh, hello Auntie Lettie. I didn't hear you arrive. Listen! Great news! Granddad is going to be fine. Dr, Leaman says the fever has broken and he's sitting up in bed and asking for food. He's going to be absolutely fine! Dr. Leaman says he's as tough as old boots. Isn't it wonderful?'' Rose ran over and embraced him. ''That's the best news I've ever had, Mikey!'' ''Wonderful,'' Lettie joined in, if a little less enthusiastically, standing up. ''I'm so pleased to hear that.'' Rose and Michael continued to hold one another. Lettie's attention wandered to the window. Suddenly she became animated. ''Rose, is that a traffic warden?'' Rose let go of her son and turned to look. ''Yes, I think so. Where are you parked?'' ''Fucking hell! Where are those parking permits? The scratch-card things?'' ''They're in the drawer of the hallstand.'' Lettie took off like a woman possessed. They heard the drawer of the hallstand slammed shut and saw her sprint awkwardly down the driveway to the road, her tight tailored skirt making her strides short and uncoordinated. The lorry driver had good reactions, but Lettie had left no margin for error in her judgment of his vehicle's speed and distance. Falling straight across his path when her right heel parted from the shoe, she gave him no chance. They watched in disbelief as first one, then two and finally three of the mighty articulated vehicle's wheels rolled over her prone body. The huge splash of deep crimson beneath the vehicle coordinated perfectly with her business suit, her shoes and her handbag.
Archived comments for Life's End
Rab on 05-02-2016
Lifes End
I wondered whose last day it was going to turn out to be, and I'm glad it was Lettie's. A story about death with a happy ending!

Author's Reply:
Thanks Rab. As you say, death isn't always a sad event.

Pronto on 06-02-2016
Lifes End
It took a while to figure out the twist. It is a very good story and the characters stood up well.

Author's Reply:
Thanks Pronto. It is of course mainly a character study. I'm glad it worked for you.

teifii on 07-02-2016
Lifes End
Loved the twist at the end. Didn't see it coming.
Daff

Author's Reply:
Thanks Daffni. I'm very pleased that you liked the story.

QBall on 07-02-2016
Lifes End
Great story telling. Excellent twist at the end - the kind I admire. The final paragraph was quite gruesome if you have an imaginative mind.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Q. Delighted that you liked the story.

THEGOLDENEGG on 13-02-2016
Lifes End
I liked your work on the characters in the dialogue, it told a story, if stereotypical rather than subtle. It was convincing and kept my interest throughout. But I have to say the 'and then she was run over' ending was pretty simple, and I wasn't sure what message it was supposed to give.

But as always, a good read. 🙂

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the comment. I'm quite happy with the 'good read' assessment.
As I said somewhere above, it's mainly a character study. An interaction between two sisters motivated in very different ways, with hopefully a glimpse of why they developed along the lines that they did. No very profound message – just 'You know not the day nor the hour', and there are more important things in life than money and self-aggrandisement. In fact most things in life are more important than those.


Euston, We Have a Problem (posted on: 30-11-15)
This is in response to the current Prose Challenge in the UKA forums in which a number of settings are suggested as prompts to creating a story. I can't remember what my exact chain of associations was, just that the wild mushrooms we had with our dinner tasted a bit odd.

This is a cautionary tale. The moral is: Avoid ever giving the impression that you are even minimally competent in any technical area whatsoever. ''Mend your computer? Are you crazy?!! I wouldn't even know how to turn it on. In fact, what is a computer?'' This is the safe and recommended response. What is seldom understood is that assistance of any kind rendered to anyone who owns an electrical or electronic device of any description, from a humble toaster to a Large Hadron Collider, means that from that moment onwards you are under a strict obligation to rectify immediately any malfunction or misadjustment of any kind arising in that or any other human artefact of whatever variety that may impinge on the life of that individual. It is an immutable rule of the society in which we live. Let me provide a concrete example. All of this is completely true apart from the bits I made up. A few days ago I was setting out for a dirty weekend at a country hotel with my young and beautiful mistress Lolita O'Shaughnessy, and as I was passing through the concourse of Euston Station arm in arm with this charming young lady my telephone (which I had foolishly forgotten to switch off) demanded my attention. ''Yes,'' I responded, with a questioning and somewhat irritated intonation. ''Hi Dave! You remember me? It's Ralph of Ralph and Mildred. We met in the MacDonald's in Barnsley in 2010.'' ''Hello Ralph. Of course I remember you. You had a Big Mac Meal-deal, regular size, with a strawberry milkshake. How have you been?'' ''Great. I've been terrific. So has Mildred. Is that what I had? Blimey! What a memory you've got, man!'' ''People often remark on my memory. So, how can I help you and the lovely Mildred?'' ''Well, you'll remember that you showed Mildred how to switch off the alarm on her digital watch. It used to go off at 3.57 AM every morning except Saturday.'' ''How could I forget? At least the two of you could enjoy a moment of uninterrupted intimacy in the early hours of each Sunday morning.'' ''Oh, sometimes waking up at 3.57 was just the thing to get us in the mood.'' ''Remarkable.'' ''But the thing is, we've got one of those pad things since. One of the bigger ones it's about nine inches long and five inches across.'' ''I'm fully familiar with the model.'' ''It's an amazing thing. It has a camera, and you can ask it where the nearest MacDonald's is and it gives you a little map.'' ''What will they think of next?'' ''And the thing is, Greta sits on it.'' ''Does she? How interesting. Look, I don't want to hurry you, but I'm with my friend, a rather lovely young lady named Lolita O'Shaughnessy. We're about to board a train, and my time is a little limited.'' ''It's because it gets warm. Especially when we plug it in. We plug it in with a sort of lead.'' ''Staggering!'' ''I'm sure she just likes it there because it's warm.'' ''Have you tried any other approach to providing Greta with the kind of temperature she craves?'' ''Well, there's a heated rock in her tank. That's got a mains lead too. Oh, I forgot to say, Greta is an iguana.'' ''Ah! Now that is indeed a relevant factor.'' ''And, well, I don't want to be indelicate, but I think Greta has peed on the pad.'' ''The indelicacy was all Greta's, at least in my view.'' ''I knew you would understand. I'm afraid the pad won't switch on any more and it smells a bit funny.'' ''Very worrying. Now I need to know is Greta one of the arboreal and herbivorous green iguanas of South and Central America or one of the less common and more omnivorous black rock iguanas of the Turks and Caicos Islands of the southern Caribbean?'' ''I don't know. Does it matter?'' ''Good gracious me! Of course it matters! It's a well-known fact that the urine of the black rock iguana, Cyclura carinata carinata is many times more corrosive than that of the American green iguana, Iguana iguana.'' ''You said 'iguana' three times.'' ''Yes, but the second and third times I was speaking Latin.'' ''Oh. All right then. I'll go and take a look at the receipt from the pet shop and ring you back.'' ''Good idea.'' And this simple ruse provided more than enough time for me to go into the menus and block any further calls from that number. Normally that's all that's required to permanently solve the problem of nuisance calls of this kind, but as we came to the end of the concourse and were about to step onto the 'down' escalator Lolita's phone rang and she handed it to me, assuring me that I was the one the caller had asked for. ''Is that still you Dave?'' ''Yes. This is still me. How did you get Lolita O'Shaughnessy's number?'' ''Everybody's got Lolita O'Shaughnessy's numberhaven't they? Anyway, where are you now?'' ''Still at Euston. We're about to go down to the Underground bit.'' ''But you won't be able to get a signal down there, will you?'' ''No, quite right, I won't.'' With this I switched off Lolita's phone and handed it back to her. ''A wrong number,'' I explained. And so I managed to wriggle out of my obligation, although with a strong premonition that our sleep (or wakefulness) would be disturbed by Lolita's phone sounding at exactly 3.57 AM that morning. It's so much simpler if you can avoid entering into obligations of this kind in the first place. The best avoidance technique, as I have learned rather late in life, is to attack any electric or electronic contrivance thrust into your hand with gleeful enthusiasm and return it to its in owner in at least a slightly worse but preferably a much worse state than that in which it was received. Screens and circuit boards can be cracked with the judicious application of torsion forces, and keypads of most kinds respond well to a short immersion in warm cooking oil. Less easily detected sabotage techniques include the momentary use of a microwave oven or the connection of a 12 volt power supply to devices expecting one of 5 volts or less. As Lance Corporal Jones in Dad's Army remarked in the context of Germans and bayonets, ''They don't like it up 'em!'' Always remember, when it comes to the adjustment, maintenance and repair of other people's electronic equipment, the claw hammer is your friend. Thank you.
Archived comments for Euston, We Have a Problem
bluepootle on 30-11-2015
Euston, We Have a Problem
Ha! My husband plays this role for quite a few people, including me. I'll shall pass on the advice.

I like the first paragraph, which establishes voice very well, and I found it easy to read and enjoy. There's a fun use of dialogue without tags, too, which gives it a quick-fire slapstick edge.

Author's Reply:
Thanks Aliya. Much appreciated. And thanks very much for the great talk you delivered at the launch event for
More Nuggets from Gold Dust on Saturday night. The video is being uploaded to YouTube at this very moment. You ran away before I had time to say goodbye.
Rab on 30-11-2015
Euston, We Have a Problem
Excellent! I love the heartfelt advice, and it is worth following, in my experience. I've found the best way round the problem isn't to destroy the piece of equipment but to get very irritated very quickly, which makes for an uncomfortable situation in no time. You won't be asked for your help again.

Like Blue, I loved the quick-fire dialogue, and I learned something too - I never knew that about the urine of the black rock iguana.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much. I wouldn't rely too heavily on the accuracy of that information re the corrosive qualities of the urine of the black rock iguana. Try to retain an open mind on that burning (no pun intended) question.

Andrea on 30-11-2015
Euston, We Have a Problem
Love the title 🙂

Author's Reply:
Yes, it's the best bit of the story. Thanks, Andrea.

e-griff on 30-11-2015
Euston, We Have a Problem
I liked this as it was different from your usual style, and mixed a serious thought (how I agree with you) with a humorous light story. An amusing few minute-passer which I enjoyed even though I thought the Lolita telephone number was a little overplayed.

Did you mean 'High' or 'Hi' ?

Author's Reply:

e-griff on 30-11-2015
Euston, We Have a Problem
I liked this as it was different from your usual style, and mixed a serious thought (how I agree with you) with a humorous light story. An amusing few minute-passer which I enjoyed even though I thought the Lolita telephone number was a little overplayed.



Did you mean 'High' or 'Hi' ?

ps - actually the locals in texas do pronounce 'Huston' as 'Euston' 🙂

Author's Reply:
Thanks John. I think you're just jealous because you don't have Miss O'Shaughnessy's number.
I don't know where the offending 'high' occurs. I'll have to go through the story again. If it's committing an offence it will be severely dealt with.

TheBigBadG on 01-12-2015
Euston, We Have a Problem
There's a strange undercurrent to this one which I like. This Lolita O'Shaughnessy and her companion are an odd pair indeed, with their arcane knowledge, perfect memory (mind you, Ralph's is pretty good too) and everyone being able to call them. It's the kind of thing I could have seen Pratchett doing. All very precise, teetering into surreality with iguana iguana iguana...

Author's Reply:
I wonder if, like Ralph, you are a little hasty in accepting the evidence that Dave has offered for the excellence of his memory, and indeed the accuracy of his arcane knowledge. The one undeniable fact, for which there is unassailable evidence, is that Miss O'Shaughnessy is (in the words of a song I once wrote) A Girl Who Gets Around. Many thanks for your thoughts. Glad you like the story.

shadow on 01-12-2015
Euston, We Have a Problem
Very amusing - and useful advice. Not that I'm asked to mend electronic devices. Not any more.

Author's Reply:
Not any more? that sounds a bit portentous. Would you like to tell us about it?

Come to think of it it might be another avenue worth exploring: "Ah, the 'me' who knew how to replace the internal hard drive on an IBM Lenovo Thinkpad was a different 'me', a younger, more naive, less troubled and intospective, world-weary, subdued and altogether self-analytic 'me', a 'me' whose cup was forever half full and not even leaking into the abyss the golden fluid of youth and joyful expectation of a better tomorrow, a 'me' who could still see before him a blossoming world of dreams waiting to be fulfilled – a me brimming with gleeful anticipation of what each new dawn might bring... have I told you about my nervous breakdown and long, painful journey down the road to recovery?..."

Yes, I think that might work quite admirably! Thanks for your kind words of appreciation.

teifii on 03-12-2015
Euston, We Have a Problem
Second attempt at commenting. I don't even have to have any warlike attitude to the machine. They give up or go mad when I just try quite peaceably to use them! Great story. Like the roaming iguana, obviously a sensible beast.
PS
So far I have refrained from asking you to tell me how to use my mobile phone.
Daff

Author's Reply:


Dream Date (posted on: 23-10-15)
This is my entry for the current Prose Challenge in the forums, unfortunately a couple of days late, and not as thoroughly edited and proof read as is my custom.

It was my first lucid dream for a very long time. I remembered that I used to have them often when I was a student some could be very beautiful and moving, others terrifying. When I was a student. How many decades ago was that? How many lifetimes? I tried to stop this train of thought because I knew that the thing about dreams is that they don't 'fix' like other memories. No matter how intense they may have been, within a minute or two they will have melted away. What I needed was pen and paper. I hurried to the kitchen, ignoring the coldness of the vinyl floor-covering beneath my bare feet and the uncomfortable glare of the bright lights on my unadapted eyes. There it was. The little notepad and stubby toy-like ballpoint pen that we used to write shopping lists. I sat at the dining table and started to write. I open the door to admit two men in dark suits. Undertakers? They push past me without saying anything. Have I been expecting them? It seems that I have. At least I'm not surprised. But I don't know them. I don't think their faces even register with me. I have no memory of faces. I turn and see that they are looking at something or somebody in the en suite bathroom. One of them shakes his head. 'Too late,' I hear him say. 'Too late,' the other agrees. Their voices are soft, conspiratorial. There is a door between them and me now. They must be in the bathroom. 'No,' I insist, 'it's not too late? How can it be too late? There's plenty of time!' I hurry towards them but one of them turns and closes the door in my face. When I try the handle it won't turn. I stand there, stupidly looking at the locked bathroom door. Then, I wake up. It didn't start out as a continuous narrative like that of course, just essential notes. Headings and bullet points. Two men. Dark suits. Locked door. You can imagine the kind of thing. But that was the dream, I was certain it was an accurate account. I was even convinced that it was important, but I had no idea why. Or maybe the notion of its being important was also part of the dream. Something implanted by the dream. I couldn't be sure. My reverie was interrupted by Martha's appearance at the bedroom door. ''What on earth are you doing? Have you any idea of the time?' 'Sorry dear.' I don't know why but I tore the page out of the little notebook and stuffed it into the breast pocket of my pyjama top. ''I just needed to write something down. An idea that came to me when I was half asleep.' 'What idea?' 'It wouldn't mean anything to you, dear. Just something to do with work.' 'Well, I presume you're coming back to bed. Aren't you?' 'Yes, of course. I'm sorry I woke you. I didn't mean to.' I did go back to bed but I didn't sleep. I'm sure Martha knew, because she didn't sleep either for the remainder of that night. We both pretended until the alarm sounded at six-thirty. Just another Friday. Weekend tomorrow. Nothing unusual. Nothing to be concerned about. And yet there was. Two men in dark suits, and I wasn't surprised to see them. Why should I think of undertakers? It didn't fit. Undertakers always arrive too late. Ambulance men? No, they would have been in some kind of uniform. Doctors? Maybe but wouldn't they have had some kind of bags? And why two of them? Policemen perhaps. Some kind of detectives? By the end of the day I had more or less convinced myself that I was being silly. I remembered something from a College lecture I had attended years before. Carl Jung. He was the dreams man. His theories were long discredited, even back then. He thought that dreams were messages from different parts of the mind. Or even the group mind. Didn't he believe in some kind of group unconscious? I was sure he did. All nonsense. Part of some Gothic 19th century account of human nature. Just a story to make sense of what nobody understood, like the genesis myths you find in every human culture. Dreams, I knew perfectly well, were just dreams. Random firings of neurons somewhere inside a person's head. More likely to come from the cheese sandwich you had before you went to bed than the Collective Unconscious. And yet I couldn't get rid of that niggling feeling that there was more to it than that. I was distracted at work, made a couple of stupid mistakes, attracted the attention of Bruce, the Project Manager. 'That's not like you, Steve. Something bothering you today?' I gave him what I think must have been a pretty dumb smile but couldn't bring myself to say that I was worried about a dream. 'Oh, going through a little bit of marital stuff. You know how it is.'' 'You've got a lot of accumulated leave. Take a break. Give her a week in Paris. Works every time.' I laughed. 'Can you guarantee that?' 'Is management ever wrong? Get your coat, Steve. I'll sort out the paperwork. Come back when you're ready.' 'Really? That's amazingly generous.' 'It's your annual leave. You've got every right to it. And I'd rather have you on top form when the Michelson deal comes through.' It was an unusual feeling, strolling through the streets of the commercial part of the city in the middle of what would normally have been my working day. I was struck by how many men in dark suits seemed to be around. And mostly they walked in twos. Ridiculous, I said to myself, get a grip. A dream is a dream. It wasn't even a specially scary one. No blood-spattered corpses or formless things crawling out of sewers at dead of night. No dangling on a thread over a thousand foot cliff. Very little about it that was disturbing at all when you looked at it rationally. I noticed a young girl walking towards me and smiling. I felt a flicker of recognition but couldn't place where I'd seen her. ''Hello,' she said as she reached me. 'You're Steve Preston from Sun Digital, aren't you?' My puzzled look must have given away my bewilderment. 'I'm Leonard Michelson's P.A. I was there when you came around with your colleagues a few weeks ago to negotiate some big deal.' I was flattered that she remembered me so well. I remembered her too, but only as a beautiful object in the drab office setting. She had worn a low cut blue top and was very pretty, Asian in appearance, dark haired and extremely shapely. But then what Director of a major corporation doesn't have a pretty P.A.? 'How nice of you to remember. Of course I remember you. An Indian name, wasn't it? Miss Shah, was it?' 'Sharma. My family is Hindu. Shah would be Muslim. Are you on your lunch break?' 'Yes. Well, no, not really. Are you? May I buy you lunch?' I was amazed at myself for having the courage to say such a thing. It was as though this block of time didn't belong to my real life. It had been granted as a bonus; within it I was released from all responsibility and could do as I wished. To my further amazement she agreed. We continued along the road, chatting about our respective employers, to a small Indian restaurant down a back street that she said was owned by her uncle. It was gaudily-decorated with murals of scenes from Hindu mythology and over-sized pot plants in huge earthenware containers, but dimly-lit and intimate. The smell was sublime. I let her order for both of us, and was pleased that she included a carafe of red wine. She seemed to sense that I had something that I wanted to talk about and waited for me to begin. I related my dream, leaving nothing out. She seemed fascinated. 'You're right to take this seriously,' she assured me. 'Dreams have meaning. I know a little bit about it from my parents, but not much. Often, what you dream about has exactly the opposite meaning to what it seems. For example, if you dream about death it means you'll have a long life. But there's a lot more to it. It's an ancient Vedic field of study. I could take you to someone who could tell you exactly what your dream means.' I hesitated because the last thing I wanted to do was offend her or dismiss her ideas. This was someone I would like to get to know a lot better. I could hardly believe it but I was almost sure she felt the same about me. And what did either of us have to lose? We only live once, don't we? Though, come to think of it, Miss Sharma, whose first name was Asha, probably wouldn't agree with me there. 'Well, yes, why not? Where does this person live?' 'He's a Vedic Master. He lives in a monastery up near Cambridge. It would take the best part of a day to go there and see him.' Did she mean it would take us the best part of a day? That was what it sounded like. What exactly was she suggesting? I decided I would push my luck just a little bit further. 'I suppose it might be easier to stay the night.' 'I suppose it might.' At this point the waiter arrived with our plates and some side dishes neatly arranged on a large stainless steel trolley. Martha wasn't in the least suspicious when I told her that the company had arranged a last minute weekend session in Newcastle to finalise details of the Michelson contract. I had spoken about it often enough, put in enough overtime straightening out problems on it already, and it was just the kind of thing my employers would do. She helped me pack, kissed me goodbye, and waved as I hurried off, back to the train station. With one thing and another, but mostly the other, we didn't manage to see the Vedic Master until Sunday afternoon. By then my mood had changed, I no longer cared why the dark-suited men had chosen to visit me in my dreams, but wherever Asha wanted to take me was okay with me. The 'monastery' was simply a fairly large stone-built terraced house in a village about twenty miles north of the city of Cambridge. It was quite a long walk from the station, made even longer by our frequent pauses to kiss and caress and exchange the kind of little intimacies that new lovers do. The door, painted a bright yellow and surmounted by an equally brightly-painted embossed plaque of Ganesh with his elephant trunk, seated on a throne, was not difficult to identify. It was opened by quite a young man in a scarlet robe reminiscent of a Roman toga, who asked us to remove our shoes and conducted us with due ceremony into the presence of the Great One. He sat on a painted wooden throne not unlike the one occupied by the little figure above the front door, in a room draped with richly-embroidered hangings and stuffed with religious carvings of gods, demons, mythological animals and saintly-looking Eastern mystics. His own robes were golden, he sported a long but very neat white beard and there was a stripe of red paint in the centre of his forehead. Asha knelt at his feet, so I followed suit. 'Welcome to our home, my children,' he said in an accent more University of Cambridge than back street Mumbai. Asha must have filled-in a lot of the background when she made the appointment, because although he asked questions he seemed to know already almost all the details of the dream itself. 'In order to say what a dream means,' he said after establishing the facts about the dream, 'I must know something about the dreamer.' His questions were direct and almost frightening in their insight. He asked about my wife, my job, my parents, my siblings, my childhood and even my relationship with Asha. I found that I couldn't lie. As I confirmed that we had indeed entered into what he called a 'carnal relationship', and that I was over the moon about the fact and thought she was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen, she actually reached over and took my hand to reassure me that it was okay to kiss and tell. It seems you don't lie to Vedic Masters. I must admit though that his final explanation didn't leave me entirely satisfied. 'Your dream involved men in dull-coloured clothing. Therefore it refers to brightly-dressed women. It took place in familiar surroundings. Therefore it refers to a place that is unfamiliar. You admitted the two, therefore it will not be you who admits them. They arrived late therefore they will arrive in time. They closed the door in a gesture of concealment, therefore that which was previously concealed shall be revealed. That is the meaning of your dream.' I thanked him of course, after which he added one more cryptic remark:'I have given you knowledge. But to use knowledge you must have wisdom, and that I can not give you.' After that the young monk returned and invited us to the dining room where a very agreeable vegetarian lunch was waiting for us. We offered to pay, to which he replied that he did not handle money, but we would find a donation box near the front door as we were leaving. He emphasised that there was absolutely no obligation to put anything in it. He seemed almost disapproving of our doing such a thing. Asha took my hand again and whispered, 'You're very sweet.' If I had been a cat I would have purred loudly. I decided it would be safe to spend one more night with Asha. After all, Martha would not expect me back until Monday evening. Asha, on the other hand, would need to turn up for work as usual. She couldn't take me to the flat where she was staying, sharing with two other Indian girls, so we decided the best place to go would be a hotel near to where she worked. Another heavenly night. I could hardly bear to let her leave me the following morning but she was anxious not to arouse suspicions with her employer or her family about how she had spent her weekend, and in any case I was sexually exhausted. I asked her to drop in for a little while after work before she went back to her flat. She said she would see, but I knew she meant yes. I had her number in my phone, we could sort out the next overnight meeting whenever we liked. I settled back into bed for a long relaxing sleep. I was woken by the bedside phone. I glanced at the clock it was after five. Immediately I remembered that checking-out time was noon and I hadn't told them I wanted the room for longer. I started to apologise and assure whoever it was that I was quite willing to pay for a further night. But it wasn't any member of the hotel staff. It was Martha. By the time I realised I had said far too much. I stopped and there was a moment of total silence. 'Martha?' I whispered the words. 'How did you?' 'How did I know where you were? I had a phone call from a hotel in Cambridge. Apparently you left your phone behind when you left. Strange that you were staying in Cambridge for a conference in Newcastle, don't you think? Rather a long commute. I drove up and collected it. A pleasant little run up the M11.' Her voice was ice cold. She stopped and waited for me to say something. 'Where are you now?' I noticed that my voice had become extremely hoarse. 'Oh, don't worry. I'm very near by. For a computer expert you aren't very good at putting password protection on your phone, are you?' I shouldn't have said anything but the words were out before I could stop mysaelf: 'You called Asha?' 'No need. Her name was all I needed. She's on the staff list at Michelson's. Her photo is on their website too. A bit young for you I would have thought?' My mind filled with clichs. I can explain everything. We need to talk. Don't jump to any conclusions. But I couldn't explain everything and she wasn't going to buy any of that stuff. I opened my mouth to reply but could think of nothing to say. She left work a little while ago,' Martha went on. 'She seems to be in quite a hurry. I wonder where she could be going.' I almost leaped from the bed, grabbed my clothes from the chair where I had draped them and pulled them on as quickly as I could, not bothering to take clean socks, shirt or even underpants, not bothering to button up my shirt. This done I strode across to the wardrobe, pulled the rest of my clothes down from the hangers and bundled everything randomly into the case. It was going to be all right, I told myself. I could get out before they arrived. I could make something up. I just needed time. Time to think. There would be a way through all this. My watch and my shaving things. I darted across to the bathroom and gathered them up. As I turned to go, panting now, the door opened wide to reveal a young woman in the uniform of a chambermaid. 'Oh, I'm very sorry sir,' she said with evident embarrassment. 'According to our records this room is vacant.' From behind her, Asha appeared, wearing her rather magnificent blue and gold embroidered sari. Smiling at the girl she brushed past and stood in front of me. 'Simon. You look as though you've seen a ghost. What's wrong?' I didn't have time to answer. Martha appeared in the doorway and pushed through just as Asha had done. She was still wearing the rather extravagant floral print cotton dress that was the uniform of the boutique where she worked. 'Well, well,' she said in a tone that would turn a lake into a skating rink. 'How nice to meet you, Miss Sharma. I think the three of us have things to talk about.' She looked straight at me. 'I do believe we're just in time.'
Archived comments for Dream Date
bluepootle on 23-10-2015
Dream Date
I think you do a good job of describing the dream and the response of the Vedic Master in such a way that it holds our interest, which isn't an easy task with dreams. I like the way it all becomes clear at the end.

I wonder if it isn't a bit flat in terms of characterisation, perhaps? The wife and the lover seem a bit flimsy, but then, it's a straightforward piece that relies on that final realisation, so perhaps it's not the kind of thing you want to imbue with great characterisation. I did enjoy it but it's not meaty enough to give me a lot of think about afterwards, which your best stories do.

Author's Reply:
Yes, I agree with everything you've said there. It was a bit of a rush job, done in two sittings separated by a couple of weeks. But at least it got me back to short story writing. I've been a bit obsessed with writing songs and script for a musical lately.

Thanks for confirming my STRONG suspicions!

e-griff on 24-10-2015
Dream Date
The story kept my interest, and was intriguing, but it did seem a bit rushed and sketchy, and I baulked at the interpretation of the dream simply being the opposites.
It's pretty 'mechanical' - dream, interpret, comes true.
But I accept that your reply to aliya probably covers my comment as well.
It did hang together throughout and read smoothly.

Author's Reply:
Yes, I'll make certain that the next one is pure unadulterated genius.

Corin on 24-10-2015
Dream Date
Excellent David - I even turned the cricket off to get to the end without distraction:-) It seemed very well constructed but was not really sure about the 'just in time’. Surely his wife was too late?

Looking forward to seeing you and Jean you next Saturday. Hope you survive my cooking!-)

Dave

Author's Reply:
Greatly looking forward to my stay in Newcastle.

I agree with most of what you said, but just on a technicality, if he had already scarpered, no doubt taking Asha with him, she would have been too late but she was just in time to catch the two of them.
Thanks for reading. I hope you managed to get the missing bit of the cricket match on catch-up TV.

TheBigBadG on 30-10-2015
Dream Date
It sounds a bit like it's been covered above. The thing I'd add is that the story has potential but the longer I read the more I worked out about the twist. I note you said it's not had the usual edit so I'd suggest carving out the essential bits of info here and cutting it down as much as possible. I think twist/reveal stuff works best when it draws you through at a good pace so you forget to think there's a trick. Workable with what you have here, if it's streamlined.

Also, as a note to Aliya's comment, you finish about the point where their characters are about to come through! Perhaps the first thing to establish is why Asha finds him attractive - as is that seems secondary to Steve's life?

Author's Reply:
Thanks for your thoughts, but I don't think I feel enough interest to try to do anything more with this one. It's just a writing exercise really. I have always said that when I just sit down in front of a blank screen and start to write nothing but nonsense comes out. That was what I did this time and for once it wasn't complete nonsense. I was able to wrench a story out of it, but not a very good one. I need to work the other way, think everything through in advance and know exactly where the story is going to go before I start writing. This was an experimemnt, mildly interesting to me but not I think to anybody else. It would need a lot more work to make something of it and I don't feel inclined to make the effort. Thanks again for looking in BBG.


Please Advise (posted on: 22-06-15)
My response to my own challenge in the Prose Challenge forum, a story inspired by Mary Gauthier's song 'Falling Out Of Love'. My interpretation of the brief has been simple and literal.

This is the first time I've tried to keep a diary or a journal, or whatever this is. I don't know how you're supposed to do it. Marian said I should write it as if I'm the only one who'll ever read it. But then why would I want to write to myself? I suppose it does make a kind of sense, because we don't remain the same people. As the years go by we turn into different ones, don't we? The me at seventeen wouldn't be remotely like the me at twenty-five or the me now at thirty-nine. If we met we wouldn't get on. But it's not true anyway. Marian is going to read this and use it to make judgements about me. Interpret it all with whatever kind of skills counsellors are supposed to have. I don't think I'm going to be able to forget that. Writing in itself is nothing new. It's what I do. One of the things I do. Presenting myself to other people, trying to control how they see me and how they react to me, that's the other thing I do. That's what acting is. Pretending to be somebody that you aren't, and doing it convincingly. Pretty profound statement, eh? I'm somebody who makes a living, a modest and intermittent one it has to be said, by pretending to be other people. But I'm not going to get very far doing that here, am I? That's hardly the point of this exercise. Here I have to be me, and I'm not sure how to go about that. It's a pretty scary idea. Okay, here goes. Mask off. Just me from now on. I imagine, that is I presume, that most people come to a counsellor because of some great big agonising life crisis. Mental hell, I can't go on, I want to top myself, all that kind of thing. Well that isn't me at all, I can play that part and people tell me I'm good at it, but it couldn't be less like I really am. When I'm honest with myself, like I'm trying to be here, most things in life leave me cold. My dominant mood, when I analyse it, is indifference. I like a decent meal, I suppose I quite like what I do (at least if the reviews are okay), I get a bit of pleasure out of sex, there's quite a lot of music that I like but it's all pretty low key. I jog along now. Life isn't bad and it isn't good. I don't think I've always been like this. In fact I'm certain that I haven't. But I don't know when it started. I'm ashamed to come to you as I am, without any mental hell, no dramatic crisis, and tell you that I need help. I keep thinking of all the people on this earth with real problems, starving, dying, getting tortured in prison, sold into prostitution, driven out of their homes because they're the wrong religion, limbs blown off by land mines, genitals mutilated because they're female all the people who are really suffering and here's me, white Anglo Saxon male with a place to live and a good education and a source of income and good enough health, both mental and physical pretending that I've got problems. It's a joke really, isn't it? And one that's not in very good taste. So what is it that I actually want? That's quite a hard one. Maybe what I want is a cure for life. The things that happen as we get older. The passions that dry up, the things that used to be new and exciting and aren't any more. All the stuff that used to matter and just seems trivial now. But I know what you're thinking. I'm hiding behind generalisations. Avoiding the issue. All right, let's get personal and specific. A couple of weeks ago, as you already know, my long-term partner (sometimes I even call her my wife) said it was about time we started thinking about having a family if we're ever going to. I can't say it was a total surprise because we'd talked about it years ago, when were first together, and said that it was something we would like to do some time. But I never expected 'some time' to arrive, and now I think it has. For Julie anyway. I'm perfectly aware that the option doesn't go on forever if you're a woman and that she's completely right, 'some time' has arrived. I didn't know what I felt about it until she actually said the words. I didn't have any answer prepared, and that was probably the worst possible way that I could have reacted. Just silence. It must have been pretty horrible for Julie because what it really meant was, I'm not sure whether I want to go with you to that particular place. I'm not sure whether I love you that much, the way I'm supposed to. I'm not sure how much my life is really tied in with yours. It was a dreadful moment for both of us I think. It forced me to face up to the person I really am. And what I really feel about Julie and about life. And when I do that, what do I see? A kind of greyness. I'm living day to day according to routines. I don't think it would look that way to an outsider because my life contains quite a lot of variety but it's what I'm doing. Even if I'm away touring, which doesn't happen so often now because so much theatre is London-based, I'm living by habits. What time I get up in the morning, what brand of shower-gel I use, what I have for my breakfast, what I say when I phone Julie, how I relate to her when she's there, how I avoid doing or saying things that irritate her, the whole role that I play it's completely constant. A part I've played for years, over-learned, over-rehearsed, as automatic as locking the door when I leave the house. Now there's something not right about that, isn't there? That's not what being in a relationship (I can't bear to say 'being in love') is supposed to be like, is it? Julie and I have sex, on average maybe about once or twice a month, and we don't mind sharing each other's cups or seeing each other naked, but apart from that we could be flat-mates. There's something quite wrong about that. After all, we're still in our thirties, not our sixties or our nineties. The relationship, whatever that phrase means, should be more important. There should be fire, passion, lust, adoration all the things I'm so good at faking, if the reviews are honest. Do I fake them for Julie? Of course not. She'd see through me in the blink of an eye. We just get along. And we do get along, in a way that's the hard part. If we didn't, if we had flaming rows every day, we could just say 'This isn't working', and move on while there's still time for both of us. But we do get along. I think I could understand it better if there was someone else I had a crush on (there's an old-fashioned word), somebody I lusted after, but I think it's years since I've lusted after anybody. That feels wrong too. Maybe there's just something wrong with me, something organic, low libido it's a recognised condition, isn't it? Does Julie lust after people? That's an interesting question. I'm sure she would say no if I asked her, but I don't really know. How would I feel if I came home one night and she told me there was somebody else? How would I react? Would I just go silent again? I'm honestly not sure. The phrase that jumps into my head is: 'It's about time! Go for it, girl!' Now I'm being flippant I suppose. But I do feel guilty about using-up the best years of her life (for want of a better way of putting it) without really feeling the way I'm supposed to feel, or giving anything back in return. Julie is on to a loser with me and that's unfair. Does Julie love me? Another interesting question, and again I think she would say yes if I asked her, but I haven't asked her. Not for years. Maybe she would hesitate too, like I did with the babies question. Who knows. I think I've almost talked myself into wishing she would go. Have babies with somebody who wants babies. She could even be a single mum if she wanted to, she's the kind of person who would excel at that, she's so capable, so self-sufficient. Then there's the third person in all this to consider. The potential baby. Are we the kind of couple who ought to be in charge of an infant? I've no doubt we would jog along like we always do and the child would be basically all right, but I would be a pretty appalling father. Julie would be a single mum whether we were together or not. Doesn't she see that, I wonder? What do I know, or care really, about bringing up children? It would be Julie's project, like when she wanted to have an allotment, not mine. Now that would be just downright wrong. It was Julie's idea that I should come and talk to you. I think she sees your role as the person who's going to remove all my misgivings and bring me to my senses, help me to grow up and see that the time has come to start a family. She isn't used to not getting her own way. I suppose I'm not either. But this is something too important to be bullied into or out of. This is the rest of our lives. I don't want to hurt Julie in any way. I have never had a serious row with her and she has stood by me through about fifteen years of personal and professional shit. She's my best friend and the first one I would turn to in any kind of crisis that I can imagine. She is, in absolute honesty, the nicest person I have ever known. The only little problem is, I don't think I'm in love with her. Please advise.
Archived comments for Please Advise
bluepootle on 22-06-2015
Please Advise
What an interesting look into somebody's life, and their own passivity. I think that's really difficult to do from a writing perspective because very passive characters tend to turn us off, but the diary format (which he warms to in the act of writing, which appeals) and his honesty overcomes that. Written characters are often going forth, shaping destiny, but I think the truth about all of us is probably more accurately recorded here. How many things do we actually feel in that heightened emotional state that we come across in films and books?

I also really like the ending. The lack of easy solution highlighted in two words.

The sentence: 'It was a dreadful moment for both of us I think. ' I'm not so keen on, only because I wonder if that sentiment wouldn't be better captured by describing her actions/response at that moment to bring it to life. Because its such an introspective piece just one moment of real descriptive power could be incredibly effective. But overall it's a very involving and honest piece, and I enjoyed it.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much for those comments. I think you fully picked up the mood I was aiming for. I know what you mean about the sentence 'It was a dreadful moment...' etc. but then he isn't crafting it into a story, just saying what comes into his mind, and I felt this was a natural thing to say about that remembered moment. I'll see if it still feels right when I come back to it after a break. Thanks again for the thoughtful comments.

sirat on 22-06-2015
Please Advise
Many thanks to whoever nominated Please Advise for the Anthology. Much appreciated.

Author's Reply:

TheBigBadG on 22-06-2015
Please Advise
It's a valuable and honest take on the breakup conundrum, one which I appreciate more because it eschews the easier routes (in terms of storytelling) of drama and conflict. There's a lot of truth in this, about slowly winding down to a state of mutual appreciation and love with passion absent. The second half in particular works well because it presents the complexities of the situation in hand with the complexities of the character. He's heavily conflicted and in search of the truth for both their sakes, but it's a subtle distinction he's questioning.

For me it really started unfurling around the point of 'Maybe what I want is a cure for life...' In fact, I wonder if you could reduce the preamble to that a bit? Keeping the talk of the counsellors is fine with me but I felt the para starting 'I’m ashamed to come to you as I am...' didn't add so much. It's a bit 'There are children starving in Africa' which feels a bit obvious, sells the rest of it short a bit. I do like the way je's talking himself into dealing with it, so I'm not suggesting cutting the lot, but maybe some so he's still caught up in doubt but gets to the point more quickly.

Also, agreed, great last line. I can see him putting the full stop there, putting the pen down and staring at it. Clear as day.

Author's Reply:
I wanted the preamble to show him dragging himself away from his normal detachment into increasingly personal and confessional material. In the beginning he's playing his actor/writer role and keeping things at arm's length, trying to adopt an objective stance about himself and his problems, up to the point where he says: 'All right, let’s get personal and specific.' We also need to know that this is a journal he's been asked to keep by his counsellor and (later) that it was Julie's idea that he should go to one, not his own. My present instinct is to keep most of it in, but I sometimes change my mind when I come back to a piece after a break. Thanks for the feedback on that. I'm glad that you liked the piece over all.

Mikeverdi on 22-06-2015
Please Advise
I found this utterly absorbing from start to finish. I'm not to bright with all the stuff that others pick up on, I just want a believable story told in a way I can understand and relate to. This was it. You tell a story well David and thanks for posting.
Mike

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much, Mike. That is precisely what I aim at.


Hector's Travel Diary (posted on: 13-02-15)
For the current prose forum challenge. One of the prompt songs suggested loneliness, and as I'm travelling at the moment and keeping a diary I thought of the travel diary of a mature solo traveller. Any resemblance to myself is entirely etc.

February 2nd Hello Myrtle. I have arrived safely! Isn't email wonderful? They have something called 'wifie' at the hotel, which I suppose means it allows you to email your wife. The boy in Reception set it up for me. This travel is a wonderful thing. We should have tried it years ago. This place is completely different to Newcastle. I did have a little bit of trouble with the luggage though. When I got here I waited for ages at the thing they call the 'carousel' where the suitcases come through and mine never appeared. I went to the security desk and a very helpful man there checked up on his computer to see where it might have gone when I changed planes in the Middle East. He thought it could either be in Reykjavik or Auckland, but he seemed to think he could get it sent on. Then another very helpful young man came rushing over and said that he had found it it seems I had been waiting at the wrong carousel and my case had been going round and round all by itself for more than an hour. I was so pleased to get it back! However things didn't go completely according to plan, because although I found a taxi very easily (in fact a group of taxi drivers ended up pulling knives on one another over which of them should take me) and got to the hotel with my case it turned out to be the wrong hotel. Apparently the owner was the taxi driver's uncle so he probably took me there without thinking. The right one wasn't very far away though, and two little boys who had followed me into the lobby offered to carry my case over to the other hotel. It was quite heavy so I gave them a few of the local notes (I can't remember what they are called) for their trouble and wrote down the address for them very clearly (because I knew they would walk faster than me) and away they went. I was right, they walked very fast indeed and were out of sight in a few seconds. Now the thing is, they never actually arrived at the other hotel with my case. I don't know why this was, because I did write the address down very clearly, and even if they got a little bit lost I think they will find the place eventually. I'm sure the boys and the case will turn up. That was two days ago now. Anyway, I still had my money belt and my little rucksack so it was just a matter of finding a shop and buying the things I needed. Some underwear and a few 'T' shirts. It's very warm here so I don't need very much. Most of the shops seemed to sell full-length robes, a bit like Jesus wore, rather than 'T' shirts, but eventually I found somewhere that sold what I wanted, but in black, with white lettering on them in a most peculiar script. Anyway I bought three of them and took them back to the hotel. I had no idea what the writing said but the boy at Reception kindly translated for me. It seems the lettering said, respectively, GOD IS GREAT, DEATH TO INFIDELS and MANCHESTER UNITED FOR THE CUP. I try not to wear that last one because I'm a Blackburn supporter, as you know. I notice that all of the women here wear black full-length dresses and masks with two holes for their eyes, like John Hurt in 'The Elephant Man'. I think it has something to do with religion though, rather than facial disfigurement. In fact my hotel is right next door to a large mosque, beautiful building, but regularly at 4.00 am in the morning somebody in there starts praying with the aid of a powerful megaphone, and goes on doing it for about half an hour at a time. Allah must be very hard of hearing, something with which I sympathise. Your devoted husband, Hector. February 5th I got some spongy plastic earplugs at the chemist, which helped a bit with the racket from the mosque, at least until a couple of nights ago when I mistook them for my teeth and put them in my mouth and bit on them. They lost their shape and went squidgy and wouldn't really stop the noise after that. So the following day I went into the chemist for more earplugs, but it was a different man and he didn't understand what I was saying, so I pointed to my ears and used a bit of improvised sign language. He ushered me into a little room and a woman with a bowl of warm water and a high-powered water-pistol appeared and started squirting the stuff into my ears with great gusto and enthusiasm. When she was finished she made me pay some more of those local notes and sent me on my way. Amazingly, my hearing is a lot better now, and that 4.00 am praying is even harder to put up with. I'm not going back to that chemist I can tell you. Allah should go there, they would sort out his hearing problem. In fact I got so frustrated that I actually went round to the mosque to complain. Interesting local custom, you have to leave your shoes outside on a shoe rack and go in barefoot. I did this but I couldn't find anybody who understood English inside to complain to, and they shushed me and wouldn't even getup off the floor to hear what I had to say. So after a little while I gave up and left. Now, I think I made a slight mistake about the shoes when I left, because the ones I've got now are a slightly different colour to my original ones and a bit tight as well. I went back to the mosque this morning and checked the people going in, but nobody looked as though their shoes were too big. I think I may have to make do with the ones I've got now. Your devoted husband, Hector. February 8th A couple of days ago I booked one of those jungle tours and went off in a green station wagon with five other people and a guide to look for wild animals. There was one other man on his own and I got talking to him. It turned out his name was Stanley Dudden. He was from Barnsley and his brother used to keep ferrets. You meet amazing interesting people when you go travelling. We didn't see all that many animals, at least not close enough to be able to make out what they were, but we did come across a big group of monkeys who threw twigs down at us from high up in the can o' peas. 'Can o' peas' is what the guide calls trees. It's probably rhyming slang. It must be really nice for the monkeys to have guests visiting their tree. The jungle is a pretty boring place. A few of them came down and screeched at us and tried to steal our Mars bars. I thought they looked really quaint, and took a few photographs on my new digital camera. But then one of then grabbed it and disappeared up into the can o' peas. He didn't keep it though when I wasn't looking he threw it at me from up there and actually managed to hit me. Aren't monkeys clever? The chemist dressed the wound later and I didn't need any stitches. The camera doesn't work any more but I'm sure I'll be able to fix it. I think I can take out most of the screws with the sharp pointed end of one of the hotel steak knives. I mean, how complicated can a digital camera be? While our guide was cooking up lunch on a camp fire he told us we could take a little walk by the riverside ourselves for half an hour , so Stan and I did, and believe it or not we found a crocodile's nest with babies in it. Baby crocodiles are very sweet, they're only a few inches long and you can pick them up and stroke them. But when we told the guide about the nest he seemed to be a bit shocked and left the fire and the food and the folding chairs and told us all to get back into the station wagon at once and drove away at an amazing speed for a vehicle on a dirt track. He explained to us later that mother crocodiles get very upset if people interfere with their babies and he didn't want to cause the animal any stress. He was a real lover of wildlife, that man. Coincidentally I heard on the TV news (subtitled in English) the next day that there had been a major forest fire in the exact area that we had visited. Just goes to show. Your devoted husband, Hector. February 10th I feel a bit embarrassed to talk about this but I thought you might be interested in the toilet arrangements here. They do have lavatories, but they're sunken into the floor so that the seat is actually at floor level. It's a very odd arrangement, especially as the floor is usually wet and you don't really want to sit down on it. For a gentleman doing his business standing up it doesn't constitute any major problem. Your aim needs to be that little bit more accurate, and it seems to me that the wet floor might well be the result of inaccuracies in this regard. If your business requires you to sit down well, it's not something I would want to attempt. So I have been developing a squatting technique that partially solves the problem, although it requires considerable strength in your legs if you need to be there for any length of time. There's also a problem concerning your trousers and underpants. If you leave these lowered so that they are around your ankles (the normal method for gentlemen on the toilets that we are used to) they end up in the direct line of fire, and the result is disastrous. It's necessary therefore to completely remove both before getting down to business, and as there's nowhere to hang them the whole operation becomes yet more complicated. Add to this the fact that there's never any loo paper and you can really get into terrible difficulties in attempting to perform your normal bodily functions. This is something I have never really considered before, but do ladies normally remove their knickers entirely or simply lower them to their ankles for these purposes? Sorry, that question isn't really in the best of taste. There's no need to answer it. Your devoted husband, Hector. February 11th This is my last day here and I need to get to the airport two hours before 1400, which I suppose means four o'clock. There's some kind of big military parade going on outside, so I hope my taxi will be able to get through to the airport without too much delay. It's a pretty disorganised, informal kind of affair with hundreds of men in bits and pieces of military uniform firing little Russian machine guns into the air now and again and running through the streets shouting about Allah, but apart from them the roads are pretty deserted, so maybe there won't be too much of a delay and I'll be back in Newcastle before you know it. I think it was a very bad decision on your part not to come with me, Myrtle. I could have looked after you and you would have had a great time! Foreign travel is great! Your devoted husband, Hector.
Archived comments for Hector's Travel Diary
Mikeverdi on 13-02-2015
Hector’s Travel Diary
HaHaHa! just brilliant... in a Frank Spencer kind of way. Too many great lines to pick them all out... although "He was from Barnsley, and his brother used to keep ferrets" cracked me up for some reason. I loved it.

If there's a prize I hope you win it.
Mike

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the kind comments. Sorry if it went in a bit early. It looks like I misjudged the time/date difference between Borneo and the UK.

Rab on 13-02-2015
Hector’s Travel Diary
Great tale, told with the same kind of innocent worldview as the characters in Raymond Briggs' When the Wind Blows. I wonder what Myrtle got up to while Hector was away?

Author's Reply:
Thanks for reading and for the kind comments. Maybe I should do Myrtle's side of the story next?

Sorry if it went in a bit early. I think I misjudged the time/date difference between Borneo and the UK.

bluepootle on 16-02-2015
Hector’s Travel Diary
That juxtaposition of the inner world of the tourist and the outer world of the country he's visiting is a rich comic seam that you mine with skill, and without overstaying your welcome or overplaying the scenarios. It made me smile.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the smile, Aliya, glad you liked it.

D.

OldPeculier on 16-02-2015
Hector’s Travel Diary
Very entertaining. Nice observation of things most of us would not notice. I particularly likes the shoes incident.
Just enough of it to amuse without becoming repetitive.
Very good.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much OP. I'm pleased that this one has been so well received. Comedy is a risky business.

franciman on 17-02-2015
Hector’s Travel Diary
Move over Bill Bryson. This was so easy to read. A sort of verbal slapstick that works really well. I could read more.
cheers,
Jim

Author's Reply:
Thanks Jim. Maybe I should write more in this kind of vein? Glad you liked it.

e-griff on 18-02-2015
Hector’s Travel Diary
Mostly good, Some details a bit off, overplayed (such as the wifi - if he had a laptop or a tablet (must have used something as they set it up for him) he'd know perfectly well what it was. Even the ignorant need to be credible!

Author's Reply:
'Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.'
Albert Einstein.

e-griff on 19-02-2015
Hector’s Travel Diary
Very philosophical, but hardly an answer. 🙂 this is simply about writing

Author's Reply:
Well, I don't think plausibility is a very big consideration in a piece like this, but as it happens I have been involved in a few sessions at my local community centre where we try to teach older people to use computers and iPhones and the like on a one-to-one basis, and you would be amazed at the misconceptions they come up with. A very common one is that the email on the pad works when you're at home but not when you leave home. Really, there are legions of people like Hector who haven't the dimmest notion of how such things work and would fully accept the 'wifie' theory.

e-griff on 20-02-2015
Hector’s Travel Diary
I wouldn't quarrel for one moment with the 'truth' of what you say. But how many of your readers will know that? This is a story, so its reception is dependent on credibility to a reader, not truth. It may be a minority of readers who are bothered, but they, like me, will be slightly puzzled and distracted away from what is otherwise an involving and humorous account. You have established Hector's gullibility very well, events such as the case carrying kids if over the top a bit, are completely plausible, understandable, and fit the story as we are well used to the style. But for me the wi-fi thing seems just a step too far. My philosophy is the where even a few readers might be distracted, even if the majority are not bothered, it is wise to remove the possibility completely(without dumbing down or loosing key plot elements) to keep all your readers happy.

There are two ways to fix this - one is simply to take it out - its just a frill in a number of more powerful evidences of Hector's thinking. Or explain it briefly (eg 'the man said he'd fix something up so I could use my tablet in the room, but I don't know why - it always works at home')

Anyway, that's what I meant to say in the first place. Done now. Up to you entirely.


Author's Reply:


A Girl Who Gets Around (posted on: 23-01-15)
Proposed new song for a new character in 'Engineering Paradise The Musical'.

Hello folks. I'm in New Zealand at the moment and during a wet day I started to think about a new song for EP the Musical. I would like to get a bit of feedback on this attempt, which is both a new song and introduces a new character who will probably have this scene only. All comments and ideas for a melody gratefully received. I got the idea from Lily Brooke's latest song (about a prostitute) but with shades of 'My Name is Tallulah' and one or two of the songs from 'Cabaret'. Light relief but with a dark edge. For anyone who doesn't know, Engineering Paradise is a novel set mainly in Belfast in the 1960s and is a love story to the back-drop of the start of the most recent round of 'Troubles' and the switch-over of power from the 'Official' to the 'Provisional' IRA with all the abandonment of ideals and brutalising of the Republican movement that this represented. I am presently trying to turn the basic story into a musical with a lot of help from Roger Wicks and Lily Brooke at Gateshead College, Rick Hayter the London singer/songwriter, and others. This song would introduce the second act (depending on what shape I finally end up with) and would be staged something along these lines: Curtain opens on a softly back-lit stage. Night time. It is an army campsite with a camp fire. Minimum of three soldiers (uncertain allegiance) sitting around the fire wearing camouflage jackets, one playing a tune on a mouthorgan. Wide spot beam lights the back of the theatre where a sexily-dressed young girl strolls up the aisle singing to the melody of the mouthorgan and flirting outrageously with male members of the audience, sitting on knees etc. as appropriate. As the song progresses she walks onto stage and takes the hands of two soldiers who slowly walk off with her. Third soldier realises he is getting left behind and hurries off after them. A Girl Who Gets Around I'm a girl who gets around Every corner of this town And I know just how to please These young men from overseas Or if you're with the IRA That is totally okay For it's only night-time play Just a different shade of grey And I'm a girl who likes to get around I'm a girl who gets around In a very troubled town Not a Catholic or a Prod 'Cause I don't believe in God Which you may think rather odd Convent school in sweet Tralee But the sisters would agree It just wasn't right for me So to here I had to flee I'm just a girl who likes to get around I haven't any politics, don't cheer for any side I haven't any hatred, my heart is open wide I'm full of love for everyone In this I take a pride I'm just a girl who likes to get around I'm a little like your mother And a little like a priest, So tell me what you've bottled-up that needs to be released You can tell the girl that likes to get around If you're lonely or unhappy you can always come to me I can make your burden lighter for a very modest fee You can tell the girl who likes to get around Tell the girl who found a way to make her favourite hobby pay You can tell the girl who likes to get around
Archived comments for A Girl Who Gets Around
sirat on 24-07-2015
A Girl Who Gets Around
As a matter of interest we now have several complete songs on the Soundcloud channel, although this is not yet one of them. What we need most of all at the moment are female singers, preferably young, since the characters in the story are mainly teenagers, to record songs for our 'display case' there.

Author's Reply:


Nothing Personal (posted on: 05-12-14)
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story Mark Twain. My response to the current challenge in the Prose Challenge Forum

Simon switched on the voice recorder and concealed it beneath the leaves of the potted plant in the corner. It was amazing how small these things had become, and how well they picked-up, he thought. No bigger than a box of matches, and it wouldn't miss a thing. From the smallest intake of breath to a full-throated scream of pleasure or pain. Marvellous. He glanced around the room. Neat and bland, with a bed, a built-in wardrobe, a mini-bar, a wall-mounted TV, his open suitcase and closed laptop on the desk and his jacket slung over the back of the chair. The perfect stage set for what he had in mind. He took a few bottles and glasses from the mini-bar and placed them on a small tray in readiness, after which he sat on the edge of the bed and waited. Her knock, when it came, was muted and discreet. ''Please come in.'' She was more attractive and a great deal more conventional in appearance than he had expected. Mid thirties, regular features, straight shoulder length dark hair, large eyes made even larger by the skilled application of makeup, but nothing crude or excessive. Quite a conservative beige business suit with matching shoes, medium heel. Small tasteful silver earrings. She could have been the cashier at the bank or the receptionist at a more star-endowed hotel than this one, his child's teacher or the local vicar's wife. She made immediate eye-contact and smiled. Simon instinctively stood up and took her hand. He wasn't prepared for an attractive and perfectly normal-looking human being. It threw him a bit. ''I'm Simonthanks for comingyou lookgreat.'' ''You look good too. I'm Monica. Pleased to meet you.'' She sounded confident, matter-of-fact. She continued over to the desk and removed her jacket, folding it and laying it neatly beside Simon's suitcase. Then she returned and perched on the edge of the bed, smiling up at him. ''I like to get the business side of things out of the way first. For two hundred pounds I stay the whole night, and you get to do whatever you like, subject to the usual rules. You wear a condom, there's no kissing on the lips and no anal. And of course no BDSM or violence. Is all that clearly understood?'' As she spoke she took a small packet from a purse that he hadn't noticed before and placed it on the bedside table. Simon was perspiring slightly. ''Of course.'' He swallowed. ''Would you like a drink?'' ''Not for me, thank you. But I'll have a fruit juice to keep you company if you would like one yourself. Will we get the business side of things out of the way before we do anything else?'' ''Of course.'' He fetched his jacket from the back of the chair, produced the agreed fee from an inner pocket and hung the jacket back. She took the notes and put them in her purse, seemingly without counting them. Hesitantly, he sat down beside her. She took his hand. The drinks seemed to have been forgotten. ''You haven't done this very often, have you?'' she asked in a gentle tone. ''Is it obvious?'' ''A bit. But it doesn't matter. We've got all night. Take as long as you like to get comfortable.'' ''Have youbeen doing this for a long time?'' ''Long enough. But I think I should make something clear. I don't talk about my personal life. I've got one, of course, just like anybody else, but that's nothing to do with my work. The two are separate. That's how I like to keep it. If you want to talk about your own personal stuff that's fine, but I won't reciprocate. No offence, it's just one of my rules.'' He was surprised to hear her use a word like ''reciprocate''. This woman was articulate, well educated. What a pity she didn't want to tell him her story. He was certain it was a fascinating one. Just the kind of thing he was after. Maybe she would weaken thoughafterwards. Maybe then she would break her rule. ''Would you like to undress me?'' she asked. It seemed very fast. He had assumed she would want to use the bathroom first, to do whatever it was that women like her did in preparation, but evidently not. He reached up hesitantly, put his hands on her shoulders, felt the warmth of her body through the thin blouse, let his hands travel down to her bare arms. ''I hope my hands aren't too cold,'' he said, wondering how the words must sound. ''Very nice of you to ask. No, your hands are fine. Gentle hands. You can put them wherever you like.'' Without prompting, and with total confidence and familiarity, she reached over to the light switches on the wall and turned the main light off and one of the bedside lamps on. The atmosphere immediately became more intimate. Simon hesitated for only a moment, then, slowly began to unbutton her blouse.
ooOoo
Simon slackened his embrace and let his body relax. He took a moment to recover. ''I know it's a terrible clich, but was it all right for you?'' ''You know it was. Very all right.'' ''I suppose men always look for reassurance.'' ''There's nothing that men always do. They're a very diverse bunch.'' It might be the opening he had been hoping for. He thought for a moment before he spoke again. ''Are most men okay, or are a lot of them horrible?'' ''I wouldn't try to answer a question like that. I would count it as personal. You know my rule.'' ''But it's just part of being human, isn't it? To want to be liked. To want approval.'' ''I'm not in this profession to look for approval or to give it. I'm here to get paid. I try to give good value for what people pay. Like I said, this isn't part of my personal life. This is my job. That's all there is to it.'' He stroked her naked back and pulled her a little closer. ''How can you do it? How can you keep your feelings out of this?'' ''Too many questions,'' she scolded. ''I have nothing more to say about it.'' ''But you like it when I hold you like this, don't you? When I stroke your back, when I kiss your neck. I know you do, I can sense it.'' ''I didn't say that I don't enjoy my job. I do sometimes. But it's still my job. What I do for a living. You've got to understand that.'' She paused. ''But if it's reassurance you want, you're right. I like being with you. You're a kind, considerate lover and you treat me with respect. I'd be happy to see you again. Any time you like. But it's morning now. It's time for me to go.'' Damn, he thought, she's leaving and I haven't learned anything. I don't know the first thing about her. One more try. ''Before you go, can I know just a tiny bit more about you? Nothing very personal just ordinary things. Like how many brothers and sisters you've got. Whether you have children of your own'' ''Nothing very personal? Sounds pretty personal to me.'' She started to climb out of the bed as she spoke and crossed the room to sort through the clothes she had left on the chair by the bathroom door. Sexually, Simon was exhausted, but he could still appreciate the beauty of a shapely young female body. He sighed in admiration. ''Listen, Simon. People who hire me usually have a fantasy of some kind about me. Things they would like to be true. Assumptions, preconceptions. But what if the real me isn't like that at all? What if I tell you things that destroy the fantasy? There's no point in my doing that, is there? It's your fantasy. Your dream. Think whatever you like about me. See me as whoever you like, whatever you like. That's what I'm here for. Don't ask me to mess with your dreams. Okay?'' She pulled on her knickers, slipped her blouse over her shoulders without buttoning it and headed for the bathroom. ''I'm just going to have a quick shower. I'll get rid of the used condoms too. All part of the service.'' It was obvious that in a few more minutes she would be gone.
ooOoo
Alone now, Simon erased the useless sound file of his long night with Monica and switched off the recorder. He showered and dressed, made himself a cup of coffee from the sachets and the rudimentary equipment provided, and opened his laptop. He glanced at his watch. Just over three hours before the deadline for the magazine section. As the machine booted up he thought about what his opening sentence should be. Last night, he began, I invited a sad, abused and addicted young sex worker to my hotel room. I will call her Monica but that is not her real name. Although I paid her pathetic fee I refused her degrading sexual advances and instead we talked about her wretched and despair-filled life at the mercy of cruel pimps and violent drug-pushers on the freezing winter streets of this heartless city
Archived comments for Nothing Personal
bluepootle on 05-12-2014
Nothing Personal
I think this is brilliant. It starts in exactly the right place, just to intrigue us, and then pulls the neat trick of making us just forget that voice recorder as we get involved in the action. It creates two strong, believable characters and the end felt profound, and real to me. Great story.

Author's Reply:
That's very generous of you, Aliya. A great comment to wake up to. Glad you liked it.

sirat on 05-12-2014
Nothing Personal
Many thanks to whoever nominated this story.

Author's Reply:

Mikeverdi on 05-12-2014
Nothing Personal
Agreed! Great story line, the sharp dose of reality in the 'Pulled on her knickers' ending worked well for me; and I never saw the ending coming...just thought he was recording it for later use 🙂
One bit of crit...do you really need the words 'he thought'in the first bit?
Mike

Author's Reply:
Glad you liked it, Mike. Many thanks.

I tried it without 'he thought' and if you leave it out you produce a bit of uncertainty as to whether or not there is a separate narrator explaining things. I don't think it's needed every time his thoughts are given but I think it's useful there at the beginning, just to make the setup clear. Similarly in the last paragraph, I felt I needed to make it clear that this was what he was writing on his laptop, no longer his actual thoughts.

Rab on 05-12-2014
Nothing Personal
Excellent story. The characters and Simon's reactions are utterly believable and the ending carries a great twist which. like Mike, I didn't see coming.

Author's Reply:
Thanks, Rab, I'm very pleased with how the story has been received. I must have got something right.

Nomenklatura on 05-12-2014
Nothing Personal
I saw this one coming all the way David, most likely because I've read something similar, somewhere or other. I would say it was exceptionally well done. I also agree with your thoughts on 'I thought'.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Nomenlkatura. I don't mind you seeing the ending coming. I wasn't thinking of it as a 'twist in the tail' story. My interest was more in the way that stereotypes get reinforced and the truth becomes irrelevant. Fantasy, prejudice and reality. Give your readers what they want. That kind of thing.

Nomenklatura on 05-12-2014
Nothing Personal
In that case I'm even more on your wavelength than I thought.

Hmm... of course, that might not be a good thing for you! 🙂

Author's Reply:

e-griff on 08-12-2014
Nothing Personal
The writing is of course very good, and it's worked through convincingly. I didn't regard the ending as a twist and took the message. But for some reason it didn't particularly engage me. With many stories, you get a resonance, you think about them, the questions they pose, human behaviour, what would you do? Here, I grant that his dilemma (if you can call it such) is a seed for such wondering, just I didn't. It could be that the image of a cynical reporter is far too familiar so you don't even imagine he could do anything other than he does.

Author's Reply:
I'm happy with that reaction. Different situations and scenarios engage different people. Thanks for the feedback.

TheBigBadG on 08-12-2014
Nothing Personal
Yeah, I enjoyed this one as well. I think the end was well-pitched (if maybe a bit sudden?), the cynicism was a good foil for the genuine encounter. I do wonder if we should find out more about Simon though given the resolution is centred on him? He has the potential to be more interesting and he is the one who creates the story after all. Monica is likeable enough, but the hooker with a brain/heart angle isn't entirely fresh. The journo existing either side of the line between reporting and creating a story, however, strikes me as more fruitful - you can also explore it without losing anything of Monica.

Anyway, just some thoughts. Good read already.

Author's Reply:
I'm always very loath to make a story longer. The comparison I'm fond of making is with painting. The novel is the great big Constable landscape with every blade of grass carefully represented. The short story is the little pen sketch by Erik Satie. It's just a few lines that suggest the person or the scene, almost everything is filled-in by the viewer. I only wanted to hint at the psychology of the two characters. If I can start you thinking about Simon's decision to fabricate a story, substituting a received stereotype for a real woman that he can't understand, or Monica's rigid refusal to talk about her personal life, then I think I've done my part of the job as a short story writer. Everything else needs to come from the reader. To quote Monica: 'What if I tell you things that destroy the fantasy? There’s no point in my doing that, is there? It’s your fantasy. Your dream.'

Many thanks for the comment.

e-griff on 09-12-2014
Nothing Personal
I moved on from thinking what didn't work for me to what might (just for interest). Although there are several aspects to this story (I liked the whole description of him and monica , thought it worked really well), the punch line would be more interesting for me if for instance it was a clergyman with a parishioner, a doctor with a patient a social worker with a client. But that would be a different story of course 🙂

Author's Reply:
Yes, it would be a different story – very much a 'twist in the tail', which I'm very ambivalent about. In the first version I had Simon do a bit of soul-searching, feeling upset that she wouldn't let him get any closer, wondering if he was a little bit in love, that kind of thing, but I liked the trimmed-down version where he just starts writing his article a lot better. The more I practice this craft the more strongly I feel that 'less is more'.

sirat on 22-06-2015
Nothing Personal
Many thanks to whoever nominated this piece for the Anthology. Much appreciated.

Author's Reply:


Murphy's Moment (posted on: 26-09-14)
This was actually sparked off by the recent Gene Kelly challenge in the Prose Challenge forum. It started me thinking about old-time has-been actors, and my mind drifted off (as it frequently does)...

For the more cultured among you no introduction shall be necessary; for the others, let me inform you that my name is Lucretius Parmenides Murphy; former thespian, musician, poet, philosopher, raconteur, street performer and life coach. In view of the inability of some individuals to recall my full name, let alone the letters appended to it which modesty prevents me from mentioning, I usually abbreviate it to LP Murphy. As you will have observed I am presently between professional engagements, and indeed addresses, having been required to vacate the modest space that I occupied in the then partially and now fully demolished fuel oil storage warehouse of Lancing Agnew Associates on Mildew Street. Or was it Millar Street? No matter, the point is that I find myself in some need of a variety of things, among them currency, sustenance, clothing and accommodation, and most notably the small quantity of brandy that I am in the habit of consuming last thing at night in order to combat my tendency to insomnia. I suppose I could add to the list facilities for the maintenance of personal hygiene, but not resourcefulness, adaptability, good breeding, insight or artistic ability. Of those I am still in possession of a more than generous share. In view of the sadly reduced circumstances in which I presently find myself I have been obliged to accept menial employment for which I am vastly over-qualified from the Borough Cleansing Department. My duties involve the sorting and preparation of designated domestic refuse for the recycling plant adjacent to the Headless Chicken Roundabout on the Great Southern Bypass, a building of little architectural merit, and I can only add that were I not blessed with quite exceptional inner resources I would find my duties there tedious in the extreme. However, an unexpected discovery some three feet below the surface in the pile of discarded glass and ceramic items that I have been employed to categorise gives me reason to believe that the tide of my fortunes may have begun to turn. The item in question, which I have wrapped in the Sunday Independent of last week for protection, appears to be an item of military ordnance of quite advanced design and capability. I don't have the object with me, as I thought we might discuss the terms of any transaction in advance of your inspecting the merchandise, so to speak, but I can tell you that in appearance it resembles a conventional artillery shell, about two feet long, eight or nine inches in diameter and pointed at one end. It's also extremely heavy for its size. What makes it rather interesting though, in my educated but non-specialist opinion, is the lettering on the rear. It states that the military reference code for the item is W33, that it is a tactical nuclear device, and that its 'yield' is 5 kilotons. There is also some information about restricted personnel and all the usual American military gobbledy-gook. Oh yes, it's undoubtedly American. And I seem to recall that the American military base at Downham Market or was it Greenham Common was invaded by women protestors some weeks ago. I wondered at first why I hadn't read of any report of a missing nuclear device resulting from that incident, but then I suppose it's quite possible that the American authorities wouldn't have publicly acknowledged the loss, or indeed that I might have overlooked the item, as my interest in newspapers tends to be restricted to their thermal properties. Now I feel that there is a moral dimension to any business arrangement that we might come to, and so I'm going to require, absolutely insist, I'm afraid, that you put your signatures to a written agreement, which I will need you to type out for me, that you will not under any circumstances use this nuclear device to blow people up. As experienced terrorists I'm sure you're fully aware that this isn't in fact how nuclear weapons are used. Once you actually set one off, its tactical value is entirely lost. Tactically speaking, you have played your only card and no longer have anything with which to bargain. The last thing any terrorist group, or national government (which is pretty much the same thing) wants to do with a nuclear weapon is detonate it. Don't you agree? Good. I was certain that you would. Now, shall we discuss the delicate matter of a fee?
Archived comments for Murphy's Moment
e-griff on 27-09-2014
Murphys Moment
A light piece that entertains but with little depth (as intended I accept). Conventional.

The only quibble I would have is the messy first sentence of the second para which needs clarifying.

Short and sweet!

Thanks.

Author's Reply:
Thanks John. Your conventional comment. I can't really see the messiness of that first sentence, they're all a bit convoluted, it's the man's style. If it entertains, I'm happy.

e-griff on 27-09-2014
Murphys Moment
A light piece that entertains but with little depth (as intended I accept). Conventional.

The only quibble I would have is the messy first sentence of the second para which needs clarifying.

Short and sweet!

Thanks.

Author's Reply:
You can say that again.

bluepootle on 28-09-2014
Murphys Moment
I absolutely love the juxtaposition of the voice with the plot. I was expecting a tale of glory days but instead we get a nuclear weapon. A great, surprising angle.

You've got two uses of 'tactical' in the last para - I think it might benefit from cutting one of them. I really like the fact that he lectures the buyer on good use of nuclear weapons. What a complete character the narrator is in only a few paragraphs.

Author's Reply:
Thanks Aliya. I was aiming at comedy of course, the main joke being the pomposity and self-importance of the old hobo. Glad it worked for you. I'll get rid of that second 'tactical'.
David.

TheBigBadG on 01-10-2014
Murphys Moment
I like how it slides off the expected path. Very much set up for one thing but before you know it LP is weighing up the market value of a nuclear device. Full of ridiculous leaps of faith, of course, but that's part of the charm. Weirdly, most of all I wonder how much of the opening sentences to believe, like his name and thespian roots. Silly really, but that's what I doubt first more than exactly how he contacts a terrorist organisation! There's a touch of the Emperor Norton to him in fact, one of my favourite oddballs from history; He's magnanimous, wise and essentially deranged. I liked it: Unexpected and enjoyable for it.

Author's Reply:


Picking Blackberries (posted on: 18-08-14)
This is my submission in answer to my own picture prompt in the Prose Challenge forum.

Even though Emily is gone I still find myself doing a lot of the things I used to do with her, but on my own now of course. I still go down every year to see the Queen lay the wreath at the Cenotaph, and unless I'm not feeling well I try to get to the Chelsea Flower Show and one or two other places that we used to go to together as a matter of routine. It's not as much fun on your own if fun is the right word for the Cenotaph business but old habits are hard to break. Something that we always used to do around the end of August was take the late bus up to St. Pancras Cemetery in East Finchley, not to pay our respects to the dead but for the blackberrying. I suppose it was a little bit naughty really. It's a very big cemetery and it's been in use since 1854 it tells you that on the plaque and although some bits of it are very neat and well looked-after, most of it well, to put it politely, has returned to nature. The old part of the cemetery is covered in weeds and brambles so that you have to fight your way through it, and the vegetation is so high that you can get lost in it and not remember which way is back to the path. Most of the headstones are overturned and broken and so overgrown you can't even see them any more, just feel them underfoot as you walk. And some of the old headstone carvings look fantastic. Almost life size, a lot of them: virgins and saints and angels and holy apostles and crucified saviours, all covered in moss and creepers, with missing heads and broken wings and things growing out of their mouths and eyes, leaning over at crazy angles or just lying in fragments in the bushes. And the blackberries are everywhere when it's the right time of year. It seems a shame to waste them really. I mean, nobody visits those graves. Nobody sees them, you nearly need a machete to get anywhere near them. So why not? Of course if Emily was giving a jar of blackberry jam to a friend she wouldn't actually tell them where we got the berries, because it did seem just a little bit macabre blackberries that might have been fertilised by decomposing human remains but we're all made of the same things, aren't we? All just chemicals and cells and minerals. Think how many human remains there must be in any patch of ground in a city like London. If I was the ghost of one of those forgotten Victorians I would be glad of the company, the little bit of attention when Emily or I glanced in their direction. It's lonely enough being widowed, imagine what it must be like to be dead. Emily and I always went in the late evening, when there weren't other people around. We wouldn't want anybody to think we were disrespecting the graves of their loved ones. The gates close at 5.00 but there are several places where you can get in just by squeezing through a gap in the railings if you know the layout of the place. And there's no night watchman or security system. I mean, what is there to steal? That's why I was a bit surprised that Sunday towards the end of August when I was in there filling my old biscuit tin as usual in the failing light, and realised that I wasn't alone. It was a female figure wearing something white, a hundred yards or so from where I was with my tin. She wasn't making any sound and I wouldn't have noticed her, except that unlike the other dimly visible female figures of crumbling stone or stained marble, she was moving about beyond the patchy screen of vegetation. There was no reason why other people shouldn't know about the unofficial ways into the cemetery, but in all the years that I had been going there this was the first time I had encountered anybody else. I wondered if I should greet her, make my presence known. She seemed quite young, and engrossed in some activity that I couldn't make out. If she suddenly noticed me it might give her a fright. On the other hand hearing an old man's reedy voice from inside the depths of an overgrown burial ground might scare her even more. Unable to decide what I should do I crouched down so that I would be out of sight beneath the dark silhouette of the brambles. After a couple of minutes my legs began to ache and I started to feel ridiculous. What was I worried about? Why should anybody be scared of an old codger gathering blackberries in the dusk? I stood up and turned to where I had seen her, but she didn't seem to be there any more. I moved a little further towards where she had been. Nothing. I made more of an effort, pushed my way through the undergrowth, found a viable route between the moss-covered mounds of masonry and the diseased trees, tried to avoid stepping on obvious graves, but however far I managed to push my way, the girl wasn't there. Well, I told myself, if she wasn't there I wasn't going to frighten her. I didn't have a problem. And yet I couldn't help feeling uneasy. As though I had intruded on something that was very private and sacred and none of my business. Old burial grounds can give you that irrational feeling of awe, can't they? But then, pushing through a particularly dense clump of neglected trees and shrubs, I decided that I had solved the mystery. Although the grave itself was barely discernable beneath the bindweed and the ivy, the ferns and the layers of leaf mold, there on top of it all, in the only remaining stone urn that had not been overturned or lost in the undergrowth, somebody had placed a fresh bouquet of perfect long-stemmed lilies whose whiteness was dazzling, even in the failing evening light and the shade of the vegetation. The sight brought a lump to my throat. Somebody still cared for whoever lay in that grave. Cared enough to come here in the twilight when the graveyard was deserted and leave this beautiful and probably very expensive floral tribute. I stooped down and looked for a name on the bouquet. Nothing. No packaging or florist's label, no twine holding the flowers together, no sign of a sender's message. Just the flowers themselves. I looked at what remained of the grave and the headstone. How could the girl with the flowers have let it get into such a state? Without really knowing why I was doing it, I started to clear away the earth and vegetation with my bare hands. It took time, but with careful excavation through the leaf mold you could see the stone border that had once defined the grave's perimeter, and the headstone itself, which had partially fallen over but was otherwise intact. I could even make out some of the engraved lettering. I got out my handkerchief, licked it, and tried to clean the stone surface surrounding the words. Eventually I could read some of them.
Private Harold Cartwright M.M. 1st. Btn. London Reg. R. Fus. 1897 1916
There was more but the letters lower down were too eroded to make out. I looked at the dates. He was 19 when he died. Much the same age as the girl in white. On impulse I tried to pull the headstone back into the vertical position. It wasn't as difficult as I had expected. When it was reasonably straight I carefully piled some earth and stones behind it so that it wouldn't fall over again too easily. When I had finished I looked at my work. It wasn't perfect but it wasn't bad. It looked a bit more like the brave man's grave that it was now. I hoped the young girl would be pleased if she ever came back. The sun had set and if I didn't leave soon I would have real trouble finding my way back to the road. There was almost nothing in my blackberry tin, but that didn't matter, I felt that my time in the cemetery had been well spent. My hands were filthy and smelled of earth and decay, and I was embarrassed when I touched my Freedom Pass on the pad by the bus driver's seat, but my spirits were unaccountably high. And now I have to own up to something that may make you think I'm losing my marbles. At least that was what I thought the night it happened. Because when I got to the kitchen and opened that biscuit tin there were more blackberries in there than I could have collected in three evenings at the cemetery, and there wasn't a small one or an under-ripe one amongst them. They were all magnificent. I haven't been back since. I don't think a cemetery is the right place to go blackberrying. Do you?
Archived comments for Picking Blackberries
Supratik on 18-08-2014
Picking Blackberries
Why not? We are all made of the same remains! I have read this many times, first from top to bottom, and many times at random. It is so engaging from the very first line while my heart wrenches that you are doing it all on your own! A spledid write!

Author's Reply:
Thanks Supratik. What a very generous comment!

Mikeverdi on 18-08-2014
Picking Blackberries
Ah yes a ghostly tale! Its hard to not pick up the plot when dealing with graveyards, but I think the story was good enough to carry it through. You tell the story well, I had thought we were going to meet Emily, the topical WW1 end was a good twist. I don't do the challenges, I hope its enough that I enjoyed your story.
Mike

Author's Reply:
More than enough. Thanks very much Mike.

e-griff on 18-08-2014
Picking Blackberries
A well-written, competent narrative, not particularly surprising or deep, but certainly a good, enjoyable read.

Author's Reply:
Thanks John. I'll settle for that.

OldPeculier on 18-08-2014
Picking Blackberries
A tale well told. You kept the conversational narrative going throughout which is often difficult in these things. I can imagine this being told over a pint in his local.

I liked the twist with the full tin of blackberries at the end too which set it apart from the darker ghost stories.

Author's Reply:
Thanks OP. Most people seem to have found it entertaining, which is what it's all about really.

Rab on 19-08-2014
Picking Blackberries
A good tale, well told. Like Mike I thought we were going to meet Emily, and later thought we were going to meet the girl in white. I'm not entirely sure why the old chap doesn't intend to go back to the cemetery though, from the tone of the narrative I got the impression that he wasn't disturbed by the happenings there.

Author's Reply:
Hello Rab. Thanks for the comment. No, he wasn't disturbed but he felt that he was intruding on something private that didn't concern him. Glad you liked it.

TheBigBadG on 21-08-2014
Picking Blackberries
You do seem to be finding something, stylistically. I can see you've started handling narrative slightly differently, breaking things up in different ways. I think it's particularly productive for you as well, it gives things a better sense of flow. I'd say it suits your preferred theme of older men looking back on life because you're focusing more on the relation of these narrators to the world now. The journey in and out of the graveyard, forgotten like your narrator is and the echoing of memorials works without being laboured. (Incidentally, is that graveyard neglected? I seem to remember it was reasonably well tended? If it turns out it is then Abney Park in Stoke Newington would fit the bill for this.)

If I went full-bore editorial on it there's a number of things I'd clip, a few modifiers - nearly, probably etc - and a couple of phrases but that's the joy of having fresh eyes. Nothing stood out as a clanger. I do also tend towards Griff's indication that it's not entirely a new take on the ghost story, however. It does serve the form well, but it's more a gentle reflection than a revolution. I don't think you were aiming at a twist, and it certainly didn't shock or catch me off guard. Not that every (ghost) story has to be or do that, but given this is the workshop it's worth noting.

Author's Reply:
Thanks BigBad. I'm not sure what you mean about my handling narrative differently (how did I handle it before?) but I'll take it as a compliment. I don't agree that my 'preferred theme' is older men looking back on life, if you go to my account here or better still to my website you'll find all kind of themes, but maybe as I get older I do more of the 'looking back' ones. I'm not sure. Yes, St. Pancras Cemetery is exactly as described. You probably haven't been to the old part. Modifiers, adverbs and the like are in my opinion perfectly appropriate in first person narration or monologue, which is what this is. I agree that the story is more of a gentle reflection than a 'revolution', and as people here know I'm very wary of twists in the tale. This is intended as a warm and feel-good ghost story, probably not an entirely new take (that would be a big ask) but not, I think, the usual one. Thanks for your thoughts.

sweetwater on 21-08-2014
Picking Blackberries
I really enjoyed reading this, I love a good ghost story, but too many of them now seem to be too dark and frightening, and I don't read them as I live alone and would scare myself to bits! This however is my kind of thing, thank you. Sue.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much for leaving that kind comment. Much appreciated.

bluepootle on 22-08-2014
Picking Blackberries
I love the details in this, particularly the descriptions of that overflowing tin of blackberries and the way he licks his handkerchief to clean the gravestone. It has a strong sense of place that really brings it to life, and makes the supernatural element feel as if it also belongs there, in that location. Beautiful. It's not a surprising story, and I'm glad you didn't go down that route of a twist ending with it. Instead it's more of an exploration of a mood, and I really like it.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Aliya. I think you picked up exactly what I was trying to do there.


Reunion (posted on: 01-08-14)
My entry for the current challenge in the Prose Challenge Forum: an unreliable narrator. I gave this story a fairly substantial rewrite in response to reader comments that have since been lost when we changed from one comment system to another.

Carol was there to meet me at the station. I don't know why but I always expect her to be younger than she really is a teenager in trendy clothes and lots of makeup. I suppose it's because I haven't seen all that much of her since she grew up, since her mother and I went our separate ways. You get a certain picture fixed in your mind, don't you? Her clothes were pretty drab this time by her old standards, especially considering it was summer and this was the seaside. A kind of lightweight business suit, I suppose you would call it, beige colour, elegant tailored look to the skirt, a bit of heel to the shoes very respectable but not right for my little Carol. And her expression misery covered-up with a false smile. She gave me a long hug but she didn't actually say anything at first. I was the one who spoke. ''You look great, Carol. Absolutely the young executive.'' ''I don't feel great, Dad. But I'm glad you're here.'' We never said very much when we were together. Her mother was the exact opposite, at least when I first knew her. Small-talk all the time like a running tap, but Carol and I didn't need it. When people are comfortable with one another they don't, do they? We walked to her car, another Fiesta, a silver one this time. I remembered she used to have one that was dark blue before, and a different body shape. Nice new-car smell inside. I could tell that the problem wasn't money, I didn't need to ask her about that. ''Would you like to have lunch before we go to the hotel?'' A hotel. Not a B&B. We wouldn't have done it like that when we were here before. When we were a family. Not back then. What year would it have been? ''Good idea.'' ''That caf that you used to like.'' She drove to a narrow road just outside the town leading down towards the sea across a bit of grassy scrubland. I had completely forgotten about it but I remembered it now. It ended in a car park near the cliff top where the coastal walk with the benches and picnic tables began. There was a small caf there where we had eaten a few times in the evenings when the sun was setting. It was a beautiful spot at that time of day, but wasted on her mother and me. All the nastiness and the stony silences. It was around midday now. A few people out with their dogs and some older slow-moving couples, but not many. A bit too far from the centre for the holiday crowd. More the retirement-home and sheltered-accommodation belt. We sat exactly where we had before. We had the outdoor tables to ourselves this time, probably because it was a bit breezy. They were on a pleasant decked patio, with a view down to the pebbly beach and the sea. I wondered what Carol would order. Fish and chips it would have been in the old days, no question. ''Fish and chips twice,'' I heard her say when the waitress came, and I nodded and smiled. People don't change all that much. Not really. Not inside. ''Funny that you should want to meet up here. Do you remember when we came here on holiday? I think you were about ten or eleven.'' ''I'm not likely to forget that holiday, am I?'' ''No, I suppose not. How is your mother these days?'' ''Much the same.'' ''Her new marriage is working out then?'' ''Well, it's not exactly new any more, is it? Yes, they're okay I think. I've just been to see her actually.'' ''You went to your mother first?'' ''Well, it's what wives are supposed to do, isn't it? Run back to Mummy.'' ''So you and Richard'' ''Yes. It's over between me and Richard.'' ''After only three years.'' ''Not even that. Two years and ten months.'' ''And you're sure that it's really over?'' She nodded. The waitress came back with cutlery and the tea things on a tray and started arranging them on the table. Carol waited until she had gone. ''Absolutely sure. I couldn't be more sure.'' I didn't say anything. I knew that she wanted to tell me about it and that she would in her own time. ''Everybody thought he was so sweet and charming, didn't they? Wouldn't say boo to a goose. Well he wasn't like that. That was the public face. Richard was two different people. You only ever saw the nice one.'' As she spoke she unbuttoned her jacket and hung it carefully on the back of the empty seat beside her. Then she rolled up the sleeve of her white blouse. ''My god! You're not telling me Richard did that?'' ''That's the only one I can let you see in public. Richard was good at leaving no visible marks.'' I felt my heart racing. I could barely breathe. ''This is insane. Richard did that to you?'' She rolled her sleeve down again and retrieved her jacket. I wanted to take her in my arms but we were sitting on opposite sides of the table. I took her hand instead. ''How long, sweetheart? How long has he been doing this?'' ''The first time was oh, what does it matter? Too long. I can't believe that I let it happen. That I believed him when he said how sorry he was, how much he loved me, how he was going to change. How he needed just one more chance. I feel like I've been living in a clich. You never think it can happen to you, do you?'' My head was swimming. ''The police, Carol. You've got to go to the police. I'll go with you. You can't let him get away with this'' ''No, Dad. That's not what I want. That's not why I'm here.'' She started to pour the tea and I noticed that her hand was trembling. ''There is a reason why I wanted to meet here. In this town.'' Thoughts raced through my head. What on earth could she mean? What was she talking about? ''Because this was where we had our final row? Where we finally broke up?'' ''Something like that. Do you still take one sugar?'' I nodded and she put the sugar in and pushed the cup across to me. ''I had a long talk with Mum. Probably the most serious talk I've ever had with her. She talked about that holiday, and that night in the bed-and-breakfast. About the row you two had. All I really heard was shouting. A few bangs and clatters. Then crying. And then I heard her screaming at you to go. Screaming like she really meant it.'' There was a long pause. ''Do you think we learn how to relate to one another from our parents? Like following a model?'' It seemed a very abstract question after what she had just told me. I think I stammered when I replied. ''I suppose so'' ''Because that's what Mum thinks. She thinks her relationship with you was the model I followed when it came to relating to men. To having a husband of my own. Do you think that might be true?'' ''I don't know what you're talking about.'' The waitress re-appeared. This time there were two plates on her tray. We waited in silence while she put one in front of each of us and started back towards the entrance. ''What exactly did your mother say about me?'' I didn't want it to sound angry but I think it did. It came out in a sort of breathy growl. She didn't reply straight away. She started to cut up a piece of fish and load it on to her fork with a chip below it. She dipped the assembly into the tartare sauce. ''I think you know what she said.'' She raised the fork to her mouth and started to eat. She seemed so matter-of-fact, despite the tremble in her hand. ''That's outrageous.'' I seemed to have lost control of my voice. I was almost whimpering now, in a gruff undertone. ''That was pretty much how I reacted too when she told me. I didn't want to hear it. I told her she was a liar and walked out. Then I started thinking about it. The two of you often threw things around when you had rows. Broke plates, that kind of thing. But some of the sounds that night were more like flesh hitting flesh. And afterwards, when you had gone and I went into Mum's room, she was putting on makeup. Quite heavy foundation makeup. That was an odd thing to be doing immediately after a big row, don't you think?'' ''That was a trick! Don't you see? To make you think I'd hit her. To make you hate me. Isn't it obvious?'' ''She never tried to make me hate you. She always defended you. Said there were faults on both sides, that I must never stop loving you just because she had. That kind of thing. Then when I went to see her a couple of days ago, her story changed.'' She was preparing another forkful as she spoke. Calmly, carefully. ''For a whole day I thought she was lying.'' I couldn't take any more. I stood up, my entire body shaking, and walked away, up the narrow track to the road. A bus came along and I flagged it down. It stopped for me and I got on without even looking where it was going. A gentler man than me has never walked this earth. I could no more hit a woman than I could saw off my own leg. I might have shouted and I might have broken a few dishes we both did, back then when it was all going wrong but there isn't a single violent impulse in my whole body. And now that evil woman has poisoned Carol's mind against me. Why did she ever go near her mother? why didn't she come to me first? She was always a Daddy's girl. She was always closer to me. And now that bitch of a woman has destroyed everything. Taken away the one good relationship in my entire life. Every time I think about it I feel like oh, never mind.
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Joyce's Song for Danny (posted on: 27-06-14)
Song from 'Engineering Paradise, the Musical'. Joyce sings it to reassure Danny that although she's going away to boarding school nothing will change between them and they will always be lovers when they meet. I think it's probably the best song I've got. It's in the original book.

Thank you for the moments when you walked a while with me Full of joy and understanding when we gave our love for free And you never tried to make me what I didn't want to be. In a world that's ever circling round a slowly dying sun The past alone is constant and can never be undone. Every living person changes every moment of the day But the past is always present, it can never go away And we'll always be together now, no matter where we stray. All the people who have held me help to make me who I am I remember every gentle touch, the passion and the calm. We'll always have these moments that we've shared so tenderly Though we may be separated by a mountain or a sea We're a part of one another now for all eternity. Ever growing, ever learning, ever striving to be free To create the man and woman that will soon be you and me. There's a world beyond that's waiting, we're too young to settle down It's our time to find our bearings, test the water, look around But there's nothing that can take away the friendship that we've found. There's no clause of limitation on the love I share with you It will always be there waiting, ever eager, ever new. The deepest love we'll ever find is love without demands That doesn't ask for promises or bind with wedding bands That can celebrate the freedom that the other one commands. Love that asks for nothing but is given like a song Love that doesn't wonder if it's right or if it's wrong Love that doesn't stifle, doesn't limit, doesn't scold Doesn't ask for grim assurances or suddenly run cold Love that never judges, and resentment will not hold. Thank you for the moments when you walked a while with me Full of joy and understanding when we gave our love for free And you never tried to make me what I didn't want to be. No you never tried to make me what I didn't want to be.
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Father Walsh's Song (posted on: 27-06-14)
Continuing the theme another song from my proposed 'Engineering Paradise, the Musical'. This one is sung by Father Walsh, the sadistic Head of Danny's Roman Catholic Grammar School in Belfast. He swipes the air with his (corporal punishment) cane and cracks it like a whip on his desk as he sings.

I merely try to keep a sense of order And always do my duties as a priest Civilised behaviour has a border Humans have to rise above the beast All living things are feeble and are mortal But we live in eternity as well We stand as moral agents at a portal We freely choose our heaven or our hell And all the easy choices are illusions And everything we see will pass away And the cleverest of scientists' conclusions Will not take away that burden on that day We stand before the Lord as fallen angels The sin of Eve has marked us from our birth We're here to prove our worthiness to serve him That's why the lord has placed us on this earth And nothing else shall matter when we meet him But how we have fulfilled his sacred trust How hard have we endeavoured to defeat sin And most of all, have we avoided lust? And in the execution of this duty Fulfilling every detail of this trust Pursuing all this goodness truth and beauty If someone must get hurt then so they must If someone must get hurt then so they must.
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Big Jim's Song (posted on: 23-06-14)
A week or so ago I mentioned I've had this mad idea to try to turn my novel 'Engineering Paradise' into a rock opera. These are more of my proposed lyrics for a song in this planned work. This is a song I've given to Big Jim Harrison the Belfast commander of the (Official) IRA. Comments?

Circumstances gave me this position, Put the steering wheel of history in my hands The barricades are rising in this city And the rival groups are taking up their stands. In a little while the taunting and the shouting Will turn to something nastier by far Bullets will replace the broken bottles, Just watch them as they ratchet up the bar. Once more the IRA will spring to action, Once more the cause of freedom to the fore Another chance for Irish liberation, A united land to last for ever more. And even if we fail in our objective, Our heroes and their exploits will be sung And future generations will revere us, When the bell of freedom finally is rung. Once more the fertile soil of chaos beckons For revolution's seed is well prepared The young are more than willing to come forward I pray to god that some of them are spared I pray to god that some of them are spared
Archived comments for Big Jim's Song
Ionicus on 26-06-2014
Big Jims Song
David, I'm impressed. I never thought of Sirat as a poet.
One just tiny suggestion that doesn't amount to much: on the last line of the penultimate verse I would say 'When the bell of freedom is finally rung'.
Luigi.

Author's Reply:
Hello Luigi. I've never thought of myself as a poet either, and in fact I still don't, but I've written a few song lyrics over the years and collaborated on a few more.
I think one of the big differences between a poem and a song lyric is that by and large a lyric needs to be completely regular in rhyme and scansion. If the singer has to patch things up by unusual stresses or cramming extra syllables into a line etc. it shows. My honest feeling is that if you turn the end of that line around and say 'is finally rung' you mess up the stress pattern. Try it and see if you agree. I think the inverted word order is the lesser of two evils here, but I'm willing to listen to what people think. I'll submit a couple more sets of lyrics for tomorrow. Thanks for reading and commenting.


The Engineer's Song (posted on: 13-06-14)
As some of you will know I've had this mad idea to try to turn my novel 'Engineering Paradise' into a rock opera. These are my proposed lyrics for a song I want to give to Kieran Gallagher, Danny's auld atheist father. If you can put a tune to it please don't hesitate. 1960s ballad style.

The Engineer's Song Engineering solutions are the answer To the miseries that human kind surround. You can always find the way to move things forward If you'll only keep your feet upon the ground. You've simply got to state the problem clearly And adopt an analytic frame of mind. A decision made in haste will cost you dearly It's through reason the solutions you will find. Nature speaks the language of mathematics And religions are where lazy people hide. Electronics, laws of motion, hydrostatics When you've quantified things then you can decide Is the world the joke of some capricious being Or the product of inexorable laws? When it's innards we have found new ways of seeing Will we understand its fundamental cause? Are there reasons underlying every process? Are there rules that hold the universe in check? Or are spirits hiding out in every recess? Has some demon been around to stack the deck? I see no need of any hidden mover The world is so much bigger than their god There's a universe that's out there to discover And I'm the blind man, tapping with his rod.
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Mikeverdi on 13-06-2014
The Engineers Song
Once I got a rhythm going this worked well for me, some great lines and thoughts. It could be pruned... but I don't think that's the point of it. There are a lot of things in this writing I can relate too; thanks for posting.
Mike

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Mike. This is one of (I think) four 'anchor' songs fragments of which might recur at different points in the story, and possibly small echoes of the same song from Danny himself as well. I'm in Lanzarote at the moment, working more or less full time on the project.


Turing Point (posted on: 09-06-14)
My response to the current Prose Challenge in the forums. A whimsical little bit of sci-fi. I've interpreted the challenge a bit liberally, as is my wont.

Tim recognised the rat-tat-tat on the door and shouted for them to wait. Quickly he switched to an innocuous YouTube page on the laptop and put away the book he had been reading a while before. He glanced around the little room and decided that nothing incriminating was in view. 'Okay door's open!' They almost fell into the room, locked in a playful embrace. Josh steadied the two of them by grabbing the top of the folding kitchen table. They were both smiling, giggling about some shared joke. It made Tim feel even more excluded. It was Josh who spoke. 'Jeez, Tim, this place stinks. What have you been doing? Frying bacon?' 'A little while ago. I was hungry when I got back from the tutorial. How are you two then? Not that I need to ask.' He spoke for Millie, as always. 'We're great. Just headed down to The Slug. It's DJ night tonight, and happy hour, six to seven. May as well make an early start. Are you with us?' 'Not tonight, Josh. I've got too much work to catch up on. Can't let it go any longer.' 'Bullshit. Come and have a pint at least. It's half price, man.' Tim couldn't say what he was thinking, which was that being (he hoped) temporarily single was bad enough without going around playing gooseberry to this pair of lovebirds. He would start going out again, but in his own time, on his own terms. 'It's nice of you but I really have to say no this time. Maybe next time. I've got a few cold beers in the fridge if you would like to get into the mood. Why don't you sit down for a minute or two?' 'Hell, no. We didn't come here to nick your beer.' As he spoke he guided Millie into the only soft chair and took the wooden one beside her. 'Guess who we met on the stairs? That new zombie house-mate of yours from the States.' 'He's not a zombie,' Tim felt he should defend the newcomer. 'He's just new. Finding his feet. Learning how to fit in.' He gave each of them a tumbler and made his way to the fridge. As he suspected, Josh had already forgotten that he had refused the beer. 'Looks through you like a zombie. Better start locking your door at night. I reckon he eats people's brains.' Josh took the proffered can and popped the ring-pull. 'I think he's kind of cute,' Millie protested. 'Tall dark and handsome. I think he's just shy.' 'Well, whatever he is, he doesn't have much to say for himself. You spoken to him yet, Tim?' 'Just a few words. He's a postgrad. A computer science Ph.D. student. So he doesn't need to eat people's brains, he's got more than he needs already. Why don't you ask him to go to the Slug with you? Break the ice? I'm sure you wouldn't mind, would you Millie?' 'Not in the least.' 'He's creepy. I wouldn't be comfortable drinking with that guy.' 'No, really. I think we ought to make some kind of effort. Tell you what. If he comes, I'll come too. Then you won't have to talk to him. How's that for a bargain?' Josh took a swig from his glass and considered the idea. Millie spoke before he could get in. ''I don't mind asking him.' 'Hey just how keen are you, Millie?' 'Relax he's a little bit old for me don't know, though' Josh pretended to pull her hair. 'Go on then. See how you get on. Bet you the first round he says no.'
oo0oo
'Aren't you going to get our first round, Josh?' Millie enquired in the sweetest of voices. 'Oh yes, of course. Nearly forgot. What will it be Enas? 'Water.' 'Water?' Josh's face remained impressively straight. 'Yes, of course, water. Any particular kind of water?' 'No.' 'Right. Fine. Water it is. Everybody else having their usual?' Tim and Millie nodded and he made his way towards the bar. 'So, Enas,' Tim began after a moment's hesitation, 'is this your first time in the UK?' 'Yes.' 'What made you pick this neck-of-the-woods?' 'It's the only university containing the right mix of expertise to supervise my research.' 'I see. Soermwhat's your research all about then?' 'I am attempting to model the architecture of the human brain in a self-organising field-coupled lattice of plasma-state logic gates capable of maintaining large-scale uncollapsed quantum fields. This is the mechanism advanced by Professor Roger Penrose as the basis of consciousness in humans and other sentient creatures.' 'Oh, I see. Or maybe I don't see. No, in fact I definitely don't see. What are you talking about?' 'Artificial consciousness. Self-awareness in non-biological systems. If it can exist in biological systems and we know that it can then unless it's magic it must be possible to reproduce it artificially in non-biological systems. And I don't believe that it's magic. I believe that it's a complex quantum electro-dynamic phenomenon of a general class that we are beginning to understand in some detail.' 'Ah, yes. Right. That's much clearer I suppose. Did you follow that, Millie?' Millie smiled. 'I'm studying media and marketing. How to get people to buy things they don't want. It's a lot easier than what you're doing.' Enas did not comment. 'And I'm a modern history major,' Tim put in. 'Stories, mostly lies, about kings, mostly villains, and soldiers, mostly fools. I'm not sure who said that but it's a pretty good summary.' Again, Enas was silent. The lull in conversation was broken by Josh's return with a tray. 'One fancy water, three Belgian Blonds. What have you folks been talking about then?' Tim offered a summary. 'Enas here has been telling us about his research. Trying to put ghosts into machines. Spooky stuff with a soldering iron. Something like that.' Enas could not be bated. 'Yes, well, it's ''smart'' everything nowadays, isn't it? Smart toasters just down the line.' He handed out the drinks, beginning with Millie. The couple exchanged glances that Tim could see conveyed a great deal. This wasn't going to be an easy evening.
oo0oo
Josh and Millie sought Tim out at the canteen and joined him with their trays. 'Oh, hello guys,' he greeted them. 'Sorry about last night.' As ever, it was Josh who replied. 'Sorry for what?' 'Well, I didn't stay very long, did I? Left you two to cope with Enas by yourselves.' 'No, that's okay. He didn't stay much longer than you. Actually, I wanted to ask you about him.' Tim shrugged. 'I don't think I can tell you very much.' 'We were wondering.' It was Millie who spoke, in a low voice. 'Do you think he's got some kind of condition? Autism or Asperger's or one of those things?' 'So you don't fancy him any more?' Millie winced. 'No, I think he's just a bit socially awkward. Too intelligent to get a girlfriend. I wonder if that might be my problem too?' 'No, definitely not,' she assured him. 'He is really odd though. He doesn't make eye contact. He talks like a textbook. His expression never changes. What do you think's going on in his head?' 'Mathematical equations. Circuit diagrams. Research notes. I think he can't switch it off, even for a second. I wonder how many hours sleep he gets each night?' Millie swallowed a chip before she spoke. 'I don't know. I'm sorry for him really. It's not much of a way to be, is it? Not much of a life?' 'Why don't you take him on as a project? Open his mind to other things. Introduce him to the realm of the senses.' Josh looked concerned. Millie just giggled. 'I hope you're joking.' 'Your call. If it's the kind of charity work that appeals to you, I'm a pretty deserving case myself, actually.' Josh at last protested. 'Hey, where's this conversation going?' 'Relax, Josh. I don't think Tim's serious. And to be honest, I don't think Enas would notice if I stripped off and sat on his knee. I've never felt so little chemistry from anybody.' 'Actually, now you mention it, something occurs to me about last night. You said Enas left shortly after me, right?' Jason and Millie both nodded. 'But I didn't hear him get in at all, and I was awake until at least midnight. What time did he leave the Slug?' 'Just as happy hour ended. Seven o'clock.' Tim and Josh looked at one another. It was Josh who spoke. 'A whole evening and night unaccounted for. Where did he go for all that time?' Millie shrugged. 'He's a post-grad. Maybe they can work all night if they want to.' Josh shook his head. 'The main library closes at eight. That's about as late as anybody hangs around the labs or the departmental rooms. I've never seen any lights on in the science block at night, but I suppose it's possible. Why don't you follow him, Tim? The next time he goes out in the evening, try to see where he goes. Maybe he's a darker horse than we thought. Maybe he's got a lady friend tucked away somewhere. Or a gentleman friend, for that matter.' 'Me? Why me? You're the ones who want to pry.' 'But you're the one who lives in the same block. You're the one who's got the opportunity.' 'Tell you what, then. Why don't I phone you two when I hear him going out? You could be outside my block in a couple of minutes. And it wouldn't look so suspicious. You would just happen to be passing.' The plan was confirmed by an exchange of glances. 'Go on,' Millie urged. 'Admit it. You're curious too.'
oo0oo
Tim was at the stage of proof-reading the first draft of his Cromwell essay on the laptop when he heard the distinctive click of Enas closing his room door behind him. He glanced at his watch. Around about seven again. Millie had been right, he was curious about Enas himself, but not to the extent that he wanted to tail him like the protagonist in a bad detective novel. Let the love birds do it and report back, if there was anything worth reporting. He pressed the 'send' button on his phone to transmit the text message that he had already set up. Then, his side of the bargain honoured, he returned to his essay. It was a lot later when the return call from Josh arrived. Not a text but an ordinary call, delivered in a breathy undertone: 'Tim, get a load of this, he's holed-up in some kind of industrial unit, in that gated place behind Mackelston Street. He's been in there for almost two hours, and there's no light showing.' 'You mean to tell me that Millie and you have been staring at the door of some kind of lock-up for the past two hours?' 'You don't understand, man. It's just a little industrial unit. Corrugated-iron thing you hire for light assembly work, or making sandwiches to sell to office workers at lunch time. That kind of place. There's only one door so he has to be still in there. And there's a side window so if he had a light on we would see it. He's holed-up in there in the dark. What do you make of that?' Tim thought for a moment. 'Beats me,' he admitted. 'What are you planning to do? Confront him when he comes out? Knock on the door?' 'We can't knock on the door. There's a security man in a little hut at the gate. I don't think we could slip past him without being seen, and he'd want to know what we're doing here.' Again, Tim considered the situation. 'Why don't you just talk to him? The security man, I mean. He would be interested in whatever's going on too, wouldn't he? And he would do your detective work for you. You wouldn't need to be involved.' There was a pause. 'I wouldn't know what to say. Why don't you come round. You're good at this kind of thing.' 'Me? What gives you that idea?' 'Just come, please. Do you know where it is?' Tim hesitated. 'I think so. Okay, stay where you are, I'll be with you in a few minutes.'
oo0oo
He found Josh and Millie in the thick shadows behind the security post, predictably huddled-up together, although this time they could perhaps claim to be sharing body warmth. 'It's that one over there,' Josh greeted him in a hoarse whisper. 'Number ten.' 'Okay. So why don't we just go up to the security man and tell him there's somebody in there.' 'And that we've been watching the place for about two-and-a-half hours? How do we explain that?' 'Don't be so melodramatic about everything. He doesn't have to know every detail. Oh, all right. I'll do it. Come with me, though.' The couple disentangled themselves and with an affected nonchalance the three of them walked up to the door of the security man's hut. He was a burly middle-aged man with a short dark beard and a no-nonsense expression. He waited for the students to speak. 'Hello. Cold night, isn't it? Didn't mean to disturb you but we're a little bit concerned about a friend of ours. You see, he went into Unit Ten quite some time ago and he doesn't seem to have come out. We're a bit worried about him.' 'Unit Ten?' He took a clipboard down from the wall and turned over the top page. 'That's rented to the ENAS people. An American university department.' 'Enas, yes that's his name. Do you know him?' 'It's not a name, sonny. It's a set of initials. The name of some research project. It tells you here, see?' He held the paper where Tim could read it. 'Tells you underneath. E N A S. I won't try to pronounce it though. You university types should know what it means.' Tim read it out for the others. 'Electronic Neural Architecture Simulation.' He felt his heart quicken. He wondered if the others were thinking what he was thinking. The security man continued to speak. 'They're good customers, paid up in advance, don't bother no one, but if there's somebody in there now they're breaking the terms of their rental. These aren't residential premises, they have to be vacated and locked by nine o'clock every night. They should know that. It's an insurance requirement. I wouldn't go snooping normally, but if you say there's somebody in there, maybe we should go take a look.' He reached up and unlocked a wall safe which contained rows of keys on hooks. Tim spoke quickly, nervously, hardly believing what he heard himself saying to the others. It seemed insane. 'Josh, Millie, maybe he isn't a researcher. Maybe he is the research. Do you understand me?' 'Can't say I do.' As Tim spoke they walked across the compound towards Unit Ten, the keys jangling in the security man's hand. He tried to speak so that only the couple could hear him. 'What if the research is at a very advanced stage? If they're at the stage of trying to find out how close they've got How society is going to react' He had to stop talking because the members of the party had drawn together outside the door of Unit Ten and the security man had started to unlock it. As they filed inside there was just enough light from the open door to reveal a number of unoccupied and darkened desks and computer consoles along the walls, and in the middle of the room a large, angular piece of electronic equipment which hummed gently but displayed just a single green indicator lamp. The initials E N A S were inscribed on its side. Most of Enas the man was sitting comfortably on a chair next to the machine, but his head sprouted from the top of the device itself and eyed them with an expression of mild concern.
Archived comments for Turing Point
bluepootle on 09-06-2014
Turing Point
I like the 'expression of mild concern' at the end there.

I'm not sure this is entirely successful in terms of dialogue. It didn't sound right to me, and I think maybe it's because there would need to be more juxtaposition in tone between Enas and the others. Right now they all talk in a fairly formal style, so if felt quite static throughout.

The most interesting part of this, for me, would be what happened next - what they said to each other, etc, so although I really like the mild concern I would be tempted to cut heavily early on and extend beyond your end point.

I really like the title too, but overall I think it's missing something right now. A bit of personality, perhaps. None of the students came across clearly to me. I don't think it's hard to guess the reveal, so maybe it needs to be less about that build up and more about what happens next?

Author's Reply:
Thanks for that. Funny enough I worried about the 'expression of mild concern' at the end because I had Millie say earlier that his expression never changes.

I thought it might work as a comic sci fi story for people who weren't deeply into the genre. What I tried to do was present a very 'human' group of students (the lovebirds, the recently dumped one with his self-pity, the ease with which any of them could be distracted from study) contrasted with the humourless and deadly serious science post-grad who despite Millie's initial attraction tends to give them the creeps. After the reveal, I don't think there's all that much more to say.

Regarding the dialogue, I had set the story in Oxford (clues: Roger Penrose, Belgian Blond beer) and I saw them as fairly upper-middle-class types, basically decent and wanting to make the newcomer feel welcome but a bit sniffy about Americans and indeed science students, and given to making private jokes about people behind their backs. A strong friendship group damaged by the recent loss of Josh's partner. None of that may have come across, and as you say, I may have failed to differentiate clearly enough between them, but that was the kind of thing I had in mind. Maybe it needs a few more jokes and a bit less chit-chat.

e-griff on 11-06-2014
Turing Point
A competent story, well written. I liked the distinctive interpretation of the theme that was given for the challenge. Works well in principle. But I found it slightly unbalanced. The characters are presented at the beginning and don't develop. There's a lot of background that doesn't take us anywhere. You could almost start 'enas sat expressionless in the pub.' water's said'etc.
As soon as the gate guard said ENAS people, the end was obvious, and the remaining story told us nothing, and the end was not a surprise. Better give the company some innocuous name and give your punch line some value.

Why/how would he take his head off? Bit self indulgent I feel. Better a plug in his head, surely? Corny, but still.

The more I think about it, the less sure I am that this can be doctored enough without complete rewrite/rethink.

Author's Reply:
I have to agree the whole thing is a bit corny, and the idea of his head being separate to his body was really just set up to create an appealing Hitchhiker's Guide stage set for the final scene. As I said above, I think it really needs more jokes to tip it over into straight comedy. It's just something turned out quickly, built around the idea of a character with an impenetrable or maybe even missing inner mental life. I don't think it's one I'll be bothering with again. Thanks for coming in to comment.

TheBigBadG on 11-06-2014
Turing Point
Ok, so I'll say it: it doesn't fit the challenge. But the story itself, more importantly. The Return of the Sirat! Sorry, ENAS.

First off it was hampered by the fact that I saw the twist coming a long way off. Maybe it's because I'm familiar with your previous works, perhaps I'm not be the casual SF reader you mention above, but it did mean that I spent a lot of the piece looking at the style and construction more than being carried away by it.

I do agree with Blue in that a lot of it didn't feel very natural, especially the dialogue. Little things pulled me out: to give an example I default to using contractions in speech because that's how people speak. I'd only shift to things like 'would not' for specific reasons and characters, which wouldn't include a 18-21-year-old media student. The swallowing of the chip also gave me a strange pelican-esque image.

It feels like it needs an edit in general in fact just to pick up the pace. You have the multiple references to who buys the round of drinks around the section break, for example, which doesn't add anything. So as Blue says, I'd cut heavily earlier on and focus on the moment around the reveal and the elided aftermath. It's much more interesting than some students going for a quiet drink.

It's probably also worth my picking up on the Oxford connection as well as you're crossing the streams a bit here. Oxford students mostly live in the colleges which aren't near the faculties and they don't call them blocks. Post-grads also aren't often housed with undergrads. The non-negotiable, however, is that Oxford doesn't teach Media and Marketing, far too modern, so I would have to assume these are students at Oxford Brookes. All of which is highly pedantic, I accept, but also true. The quicker way to establish an Oxbridge setting is with the lingo: quads, colleges, porters etc. And at the risk of being dense, I also don't get why Belgian Blond beer is a clue...

Author's Reply:
Thanks for that, Big bad, lots of details which I could fix if I really thought the story was worth it, but I don't (as I said above). It's just a quickie written to a deadline. I didn't notice that I was using over-formal dialogue except in the case of Enas himself where it was of course deliberate. I should go and hunt down that 'would not'.

On the local Oxford details, I'm sure you're absolutely right about all the Halls of residence stuff, and if I was going to do anything with the story I would have to research it and get it right. The reference to Belgian Blond beer was just a dim recollection of visiting an Oxford pub with somebody who went on about how wonderful it was and how many different examples of it the pub served. I assumed it had a strong local connection, but it was probably just a fad of the time, now long past. If I was redoing it I wouldn't try to tie it down to anywhere in particular, but it was tempting to drag Roger Penrose into it since he's our best-known home-grown AI expert. The business about who would buy the first round – Josh had bet Millie the first round that she wouldn't be able to get Enas to come out with them The fact that she was then reminding him that he had to buy it showed that she had been successful.

No more excuses. Shoddy workmanship. Going to stand in the corner.

OldPeculier on 11-06-2014
Turing Point
I really liked the start. I work for Cambridge University and see students like yours (and some alot stranger than Enas) all the time. I think you captured it well.

I do like a good twist and I am afraid I found this a little predictable. I also found the security guard's willingness to tell the gang all about Unit ten a bit unbelievable.

Come out of the corner, its not shoddy at all.

Author's Reply:
Thanks OP. Re the security guard, these are ordinary industrial units remember, nothing to do with the university per se. There's no reason why it should be a secret who's renting them. In fact normally the name of the business would be over the door. But anyway, I'll take your comment as a vote of confidence and resume my usual seat at the back of the class.

Skytrucker on 17-06-2014
Turing Point
Well, I liked it. But them, I am a simple soul and enjoy being entertained. I found this to be entertaining. So there!

Author's Reply:
Thanks Allen. That is indeed the purpose of the exercise.


Room Service (posted on: 28-03-14)
This is for my own challenge in the Prose Challenge forum: "A Quiet Night". I hope you like it.

It dawned on Josh that although he had read the last two or three paragraphs he hadn't taken any of it in. He laid the book on the desk, gaudy cover uppermost. It depicted a glamorous female in a skimpy summer dress embracing one tall handsome man while another one tugged at her shoulder, clearly trying to pull her away. If it was daylight and people were about he would have been more discreet. Not the kind of thing a self-respecting male wants to be seen reading. He rubbed his eyes and glanced at the clock on the wall behind him. Four more hours and some minutes still to go. Only half way through the shift really. But at least things had been quiet. They're just paying me for attendance, he thought. He'd had worse jobs than this. A lot worse. He glanced at his list of wake-up calls. Nothing for an hour or so. Despite the weight of his eyelids he couldn't really relax. He flicked through the register book which he was viewing upside down. That didn't matter, he wasn't reading it. For some reason he was in a fidgety mood tonight. A couple of faint human voices attracted his attention. Two men somewhere outside. He couldn't see them yet, couldn't make out any of the words, but as he listened the tones grew a little more defined. He stopped flicking the pages of the book and concentrated. They were still quite far away but he was able to judge them sober rather than drunk. Calm, well modulated voices. Unusual at this time of the night. Getting fainter again now. Wherever they were walking they hadn't passed the little oblong of sodium yellow street light that he could see through the glass door of the lobby. Semi-real spirits like himself, who had their own reasons for choosing the hours when others slept. Kindred souls. The voices faded and he was alone once again. From somewhere nearer he heard the faint tap-tap-tap of high-heels on the fake marble floor. The sound grew louder and a girl of South East Asian appearance in her late-twenties came into sight from the bend of the corridor, walking quickly towards the main entrance. The sight of the girl sparked off memories that he held back with some effort. "Good night, Miss," he greeted her cheerfully as she drew level with the desk. "May I order a taxi for you?" "Is all right. I walk home." "Are you sure that's wise? I don't mean to alarm you, but it's after 3.00 am. Not the time of night for a young lady to be walking around those streets on her own." She stopped and looked at him as though the safety aspect of her planned walk simply hadn't occurred to her. "I would be much happier if you would let me phone for one," he added, trying to sound friendly but firm. She stood for a moment, clearly considering what he had said. "Usually the gentleman pays the young lady's taxi fare," he added in what he hoped was a discreet undertone. "The gentleman?" Josh smiled. "We're both adults, Miss. Wouldn't it be simpler if we spoke plainly?" The girl looked slightly embarrassed but still seemed undecided, hovering uncomfortably in front of the desk. "I was about to make some coffee. Would you like to join me? I'd be glad of the company. Wouldn't you?" She smiled and he knew she was going to stay. He motioned her towards one of the polished wooden tables in the lobby and was pleased to see her make her way over and take a chair. "I have my own coffee-maker," he switched it on as he said the words. "It's pretty good. Takes about three minutes to heat up. Do you take milk?" "No, thank you." "That's good. I'm not sure I've got any." He put his book out of sight below the counter and opened the side cupboard where he fumbled through the crockery for two clean mugs. "I was wondering if you would say 'No, khob khun ka'." "Kun put pa-sa tai bipen mai ka?" "Nit noi. Just a few words. You've heard most of them now. When I was a lot younger I used to go to Bangkok for what they called 'Rest and Recuperation'. I guessed you were from that part of the world." "Is good to hear my language. Were you in US Army?" "Australian Army. Same war though. I was doing my National Service. I got out of Vietnam in 1971." "You are Australian person?" "That's right. I know I don't have the accent any more well, not much of it left anyhow. I've been here since the late 1970s. Married an English girl. It didn't last. The funny thing is, she's in Oz now but I'm still over here. Funny how things work out." He stirred the ground coffee with a long spoon to speed up the infusion process. "How about you? How did you get so far away from home?" He saw her struggle to find the right words, perhaps to decide how much to tell. "My mother not Thai. My mother Cambodia, small village, northern part. Soldiers come to her village, kill almost everyone, burn houses. My mother run with two daughter, reach Thai border. Go to Bangkok, Patpong. You know?" "Yes, I know. I know Patpong very well or at least I once did." "Go to Carte Blanche Club, Patpong Two. Work there, five years. But now only one daughter." "What happened to the other one?" She paused before answering. "Soldiers. We not know what happen my little sister. She not run fast enough." "My god. What kind of soldiers were they? Khmer or Western?" "Western." "American?" "Not know. All soldiers exactly same. No difference." He stopped stirring the coffee and looked her in the eye. "I wish I could argue that you're wrong about that, but I don't think I can." She didn't comment. "So your mother and you arrived at a bar in Patpong Two. And I presume you worked there too." "Yes. Then English man say he marry me and I say yes. Come to England, big house, big car. But man change. Not same man I marry. Turn into somebody else. You understand?" "Yes, I think so. Did you leave him?" She nodded. "And he just let you go?" "He never let me do anything. Not go out, not talk mother on phone, not meet Thai people in England. Not do anything, just stay in house, cook, watch TV, have sex. Not nice sex, rough sex. Like prisoner, slave." Josh decided the coffee was hot enough and strong enough and poured two cups. He carried them to the table and joined her. "You were right to get out. Good for you. Does he know where you are?" "No. He know where I am, he kill me I think." He waited while she tasted her coffee. "How can you do what you do after all that? How can you smile at a man and ask him what he wants, tell him how great he is after he's done it? Doesn't it stick in your craw? Don't you want to get away from men? Don't you hate them?" "No, not hate all men. Hate bad men. Not all men bad. Some men very good. I think you very good." "What makes you think that?" She smiled. "You worry me walking on the road. You give me coffee. You ask my life." "Don't you realise that I carried a gun in your country, or the one next to it, and shot people for no reason? Just because somebody with a couple of stripes on his sleeve told me to? Don't you realise that I was exactly like every other soldier that invaded your country. Exactly the same. You said so yourself." "Maybe wrong about that. Not all same. Maybe some same like me trapped, like prisoner. Must do this, must do that, no choice." "Yes, you're right, we didn't have very much choice. In a way your trade and the soldier's trade are pretty much the same. We both have to play-act. Pretend to feel things that we don't. I had to pretend to hate, you have to pretend to love. I think you've got the better deal. But I really admire you. How can you be so forgiving? How can you trust men the way you do?" She shrugged. "Don't trust all men. Speak on the phone first. Listen to voice. Voice tell very much. Some men good voice, some men bad voice." "So that's how you decide. By how they sound on the phone. You work on your own, don't you?" She nodded. "And I don't think you've been doing it for very long. Not in England." "Why you say so?" "Well, your shoes for one thing. Maybe you need to take those with you so that you can look good, but wearing them to go home is a bad idea. You can't run in shoes like that. Try it and the heels will break, or the shoes themselves will simply come off. They make you vulnerable. Carry them in your bag, but wear trainers to get around. It's only common sense. Do you carry a personal alarm?" She looked blank. "A thing that makes a loud noise, attracts attention?" She shook her head. "When you go out, do you tell anyone? Does anybody know where you've gone, what time to expect you back?" Her expression remained blank. "Do you let your clients lock the door?" Blank reaction. "Is there a number you can call for help a friend, or some sex workers' organisation or even the police?" She looked like a child who was being scolded. "You see, what I'm getting at is, it's not safe here, like it is in Bangkok, comparatively. You're not in a little alcove behind a curtain at the back of some bar, with other girls and customers all around you. You're in a private hotel room with one man, or out on the street alone in the middle of the night. It's different. It's dangerous. "Has anybody attacked you yet? Knocked you around?" She shook her head. "Well all I can say is, you've been lucky. But your luck isn't going to hold forever. Please listen to me. What I'm telling you is important. Think about it." For a few moments she sipped her coffee and said nothing. "Why you care so much?" she asked at last. Josh put down his coffee. The mug rattled on the polished surface. He looked away from the girl, stared through the glass doors out into the street. A black cab crawled by on the far side of the road, its driver no doubt looking for an address. When he spoke his voice was little more than a whisper. "It's not easy to talk about those days. About Vietnam, and the soldiers." He decided the topic was too painful and asked another question instead. "You're working to save some money, aren't you? I may be wrong, but I don't think you have a drug habit. I don't think you even smoke. Am I right?" She nodded. "So what are you saving up for? Why do you need this cash?" "Don't you know? I want go home. I see England now. I try England. And I try marriage. Not like England. Like Bangkok better. Mother, Carte Blanche Club, my same-like sisters. England no good. Bangkok good." "You want to go back? To the bar in Patpong? That's the life you want?" "Good people there. People care about me." Josh was silent for a while and when he spoke again it was in a quiet undertone. "I used to think like that. I used to think that my problems were geographical. That I could be happy in America or England or somewhere else, but not in Australia. It doesn't work that way. Your happiness, your mind-set, is something you carry around with you." He paused, wondered if the words he was using were too big, if she really understood. Not that it mattered. He was really talking to himself. "Listen what's your name, by the way?" "My name Wen." "Wen. I knew a girl with that name once. It means 'ring', doesn't it?" "Your Thai very good." "I'm Josh." He held out his hand. "Good to meet you." She held his hand for a moment but did not shake it. "Wen, you may not agree, but I don't think you're going to meet a man who'll care for you in a bar in Patpong. It's not impossible but it's a hell of a long shot. You've got a British passport now, right?" She nodded. "Well just think about the opportunities you've got here. University, clean safe work, good schools for your children when they come along, free medicine if you get ill, pensions, benefits... There are people queuing up to come to this country, paying silly money to hoodlums to smuggle them in. But you're here safely and legally, and you want to go back to that place? Why don't you do it the other way round? Work on getting your mother into this country. Your same-like sisters too. It can be done. I know a little bit about it. I might be able to help." "You very good man. But I got husband here. Husband who hate me. He find me, maybe he kill me." "Why wouldn't he find you in Bangkok? Isn't it the first place he would look?" "In Bangkok, maybe I not be the one to get killed." It was difficult to argue with that. There was silence for a moment while they both took another sip of coffee. Josh decided the time had come to tell her the truth. He felt his fists clench as he began. "Wen, I owe you something. Not you personally, but your people, your family, all your same-like sisters. You said your mother told you that all the soldiers were the same. She was right. We were all the same. Killing became a hobby. A recreational activity. A big joke. So did rape. I can't say that we behaved like animals because animals don't behave that way. And I can't bring myself to go into the details. But I know what happened to your little sister, the one who didn't make it to Bangkok. Because it's what happened to thousands of little sisters, tens of thousands of them. And now it's time to try to make some tiny gesture of reparation." He could see that she didn't know the word. "I mean it's time to make a first payment on what I owe. How much do you need for that one-way ticket to Bangkok?" She smiled, almost laughed. "You crazy man." "No. I sane man. I used to be crazy man. Not any more." He reached across and took her hand. "Not any more. Now I sane man."
Archived comments for Room Service
Nomenklatura on 28-03-2014
Room Service
Yes, I believed in Josh. Is he quite old to be the night man in a hot-sheet hotel? Don't know, so that doesn't matter. I wasn't entirely convinced by the woman. Pidgin English is a difficult thing to get completely right, but I think you've done well - so it wasn't that.

It might be that I found her really naive. Would she have been so trusting of the Night Receptionist (or lucky with the punters)?

Even so you definitely put me in the hotel on a quiet middle-of-the-night.

regards
Ewan


Author's Reply:
You're right, the Thai bar-girls tend to be very naive and trusting, which of course is part of their appeal to Western men. The trade in Thailand doesn't have a lot of the associations that it has over here, it's just a way to make a living, maybe meet the right man, and thousands of them are doing it. They also have their own particular patois that I have tried to reproduce here – even after years of exposure to more standard English it never seems to change.

I'm glad you found Josh and the setting convincing. Thanks for the comment.

bluepootle on 28-03-2014
Room Service
It has a great start. I love the cover of the book, the expectations of relationships it encapsulates, which we then bring with us to the story, and the reality of the situation.

I like it very much. I had no problem with the patois or the trusting nature, or with the unfolding of the conversation, but I might have liked a bit of extra description of the setting, the quietness of it, during the piece to give the conversation room to breathe. It feels very intense, which is great, but I felt rushed into it, and would have liked a few pauses to let me absorb what was being said.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for those comments. Glad that it worked for you by and large.

I take your points about pacing and setting the scene a bit more fully. It's always hard to know when to stop in short stories, how much to leave to the reader's imagination. I think I'm very conscious of trying not to over-write so that I can sometimes err in the opposite direction. You're right, the quiet atmosphere isn't fully established. The only concession to that was the slow-moving taxi.

I think I'll leave it for a while and come back to it.

Kazzmoss on 28-03-2014
Room Service
I really enjoyed this, it was interesting and after every paragraph I wanted to read the next. Sad story in a way, shocking too, but a good read and well written. Thanks.

Author's Reply:
Really glad you liked it. Thanks for the feedback.

e-griff on 28-03-2014
Room Service
Well written (small niggle on the repeated 'one' in the first para).
Heavily moral. In fact, a bit too obviously so for me . rather formulaic. Less of an involving story, more of a vehicle, with the cogwheels clocking into place. And too quick, it didn't seem like a natural conversation. A couple of places I found the language stilted (a girl of South-East Asian appearence) - and a short cut for the author to slip in a bit of 'tell' rather than let it happen naturally.

Sorry. But not everyone would take my view, obviously. 😉

Author's Reply:
Okay John. Thanks for those thoughts. I suppose we each write to our interests and I tend to go for the 'guilt' theme. Aliya also thought things happened a bit too quickly, so I may have a go at fixing that, whatever else I do.

Savvi on 28-03-2014
Room Service
I really enjoyed the open set up and all is very well written with believable characters, I was hooked and wanted to keep reading, I did get to the end before the end came and it would be easy to give this a very dark twist but I enjoyed the fact that you didn't. Best Keith

Author's Reply:
Thanks Keith. Much appreciated.

e-griff on 30-03-2014
Room Service
I've been thinking about your story, trying to put my finger on what in particular bothered me. Apart from my personal tastes, it is well constructed, coherent and progressive, but I had this feeling of something slightly below par. I realise it's the technique you've used in several stories of putting 'tell' in the character's mouth, a bit too obviously. Of course the explanations have to be there, but...

It might make for a more interesting story if the tale of his sins wasn't spoken out loud. Does he have to tell her? He has to tell us, the readers. A mechanism like flashbacks in his own head would serve to let us know why he was so concerned and involved and wishing to help her because of his guilt. IMO, this would be more sophisticated and interesting than simply him blarting it all out in a rather flat mechanical manner to her. It would also give you a chance to include some description of the events, perhaps the things that drove him to it. In other words, making him a 3D character rather than the 2D one he is now. It also gives the reader a satisfaction in knowing something she doesn't know (but might guess at - another twist)

Anyway, dunno if that helps or not. Up to you. 😉

Best, JohnG

Author's Reply:
Yes, that's quite a good idea.

The two main suggestions I have received here are a) To devote a bit more space to establishing the atmosphere of the dimly-lit hotel lobby at dead of night and the slow passage of time, and b) To lengthen the actual unfolding of the story, either by having a longer conversation between Josh and Wen, or (from you) by filling in the back story in flashback rather than direct telling.

All these have their attractions, but they also have in common that they would involve a greater word-count, and that always concerns me with short stories. I always feel that there is a natural appropriate length at which to treat a given idea. My own (completely subjective) feeling about this one is that it's about the right length, that the material doesn't justify much longer treatment.

I think the flashback idea might also change the nature of the piece, shift the focus from Josh's inner guilt and unease to the cruelties committed in the name of war – a sort of short version of M.A.S.H. or Apocalypse Now. I quite like the idea of leaving Josh's army days a bit vague – whether he actually took part in rapes and atrocities or merely turned a blind eye. I suppose I don't see him as a two-dimensional character but rather as a somewhat troubled, hidden and solitary one. I like the idea of allowing readers to make up their minds about him rather than making his past completely explicit.

So to be honest I think it's probably Aliya's suggestions, which would not lengthen the piece very greatly, that I am most likely to take up when I come back to this one, but I'm grateful to you for returning with these fresh thoughts.

Mikeverdi on 31-03-2014
Room Service
I enjoyed the story, and also the comments. All the crit has been done and I see you have made your mind up. I think John may have a point, but its you're story. You are so correct about what to put in and what to leave out, the choices in a short story are harder to make than a novel.
Mike

Author's Reply:
First of all, thanks for taking the trouble to comment.

Well, I can see the point of changing – in this case lengthening – some of the dialogue to slow the pace down and let things develop more naturally, but I'm not happy about the idea of adding flashbacks or extra details about the past. I don't think that would add anything to the story or have any particular point. This is supposed to be a 'quiet night', it's supposed to happen within the course of a single night, and the theme is somewhere in the area of guilt, regrets and catharsis. I don't want to introduce graphic sexual violence for its own sake, I prefer to leave that to the reader's imagination. I may be mistaken but I think there's enough in the story as it stands to make any points that I want to make and to keep the reader involved. It has a feeling of closure and unity for me as it stands, I can't see that there's much to be gained by going more deeply into the back story. I hope you don't feel that I'm dismissing what you say, I have genuinely thought about it simply don't agree.

TheBigBadG on 01-04-2014
Room Service
Ok, so I don't have any problems with the characters, voices or setting. As ever, you've got a clear idea of what you want to achieve, you've thought through the structure and it's all well constructed as a result. I think the pidgin thing worked as well which always helps pick a piece up (but I would be wary of signposting Josh's Vietnam history like this - why not have the conversation start with Josh speaking some Thai to her, for instance. Then you've got a natural hook for her to come over and say, 'Ok, I'll bite. Where did you learn Thai?' or a similar cypher.) Basically, it contains all your usual strengths and things I have (gracelessly, I accept) come to expect from one of your stories.

That said however, consider me the late tuba player chasing the brass band down the road spoiling it for everyone, but... I agree with Griff. The simplest way to describe the issue for me is to point out how many paragraphs are exclusively speech or just speech with a 'he said/she said'. I appreciate you want a certain realism in the style but the flip side is that for me it reads like an abstracted discussion of the themes - your dichotomies of soldiering/prostitution, obedience against self-interest, 'good'/'bad' men etc. The problem there is that in the pursuit of realism you create something that doesn't read like a conversation in the real world. The abstracting device works well in a range of places incidentally - Sophie's World being the obvious answer - but it works best when it wears it's artifice on its sleeve.

As for ways to develop the piece, I would be wary of taking any of the above (and indeed this) comments, as the only options. Flashbacks are one route, certainly, as is using the space. But you can also have Josh thinking on it already because he saw her go in, or reminded of something in Bangkok from the hotel lobby. Maybe he's one of her old John's even, and he's burning up with shame? Whatever though, I think it needs to be taken either further into the abstracted mode or brought back to a more natural telling.

Incidentally, I actually think the discussion about length and whether it's too long or not is premature as well. Swelling and contracting of pieces is one of the inevitable parts of editing.

You may commence throwing rotten fruit... now.




Author's Reply:
Thanks for taking the time to make such a thoughtful comment.

A lot of what I said to Mike above applies here as well. I see it as essentially a small self-contained story, all of which takes place on one night (the 'quiet night' of the prompt). I don't want to elaborate any more on the back story, but I take your point about the dialogue between the two characters. When you say it ' needs to be taken either further into the abstracted mode or brought back to a more natural telling' I must admit to being a bit uncertain of what that means, but if those are the choices then I would definitely want to go for the 'natural telling'. I think the main problem is with the dialogue, which, although it still seems okay to me, isn't scoring high with a lot of readers. I'll definitely need to leave the story for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes so that I can weigh up all the comments more competently.

TheBigBadG on 02-04-2014
Room Service
With 'needs to be taken either further into the abstracted mode or brought back to a more natural telling' - So with the abstracted mode I meant turning it into more of a overt discussion of themes, more literary I suppose. Using Sophie's World as an example, you accept the world of the story isn't realistic but it's a great device for discussion the history of philosophical thought. So in this case you could take the dichotomies mentioned above, bring that discussion to the fore and spend less time convincing us how believable the situation is.

The more natural telling would involve the things discussed above, breaking up the dialogue, shifting details into the narrative etc - changes that are probably more familiar to all of us here.

Anyway, hope that makes a bit more sense. I probably slipped back into Precocious Student mode there for a second. As ever, it's your story so you tell me but hopefully there's some stuff there to react to when you come back to it.

Author's Reply:
Okay, thanks for the further clarification. I haven't read Sophie's World, but from what I've gathered it's a bit like Zen and the Art..., a kind of layperson's introduction to philosophy couched as a novel. Not the kind of thing that appeals to me very much. But there isn't really any philosophy in my story, all that's dealt with is the contrast between war, when soldiers are encouraged to regard the 'enemy' as non-human and do so with relish, and normal life in which we acknowledge one another as fellow beings and members of the same moral community and hence feel some kind of responsibility for the way we treat them. It's really very ordinary and down-to-earth stuff. So increased realism is definitely the direction in which I'll be going.


Swimming at Rogie (posted on: 28-02-14)
For the Prose Challenge in the forum. Prompt: A monologue. I wrote this at one sitting while I was on holiday. It was one of those stories that come to you complete and just need writing down. It may be a bit too long I don't know if I'll get time to shorten it.

It's good of you to ask, but I'm perfectly all right. I'm just sitting here looking at the sea. I'm not planning to top myself or anything like that. Yes, I took them off because I was thinking about having a wee swim in Rogie. Just thinking about it. It would be a daft thing to do, really. I haven't got swimming trunks or a towel or anything, and the sun's low in the sky. I'd have to go back to Molly's house in wet underpants. I'd probably catch my death of cold. Yes, I did mean Molly Regan. You know her, do you? Your aunt? Surely you're not Bilshie Travers' son? Oh, his grandson. And so Molly would be your great aunt. God, is it really as long ago as that? Yes, I suppose it is. When I was your age I thought time went on forever; that I could be or do anything I wanted. And then suddenly there was no time left and I hadn't done any of it. Sorry, I'm talking like an old fart now. Pay me no heed. Yes, of course I knew Bilshie. I was brought up in Bundoran. I left here when I was fifteen when my parents split up. We went to school together, me and Bilshie. We used to play together right here, swim in Rogie together. Of course that was before Well, it's all donkey's years ago. Wouldn't mean a thing to you. How did you know that's what I was thinking about? Really? I didn't know I was staring at it. You've got it though. I'm Cormack Malloy. That little statue and the plaque were put up in memory of my brother Neil. 'Maria Stella Maris', Mary Star of the Sea. A fat lot she did for wee Neil when he swam out past Rogie Point. A fat lot anybody did. A fat lot I did myself. I suppose they still tell the story, do they? Don't they? No, of course, silly of me, why should they? Loads of people have lost their lives at Rogie. I remember when I went to school here one or two young cadets from Finner Camp used to get drowned pretty well every year. Young peacocks showing off to the girls. Why should Neil be remembered more than any of them? Well, yes, that's true. There is the statue and the plaque. None of the young soldiers had that. That was my father's idea. And I may as well tell you the honest truth I hated him for it. Why? Because it was one of his ways of making me feel like shit. Of rubbing my nose in it, so that I could never forget about it for a second. As if I ever could. And it made him look good the saintly father putting up the statue to his poor drowned son. Drowned because his elder brother couldn't be trusted to keep an eye on him. Couldn't be relied on to do what he was told. Was too self-centred and woolly-headed to carry out the simplest instruction. Neither of them ever told me to my face that they held me responsible, that I was to blame, but it was as plain as day that they thought it. Instead of saying it to me they said it about me, tore strips off one other about him giving me too much responsibility, not treating me like the half-wit that I obviously was. Only a child, my mother said. A silly wee boy. How could you be daft enough to let him go out swimming with Neil on his own. Without going with him. Without watching him. They bad-mouthed one another for two years after it happened, with me as piggy-in-the-middle. Finally my mother couldn't stand it any more and left him and took me to England with her. That's why I have this strange accent, why I don't sound like a Bundoran person any more. I'm sorry. You must be very bored with my auld reminiscences. You really never heard how it happened? Okay, I'll explain it to you if you're sure you're interested. It was in the school holidays one Saturday. Me and Neil put on our swimming trunks like we always did if it was decent weather and came down here with the beach-ball. We weren't supposed to go to Rogie, just to the beach the 'strand' as we called it. Do they still call it that?... Rogie was for real swimmers, just like it is now, I suppose Yes, that little concrete wall has always been across the end of it, so the tide fills it up and even when the tide's out it stays deep in there. In fact there was a wee diving board back then you can still see the marks in the cement where it was bolted down --- but they took it away after the accident. They tried to stop people swimming in it at all for a while, but they couldn't of course. Folks have been swimming at Rogie since time began. They had a volunteer lifeguard for a while after that too. They couldn't afford a proper one. But all the fuss faded away after a few months. Bundoran's a seaside town, it lives on tourism, you can't keep harping on about danger and death and drowning. I'm surprised they allowed the statue, really. Of course I never swam in Rogie again myself, or anywhere else for that matter. I could hardly bear to look at the place after that, let alone swim in it. Anyway, where was I? Yes, the two of us came down to Rogie with the ball, and there was a crowd of boys already in the water, half a dozen or so of them, and a few girls across on the opposite side sitting around on the rocks watching. Your grandfather was probably one of them in the water, but after the shock of it all I could never really remember who was there and who wasn't. It was like trying to remember a nightmare. All that would come back to me was the feeling, the sickness in my stomach Not that it matters. Your great aunt was there all right. I had a crush on Molly Regan all the time I was at school. I suppose you could say we were boyfriend and girlfriend. At least we used to kiss when there was nobody around and hold hands sometimes even if there was. That's what having a girlfriend meant when you were thirteen and went to the Christian Brothers Secondary School. You were lucky to get as far as that really. That's how it was back then. I suppose it's all different now. Isn't it? Really? It's funny, it only seemed to be the boys that swam in Rogie. The girls just watched. Maybe they had too much common sense. Too strong a self preservation instinct. Because it was never safe, really. Never. Once you got out past the Point, just the other side of that concrete wall, you could feel the pull out to sea. Sometimes strong, sometimes not so strong, but if you didn't know about the currents you'd be in trouble very quickly. And at high tide you wouldn't even see the wall, you could be swept out before you knew it. Of course we all thought we knew about the currents. The truth is, no part of Bundoran Bay has ever been safe, it's all rocks out there, and currents that change from one minute to the next. It's never had a fishing fleet or a harbour, you can't get anything bigger than a rowboat safely in or out of it. But before Neil got drowned the old Bundoran folk thought they knew all about it. There were old men who used to swim right from one side of the bay to the other every day of their lives and never got into trouble. They couldn't do that now, could they? Yes, you're right, something did change. Just about the time Neil drowned. You see, it was the summer that the Erne Scheme came into operation. The hydroelectric dam at the Assaroe Falls, and the thing they called the Tail Race. It was the used water from the power station, coming out from Ballyshannon like the jet from a fire hose forty feet across, where there used to be the big wide gentle mouth of the River Erne. I remember well them building the power station, and the day they started it up. All the school kids were taken out to see the machinery when they were making it. There was this generator thing, easily as big as a two-storey house, and the bit that went around, the spindle bit in the middle, was so well engineered and so well balanced that a child could reach up and turn it with one hand. There were pictures in the paper of us doing it. Back then it was the most magical thing I'd ever seen in my life. I hadn't the foggiest idea how it worked or what it was for, I just thought it was beautiful. Like something out of a Dan Dare comic or one of the space opera serials they had at the Saturday matinee at the Adelphi. They told us electricity would be so cheap they would be giving it away free like water, it wouldn't even be metered. That was a bit of irony, wasn't it? But I swallowed it all. I wanted to be a scientist, or an engineer, or a rocket pilot, and I really believed that I could. They say science made great strides in the last fifty years, but we expected more. We thought we would have cars that flew instead of using roads, robots doing all the dirty work of the world, cities on the moon and under the sea, matter transmitters that could send you to Australia in the wink of an eye, time travel, aliens in space suits wandering around the streets, spaceships heading off for the stars, people living hundreds of years and wanting for nothing It never happened of course. None of it. Okay we've got computers and mobile phones that can do a few clever tricks, but none of that stuff. Cars still run on petrol, they still crash, computers aren't intelligent, you can't talk to them, the world's in a worse mess than it's ever been. But I believed in science, I really believed in it. Sorry, I'm losing the point. I was telling you about the Tail Race, wasn't I? I don't know exactly how it works but they said it was the principle of the hydraulic ram. You squeeze the river in to make it turn the turbines the same amount of water but in a much narrower channel, much faster. Something like that. You probably know what I'm talking about, don't you? Don't you? I thought you would, living here and everything. It's just a big jet of water, straight into the sea. You can even see it if you stand on the top of Rogie Point. It's a faint brownish colouration and it goes out from Ballyshannon like a big curved fan out into the Atlantic. Sometimes it almost touches the end of Rogie, other times it's a bit further out. It depends on what the sea's doing. The currents get all mixed up. We thought it wouldn't affect Bundoran because we're two miles down the coast from Ballyshannon, but we were wrong. We didn't understand how big a difference it would make. Not back then. Neil disappeared around the end of the Point in a couple of seconds, and nobody ever found a thing. Not him, not the beach ball, nothing. Nobody knows where he ended-up or how long it took him to drown. The coastguard looked for him all day and the following day too, everybody who had a little boat went out, even the army helicopter from Finner Camp. That's right, I was the one with him when it happened. I'd just turned thirteen and he was ten, but he was a far better swimmer than me, far more of a daredevil, far more stamina, far more confidence. And I suppose you could say those were the things that killed him. Somehow, the ball got kicked or thrown beyond the sea wall and Neil went after it. It was all over in seconds. Even when I knew what had happened I didn't take it seriously enough, he was such a good swimmer, I was sure he'd be okay, he'd be back, or maybe he'd found some little rock around the corner of the Point and he was sitting there for a joke, having a laugh at us. It was the kind of thing he would do. I lost precious minutes before I raised any alarm. And even when I began to realise that it wasn't a joke, that it was real, I didn't know what to do, who to tell. I ran all the way down to the strand to tell the beach-guard. There were adults nearer than that. Other people I could have told. I didn't think anybody had seen exactly what happened. Certainly I hadn't. All I knew was that there were a lot of boys around Neil's age playing with the beach-ball in Rogie. My mind was on other things... No, it wasn't Molly, Molly was there all right, but it wasn't her that distracted me. It wasn't her I was talking to, trying to impress, trying to get off with. It was another little girl, a girl by the name of Akila MacDonald. Isn't that a wonderful name? Her father was one of the engineers working on the Erne Scheme. There were hundreds of foreign workers in the town then, it was the most prosperous Bundoran has ever been, before or since. Her mother was a Nubian some kind of an Egyptian that he'd picked-up when he worked on the Aswam Dam. Akila was dark-skinned and exotic, and so lovely and to be honest with you, from the moment I first saw her I couldn't get her out of my mind. That's who I was with when Neil had his accident. It was the first time I'd actually managed to get talking to her. I'm not blaming her or anything, that would be ridiculous, but I think if she hadn't been there but then life is full of 'ifs' and 'buts', isn't it? If this, if that, if only Sorry, I didn't mean to dry up like that. I couldn't help it. Where was I? Oh yes, Akila MacDonald. Little Akila. I've told you a lot more than I intended to now I suppose I may as well tell you all of it. If you want me to, that is? Well, I said that I'd always assumed nobody knew exactly what had happened. How the ball got kicked out to sea. That was what I thought for all those years, decades, in fact. And what did it matter? The ball had ended-up out past the Point and Neil had gone after it. What did the details matter? But today yes, this very day I discovered that somebody did know what happened. And as you can probably understand it came as a bit of a shock. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to talk about this, it's maybe a betrayal of a confidence, but I'd like to tell somebody. In fact I think I actually need to tell somebody and damn it, right or wrong I'm going to anyway. You know about your aunt's illness, don't you? How serious it is? She wrote me a letter, to my digs in London. I don't know how she got the address after all these years. But it was great to hear from her again, even if the circumstances were sad. She said that she had very little time left, maybe weeks, maybe only days, and she wanted to see me one more time before the end. I was very flattered. I thought she wanted to talk about the old times back in Bundoran, the times we shared here, all the might-have-beens. So I bought my ticket and over I came I've been staying at her place the last couple of nights. And in a way it was the old times she wanted to talk about, but for one very specific reason. I don't know what it's like now, my childhood is probably like the Dark Ages as far as you're concerned, but Bilshie and your aunt and me we were good Catholic boys and girls, brought up by the priests and the nuns and the Christian Brothers, and the whole driving principle of our lives was guilt and fear and self-hatred. Everything was a sin, a mortal one or a venial one, and there'd be some kind of torture in the life to come for every little thing you did wrong, every thought word or deed that wasn't completely in line with the teachings of Mother Church. Maybe we didn't believe it so literally as we got older but it was always down there somewhere, just under the surface. It was the basic way that all of us saw the world. And what Molly wanted, needed from me, was simply forgiveness. She couldn't die in peace without it. You've probably guessed what it was she needed forgiveness for, haven't you? Yes, your Aunt Molly it was who had kicked the big beach-ball out to sea. Deliberately, knowing exactly what she was doing and what effect it would have more or less. It would cause a commotion and I would have to stop trying to chat-up Akila MacDonald and deal with it. That was why she did it. Nobody noticed that it was her and of course she never told a soul afterwards. Not even the priest in Confession. And she didn't want to carry that sin, or guilt or whatever it was, to her grave. And I forgave her instantly, and sincerely, and without a moment's hesitation. It was one of the easiest things I ever did in my whole life, and maybe one of the best. And then I went down to her sitting room and I looked at a picture of myself on the mantelpiece over her fireplace. Me, when I was about twelve or thirteen, in my school uniform one of those official school ones that they used to take every year. One that I never knew she had, that she'd kept for all those years. And I looked at that nave, pimply-faced scatter-brained immature little thirteen-year-old and I spoke to him. I said 'Cormack Malloy, you pathetic little wretch, I forgive you too. ' And I meant it. And it worked. Just as easy as forgiving Molly Regan. Even easier, because what she had done had been a deliberate, malicious act, born out of jealousy, even if she hadn't the least inkling of how much damage it was going to cause; but all that that little runt of a schoolboy had done was just to be silly and irresponsible and unthinking. My mother was perfectly right. I was too stupid and immature to cope with the responsibility I'd been given. That wasn't the same as doing something wrong. That was just the sin of being young. How could I not forgive myself for that? How could I let it dominate my whole life for decades, turn me into the sort of person I became? Because I think it did. I don't mean I dwelt on it all the time you can't, you have to get on with living and try to cope with whatever the days bring, but it was always there in the background, and it poisoned my life. Even that's wrong, because what I should say is that I allowed it to poison my life. I used it as an excuse to stop trying, stop reaching out for my dreams, such as they were, jog along and let life wash over me without taking any initiatives or accepting any responsibility, always expecting things to turn out for the worst and usually proving myself right. I'm not saying I would have done anything wonderful, I wasn't going to shake up the world of science or engineering, but I might have done something. Maybe by the age I am now I would have been able to stand in front of some big beautiful hydroelectric power station, or a bit of shiny stainless steel medical machinery, or a gas-powered car or something, and say: 'I helped to design that. I helped to build it. I helped to make the world just a tiny, tiny bit better than it was. That's what I did with my life.' But I can't say that. I haven't done anything with my life. All I've done is play the role of the poor little guilt-ridden wimp who screwed everything up a few weeks after his thirteenth birthday. And God forgive me, I didn't even know that I was doing it. And that's a tragedy. Waste of potential is the only real tragedy there is. If there was no potential there in the first place it wouldn't be a tragedy. But I flatter myself that in the case of my own wasted time on earth, there was. You've done well to listen to all this auld drivel. I don't know whether there's any lesson to be learned from it or not. Maybe the lesson is to forgive yourself first and everybody else after. Or just to pay attention when you're supposed to be looking after your wee brother. Anyway, the time's all gone for me now. Molly and I are the same age, she's only got a few weeks at best, I wonder how much longer I'll have? I'm not going to shake up the engineering world or anything else in whatever time's left for me, that's for sure. But I think I'll do just one thing, right here and now. Maybe you could keep an eye on my clothes while I'm doing it. I'm going to have a swim in Rogie.
Archived comments for Swimming at Rogie
Nomenklatura on 28-02-2014
Swimming at Rogie
I don't think this is too long at all. I'm going to look to see if there's anything I might cut if it were mine, but I doubt I'll find much.
Monologue is great fun to write, you can tell as much as you like, show things about the narrator that perhaps he doesn't know himself (I think you've done that here). I liked the story's circular shape very much indeed.
Some may find this a bit prolix, but I think it's a fine bit of writing.

You have a typo I believe; 'feint brownish colouration' should be 'faint'.

Regards
Ewan

Author's Reply:
Thanks Ewan, both for the kind remarks and for spotting the typo. I'll fix that right away.

bluepootle on 28-02-2014
Swimming at Rogie
I enjoyed this, and didn't find it too long.

I love this paragraph:

And I forgave her instantly, and sincerely, and without a moment's hesitation. It was one of the easiest things I ever did in my whole life, and maybe one of the best, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

But I'm not sure about the '...and I haven't stopped thinking about it since.' I think that's obvious and it would seem stronger to stop on '...one of the best.'

Great voice, good pacing, it held my attention, and I felt for the narrator. Great ending too.

Author's Reply:
Thanks Aliya. Glad you liked it. And I completely agree about that phrase. The sort of small adjustment you make when you come back to a story after a break. I'll get rid of it right away.

e-griff on 28-02-2014
Swimming at Rogie
Ah, the Gardiner guilt!

A complex and convincing tale in a familiar style. Very polished and convincing, with the dramatic turn at the end completing the slow build up.

Very nice. Just one thing - it sounds as if he fancies the nubian mother 😉

Author's Reply:
And who wouldn't (origin of the word 'nubile')?

Thanks John. You're a hard man to please so the story can't be too bad.

Rab on 28-02-2014
Swimming at Rogie
Very good, and I agree with Aliya, it's not too long at all. The only thing I have a little difficulty with is the fact that his audience obviously says something to him from time to time, but we don't know what it is. I know it's a monologue, but the listener could be totally silent all the way through and i think it would still work. Just a minor quibble on what's an excellent read.

Ross

Author's Reply:
Thanks, Rab.

Missing out the other speaker is just a format that appeals to me. I suppose you're right, it's a bit of a gimmick, but it makes you concentrate totally on the main person and brings you closer to him, almost inside his thoughts when it works properly. I think it's also a way of condensing the story, narrowing down its focus. But I can see that it might come across as slightly affected or artificial.

Thanks for the comment.

Rupe on 28-02-2014
Swimming at Rogie
This is excellent, very moving & I like the way you drag it slowly round from the starting-point of guilt to the frustration the narrator feels at having let this incident hold him back.

The setting reminded me of the scene towards the end of Ishiguro's 'Remains of the Day' when the butler character sits on a bench at a seaside resort & falls into conversation with a passer-by, as a result of which he realises that he's wasted his life.

I don't think it's too long in terms of content - the scope of the experiences and thoughts being handled by the narrator - but I felt some of the chattiness, which is quite appropriate at the beginning, could be dropped as the monologue progresses. In particular, I tripped over these, which don't get us any further:

'You've done well to listen to all this auld drivel. I don't know whether there's any lesson to be learned from it or not.'

Rupe

Author's Reply:
I'm very flattered to have something of mine compared to The Remains of the Day. I'm pleased that you found it moving.

I went through it (rather briefly, I admit) looking for things that could be pruned to bring the length down. It was over 4,000 words originally, and isn't that much less now, but I think you need to leave at least some of those little asides in so that we pick up something about the boy he's talking to. I also wanted to show that the old man is grateful to have such a young listener. It's supposed to suggest that he is in some sense talking to his younger self, and it also let's him pitch his story and the degree of detail at about the right level for the reader. I have thought about cutting most or all of them, but on balance I think they need to be there.

Many thanks for your thoughtful comment.

TheBigBadG on 03-03-2014
Swimming at Rogie
So I get that you might have concerns about this being too long as is but ultimately it's a character piece so all the digressions are really the substance of it. Also, people reminiscing do ramble when telling stories, they do (forgive me my bluntness, I grew up in a village...) turn a simple tale into their history of the town. Very true to life in that respect.

I think I'd side with Rab in that the things that I would cut/edit would be around pacing and telegraphing the form. So the bit at the start, 'Your aunt? Surely you’re not Bilshie Travers’ son? … Oh, his grandson.' for example, would be one I'd look to tweak to make more natural. Very specific observation, I realise.

The other bit I'd look at is: 'And that's a tragedy. Waste of potential is the only real tragedy there is. If there was no potential there in the first place it wouldn't be a tragedy. But I flatter myself that in the case of my own wasted time on earth, there was.' The thing is that all the grief has faded with time, absolutely, but even given that it was still a tragedy. For me this isn't fair to the nostalgic tone of the piece.

Forgive the specific quibbling though, I'm too late to the party so all the broader points have been 'ad.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for those very thoughtful comments. As I said, this was written at one sitting, and I was simply hearing the old man talking in my head. I imagined that when he said the piece about the boy being Bilshie's son rather than grandson he was simply unaware for a moment how much time had passed since his life in Bundoran. He's shocked to remember that it's two generations ago, not one. It seemed natural to me when I wrote it.

The bit about it's being a tragedy is more of a set piece, I agree. A little speech of self-pity, and of course a minor sermon addressed to the boy: life is much shorter than you imagine, don't waste it. Again it was the way I heard it in my head, I think old men do try to preach to teenagers. He does it even more self-consciously at the end.

I'm not saying any of your points are wrong, but I think before I make any changes I'll leave it for a while and come back to it fresh. That's usually the best thing to do with the more subjective things you're talking about. Thanks for giving me food for thought.

David.

Mikeverdi on 04-03-2014
Swimming at Rogie
I feel like a gate crasher never mind being late. I really enjoyed this beautiful story, I assume all the glitches others have spoken about are fixed, as for me it flowed well.(if you will pardon the pun) I love stories of the sea, and this is a good one. I agree with you're comment about writing the thoughts of the old man as you heard them, its hard to change what for you was the reality. I have often found that when I alter as suggested, and then read it back...its not mine anymore; I don't always mind my mistakes 🙂
Mike

Author's Reply:
Thanks for that Mike. I know what you mean about losing 'ownership' when you take up other people's suggestions. Very well expressed. I've often felt that.

In the end it's a matter of judgement. Unless it feels completely right probably best not to do it. There aren't really any right or wrong answers.


Visitation (posted on: 26-07-13)
My response to my own challenge in the Prose Challenge forum: a story about someone who has doubts about his or her sanity. It was a bit rushed, so don't expect too much.

I parked the Kawasaki in the solo motorcycle section outside the Radiology Department. It's not a noisy bike, but loud enough to let Tom know I had arrived. He buzzed me through before I got to the door and greeted me with a smile. ''So you've come to see us again, Larry. Now why doesn't that surprise me?'' I returned the smile and shrugged, trying to look more at ease than I felt. ''I need the money. I'm not proud. Costs a bit to keep a decent bike on the road. Weren't you ever a struggling student?'' ''Still am.'' ''No, this isn't struggling.'' I made a vague gesture towards the gleaming control console. ''Big corporation sponsorship, conferences in Paris and Washington, research fellowships'' ''I wish. Got to finish my thesis first. I'm just a year-and-a-half ahead of you, Larry. No more than that. Don't exaggerate.'' ''Nice toy you've got to play with though.'' ''I've got it every Sunday for the next five weeks. The consultants don't come in at the weekends, Sylvia gets double time, I get to play with the scanner. Know how much that thing cost when they bought it?'' ''A million?'' ''One-point-two to be exact. Superb piece of engineering.'' He put a white plastic cup under the spout of the battered drinks machine. ''Coffee?'' ''Why not? You know the way I like it.'' I waited for the cup to fill and took a sip. As it was only lukewarm I drank it straight down. ''So what are you investigating this time?'' ''You didn't read the whole of the advert, did you? I'm investigating people's strategies for coping with threat or anxiety. The fight or flight reaction. Sudden stimuli as opposed to chronic insecurity. Have you got any fears or anxieties?'' I wondered if he noticed me flinching when he said this. Yes, I had fears and anxieties, but not ones that I wanted to talk to Tom about. ''Loads. And for 45 I can even make up a few more.'' ''I'll know if you're making them up. You're a good subject though, and we've already done the initial assessment, so we don't need to waste any time. Are you wearing anything made of metal, or have you any metal objects on your person?'' ''I've been in that scanner at least half a dozen times, Tom. I think I know the routine.'' ''I still have to ask, and make sure Sheila hears me when I do. If something went wrong and I hadn't asked, you'd be able to sue the Department and maybe pick up enough to cover all your fees to the end of your course.'' ''Come on, Tom. We're buddies. I'm not trying to catch you out. What kind of person do you think I am?'' ''I'll try not to answer that. ''Sheila'' She looked up from the workstation where she was sitting. Her soft brown eyes and long dark crimped locks had fascinated me since the first time I saw her. I noticed that, as usual, she was dressed more for the beach than the MRI facility. This time it was a short green skirt and matching top that revealed a few inches of midriff. She returned my smile. ''Could you get Larry prepped for a brain scan? Make sure he can see the screen when he's inside the machine.''
ooOoo
The scanner had its own room next to Tom's. If it allowed him to read my mind he might have been intrigued by the thoughts I was having about his technician. But I knew that the technology hadn't come anywhere close to that. Nevertheless I was far from easy about what it might show up this time. I listened to his 'professional' voice in the plastic ear-tubes and stared into the overhead mirror at the words on the remote monitor. The cooling system for the huge field coils produced a low penetrating hum, which was quite soothing. I was lying on my back, warm and very comfortable. I normally found MRI brain scans restful an easy way to pick up the price of about sixteen beers in the Students' Union bar, or a tank and a half of best high-octane but today the invisible electromagnetic fingers probing around inside my brain unnerved me. I knew that Tom would be concentrating on my amygdala, the little almond-shaped clump of cells deep in the temporal lobe, well-connected to the thalamus and the pre-frontal cortex, where all the fears, anxieties and phobias of humankind have their residence. Every human being's private built-in hell. ''I want to make some very general observations first.'' I could tell from the flat tone of his voice that he was reading from a script so that each subject would receive exactly the same prompts. ''I would like you to imagine yourself in a situation in which you feel some kind of physical threat or danger, either rational or irrational. If you have a fear of heights, for example, you might like to imagine that you're standing at the edge of a very high cliff and looking down into a rocky valley. If you have a fear of snakes or spiders, you might imagine that one of those is very close by. Do you understand?'' ''No problem. I understand.'' I closed my eyes so that the lettering on the monitor wouldn't be a distraction. Dutifully, I imagined myself by the edge of the sheer 200 metre cliff overlooking Wentworth Falls in Australia's Blue Mountains. I had stood at the observation point one day during my gap year when I was 19. It was the scariest place I had ever been or could imagine. I felt a twinge of discomfort as I called up the scene. ''That's good. Well done. Now I would like you to think of something embarrassing rather than physically dangerous. A situation in which you felt you made a fool of yourself or let yourself down in some way. I won't make suggestions, this one will be different for each individual. Try to think of an actual occasion that you found acutely uncomfortable.'' This one was easy. I was spoiled for choice. I remembered my seventeenth birthday party. My parents had reluctantly agreed to let us use the house while they were visiting a sick relation. The girl that I'd had a crush on since my first day in Secondary School was in my arms on the sofa. We'd both had quite a lot to drink, and we weren't used to it, to put it mildly. I can even remember what song was playing. We had kissed, passionately, several times. Hands had wandered. She spoke in my ear louder than a whisper or I wouldn't have heard her above the music. ''Why don't we go upstairs and I'll give you your birthday present?'' ''Well done, Larry! That was a very powerful response. You'll have to tell me what it was you were thinking about some time. Just one more of these verbal prompts and then we'll go over to visual stimuli from the screen. This time I want you to let your mind wander freely. What you're looking for is any kind of negative association. Something you're worried about or uneasy about at the moment. It doesn't matter what it is. Just anything that's bothering you.'' This was exactly the instruction that I had been dreading. I resisted it. I tried to think of anything except the figure in the shadows. I opened my eyes so that the lettering on the screen might distract me. I tried counting down in sevens from one hundred. It was no good. The man was there. I couldn't get away from him. He knew it and so did I. ''Are you okay, Larry?'' I found my voice. ''Yes. Of course. Why wouldn't I be okay?'' ''Whatever that was, it put your alarm response off the scale. I've never seen anything like it. Everything lit up. Absolutely everything. I think maybe you need to take a break. Relax for a few minutes. Would you like to come out of the scanner?'' ''I'm fine. I'm okay.'' I closed my eyes. There was sweat on the bridge of my nose, but pinned inside the machine I couldn't get to it. ''I'm sorry Larry, but I don't think you are okay. I'm going to end this session. Don't worry, you'll still get your 45.'' ''What do you mean, you don't think I'm okay?'' ''I don't know what it is. Abnormal psychology isn't my field. But what I saw on the monitor was outside the normal range. You need to talk to somebody who knows about that kind of thing. I'm serious. It's something that shouldn't be ignored.'' Sheila came and eased my upper body gently back out of the machine. She loosened the clamp that held my head in place and I sat up. ''You look like shit, Larry.'' ''Thanks.'' ''Tom's right. You freaked out in there. You need to see somebody.'' ''Do I?'' I tried to look unruffled as she helped me to my feet. ''Why don't I see you?'' She smiled. ''You can if you like. I've just got to write up a few notes and my shift's over. We could have a drink in the Union.'' ''Great. I'll give you a lift on the back of the bike.'' ''Is that safe?'' ''It's fun. You'll love it.''
ooOoo
Sheila reached across the messy table and took my hand. It felt good and I began to relax. ''You're still as white as a sheet, you know. What's it all about?'' I toyed with her long graceful fingers, admired the black and gold artwork on her nails. ''That's beautiful. It must have cost you a fortune.'' ''Thanks. But stop avoiding the question. Something freaked you out back there. What was it?'' I glanced around the room. There were a few other students, but they were too far away to hear. I looked into her eyes and spoke very quietly. ''I've been imagining things. Seeing things that aren't there. It's never happened to me before. It's a bit scary.'' She waited for me to go on. ''It started a few weeks ago. I was in my room in the Halls, and I put the light out ready to go to bed.'' ''Alone?'' ''Of course alone. As I went to pull the curtains I looked down and there was a man in the shadows, almost hidden in the hedge, looking straight up at me. Across the driveway, a couple of hundred metres from my window. It gave me a real start.'' ''That's called a perv. I've had one of those.'' ''No, it wasn't anything like that. You see, as I watched, he sort of melted into the hedge. It only lasted a few seconds. Then, he wasn't there. I don't mean he went away, I mean he disappeared like the Cheshire cat. Didn't even leave a grin.'' ''But that kind of thing happens all the time. Sometimes you come into a darkened room and there's a coat on a hook, and for a split second you see it as a person. Then it turns into a coat again. It's just the brain coming to a wrong conclusion based on incomplete information'' ''I'm studying psychology, remember? I know all about that kind of thing. This was different. It wasn't any kind of mistake or misinterpretation. It was a man who melted. And it's happened again. Maybe a dozen times, or even more. My mind is creating a man who isn't there. That's a mental health symptom. I'm hallucinating. It's a symptom of paranoid schizophrenia. And I'm scared.'' ''Typical psychologist. Give it a name and you think you've explained it. I don't think you're mentally ill. And I don't believe you do either. Tell me more about it. All the details. Is it always at night? Always in the same place? Always the same man?'' ''You sound like Tom now. I'm an experimental subject again. A case study. I don't blame you though. You're right. I'm a basket case. I never dreamt it could happen to me, but it has.'' ''My degree is in physics. I deal with things that have real physical causes, and follow rules that make sense. I don't believe in ghosts.'' ''I didn't think physics was like that any more. I thought it had gone all mystical. Particles in two places at once, multiple universes, things popping in and out of existence, dark matter, string theory, entanglement, black holes'' ''It just looks mystical because we don't know everything yet. Most of those are provisional theories when we find more answers it'll all fall into place and make sense. Let's look for rational explanations for your disappearing man before we jump to any psychobabble conclusions. What are the constant factors?'' ''You're enjoying this, aren't you? Okay, constant factors. I think it's always the same man. Apart from that, there's only one constant factor. It's always dark, or almost dark. Oh, and he's always quite far away, of course. Too far for me to see his face clearly. But even so, there's something familiar about him. I feel I ought to know him from somewhere. I don't think he's a complete stranger.'' Sheila thought for a moment. She transferred her hand from mine to her gin-and-tonic and took a sip. ''Are you alone when you see him, or does he come even when there's somebody with you?'' ''A couple of times I've been with other people. But I haven't said anything to them. I don't want well, obviously I don't want people to know that I'm a nutter.'' ''But you've told me.'' I could think of no answer. She paused. ''He isn't here now, is he?'' ''Of curse not.'' ''Listen Larry, I would like to spend a bit of time with you. Maybe even spend the night. And I would like you to tell me if he comes.'' I was genuinely surprised and delighted. I wanted to say something, something clever maybe, or something funny, then I thought better of it. Make no assumptions, I told myself. Be cool, don't be a smart-arse. Don't do anything to make the girl feel uncomfortable. Just thank the god you don't believe in for this miraculous gift. ''That would be great,'' I said as nonchalantly as I could. ''You'd be very welcome.''
ooOoo
It was after midnight and I felt terrific, if a bit worn out. This time I couldn't resist being a smart-arse. ''Well, Sheila, he hasn't come, but I have.'' ''Yeah, I noticed.'' She rested her head on my shoulder and I kissed her forehead. ''Maybe that was all you needed. Something to take your mind off it.'' Should I say anything more? I wasn't sure. ''Look, Sheila,'' I heard myself say, wisely or not, ''I just want to tell you that tonight has been absolutely wonderful. I had no idea you had any kind of feelings for me'' ''Don't.'' She put a finger across my lips. She was right. This thing was too new, too delicate to start analysing. We both felt good. That was absolutely all that mattered. At this point, I think I must have had some kind of premonition. Nothing clear or precise, just an urge to turn off the bedside lamp and go to the window. I excused myself and sat up. Sheila seemed to understand. She pulled the sheet around herself and followed me to the window. We stood side by side, looking down at the dimly-lit driveway. ''My god,'' I whispered. It was all I needed to say. When Sheila spoke it was a whisper too, although I don't know why we were doing that, because the figure was much too far away to hear assuming it was human. ''I see it too, Larry. You're not mad. It's really there.'' We both stared down, transfixed. ''But I don't think it's a man. I think it's a woman.'' ''A woman?'' I stared even harder. ''How could that be a woman?'' The man turned slightly so that he was almost sideways on. He seemed to be talking to someone. ''She's turned around now,'' said Sheila, ''she looks as if she's talking to someone.'' ''Which shoulder is facing the window? Her left or her right?'' ''Her right. Why?'' ''That's what I thought. There are two of them, Sheila. They're talking to each other. But you can only see the woman, and I can only see the man.'' ''But that's impossible.'' ''The whole thing is impossible.'' As I watched, the man seemed to get into an ever deeper conversation with his unseen companion. He began to gesticulate, trying to make his point clear. Then he turned around again and looked straight up at our window. The knowledge that he could see me sent a shudder through my whole body. ''Larry. She's staring again.'' ''I know. I think I'm beginning to see who they are now, aren't you?'' ''Of course not. What are you talking about?'' ''I think they're us, Sheila. Or some part of us.'' As soon as I had said it out loud, admitted it to myself, a weight that I hadn't been consciously aware of seemed to lift from my spirit. I didn't have to hold the panic at bay any more. For the first time in weeks I was completely okay. ''What do we actually mean when we say something is real? Think mysteries. Different worlds. Quantum weirdness. Maybe they're us as we might have been. Or as we will be if we make some choice that we haven't made yet. Maybe we're looking at some kind of alternative reality. Some kind of possible version of ourselves.'' ''Now I think maybe you are mad.'' ''Maybe. But what if they're trying to communicate? Trying to tell us something?'' ''Trying to tell us what? God, I wish she would stop staring.'' I put an arm around Sheila's waist in an attempt to comfort her. I thought hard. ''Something very simple, maybe.'' Then it came to me. I was almost certain I knew what it was. ''I've just arrived at a decision," I said. "I'm not taking you in to work on the bike tomorrow. We're taking the bus.'' I had to stop myself from saying 'bingo' out loud. My hallucinatory companion was gone and I knew that Sheila's was too. She turned and fixed me with her big soulful, bewildered eyes. ''Message received and understood,'' I said to her. She didn't reply. And since that night neither of us has had any more visitors from worlds other than the one we live in together.
Archived comments for Visitation
bluepootle on 26-07-2013
Visitation
Ooh, I like the circles in this one, the visitation triggering the relationship which triggers the visitation...

I'm not sure you need so much build-up at first. I thought the story was going to be about Tom more than anything, so I'd be tempted to say lead with Sheila a bit more. I don't know - it feels like maybe you're favouring dialogue over action a bit too heavily, although I can see you're keeping back the revelation of the visitation. My temptation would have been to start with the visitation, but I like it this way too.

Author's Reply:

Yes, I think the scene in the MRI department is probably a bit under-developed. I wanted to use it to sew the seeds of how the human brain works in mysterious ways and might be an example of a quantum computer, capable of activity at the quantum level and quantum weirdness. I could also have done more with the character of Sheila in the opening scenes. I'm not sure about starting with the visitation – I thought it would be a useful device with which to tease the reader. In fact I wonder about removing the one reference to the man in the shadows in that first scene. Dialogue over action? Fair comment, but apart from getting pulled out of the MRI scanner and seeing the apparitions, nothing much does in fact happen. Maybe a 'near miss' on the bike when they're coming back to the Halls of Residence from the Union bar? That would feed into the plot quite well.

I think in the normal course of events I would have put this one away for a few weeks and come back to it. It does strike me as very much a first draft. But I think it has possibilities.

SirClip on 26-07-2013
Visitation
For something that you say was written in a rush, I found it an easy, believable read.

I have to agree with blue, the first part does not add a huge amount to the story. Having said that, I think the scene in the lab could, with a few tweaks stand alone as a story in itself. There is nothing wrong with it at all and I think the story of a student going to earn some beer money and comming out to his mate saying all the alarms are flashing could make a tasty little vignette.

The second part is good too. I liked the chat in the bar and although I think you could have expanded a little on the concept of the figures being an alternative version of ourselves, I got the idea.

Very good.

Author's Reply:
Glad you liked it, SC. I agree with practically all of your comments. I've answered most of them above, talking to Aliya. I think it would benefit from a few small changes and extensions. It will go in the 'stories to look at again' folder.

I don't really think there would be enough in the first part by itself to make much of a story. I think it needs to go somewhere from there.

The biggest danger I can see in any re-working of this one would be that it might become too long. It's already over 3,000 words. Maybe compressing it down is what I should be thinking about.

Thanks for your comments.

e-griff on 26-07-2013
Visitation
I thought the overall concept was good, if not completely original (what is?) however I question the value of the third section, which I found rather boring and my attention wandered. The rest held me as it bounced along. I know you like theoretical explanations and philosophising, but I don't think that it suits this kind of story. On the face of it, there is nothing in the third section that is in any way key to the story or important to explain what happens. It's explained anyway. I'd delete that section entirely.

just caught up with other comments . no, don't expand the MRI section with thoughtful theoretical ideas. as I say, this is not a story for that. It's pure entertainment, not a teaching session.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for those comments. I think we'll just have to disagree about 'theoretical' content. If you take that out entirely you're left with a pretty conventional ghost story, it would no longer be science fiction. I wanted to suggest the idea that the scientific view of the universe is getting closer to one that would allow for these kinds of possibilities. I want to keep it within the sci fi category. Any addition would probably amount to a single sentence – just give a little more food for speculation.

JackCrowe on 27-07-2013
Visitation
Yes, I found it an easy and enjoyable read too. It does has a first draft feel about it though, and I agree that compressing it a little would bring it into focus. The fear of insanity is all too common and it was good to see it explored along with neuroscience and a good old boy-meets-girl storyline.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much for that Jack. That's exactly what I was trying to do, and I agree with everything you say.

Rupe on 30-07-2013
Visitation
I don't have anything very intelligent to add to what has already been said. I enjoyed the story: there's a lot of good, well-written dialogue in it, a compact story arc, and some interesting ideas. For a first draft, it's remarkably fluent and assured.

There is perhaps a bit of throat-clearing in the first section which you could work on. And one or two pedestrian bits of description - 'soulful eyes' stood out as an offender.

But very good overall.

Rupe



Author's Reply:
Thanks for that. All good relevant points there.

TheBigBadG on 05-08-2013
Visitation
Given it's a draft I won't get too much into the specifics here and try and keep it more general. I think the overall idea is sound, but the implementation could do with some refinement. For instance, I'm with Griff when it comes to the third section and the heavy exposition/philosophising. If you want to keep the magicalism of wave-particle duality, uncertainty etc then I'd perhaps look at weaving that into a less overt narrative.

To carry that observation further, there are some points where the exposition is a bit heavy-handed. Specifically, I'm thinking things like, 'I’m just a year-and-a-half ahead of you, Larry', 'I’m studying psychology, remember?' and the like. It doesn't feel natural to me and you can keep the information there either in the narration or by tweaking the dialogue.

With the ending, the problem I have is that it feels like there's no way Larry could guess what the message is. Again, relatively easily solved by introducing some kind of foreshadowing (you suggest a near-miss above - I'd personally tend towards there being some sense of pseudo-communication between Larry and the shade (but I do tend to prefer weirdness!)). In fact, if I'm being honest the most pertinent thing to say was said right at the start by Blue - it's all in the causality. In fact, that's where the fear should come from - are the visions there to help, to curse, are they aware of Larry and Sheila? What if it works both ways too, and this is some thin barrier between worlds? And now I'm philosophising...

Anyway, hopefully that doesn't come across as too critical. It's just because it's being discussed as a draft, so it seems like a good time to raise points. I like the idea and with a revisit I think it could really come through.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for your very detailed comments.

Yes, it comes across to me also as a bit rushed (which it was) and a bit underdeveloped as to possible plot imjprovements. I'm a little bit out of my comfort zone here, which of course is where the prose workshop is supposed to take us. I think I agree with you that a lot more could be done regarding the communication between the two worlds. I always hesitate to suggest making a story longer, but I think it might actually help with this one.

Much to think about. Many thanks.


The Surgeon's Tale (posted on: 22-04-13)
My response to Sirclip's challenge in the Prose Workshop thread in the forums.

The incident that started all this was completely ludicrous. It couldn't have lasted more than fifteen seconds, twenty at the most, but I'd better describe it carefully so much hinges on it. It was one of those really glorious early summer days. The first time we had felt like sitting outside at lunchtime. Rita and I never used the canteen, we always brought our own sandwiches and sat somewhere quiet and had our lunch together if we possibly could. It was our normal routine, the only time we could meet in the working day, because of course she was in the Special Care Baby Unit and I was a junior registrar on one of the surgical wards, so we were in completely different buildings. In some ways that made it easier to avoid gossip I'm sure you know what it's like on the wards. Anyway, that particular day early May we were sitting together on the grass in the park beyond the main gates, just eating and chatting, loads of people all around us sitting in couples like us, or in little groups, or lying back and enjoying the bit of sun. We heard some kind of angry shout from a young blonde woman about a hundred yards in front of us, near the fountain. She had an outdoor coat over her nurse's uniform and she was with a man. They had been sitting down, but as she shouted she stood up and tried to move away from him. He grabbed her forearm and shouted something back at her and she pulled her arm free. Then she said something else to him and stormed off towards the hospital gates, which of course meant towards us. I hadn't been able to make out anything that either of them said, all I was able to catch was the intonation, the venom of the little exchange. I'm sure I wouldn't have given the incident another thought, they were both young and it looked like a minor lovers' tiff, but as she came close I realised that she was crying, and Rita surprised me by speaking to her. 'Meg! What did he do to you? What's wrong, pet?' She shook her head to indicate that she didn't want to talk about it and hurried past us. I looked over at Rita. 'You know her?' 'Of course I know her. It's Meg. She's part of the Neonatal Unit. I've told you about her.' Rita started to gather the wrappers back into her empty sandwich box and stood up. 'I have to talk to her. Make sure she's all right.' I stood up too, out of a deeply-conditioned compulsion to act the role of the gentleman, but doing so ensured that she was gone before I had time to collect my own litter and match her pace. Feeling a bit foolish I tried to remember what she had told me about Meg. Then I put it all out of my mind and made my way back to the scrubbing-up room. I had a very busy afternoon ahead of me. And that was it. Absolutely all there was to it, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, as they say in court. A brief exchange of harsh words, an upset girl. An everyday storm in a perfectly standard teacup. Or so it seemed. Having Rita living in the same flat with me was a novelty and I loved it. Her shifts usually ended a couple of hours later than mine and I used to get quite excited waiting for her to get home. I tried to be romantic. I used to buy her flowers, or wine, or little trinkets that I thought she would like, or cook an evening meal for her. She made jokes about my surgical dissection of a chicken, or how I would use a stopwatch to time my boiled eggs to the exact second. It's always been in my nature, I was always a precise sort of person. It was probably fortunate for my patients that I was. We certainly weren't similar, but we complemented one another. In medicine as in life, I liked to know exactly what I was doing, why I was doing it and what outcome it was likely to produce. She preferred to live in a world of emotions, empathy, nurturing the kind of loving care that tiny premature babies need to get them through those vital first few days and weeks. We each admired the other for the qualities that we lacked ourselves. That evening, the day we had seen the incident in the park, Rita came home looking flushed and agitated. She paid no attention to the salad meal I had laid out for the two of us on the table, with the tall candle in its holder in the exact centre and the bottle of South African Merlot that I had opened to 'breathe' thirty minutes prior to her arrival. Instead she flopped down into the settee and started to talk. Meg was still very much on her mind. 'She's putting in a formal complaint this time. You're going to help us, aren't you?' 'A formal complaint? I think you'll have to explain.' 'Sexual harassment. You saw it. You know what I'm talking about.' I think I must have stared blankly. 'In the park. The assault we witnessed.' I understood then, even dimly saw what was coming, and felt very uncomfortable. 'Rita, we didn't witness any assault.' There was momentary silence. 'Are you mad? What do you call that then?' Something sinister had entered her voice. 'They shouted at one another. Your friend Meg walked away. I don't know what they said to one another but nobody got assaulted.' Her expression became calm, as though she were speaking to a child. 'Larry, this thing has a history. I told you about it weeks ago but I don't think you remember. He's her boss and he hasn't left her alone since she arrived in the Unit. Every second that she's on her own, there he is, tormenting her. But he's clever. He doesn't do it when anybody's watching. This is the first time she's had witnesses. And the first time he's actually molested her.' 'Molested her? When we were watching? You mean when he grabbed her arm?' 'She was bruised. He left an actual bruise on her left arm. She showed it to us. He could hardly tear her clothes off in a public park, now, could he? Why are you being so unfeeling? So cold. Would you be the same if it was me he'd groped?' At that point I decided I needed a glass of the Merlot. Rita wouldn't have one. 'You've lost me, sweetheart. Honestly. They had some sort of argument and he grabbed her arm for a fraction of a second when she tried to leave. He didn't grope her. It wasn't an assault, sexual or otherwise. As far as I could see she gave as good as she got.' Rita switched on the silent treatment. 'I'm sorry, but I think you're over-reacting. What we saw wasn't an assault.' Silence. 'What has he been doing to her then? When he gets her alone? You said that was the first time he molested her. So what is it that he's been doing to her?' Her chin trembled. 'Giving her unwanted attention. Hassling her. Embarrassing her.' 'But only verbally. And you only have her word for it. Is that right?' 'What do you mean, I only have her word? Do you think she's lying? Do you think she's making it up? She's exaggerating because she's a silly woman, is that it?' I thought I would try the path of least resistance. 'Okay. Sorry. You're right. If she wants me to come forward I'm willing to describe what I saw. But not what I didn't see. Is that all right?' 'I never thought you were like that.' Her voice had become quiet and menacing. ''All men together, aren't you? Sticking up for one another. It's the kind of thing you laugh about in the pub, isn't it? God, I'm disappointed' 'And what do you think you're doing? Because she's a woman she must be telling the truth. How is that any different?' I could see that I was straying into much deeper water than I had intended. I paused and thought very carefully about what I would say next. 'Look, sweetheart, relationships between the sexes are a minefield. Men almost always get it wrong. I understand that. And there are rules. There's a game to be played. And it's all full of hurt and embarrassment. It isn't easy for either men or women to accept when they're not wanted.' 'Bullshit.' 'No, hear me out, please. The first couple of times I asked you out, you refused, didn't you? And I very nearly gave up. It takes a hell of a lot of courage to tell a beautiful woman that you want her that you find her attractive. And it almost always gets you a rejection. Sometimes a civilized rejection, sometimes a nasty one. I don't think you understand that. I doubt if anybody has ever rejected you in your whole life. Your side holds all the cards, but it's never acknowledged. Darwin understood it. Sexual selection is exercised by the woman, not the man. Men ask all the time and women say no all the time. How many times did I have to ask you before you said yes? Before you would have anything to do with me? Was I hassling you? Was that some kind of assault? Should I have given up and gone away?' She looked at me more coldly than she ever had before. 'Maybe you should.' The conversation rolled on. I don't think I need to tell you all the details. We managed to keep things civilised, but only just. That night I slept on the settee. In the morning we barely spoke. We'd never had a row before so I didn't know what I was supposed to do, how I was supposed to make up. I think what was required of me was to agree to tell the disciplinary committee whatever she wanted me to. Swear that black was white. I wasn't willing to do that. It was stalemate. Then, in the middle of the morning, when I'd just finished assisting at a simple operation and had a bit of free time, I suddenly thought of something that I'd overlooked before. Only a small detail but a very important one. I couldn't wait. I needed to tell Rita straight away, to show her that she had been taken in, that Meg was just as capable of lying as anybody else. I pulled on a lab coat to cover my surgical greens and hurried over to the maternity block. If only I had been a bit more patient, but I needed to make my point straight away, and I did. I had never approached Rita in her work base before. I found her in the little day room with three others, where the ward sister was just completing a briefing. Neither Meg nor her alleged tormenter were present. I excused myself and said that I needed to talk to her for a moment, being careful to refer to her as 'the staff nurse'. I took her to one side and spoke as quietly as possible so that the others wouldn't hear: 'Rita, you told me last night that Meg showed you a bruise on her left forearm. Correct?' She nodded, looking very uncomfortable. 'Okay, think about what we saw. Meg was sitting to his left. When she stood up, which arm was it that he grabbed?' I could tell from her change of expression that she understood. But I was certain that she wasn't going to acknowledge it. She turned to go, and that was when I did something very foolish. I put my hand on her shoulder to stop her going, but somehow the gesture caught her off balance and there was an almighty crash as she went tumbling down, taking the laden trolley by her side with her. Three faces turned and three pairs of eyes fixed themselves on me like wolves in a forest clearing who had cornered their prey. A career in surgery is pretty well out of the question for someone with a conviction for common assault. A waste of training and talent, but that's the way things are. I don't mind working in medical research though. I chose neuropsychology. My field of interest is the structural dimorphism between the brains of men and women and its implications for gender differences in emotional responses and other behaviour.
Archived comments for The Surgeon's Tale
Rupe on 22-04-2013
The Surgeons Tale
This is very intriguing. The set-up is very believable, and sketched out with skill and economy - and then you stride unhesitatingly into the deep waters of gender politics. The middle section, in particular, is an uncomfortable read, but on balance in a good way.

There are one or two odd or redundant phrases:

'so help me God, as they say in court' (do they?)
'I’m sure you know what it’s like on the wards.'
'An everyday storm in a perfectly standard teacup.'

These, and a few other phrases, seem to have been put in to establish the narrator's voice, because they don't add anything to the reader's grasp of the story, but I'm not sure they give any real colour to the voice - others may feel differently of course - and I prefer the economic style of the rest of the narration.

Overall, I felt that there was more mileage to be got out of this idea. The ending seems rather a let-down. Naturally your first aim here was to produce a short story for the challenge, so I can see that would have been a limiting factor, but it might be worth revisiting - the story has a ready-made longer arc (the investigation of the complaint) and the issues it involves are worth investigating further.

Rupe

Author's Reply:
Thanks for your very thoughtful (and amazingly quick!) comments on The Surgeon's Tale. To answer the points you have made forces me a bit deeper into author intent than I would ideally want to go before other people have had their say, but I'll take the plunge. The title is intended to suggest a tongue-in-cheek link to The Canterbury Tales. This is Larry telling his own sad story, perhaps in the pub across the road from the research institute, and it's a highly one-sided and aggrieved account that we are getting. We hear nothing from Rita's side, and we might well suspect that (to use another cliche) there's more to this than meets the eye. Sexual politics, as you have identified, is the real subject of the story, and I have tried to present the less usual side, even the sow the seed of the notion that male/female power relationships may not always be quite as they seem, and that in fact both 'sides' can play dirty on occasion.

I don't think I would want to lose the phrases you see as odd or redundant. Taking them one by one, I believe that they do indeed say 'so help me God' in court, it's part of the oath taken by witnesses, and I want to suggest that the narrator has recent court experience, flagging what is to come. The reference to 'the wards' is there to suggest who the audience to the story might be, colleagues, friends, people in a similar situation. The 'storm in a teacup' is just what I thought would be a natural mode of expression for somebody telling this story (though I modified it ever so slightly to lighten the impact on fellow writers). I don't think narrators should use cliches, but if ordinary speakers don't use them it no longer sounds like natural speech or dialogue.

The ending is just a joke, a throw-away line – Larry, true to his rational and analytic mind, is still trying to understand women, this time by dissecting their brains.

Your final point, about a longer arc, taking in the investigation of the complaint, would surely offend against the sense of economy that you picked up, and make it more difficult to maintain the obvious bias and partiality of the speaker. I don't mean to dismiss your point, but my own feeling is that there would be little to gain by extending the story and the present length is about right.

Many thanks once again for the feedback.

Rupe on 22-04-2013
The Surgeons Tale
Your points make perfect sense.

However, I'd like to return quickly and solely on the oath issue - it stuck out for me because I was (fairly briefly) a solicitor in the nineties & don't recall anyone using the phrase 'so help me God' when repeating the oath either in the Crown or County Court. What they said was:

'I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.'

Having Googled it, I see that the phrase 'so help me God' is indeed used for other types of oath, and historically, so I accept your general point about it. That said, if the aim is to indicate that Larry has had recent court experience, one might expect that he'd be familiar with the specific phrasing used in court nowadays.

One for the pedants, naturally...

Rupe

Author's Reply:
But I am a pedant! Thanks for pointing it out. I'll make the necessary changes.

bluepootle on 22-04-2013
The Surgeons Tale
Ouch. What a sharp story. It suits the personality of the narrator, and I think you've done a brilliant job of probing a very interesting area in a way that makes me wince. I was held by it totally, and I really like the last paragraph and the idea that he would become obsessed with the dichotomy between men and women.

I wasn't sure about 'Or so it seemed.' Maybe it's just me though. I didn't think you needed the melodrama of it, personally.

As a total aside, I'm not persuaded by Darwin's argument that women hold all the cards. But I like your way of laying it out here. Anyway, that's about the concept, not the execution...

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Aliya. Much appreciated.

SirClip on 22-04-2013
The Surgeons Tale
A very bold journey into a difficult subject. It certainly held my attention and was an easy read. Maybe the the first part is a little long winded but that might just be me.

I think a little more could be made of Rita's fall. I know when I have done something disasterous, time seems to go into slow-mo while I just stand there watching my life go down the toilet.

But what do I know? A great read.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much for the comment, especially that 'slow motion' idea. I think it might be worth incorporating.

ruadh on 22-04-2013
The Surgeons Tale
An interesting read David, I loved the irony at the end which I didn't see coming.

Author's Reply:
Thanks, Ruadh – glad it worked for you.

Weefatfella on 22-04-2013
The Surgeons Tale
 photo 6e64c949-25e7-4412-a2c5-8b9996ad7cba_zps5037a281.jpg
You're right David. Women have always held at least three aces in the mating game.
Now with the pill and "Female Emancipation," they hold four. I liked the Brain Analysis Anology.
Out of the frying pan...etc.
Weefatfella.

Author's Reply:
Many thanks for the kind words. Glad you got something out of it.

Mikeverdi on 22-04-2013
The Surgeons Tale
Great reading,the subject could fill a thousand pages and where would we be... Back at the beginning. You told it well, it's something that happens all the time. It can cost more than anyone should have to pay. As for critique... I thought it fine as it was written. Mike

Author's Reply:
Thanks for such an enthusiastic review. Much appreciated.

e-griff on 23-04-2013
The Surgeons Tale
I'll not try to add anything in detail to Rupe's excellent observations (agree with them or not), but stepping back, I do think the story could support a longer telling. It seemed just a tiny bit rushed, with the ending even more so.



The telling is fine - smooth, comprehensive, details. But I found the 'touched her on the shoulder bang she fell over' slightly unconvincing practically. It wouldn't take much to describe a more convincing sequence of events and keep picky folk like me satisfied I reckon.



Nicely constructed frame. Good balance kept (just) clear of overegging.



John G

PS (added after reply) - just to be clear, by 'overegging' I don't mean length, I refer to ornateness or too detailed explanation of plot.

Author's Reply:
Thanks foir dropping by.

I must admit I have an inbuilt aversion to making stories longer. Almost always in my experience it's better to make them shorter. In fact you say yourself at the end that I have kept just clear of overegging, which tends to support my feeling.

Larry's explanation for the accident 'touched her on the shoulder' isn't intended to be particularly accurate or convincing. This is very much his story from his point of view, and a neutral observer might well have seen something entirely different.

So my own feeling is that I would be better not to tamper too much with a story that seems to work for most people most of the time.

Thanks again for the comments.

Pronto on 23-04-2013
The Surgeons Tale
Personally I read it for what it was an interesting engaging story of the differences of perception. A bit like two people standing side by side witnessing the same road accident. When you read their accounts you'd swear they saw different accidents.

Add to this friendship/involvement, gender bias plus political correctitude by they who sit in judgement and bingo you get a battle royal and nothing like justice.

As for women holding all the cards? Mayhap.

I felt the ending lacked a little ‘punchiness.’ A bit abrupt was my impression but over-all a damn fine effort.

Regarding the oath I was a witness in a trial a few years ago all I can remember being asked was “Do you swear by almighty God that the evidence you shall give will be the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” The ‘so help me god’ sounds a bit American to me but I may be wrong.



Thanks for sharing this.



Author's Reply:
Thanks for the comments, Pronto.

I think you have caught precisely what I was trying to do in the analogy of the two witnesses to the traffic accident. That seemed to be what was asked for in the prompt as well.

I have removed the 'so help me God', which was also spotted by Rupe. I think if you press 'refresh' or something you'll find that it's not there.

As to the ending, it gets across the idea that Rita took him to court (whatever happened she was clearly very pissed-off with him), that her friends supported her, and she won the case. Also that he is still engaged, in own cerebral male way, in the noble cause of trying to understand women. It may lack punch but try as I may I can't come up with a better one.

TheBigBadG on 23-04-2013
The Surgeons Tale
It's a convoluted piece as far as the morals go, isn't it? That's the great strength that leaps out at me straight away - neither of them are 'right' and they're both finding what they want to find, using it the way they want. All seems very toxic.

The style of narration, clinical and exact, vcertainly suits Larry and the piece which is good. I wonder if bits of this could be edited down a little bit to make it a bit more pithy. It feels like some points are hammered home a little as is and taking a couple of phrases out would help. I'm thinking things like the shouting in the third para, and some bits of dialogue like "'Molested her? When we were watching? You mean when he grabbed her arm?’" There are a couple of places like these where if you tighten it up it would feel more natural. I get it's part of the narrators nature to talk like that but it would help balance the pace, I think.

I like it though. It's a big topic but your absolutist surgeon and much more emotional nurse are good ciphers for a the debate about predation, sexual politics, (mis)understanding, etc. And as I say, the fallibility and dubious elements of both of them means the piece says more than they do, which is as it should be.

Author's Reply:
Hello BigBad.

The opposite advice to Griff's. Make it shorter. Actually I think you're right, there is a tension between a spoken 'told' story format and something that's being written down or narrated. I was aware of that as I wrote it. Again, I think you get the same tension in The Canterbury Tales. They are partly spoken tales, partly written stories. I think it's a little bit of ambiguity that I actually want to keep. I don't think I want to go right over the edge into the self-pitying monologue of the man who collars you in the pub. It's a story but a very considered and structured one – a defence plea or self-justification, in effect. I think it's actually appropriate that some points are, as you say, hammered home.

I'm glad that you thought the piece highlighted some of the morally grey areas in the games that are played between men and women.

One of the things I wanted to do was to draw attention to the way that words like 'molested', 'groped', 'assaulted' and indeed 'raped' are bandied about indiscriminately, so that they become devalued and trivialised and start to lose their real meanings. I think it's worth introducing the notion of disagreement over the meaning and application of these very emotive terms, and these two characters provide good proxies to voice such matters.

Many thanks for your feedback.

Savvi on 23-04-2013
The Surgeons Tale
Hi Sirat
I have enjoyed your story a great deal, particularly the interplay of the characters and your choice of dialogue.

The ending came a little sudden for me I was hoping he was going to try reverse phycology as an experiment that gets him into hot water. I did enjoy your ending but felt he let the side down somehow, hope that makes sense. Cheers S

Author's Reply:

teifii on 27-04-2013
The Surgeons Tale
Enjoyed it very much and didn't see the end coming. But I did find the end a bit limp compared with the rest.

Author's Reply:


A Visit to the Zoo (posted on: 01-04-13)
This is for my own challenge in the Prose Workshop forum: to write a story told by an unreliable narrator. Like several others, I think, I've deviated slightly from that brief, and what I've actually come up with is a character (rather than a narrator) who speaks in parables.

'You don't know me? So what? I don't know you either. What has that got to do with anything?' Professor Weinreb looked down at Lucy's teacher with a mixture of impatience and disdain. 'Well, Sir, we aren't supposed to hand the children over to anybody we don't know.' 'I see. Very wise... Lucy!' He rattled the iron gate with his cane. 'Would you kindly come out here and verify that I am your kindly old grandfather, and not the neighbourhood axe murder?' He lowered his voice. 'Certainly nobody would accuse me of being a paedophile. I can't abide most of the little horrors.' Lucy made her way through the group of infants to Miss Munsen's side. 'He's my granddad,' she confirmed. 'He's really weird.' 'I see. Well, I'll just have to give your mother a quick call on her mobile it won't take a moment.' She took Lucy's hand and led her briskly back into the building. Professor Weinreb made a grunting sound, expressive of exasperation. The children watched him in silence. 'You've all had a good look,' he addressed them after a few moments. 'May I enquire as to your opinion of what you see?' 'You're proper weird, Mister,' a little boy ventured. 'Quite so. Very perceptive of you. There's widespread agreement on that point.' Before long Miss Munsen re-emerged, smiling now and still holding Lucy's hand. 'I'm sorry about that, Professor Wineberg. But you understand of course that we have to be careful.' 'Weinreb, Miss Munsen. It's a Polish name. Polish Jewish, in fact, so it's become rather rare in recent years.' 'Sorry, Professor. Anyway it's quite all right, Mrs Boyd simply forgot to tell us that you would be picking Lucy up today.' She used the keypad to open the gate and Lucy let go of her hand and took her grandfather's instead. 'Quite all right. Come, Lucy. The domain of the beasts awaits.' He glanced back at Miss Munsen. 'You don't need to be alarmed. I'm taking her to the zoo, not hell.' As the pair drew up to the lemur's enclosure the creatures stopped what they were doing, which was mainly climbing over the crude wooden frames and swinging on the ropes and tires that their keepers had thoughtfully provided, tumbling around on the grass, and, in the case of the babies, leaping from low posts onto the bodies of their ever-patient elders. Instead the entire colony formed a line just inside the chicken-wire barrier and stared at the newcomers. Their squeals and chattering stopped. 'Unique to the island nation of Madagascar,' the professor explained, seemingly to the concerned-looking animals themselves. 'It was a little bit of Africa that broke off about a hundred and sixty million years ago. The animals on the mainland went on evolving and turned into the monkeys and the apes, and eventually you and me, but the ones cut off on Madagascar hardly evolved at all. Those little creatures are what we would be without the evolutionary pressures that turned us into the nasty and joyless bastards that we are today. They're charming creatures all subsequent primate evolution was a major mistake.' 'You mean, you think they're better than us?' Lucy was anxious to get it right. 'Almost any other species is morally superior to ours. But the lemurs are right at the top. They have yet to lose the ability to have fun. Have yet to learn how to hunt, kill and destroy. They still have their innocence. They are the angels from which we descended. Tragic quite tragic.' He shook his head. The lemurs slowly regained their animation. 'Can we see the lions now?' 'In a moment. Do you mind if we sit down here for a while. I'm feeling a little tired.' They took their places on a low bench, and the professor closed his eyes. 'Why is it that children always want to see the lions? Violent bullies, the kind who would tear you to pieces and eat you, given half a chance?' 'Yes, but it's exciting. And they can't get at you. They're behind bars.' 'The bars. Yes, we should be very grateful for the bars. And use them as a reminder of how little stands between us and annihilation.' 'What's analisation?' 'Just death, my dear. Plain old death. And it comes to us all in the end. The bars don't save us for very long.' 'Mummy says you think too much because you're a philosopher. What's a philosopher?' 'That's not an easy question. It's someone of a particular frame of mind. A particular approach to knowledge, and to life.' 'Mummy said you went to a big college and got certificates, and that's what made you a philosopher.' 'No, that's wrong. It was the other way around. What made me go to the big college and get the certificates was that I was a philosopher. Life had already condemned me to that.' 'So what is it that makes somebody a philosopher?' 'You ask very difficult questions. But then children always do. Let me try to answer. Have you ever lain in bed at night and wondered if there's any end to outer space, or if time will just go on and on forever, or if it will stop, and what there will be after that? Or if people really choose the things they do, or if they just think they do, but really it's because of who they are, and how they were brought up, and all kinds of things that they can't control? Or do you wonder what it will be like to be dead and not exist any more? Have you ever thought about things like that?' 'Yes. In bed. How did you know?' 'Because we all do, when we're children. Then most of us grow up and other things crowd in and we don't think about those kinds of things any more. We think about getting jobs, and finding husbands and wives, and bringing up new children who will lie in bed and think about exactly the same things. Most people get on with their lives and leave questions like that alone. It's called growing up. But some people can't, and I'm one of those. Because of the way I am because I'm a philosopher I can't let go of the questions that have no answers. It's actually a mental disability, and most certainly a social one. But they wouldn't give me a Disability Living Allowance so they gave me a professorship instead. They probably did it to save money. And of course to keep me out of mischief to protect normal society from the likes of me.' 'Are you dangerous, like a lion?' 'People who think a lot can be very dangerous. Particularly to leaders and people who want to control other people. But really they're far less dangerous than people who don't think at all. And they, sadly, are in the majority. And, given the right circumstances, they are the ones who can behave like lions. Not us. Credit where credit is due. All we do is make noise. Chatter, like the lemurs.' 'Can we see the lions now?' 'Please forgive me, Lucy, but I am still rather tired. I have some sandwiches that your mother made in my rucksack. And lemonade. Or at least something in a can with a lot of dissolved carbon dioxide. Would you like to eat now?' 'Yes please!' He carefully took off his backpack and laid the contents out on the bench between them. 'Jaffa cakes! I love Jaffa cakes!' 'Just to keep your mother from telling us off, do you think you could eat the cheese sandwiches first? At least I think that's what they are.'' 'Okay.' She tucked in. The professor merely leaned back and slumped a little more, as though he might fall asleep at any moment. 'Don't you want any, granddad?' 'Not just now, thank you, Lucy. A little later perhaps.' 'Do I have to leave you some?' 'No, you don't dear. I'm not hungry today. Have as much as you like.' For a few moments he watched her eat. 'Jaffa is a place, you know. A town in Israel. One of the oldest human settlements on earth. Near to Tel Aviv. Almost a part of it now. A beautiful little seaside town. I lived there when I was a child. Maybe some day you'll go to Israel too.' 'Why?' 'Another very difficult question. Because your mother's family has its roots there. Because the bars are very strong to keep the lions out. I don't know it's just somewhere I would like you to see one day.' He seemed to be having difficulty keeping his eyes open. 'Are you all right, granddad?' 'Of course. Are your mother's sandwiches good?' 'Not as good as the Jaffa cakes.' 'I met your grandmother in Jaffa. It's a pity you never knew her. I often try to imagine how you and she would have got on. She was very like you. She loved life. Loved to have a good time. Loved animals. Lived in the present, not the past. The past was too terrible even to think about' 'Is she in heaven now?' 'No, Lucy. You mustn't believe things that aren't true. That's what causes all the trouble. People are strange creatures, they have to tell a story about everything. There must always be a narrative, an explanation, a justification. If we don't know the answer we have to make one up. We can't live with uncertainty. The truth is that nobody knows what happens when you die. Probably nothing happens. You stop being, that's all. Heaven is one of the stories that people have made up to explain things that they don't understand and can't face up to. And if you're willing to accept one thing without evidence, the chances are you'll be willing to accept something else. And then something else. And before you know it you'll be willing to accept anything that people in authority tell you. Do anything that they order you to. Our only defence is rationality. The refusal to accept anything without evidence and reasons. The courage to face up to not knowing everything. Confidence in our own judgements. That's all we've got to keep the lions behind the bars. When we lose it, that's when they run amok and tear us to pieces.' Her little brow became furrowed. 'You're weird, Granddad. I don't understand what you say a lot of the time. How can not believing things keep the lions behind the bars?' 'The lions can't act on their own. It's the sheep who do their dirty work. Sheep are more dangerous than lions are you still there, Lucy?' 'Of course I am, Granddad. Can't you see me?' Granddad's eyes were tight shut now. 'What I see right now is your grandmother. She's about fifteen years old and she's coming down the gangplank from a big ship, carrying a brown leather case, with a lot of other people they've sent me there to meet her, to welcome her, because I speak her language and she hasn't got anybody else she looks very like you the same eyes, and the same hair and she's smiling at me. Even though she hasn't got anybody, she's smiling at me, because I'm speaking her language, and telling her that she's safe now, that she's going to have a new home and a new family that the lions won't be able to get to her' His voice faded out. He settled even lower into his seat. Lucy returned her attention to the picnic. She had finished the sandwiches now so it was all right to start on the Jaffa cakes. Lucy walked up to the side of one of the two keepers who were carrying the buckets of meat for the lions. ''Scuse me. My Granddad is asleep and I can't wake him up, and I think it's time for us to go home.' The two men looked at one another and the one Lucy had spoken to handed his bucket to the other. 'Where is your granddad, sweetheart?' They walked together to where he was slumped on the bench, the picnic remains still spread out beside him. Lucy watched as the keeper gently shook her granddad's shoulder, then reached beneath his bearded chin and felt his throat. He said something into his radio too quietly for Lucy to hear before he turned and addressed her. 'Look, sweetheart, I don't know how to tell you this, but I'm afraid your granddad has gone to heaven.' A tear began to trickle down Lucy's face. 'You mustn't say that,' she scolded him gently. 'If you say that the lions will get out.'
Archived comments for A Visit to the Zoo
Rupe on 01-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo
I liked it. There are some effective but unobtrusive parallels here - the schoolteacher and the real teacher, the zoo containing animals and the zoo of the world, the lions and the sheep - and the death of the prof at the end gives the story point and poignancy.

I couldn't help feeling that the story becomes weaker at the points where the prof abandons his parables and preaches directly. The paragraph containing the phrase 'our only defence is rationality' is particularly glaring in this regard. The urgency with which he wants to get his message across before he dies comes through strongly, but the language used is rather vague and abstract ('evidence', 'rationality' etc).

Rupe

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the feedback. I take your point about the abstract language the professor uses. In my own mind I think he realises that Lucy won't understand much of what he's saying at the time he says it, but he hopes that she'll remember it and understand it when she's a bit older, and he believes that the way to make a child remember is to turn everything into a story. I'll take a look at the point about his preaching more directly at times. My immediate feeling though is that it might be difficult to avoid it completely while retaining the points that he wants to make.
Lots of food for thought there. many thanks.

bluepootle on 01-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo
Very enjoyable, and I liked the dialogue-heavy nature of it. Towards the end I thought interspersing the dialogue with the occasional description of the lemurs, or something from the natural world, even just fading light as the day wears on, would have made another strong juxtaposition.

'He seemed to be having difficulty keeping his eyes open,' pulled me out of the action. Too formal, with that 'seemed to'. And personally I wasn't keen on the lone tear on Lucy's face. Too contrived, maybe. Is there some other way you can show the struggle between emotion and reason in a small child? But apart from those niggles, I enjoyed the honesty of it. It had a message to get across, and it went for it.

Author's Reply:
Extremely useful feedback. Many thanks.

I think you're right that the dialogue towards the end needs breaking up in some way. I'll have a good think about that. And about the 'seemed to', which of course weakens the sentence, but I was trying to stay within Lucy's POV.

I used a 'single tear' or something closely similar as the very last line of Engineering Paradise as well (not counting the Epilogue). I know it isn't very original. I'll have to see if I can come up with something better.

Thanks again.
David.

TheBigBadG on 02-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo
I'll start with the typo in the first line (disdain) and move swiftly on. At the risk of being churlish I think, as you note in the intro, this piece doesn't have an unreliable narrator, instead he seems very reliable. That does completely miss the point of the piece though and doesn't add anything to discussion, so to one side it goes.

It is a good piece and the structure of it is perhaps the strongest element for me. The layering of bars, authority and obedience through the various stories told leaves a lot to think on. Perhaps the simplest example of what I mean is the man who says 'challenge everything' who met the love of his life because he was sent to meet her by the nameless 'they'. It all feeds back into itself at the right moments. I did also see the end coming pretty much as soon as he sat down incidentally, but I didn't mind.

A lot of the dialogue works well as well, she comes across as a believable child as much as he comes across as a tired old man with too little time left. As Rupe notes it does have your trademark exposition section which feels a bit unnatural this time. Perhaps it's a symptom of the child/philosopher dynamic? Sophie's World comes to mind. As an alternative suggestion to Blue's, because I feel the granddad is more integral to the story, you could extend his slipping into reverie (present tense, I note) and weave the key elements of the exposition into him slipping into confusion. He seems to me to be the kind of character who'd have a history of non-compliance to draw on for one. Or maybe even have him conflate lions and sheep as he goes, leaving Lucy confused about his message. It would tip him over into the realms of unreliability!

G

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much G, a great analysis there.

Taking the smaller points first, I'm grateful for the heads-up on the typo – will fix that right away.

At least two people have highlighted the 'exposition' section now, so I think that's the first bit to look at again. I'll also try to read Sophie's World when I get the time – I know it exists but have never read it, or seen the film.

On your later points, I don't actually see the Professor as slipping into confusion. Rather I see him as aware at some level that life is slipping away and wanting to pass on to Lucy the two things that he regards as most important for her to know, 1. That she has roots. Her mother was rescued from one of the camps, her family having been wiped out, and sent to a different family (his) in Israel to start a new life. That's actually based on the life of Helga Weissová whose book I reviewed in Gold Dust, but it happened time out of count to tens of thousands of Hitler's victims. 2. He wants her to reject all faiths and ideologies and rely on her own judgement, as he has done. Be it Mein Kampf, Das Kapital, The Book of Mormon or the Little Red Book, all the faiths and ideologies that ask you to accept without question are, in his view, equally toxic. And I tried to show in the ending that he has in fact sown the seeds of rationalism in Lucy's young mind.

Finally, as I said in the introduction, I have indeed departed from the idea of an unreliable narrator because I trried it (about three times in fact) and couldn't come up with anything worthwhile. I have stressed always that what I want from these challenges is to end up with a piece of writing that I can be proud of, or at least reasonably happy with, and whether or not I have obeyed the rules doesn't really interest me. Must be my anarchist soul coming to the fore.

Thanks again for your very perceptive input.

TheBigBadG on 02-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo
Just a quick response to your response because it sounds like I may not have been completely clear. The professor doesn't come across as confused in this at all; my talk of him being confused was my postulating alternative takes based on your set up. As it is he is lucid, and it's clear that he's choosing to remember instead of being overcome by it. So don't worry, it's doing what you expected it to as a piece of writing, I'm just dithering off-topic as usual.

As for departing from theme - absolutely. Maybe I'm rose-tinting things but I'm sure we all seem to pull the best stuff out of the bag when we're being liberal with the challenge. I just had to get my teeth into the details of this one because it proved such an interesting task technically. Which is, of course, what it's all about.

Author's Reply:
Ah yes, I suppose I took it as a recommendation rather than a suggestion.

I found the challenge almost impossible too, but interesting (though I say so myself). I might come back to it 'in my own time'.

SirClip on 02-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo
I enjoyed this. I like the dialogue; it sounds natural and does alot to move the story on. I confess I got a little lost at times but that is just me I guess. I am no great thinker, I just like a good story.

Author's Reply:
Glad that you enjoyed it, even if you got a bit lost here and there. I thought it was reasonably straightforward, although I was aiming at quite a lot of subtext. Thanks for the kind words.

Savvi on 02-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo
I enjoyed the detail behind this and the character introduction very well crafted and smooth read, child set against intelligent adult/ loving granddad really worked for me.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Savvi. Much appreciated.

zenbuddhist on 03-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo


In the first paragraph you need to cut out the lines...' Professor Weinreb looked down at Lucy’s teacher with a mixture of impatience and disdain.' this is unnecessary 'tell' we get the gist by what's been said...and ...' He lowered his voice. ‘Certainly nobody would accuse me of being a paedophile. I can’t abide most of the little horrors.’  ...low voice or not only a fool would mention the word paedophile at a primary school gate and I take it you don't want to portray him as an imbecile , also... 'He glanced back at Miss Munsen. ‘You don’t need to be alarmed. I’m taking her to the zoo, not hell.’ ...this spoils a good bit of subtext, well, we soon find out it's the zoo but best to keep the reader hanging for a bit.

I get that the suggestion is a grown man, albeit elderly, spouting out an internal monologue but he's not he's talking to a child, no child would be able to understand his topics and mode of speech, it's unrealistic. You need to simplify it into short sentences accompanied with some exaggerated dramatic actions as a granddad would when explaining something. Oh and strike out 'bastards'

The voice of the child is far too grown up and there not a primary school child in the world that lies in bed wondering about ...' if there’s any end to outer space, or if time will just go on and on forever, or if it will stop, and what there will be after that? Or if people really choose the things they do, or if they just think they do, but really it’s because of who they are, and how they were brought up, and all kinds of things that they can’t control? Or do you wonder what it will be like to be dead and not exist any more? Have you ever thought about things like that?’ ... Not one, and if mine did I would be a seriously worried man.

It reads like a writer writing a story...and that's to be avoided like....a pestilence

Lots of cliche's, too many to list but the furrowed little brow grated especially for me.

It's not that it's a bad story and before I started writing myself I probably would have just read it and enjoyed it for what it is...Ha ha but not now...which is no bad thing.
 

Author's Reply:
Thanks for all your detailed comments. I think what you're really saying is that it's hopeless and I should forget it, which is a perfectly valid reaction, but I don't think I'll be doing that. I'll just note your comments but respectfully disagree with pretty well all of them. If I may say so I think you let yourself down a bit with the ''ha ha' in the last sentence.

zenbuddhist on 03-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo
Well it's pretty obvious that the haha was meant as jovial but I apologise if you think I was mocking you. These comments are valid, show not tell, over-explanation, wrong voiced characters, cliche...all faults, and faults that can be corrected with some editing . I'm astonished at your attitude that I'm somehow dismissing this with some kind of malicious agenda. You yourself have pointed out similar faults in the work of others. These are mearley comments designed to help you improve yourself as a writer

Author's Reply:

Andrea on 21-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo
Here's a song for you David 🙂



Author's Reply:
I think this one is a little bit nearer the mark for the story:



..Something to Your Advantage (posted on: 04-01-13)
This is my story in response to the prompt in the Prose Workshop Challenge forum. It's a very simple little piece, but I know that some of you like that sort of thing. Fingers crossed that you'll like this one.

'We're closed for the wet season!' I shouted it through the insect screen, sounding more fierce, perhaps, than I had intended. The tropical rainstorm was making such a clatter on the tin roof I doubted if the old man would be able to hear me. At least I didn't have to feel guilty about turning him away he had a perfectly good Land Rover to shelter in. If he had been on foot I would probably have felt duty bound to let him in. But he persisted. 'I don't need a cabin or a tour. I just want to talk to you.' At least I think that was what he was trying to say. He was wearing a dark-coloured plastic mac with a hood, but it wasn't coping with the storm very successfully. There was just enough light from the paraffin lamp behind me to let me see the water that was beginning to run down from his chin and the tip of his nose. He didn't seem to care. It was more than I could bear to look at his discomfort. I relented and pushed the screen open. 'You'd better come in!' He stepped forward and started to remove his coat. His grey hair was thin and sprang into a ragged halo as soon as it was released from the hood. 'What brings you out here at this time of the year and this time of the night?' My voice was still raised, but standing next to him it probably wasn't necessary. 'Just doing my job. Are you Benjamin Foley, originally from Balinclare in the county Tyrone?' It was a shock to hear anybody mention Balinclare after so many decades, so many lifetimes that had passed since I left it. I nodded dumbly, noticing for the first time that he was carrying a black leather briefcase. I motioned towards the dinner table and he sat down. The rain was subsiding a bit. He looked me straight in the eye for a moment before I remembered my manners. 'Sorry, I should have offered you a drink. I've just got the local rice whiskey, but it's not bad if you have it with a bit of tonic or coke.' 'Not for me, Mr Foley.' He put his case on the table and undid the catch. I realised now that his accent was Irish, not American, like ninety per cent of the dry season visitors to the National Park. He had an ageless face, the kind that you can't imagine ever being younger, ever looking any different. 'My name is Patrick Culthorne, of the solicitors Culthorne, Hartland and Moran. You may remember us.'' 'Of course I do.' I was surprised at how vivid my memory was of the outside of their premises. 'Just across the street from the Erne Cinema. I'm surprised that' 'That I'm still alive? Patrick senior, my father, died shortly after you left the town. Mr Hartland is gone as well now. But the firm's still there. It's really just my brother Cahill, Moran's daughter and me these days. They're all dying in Balinclare, one after the other. That's why I'm here as you may have guessed.' 'Is it an inheritance?' He nodded, arranging some papers on the table and moving the paraffin lamp a bit closer to illuminate them. 'I thought all my relations there were already dead, or at least moved away. Surely you didn't need to come all this way. Couldn't you have written a letter?' 'In view of the sum involved, and the conditions of the will, no. I think this can only be done face to face.' Intrigued, I joined him at the table. 'Can you tell me who the deceased is?' 'In a little while. First, I need to see some documents, and there are a few questions I need to ask you, to establish that you are indeed Benjamin Foley, formerly of Cranfada Farm, Balinclare, and that you satisfy one or two other conditions that the deceased has laid down.' 'Just how big an inheritance are we talking about here? Maybe I'm the one who needs the whiskey.' 'We'll get to that in a little while. If it's all right with you, Mr Foley, I'll need about ten or fifteen minutes of your time. If it isn't convenient right now, I can come back later.'' 'Carry on, please, I've got all the time in the world out here in the wet season. Time and rain are the only things in good supply. Take as long as you want.' He started by asking for some papers. I had to light the second lamp to search for them in the chest of drawers. Passport, Birth Certificate (which I couldn't find), Certificate of Naturalisation as a citizen of Costa Rica, old bank statements, drivers' licence, wage slips, letters from the tax office. But I could tell that he couldn't read Spanish, and most of the documents meant very little to him. He quickly moved on to the questions. 'Some of the things I'm going to ask you may seem silly, off the wall, but there's a good reason for every question. Are you happy to answer anything that I ask you?' 'Certainly. I don't think I've got anything to hide.' 'Very well. First question. What was the name of your teacher when you went to the Balinclare Primary School?'' A picture came into my mind. Lines of desks facing a blackboard on a wooden easel, an open hearth burning logs behind it. The smell produced by decomposing splashes of school milk rising from beneath ancient floorboards. The chatter of little voices and the shrill shout of the woman teacher telling us to be quiet. 'The first one was Miss Munsen. I think her full name was Hilary Munsen.' 'No, that was the Infant School. Later than that. Balinclare Primary.' The picture in my mind jumped to a baked-mud school playground in the early summer sun, children running about and shouting, a shallow lifeless pond with a wooden fence around it, another higher fence beyond it with a gate, and the main road beyond that; in the opposite direction fields visible here and there between the line of low trees that formed the school boundary. 'I can remember two of the teachers there,' I said after a moment's thought. 'There was Fergus O'Shea, and his wife. I think she was called Virginia or Veronica or something.' Culthorne didn't react. 'Am I right?' He answered with another question. 'Did you have a best friend at that school?' I bowed my head in concentration. 'It's not easy, you know,' I pleaded. 'We're talking about more than thirty years ago.' 'Humour me. Please. It's important.' 'There was the local minister's son. Barnie something-or-other. And the barber's son Bilshie, I think they used to call him. Bilshie Travers. And Robin McKey. He used to come to school in a pony and trap. I remember that.' 'What I asked you was, did you have a special friend?' 'You're looking for a particular name, aren't you? And it wasn't any of those.' Again, Culthorne did not react. I tried to drag my mind back to those distant times. There must have been someone else. Someone who, in his own recollection, considered me a best friend. Who could that have been? 'On, wait a minute. I think I know who you mean. He was quite a sickly little boy. Thin. Pale. He used to get bullied a lot before he linked-up with me. Blond hair, almost white. Very thin fingers. He used to play the piano at the school concerts. He was bright a bit of a swat' 'But you accepted that, didn't you? You didn't tease him or make fun of him.' 'No. I liked him. He was okay. But I'm damned if I can remember his name now oh, wait a minute. It was Ernie, wasn't it? Ernie Regan or Reagan. Something like that.' 'It doesn't matter. Let's move on a bit. Who was your first girlfriend?' 'The first girl I fancied? The first girl I kissed? The first girl I thought I was in love with?' Culthorne remained silent, unwilling to make the question any more specific. 'To be honest, I think I know who you mean. It was when I went off to agricultural college in Derry, wasn't it? I would have been about seventeen. So would she. Her name was Rose Cunningham. Is that the one?' Culthorne retained eye contact but said nothing. The rain had almost stopped now. I lowered my voice. 'I was crazy about Rose. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I think I came on a bit too strong. Frightened her off in the end. That's the way it goes, isn't it? Sometimes people don't show enough interest, sometimes they show too much and overdo it. We might be together even now, if I'd known how to handle things. All I needed to do was to give her a bit of space. Loosen the reins a bit. We were very good for each other or at least she was very good for me. There's so much you have to learn about life, about relationships, and by the time you've learned it, well, at least in my case, you've made so many mistakes and messed-up so many opportunities, your whole love life is pretty much screwed-up. Anyway, that's what happened with Rose and me. I screwed everything up.' 'Maybe you shouldn't be so hard on yourself, Mr Foley. Do you know what happened to her after she split up with you?' 'We graduated. Went our separate ways. I heard afterwards that she'd married, but I didn't hear any of the details. I hope it worked out for her. I hope she was happy.' 'Would it surprise you to learn that she became Rose Regan? Somewhat alliterative, isn't it?' 'Rose Regan? You mean she married Ernie?' Culthorne took up the story. 'Ernie studied chemical engineering at Queens University. He got a job with one of the big multi-nationals. They put him to work on a major government contract all very hush-hush. He needed top level clearance to do it. He never told Rose what it was all about. They had to move to Wiltshire, so that he could work at a place called Porton Down. Does the name mean anything to you?' 'Isn't that something to do with nerve gas?' 'Among other things. It's where they do research into chemical and biological weapons. Strictly for the purpose of defending the nation against them, so the story goes. Those kinds of things are totally banned by international agreement. Even though it's common knowledge that Britain sells them to foreign governments including some very questionable ones.' 'And Rose went along with that?' Culthorne shrugged. 'It took her a while to understand what it was all about. But the marriage did start to go wrong. Maybe it was her conscience, maybe it was other more ordinary things. Who knows? We do know that Rose's family ostracised her. Stopped talking to her. And that the couple were definitely planning to separate. Then, one day, Ernie didn't come home from work.' 'Some kind of accident?' 'Nobody ever said. The MOD didn't want a fuss or an investigation. They offered her a very generous out-of-court compensation settlement, on condition, basically, that she kept her mouth shut. She took it.' 'I see.' 'And that could well have been the end of the story.' He paused. 'Let me ask you one or two more questions before we go on. How did you end up here, in this place, renting out cabins and taking parties into the rainforest?' 'That's a hell of a question. Do you want me to tell you my whole life story?' 'Just the rough outline.' 'I was pretty miserable, after Rose left. I did what millions of others did later, took a gap year, tried to see the world on a shoestring. Everywhere I went, I tried to sell the few skills I had. Agricultural science a bit of forestry. The gift of the gab. I always liked animals. It was no effort to learn about them. I just slotted-in here very comfortably. The hard bit was learning enough Spanish to get by, but the people I was guiding were practically always English speakers. It wasn't so difficult.' 'You've worked other places, I know that. Why settle here in particular?' 'There was a girl. There's always a girl, isn't there? We had a few good years, but guess what, I screwed up again. I'm good at that. After she left, I just stayed here. I'd got tired of moving on. There didn't seem to be very much point.' 'Well, let me just tell you that Rose never forgot you. And the things she heard about you from Ernie impressed her as well. After she came into that compensation money, she started thinking about old times about how she'd maybe made a big mistake. When the money came, everybody wanted to be friends with her again. But she knew it wasn't real. She knew that she'd only had one real friend ever.' 'I think I understand what you're telling me now. That compensation money that's the inheritance you're talking about. Rose is dead and she left her money to me' Culthorne's face became blurred by the tears that were filling my eyes. 'You're telling me that Rose is gone and there's nothing left but this blood money' 'No, the inheritance was something of an invention. But the compensation money is real. You may get it one day of course, but women have a tendency to outlive us delicate men-folk. It allowed her to pay for my services. You were quite difficult to locate. I think you need to put on your coat now. There's somebody in the Land Rover that I would like you to meet.'
Archived comments for ..Something to Your Advantage
bluepootle on 04-01-2013
..Something to Your Advantage
Love the end point of this one, and the build-up to it. I think this story really kicks up a gear when we get to the reminiscences of the schools, the friends - then you began to draw pictures that I could really get involved in. I think the first four or five paragraphs are a bit too concerned with who's shouting at who, who can hear it, how loud the rain is... details that aren't adding a lot. I think it's the right start point for the story but maybe it needs refining to be as good as the rest of it.

It's a lot of conversation but it works for me. I like the moment where he starts to talk more, open up about his first girlfriend; it seems a very natural progression of thoughts, and nicely done.

Author's Reply:
Thanks, Aliya. I see what you mean about the beginning. I was trying to paint the picture of the cabin with the tin roof at the gates of the National Park, the rain, the darkness etc. without simply taking the omniscient author role and describing it. I agree that it could be tightened-up considerably. Thanks for the feedback.

TheBigBadG on 04-01-2013
..Something to Your Advantage
It's a very sweet story, and the end is touching. It's not the kind of thing I would normally be drawn to I confess, perhaps because it's a whimsical tune, but the nostalgia is well balanced.

Perhaps the dialogue could be tweaked a bit to help it flow a bit more naturally in places? For instance the para, when Foley starts saying 'I was crazy about Rose...' there are moments when it feels like he's talking to someone younger than him, not a lawyer who may well be older. I'm thinking just little tweaks really, like rephrasing the sentence around, 'There’s so much you have to learn about life'.

As you say though, it's a simple piece and it certainly achieves what it intended. The set up works and his hazy recollections are well drawn so that you aren't caught up on the mechanics. As Blue says, it is a lot of conversation which isn't a problem but a tiny bit more balancing of the exposition and natural tones would improve it IMHO.

And as I said to Blue, odd how all three of us have written stories of pasts drawing people back in, via the literal setting of a forest. Maybe Neruda has made nostalgics of us all?

Author's Reply:

franciman on 04-01-2013
..Something to Your Advantage
Well paced dialogue in this piece, the conversation progressively revealing more layers. As a casual reader though, I would not have reached the dialogue. The intro did not contain a hook and I lost interest. It was almost as if it had been written by two different authors. The first half was extremely passive, the use of qualifying adverbs and general over description making it clunky and stodgy.
The second half engaged me and had me metaphorically turning pages.
I failed to see the relevance of the oft repeated 'wet season'. Such a reminder was an intrusion. I wondered if, in the real world, the hero would sit alone in the Costa Rican jungle, in the wet season and not welcome a well to do stranger?
Please don't get me wrong, this was a really well written piece. Unfortunately, the premise that a former lover might travel to the Costa Rica rainforest, out of season, and then sit in her solicitor's Land Rover, still not convinced he is the real Mr Right, is asking the reader to take too much on spec.
Like my piece, I think this needs more work.
cheers,
Jim

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the feedback.

Yes, I've already acknowledged that the opening needs attention, although I think the visit of the lawyer out of the blue is a strong enough hook, and I don't think the build-up is all that 'clunky and stodgy'. I think you've rather over-stated your case for changes. And to be honest, I can't really see your problem with the premise that Rose would visit (whether in the wet season or not) and wait in the car. Remember, the lawyer has to establish more than just that they have got the right man, he also needs to find out whether he is single or not, and whether he might be interested in re-igniting the old flame. Obviously Rose wouldn't want the embarrassment of questioning him about these things herself, nor could she rely on the honesty of his answers if she did. I think her tactics are quite good and perfectly plausible. But thanks for your thoughts anyway.

Mikeverdi on 04-01-2013
..Something to Your Advantage
Maybe I am easy to please, but I loved it. Yes, it needs a bit of tweaking here and there...so what; its great! Mike

Author's Reply:
Many thanks, Mike. Much appreciated.

Texasgreg on 05-01-2013
..Something to Your Advantage
Aye! I used to cross my toes too, but kept falling down. You may uncross and shake the feeling back into your hands. Really good story and had me going through to your surprising end.

Greg 🙂

Photobucket.

Author's Reply:
Many thanks, Texas Greg. Glad you liked it.

Savvi on 06-01-2013
..Something to Your Advantage
A great story, I really enjoyed the opening very vivid and intriguing, didn't see the ending so for me an excellent well written piece. S

Author's Reply:
Thanks, Savvi. Much appreciated.

e-griff on 08-01-2013
..Something to Your Advantage
No significant comments on the writing, plot progress and completeness overall.

One small thing - as the lawyer recognised he had accurately identified his infants teacher, why would he insist on the Primary school one? Assuming the lawyer would know the school, the second question should be dropped. I wonder what age the lawyer is and if they knew each other in the past? (which would change the tone of the conversation). If the lawyer is much younger, he would probably not recognise the infants teacher and have to stick to his brief (the Primary school one).

I realise this is a tiny point, but you know me 🙂

Overall though, the thought of a woman travelling to the rainforest on spec was fairly unconvincing. And depending on the time passed, the connection between them would likely have faded (I myself have never had any desire to get back with the. 'love of my life' except to talk about old times and what she was up to). She sounds a bit of a nut case if we are to accept the premise (and he should be careful! 🙂

Best, JohnG

Author's Reply:
Okay, John. All noted. A bit of a nutcase? Where's your romantic soul, then? I often imagine what it would be like to run into old girlfriends again. Never seems to happen though.

I think the lawyer is just anxious to get him thinking about Ernie again. The infant school isn't the one he wants to talk about. But I'll re-read and see if you're on to something. Can't give it my full attention just at the moment. Thanks for the feedback.


The Prodigal Son (posted on: 12-11-12)
This is my entry in the Prose Workshop challenge: a story on the theme of The Noble Lie. I hope you enjoy it

''Look, I'm not saying I don't need the money, but I think I'm the wrong person for this job. I'll screw it up for sure. It's too much to ask.'' He put his glass down on the hand-painted cork mat and lowered his eyes, no longer meeting theirs. Henry Calder and his much younger wife, with her glowing blonde hair and perfect model-girl looks, remained completely attentive but silent now, clearly wondering how best to persuade him.

It was the female aparition who spoke. ''You're an actor, right? You pretend to be people that you're not. That's what actors do, right?''

''Right.''

Henry took over. ''Well, this isn't any different. It's called improvisation. It's a role. A perfectly straightforward role. We tell you all about the person you have to be, and your job is just to be that person. Didn't you do exercises like that at drama school?''

He nodded and looked around at the expensive leather sofas and the solid hardwood coffee table, smelling of fresh furniture polish. He had seen the cleaning lady leave as he arrived. ''Mr Calder''

''Please call me Henry.''

''Okay, Henry. You need to understand something. This isn't my world. I've never lived in a big house in the country with servants and and grounds and stables. I didn't go to boarding school and learn to ride and play cricket and meet people with titles and six-figure salaries. My background is a housing estate in Grimsby and the local comprehensive school. Okay, you say I look like your son, and maybe I can do the accent, but I can't do the background. He's going to see through me in five minutes. Maybe less.''

Calder sipped his drink and considered. ''It isn't an interview situation. He's not going to be testing you. He's an old man, his memory's been failing for years. If you make a blunder he'll think it's his own memory letting him down. He wants to see his grandson, and he wants to like what he sees. He hasn't seen the boy for more than ten years. He isn't going to be the least bit critical. He won't be trying to catch you out.''

Calder's uncomfortably beautiful wife joined in. ''In fact what he really wants is for people to listen to him. He'll do practically all the talking if you let him. He'll tell you all about the old times, about when Henry was a boy, how they used to go fishing together, how Henry fell in the canal at Otterbourne and almost drowned, how he went to India when he was nineteen and thought he was a hippy, how they used to go grouse-shooting together, how he managed to get Henry into his old college at Cambridge even though he hadn't really got good enough marks, how they pulled the business back from the brink of disaster in the 1980s. The old man loves to talk. All you have to do is listen, and smile, and nod now and again. It'll be much easier than you think.''

''That's right. It's just an innocent little bit of deception. We want the old man to die thinking his grandson is doing all right. We want him to feel good about the family. About everything.''

Duncan let out a deep breath. ''I don't know''

''Aren't we paying you enough? Is that it?''

''Of course you are. The sum you've mentioned is extremely generous. It's me I'm worried about. I need to sort of radiate confidence, the way rich people do. I don't think I can do that. Don't you see? That's the real difference between your class and mine. You people believe in yourselves totally. You think you have every right to be listened to, to assert yourselves, to take control in every situation. That's what's going to give me away. I don't think I can fake that. He'll know there's something wrong that I'm not a Calder. You're asking far more than you realise.''

The couple looked at one another and Calder's brow became furrowed in concentration.

''Bond movies!'' Calder said it as though he had discovered a new continent.

''Bond movies?''

''That's the answer. Bond movies with Roger Moore in them. And Hugh Grant movies. And maybe Jude Law movies. I want you to go away and watch lots of their films and come back in a week, same day, same time. When you get here you're going to be me. I want you to wear a decent suit and a collar and tie. What you're wearing makes a big difference. I want you to knock on that door and treat me like I'm the butler and you've forgotten your key, and treat Laura here like she's the cleaning lady. Tell us the house is dirty and untidy, that we're not doing our jobs properly and we'd better pull our socks up. But do it politely, courteously, with total confidence, total assurance and firmness, the way I would. Then we'll know if you're the man for the part, and so will you. Do you think you can do that?''

For the first time he smiled faintly. ''I can try.''

ooOoo

''You were nothing short of magnificent.''

''Was I?''

''Of course you were. Didn't you realise? I felt thoroughly intimidated. Laura, what did you think?''

''Great. I felt really small. He's definitely got it.''

''I tried it out before I came, actually. I had a dry run in the shop where I hired the suit. I told them that the first one they took out wasn't good enough. That it hadn't been cleaned properly. I was quiet and assertive, like Roger Moore. I didn't need to make a fuss. And they scurried around like their lives depended on it to find me another one. I surprised myself.''

''Well done boy. You've discovered the secret of this society's ruling elite. Not competence, confidence. Nothing else matters."

ooOoo

He strolled up to the receptionist at the desk and smiled. ''Henry Calder Junior. I'm here to visit my grandfather.''

''Mr Calder is very ill. We have to restrict visiting''

''I think he'll want to see me. There's no need for me to speak to your superior, is there?''

''No no, of course not, Mr Calder. I'll just see if the doctor is with your grandfather at the moment.'' She lifted a phone and dialled an extension. ''Mr Calder? I have your grandson here. Is it a suitable moment? Certainly, sir.''

She put the phone down. ''Your grandfather will be delighted to see you. But please, you mustn't tire him. Fifteen minutes at the absolute maximum.''

He beamed at her. ''Thank you."

''The fourth door on the left down that corridor.'' She pointed. ''And you will remember what I said about tiring him?''

He didn't hurry. That would not be appropriate to the persona of Henry Calder Junior.

ooOoo

''Henry? Young Henry? Is that really you?'' The old man's eyes opened a fraction and his gaze flitted across the face of his visitor.

''Of course it is, Gramps. I'm ever so sorry for not coming before. I'm with the Tokyo office now, and I can't begin to tell you what it's been like with this recession. It was just impossible to get away. Worse than the 1980s ''

''That's all right, Henry, I understand all that. We've been through it all before. But you look so different. So grown-up.''

''That's what the years do, Gramps. Make us grow up. Can't remain children for ever, can we?'' He studied the old man's face. ''You don't look as bad as they make out. You're not going to let this disease beat you, are you?''

''I'm sorry, son. This disease has beaten me. I've only got weeks now, maybe days. I don't mind. I've had a good life. Nobody ever kidded me I would live for ever. A good life, and I've left the family business strong, even in economic times like these. Your father is a clever man clever like I was once. He won't let the ship go down. Neither will you when your time comes''

''No, Gramps. That's right. We won't.''

There was quite a long pause. The old man's expression seemed to soften, as though he had stopped concentrating.

''You don't fool me, you know.'' His voice was barely audible.

''I don't?'' The words hit him like a physical blow.

''Of course not. That suit's something you got in a hire shop. It's not even close to a good fit. That white shirt, dark tie. Did you think you were coming to my funeral?''

Make-believe Henry's spirits sank. His shoulders slumped in resignation. It had been a test and he hadn't passed.

''Listen boy, I know all about you. You don't work in any Tokyo office. Your father tried to hide it from me but I know all about your career. Getting sent down, the drugs, the time in the mental hospital, sleeping rough, disappearing in California. I'm not a fool. I have contacts. I know what you've been up to. And believe it or not I tried to help. I sent people to find you. I sent money. But I don't think any of it ever got to you, did it?''

Relieved, but also puzzled, make-believe Henry shook his head. ''No, Gramps. None of it.''

''So you hired that ridiculous suit and came to see me. Came pretending you worked in the Tokyo office that everything was all right. And I'm touched that you did that. I respect you for it. You didn't come looking for money. You came pretending that you didn't need it.''

What should he say? Where was this leading? He tried to think fast. ''I just wanted to see you,'' he stammered. ''I didn't want you to to think that I was a loser. That was all.''

''You came because you wanted to see me. Before it was too late.''

''Something like that.''

The old man took a few laboured breaths before he spoke. ''Listen, kid. I know your father can be a stubborn man. He made me cut you out of my will, even though I thought it was a harsh thing to do. He said he thought a boy should be able to make his own way in the world, not rely on family money. But it wasn't the way he did it himself. Your father stepped into a thriving business on a top salary. He didn't have to fight his way up. I got him there, and kept him there, in all kinds of ways that you can't even imagine.''

''It's okay Gramps. I don't want your money, or father's. I had every chance and I blew it. I'm no good. There's no point in throwing good money after bad. I'll never be any good. I'll just drag the Calder name down.''

''I disagree and I'm going to give you a second chance, whether you think you deserve one or not. Show them, Henry. You're a Calder. You're my grandson. Show your father that you really have grown up. You've probably learned more about life than any of us. Use it. Show them all. What's money for if it can't be passed down from one generation to the next? If it can't help the family? Your father isn't going to know about this ever. Have you got a pen and a piece of paper?''

He fished around in his pockets and found a grubby ball-point pen and an old printed bus ticket. That would have to do. ''Yes, Gramps.''

''I'm going to give you the number and location of a Swiss bank account, as well as a password. Memorise them all. Then destroy whatever you've written them on. They're going to be your new life, Henry. Your second chance.''

ooOoo

As he passed the receptionist's desk an unshaven, dishevelled young man in tattered jeans and an old white T-shirt was arguing with her. He caught a mention of the Calder name. ''What's going on here?'' he demanded, cutting through the man's pleas.

The nurse seemed bemused. ''This young man,'' she explained, clearly embarrassed, ''wants to see your grandfather. He claims that he's you.''

''Ridiculous. An obvious impostor with criminal intent. Some kind of vagrant, I would say. Call Security.''

There was no need. The man looked at him, then turned and left with a slow, dejected gait and without another word. ''Hard to believe anybody could be so blatant, isn't it? You need to protect my grandfather from people like that. As soon as they hear an old man with money is about to pass away they're on to him like vultures. It's disgusting. Isn't there any honesty or decency left in the world?''

Not waiting for a reply he strode confidently past her and headed for the main entrance.
Archived comments for The Prodigal Son


bluepootle on 12-11-2012
The Prodigal Son
Oooh. Nice twist. Not so very noble, then.

I liked the idea that watching Roger Moore movies could teach you upper class confidence. That added some fun.
It hung together well and I didn't see the ending coming. I liked the grandfather figure. It seemed a neat and interesting meditation on whether a lie ever can be totally selfless.

I think you missed a speech mark here: Not competence, confidence. Nothing else matters. (missing after "matters").

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Aliya. Glad it worked for you. It was a quick job, maybe not as deep as it could have been. A bit of fun, hopefully.
Quotation mark duly added.

e-griff on 12-11-2012
The Prodigal Son
A good, light story built around a worthy catch at the end. I do think it would have read better without some of the introduction, which was traditional (younger doe-eyed) with an intrusion that jolted me (clearly wondering how ....). your trademark dialogue/explanation section also struck me as a little heavy, but once we got into the swing of the plot it motored along nicely. One anomaly which really didn't fit -- 'I take it he's in a private ward?' first, given the preparation you've set up, a person in his ostensible position would not even ask this, but secondly, and more importantly, this would not be a public hospital where such a distinction could exist. (I guess it would either be his own home, or a private nursing home).

Nonetheless, entertaining to read.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the feedback.

I actually trimmed down the introduction considerably from the first draft, but there were a few points that I felt i wanted to retain – the idea that Duncan had a trophy wife and was living very comfortably, the idea that nobody would ever mistake his wife for a servant, the class gap between Duncan and the actor, the actor's lack of self-confidence and faith in himself (which he overcomes), the notion that confidence is what really separates Britain's classes one from the other. I don't think I could cut it very much further without loss. The anomaly of make-believe Duncan asking about the private ward was of course a slip-up on the part of somebody who hadn't really internalised his new class identity – but it's one that he gets away with. Driving home the point that self-assurance is all that counts. The ward sister doesn't ask either of the self-proclaimed grandson's for identification for the same reason. You don't question the authority of your social superiors.

Anyway, it's a light piece and I hope people enjoy it.

e-griff on 12-11-2012
The Prodigal Son
ps (after reading your response) one thing I forgot to say, which I will now given your reply, is he wouldn't be in a 'ward' would he?

Other responses:
The wife comes across as a rather quiet girl. to be a 'trophy wife' I think you need to beef up her description a bit.

I appreciate what you say about his slip-up but I think that's a bit too 'clever' to be apparent, and many readers will have the same reaction as me. As it is not important, it would be better to eliminate it.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for coming back with the second bite. As with all feedback, I'll take on board the bits I agree with, discard the bits I don't.

franciman on 12-11-2012
The Prodigal Son
A good story and an excellent twist at the end. I have two qualms which become almost nit picking given the lightness of the story. Having spent years around actors, I would be hard put to find one lacking in self-confidence. And perhaps there is a fair bit of 'author intervention' which you could preclude by making it first person narrative?
Grandfather/ Grandson scene worked beautifully for me.
Overall a really good piece of work.
cheers,
Jim
(P.S. Please, please lose "Doe-eyed wife'.)

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the feedback. Glad your general impression was favourable.

The idea of doing it in the first person is an interesting one. The place where it might interfere a bit would be at the end, when the protagonist has to surprise the reader with his duplicity. To do that in the first person you might need to introduce some tiny qualm of conscience, or at least a feeling of some kind to accompany the action. I think it might be hard to have him reveal himself in such a bad light without turning it into another kind of story.

The description 'doe-eyed' sums up a lot that I want to say about this character. She's young, very attractive (which is the source of her confidence and power rather than money) but also fairly passive. She let's her husband finish her thoughts for her, and simply reinforces what he wants to say. She's actually based on somebody I met who was married to a very wealth Italian. She's a possession rather than a person in her own right. I thought 'doe-eyed' fitted the bill rather well.


TheBigBadG on 12-11-2012
The Prodigal Son
It all ended up a bit like a Bond film too, didn't it. Him walking out in his suit pretending to be someone else clutching the number of a Swiss bank account hoping no one catches him before the exit...

I sincerely wanted him to give, or at least share, the money with the real son but perhaps I'm one of the optimists today. The twist was a nice touch though. The whole set up was neatly done as well, the little snippets of dialogue picking out the story progression et al. I'm with Griff though, some of the dialogue is a bit heavy, notably in the first section. F'r'instance:

“Of course you are. The sum you’ve mentioned is extremely generous. It’s me I’m worried about. I need to… sort of radiate confidence, the way rich people do. I don’t think I can do that. Don’t you see? – That’s the real difference between your class and mine. You people believe in yourselves totally. You think you have every right to be listened to, to assert yourselves, to take control in every situation. That’s what’s going to give me away. I don’t think I can fake that. He’ll know there’s something wrong – that I’m not a Calder. You’re asking far more than you realise.”

Maybe cut it after 'confidence' up to 'I don't think I can fake that.' The exposition of class differences is clear enough without needing to say it.

Well constructed though, and only builds on itself as you go through. The Grandfather in particular lifts it up.

G

Author's Reply:
Yes, plot-wise it's a re-telling of the parable, except that this time the returning son is a ruthless imposter.

I'll think about the sentence you don't like, but the whole thing hinges on the notion of the Calder set being able to command this immediate respect and authority. I want to do more than just mention the notion of social class. I want, through the actor's lips, to give an account of it as well.

Many thanks for your thoughts.


Shadow Dancer (film review) (posted on: 12-11-12)
This is a review that I wrote for the current edition of Gold Dust, but we were pushed for space and it got elbowed-out. By the time the next edition comes out it's going to be rather stale, so I thought I would put it in UKAuthors.com instead. I have a couple of still frames to go with it.

Shadow Dancer Director: James Marsh Written by Tom Bradby Cert (UK): 15 Running time: 101 mins Republic of Ireland 2012 Cast: Aidan Gillen, Andrea Riseborough, Brid Brennan, Clive Owen, Domhnall Gleeson, Gillian Anderson
The action of the film takes place mainly in Belfast in the 1990s, shortly before the Good Friday Agreement that brought to an end (at least in theory) the most recent round of 'troubles' in this much-troubled little province. Having lived in Belfast through the earlier phase of this campaign, as well as researching it again more recently for a book, what immediately struck me was how well the filmmakers had captured the atmosphere and mindset of a Provisional IRA family living in a housing estate on the outskirts of the city during the dying spasms of that bitter and ugly campaign. The scriptwriter, Tom Bradby, was ITN's principal Belfast reporter during this period, and sees right to the core of all his characters. The intelligent and always comprehensible script deals with the hierarchy of deception and misinformation by which both MI5 and the Provisionals control the unwitting pawns who are their own foot soldiers. By cynical manipulation of the truth and the selective holding back of information, the puppet masters of both sides seek to steer the actions of their junior agents and obtain the outcomes they desire. I have never seen a more convincing account of how a terrorist war is waged and resisted.
A female terrorist, brilliantly acted by Andrea Riseborough, is captured by MI5 agents and offered a deal: either a long prison sentence with little chance of contact with her young son, or release on condition that she becomes a British agent and spies on her comrades, many of them her own family members. She takes the deal, and must tread a terrifying line between the demands of the junior MI5 field officer (Clive Owen) who is her allotted controller and the fanatical local IRA commander and 'hard liner' (David Wilmot), who will countenance any degree of brutality in his desperation to prevent the split that's developing within his own organisation over new compromises that Whitehall is offering. This is an endgame, all the players are war-weary and steeped in moral compromise, life has become cheap and scruples long abandoned. The tension builds to a painful crescendo, and the film's conclusion comes as a genuine shock. But more important than the suspense and the violence, which has been done before, Shadow Dancer renders the motivation of its characters and the political context in which they operate comprehensible, and that's something that I don't think any of the British or American films dealing with this campaign have achieved. This is as good as political thrillers get.
Archived comments for Shadow Dancer (film review)
Andrea on 12-11-2012
Shadow Dancer (film review)
I really, really want to see this movie but, thus far, haven't been able to. Great review, David - makes me want to see it even more 🙂

Author's Reply:
Glad you liked the review. let me know what you think when you've seen it.

butters on 12-11-2012
Shadow Dancer (film review)
Clean, concise, enough tease about the storyline to make me want to know more about this film - one I'd not heard of till reading this. Looks to me as if you've done this justice


butters 😀

Author's Reply:
Glad to hear that you think I've done the film justice. Please let me know what you think of it when/if you see it.

japanesewind on 13-11-2012
Shadow Dancer (film review)
I too enjoyed your review, and will get the film...David

Author's Reply:
Glad you enjoyed the review. I hope you like the film when you see it. let me know what you think.


Lost Property (posted on: 22-10-12)
This is my story in response to the current challenge in the Workshop Challenges/Writing Exercises forum: "A story about someone who has forgotten something in their past and remembers, or is reminded of it." I hope you like it.

I allowed my hand to rest against the bulge of the Cobra Patriot 9 mm in my trouser pocket, to reassure myself that it was still there. A superb little weapon: light, accurate, deadly and completely reliable. I could fire it without taking it out of my pocket. Often that was the best way. I sipped my beer with eyes downcast to the newspaper that I wasn't reading, totally alert to everything that was going on around me. At the far end of the room a television chattered out the commentary to a football match, all but drowned by the murmur of conversations in the intervening space. I don't suppose any of the other customers noticed the middle-aged man in the brown jacket with the fur collar when he shuffled in and pulled himself onto a high stool at the far end of the bar. He was in his sixties, which meant that he was too old to attract a single glance from any of the young businesspeople who drank here. The bartender was older still, but his position imbued him with enough status to have struck up a conversation with two over-made-up office girls perched on bar stools, trying to make their gin and tonics last until the arrival of someone else, whose name I had picked-up as 'Cynth'. He finished the story he was telling and smirked for a moment in appreciation of their polite giggles before strolling down to address the newcomer. ''Evening, Jed. Will it be the usual?'' Jed nodded and saluted smartly. It was some kind of private joke. Already he looked like a fixture, an extension of the dented old stool on which he sat, silent, as though everything he had to say he had already said, many times. It seemed that his only reason for being here was the meagre company of these indifferent, self-absorbed young folk. Pulling the straps of my holdall over my shoulder and lifting my almost empty pint, I made my way to the bar and stood next to the newcomer. ''Good evening. I think we know one another. Aren't you Jed Collingsworth?'' ''Yes'' he looked me up and down with a puzzled expression. ''I can't say I recall'' ''Oh, it was a long time ago. Northern Ireland. Back in the 1970s. Beginning of the Provisional IRA bombing campaign.'' His puzzlement seemed to grow deeper. ''Really? You seem a little young to have been involved in that'' ''I was just a boy. Ten or eleven years old. You still can't remember me, can you?'' The old man shook his head. ''Do you mind if I join you?'' He looked a little uncomfortable but by way of reply he gestured towards the stool beside him. ''What did you say your name was?'' ''I didn't. That would make it too easy. Spoil the fun.'' I tried to sound jovial, and it seemed to help. He smiled. ''It's a guessing game, is it?'' ''Yes. That's what it is.'' I signalled to the barman. ''Another one for the two of us please.'' He studied my face. ''I doubt if I'll remember,'' he said. ''That whole period feels like a different lifetime now. Ugly and painful and best forgotten. The Irish have moved on and so have I.'' I watched the barman pulling the lever to draw the two pints. ''Us Irish are a funny lot,'' I told him. ''Very long memories for some things. I remember coming in to land at Aldergrove with my parents when I was just a lad. The pilot said: 'We're now approaching Aldergrove Airport, Belfast. Please put your watches back four hundred years.' Good for a laugh, us Irish, aren't we?'' He refused to take the bait. ''I think it's great the way the Irish can laugh at themselves.'' That was a clever answer. Jed had diplomatic skills. I paused for a moment, deciding what to say next. I needed to be certain. I needed to draw him out. ''Like I said, I was just a nipper back then. But there are things I can't forget. You too, surely. Do you remember all the check-points and road blocks around the streets of Belfast? All the times you were sent out to stop cars and search people? You must have done a lot of that.'' ''Well yes. Of course I remember. We all did a lot of that. More of that than anything else.'' He frowned. ''Look, do we have to talk about this? I mean, what's the point? It was decades ago. The whole world is different now.'' It was my turn to think of a diplomatic answer. ''Not as different as it would have been if things had gone differently.'' ''What? You mean politically? Were you involved politically? I never understood any of that. Was never able to make head or tail of it. I was just a young squaddie fresh out of boot camp on my first posting, trying to carry out orders as best I could. I didn't know anything about the rights and wrongs of it all. I didn't have an opinion then and I don't now. I just think streets ought to be safe to walk down and people shouldn't go around planting bombs. Thank god it doesn't happen any more. Something we did must have worked. That's all that matters to me.'' ''Something you did. Yes, you're right. Something you did must have had the desired effect.'' ''So it looks like you and I were on different sides of some ancient bit of bad blood that ended thirty years ago. All water under the bridge. No hard feelings. Okay?'' He held out his hand and I took it without hesitation. I had no desire to make him feel uncomfortable. I just needed to be certain. The heads on our pints had settled. The barman brought them over and I paid. ''You two know each other then?'' he asked. ''I know Jed. Jed doesn't seem to remember me.'' ''Were you in the forces? Jed and I were in the forces together a long time ago.'' He looked at me and I thought I detected a hint of recognition. ''Did you have your picture in the papers. Years ago? Something political?'' ''It was my father,'' I said quietly. ''Everybody said we looked very alike.'' He hesitated for a moment. ''Oh yeah. Of course. Couldn't have been you you're too young.'' He left us and made his way back towards the two girls. It was pretty clear that he didn't want to talk about Belfast. I turned to Jed. From my holdall I drew out an old-fashioned British army steel helmet with a mottled green-and-brown cloth camouflage cover. I placed it on the counter between Jed and myself. ''Your property,'' I said. ''Or maybe crown property. But you were the one wearing it.'' He stared at it but did not touch it. After a few silent moments he looked up at me. ''Maybe you remember who I am now?'' He nodded. His expression had become very uneasy. ''It was 1970 or 71.'' He spoke so quietly I could only just hear him over the buzz of conversations behind us. ''Leeson Street, East Belfast.'' ''That's right. Go on.'' ''We were out on a routine patrol in the Saracen four of us plus an officer. In fact the officer was Rick over there.'' He nodded towards the barman. ''We got an order to question some Republican who lived nearby. I suppose Rick must have got it on the radio. So we parked up fifty or sixty yards from the house, and Rick told us to wait and keep our eyes open, and then he went off by himself.'' ''Was that unusual?'' ''No, not really. I suppose it was a bit unusual that he didn't ask any of us to get out and give him cover. There were lots of snipers about at the time. Usually you would try to provide a bit of rifle cover if somebody was getting out. Anyway, he went by himself. He was the officer, we weren't going to argue.'' ''And then?'' ''I think you know what happened then. Better than I do, really. The street lights were out. It was almost pitch black. That was deliberate, to make it harder for the snipers. We heard a single gunshot. We reckoned a sniper had had a go at the Captain. And when he came running back like all the devils in hell were after him, we were pretty sure that was what had happened. He jumped into the front of the Saracen and told the driver to move it, which he did. Then, as we pulled away, I heard this screaming kid. Really screaming, like he'd been seriously injured. I never heard anything like it. And he was running chasing the Saracen and screaming like he might have stopped a bullet. I thought he was hit for sure, that we should get him to the hospital, and I leaned out of the back and tried to take his hand, yelled at the driver to stop, that the kid was hurt, but the driver didn't stop. He speeded-up. We just touched hands, the little kid and me, and then we lost him. Left him behind in the dark. I've no idea what happened to him. I thought we should have stopped picked him up. He was obviously in a bad way'' ''And that was when you lost your helmet?'' ''That's right. When I leaned out. I didn't have the chin-strap on properly like I should have. It was always a bit too big for me, that helmet.'' ''Did you ever find out what really happened that night?'' He hesitated. ''Sort of. Well, I put two and two together. There was all that stuff in the papers the next day'' ''It wasn't the British army's most glorious hour, was it? And Special Branch were wrong about my father. He wasn't in the least bit political. They must have got him mixed up with somebody else.'' ''So it was a cold-blooded assassination like the Irish News said?'' ''He pushed in past my mother, shot my father with a service revolver, right between the eyes. Simple as that. I saw it all.'' There was a distinct lull in the conversation. Up at the other end of the counter the barman had spotted the helmet and was walking slowly back in our direction. ''This is pointless.'' Jed spoke in a breathy whisper. ''Nothing can bring him back. We've got to move on. All of us. It was a totally evil, disgraceful act. But revenge isn't going to make anything better let some good come out of it. Learn from it'' ''I did learn. Our whole family learned which side we were on. Your captain did a brilliant recruiting job for the Volunteers.'' The barman had reached where we were sitting. He lifted the helmet and grinned broadly. ''Hey, Jed,'' he said, ''I remember the day you lost this!'' ''So do I,'' I told him, returning his grin. The Cobra Patriot is a relatively noisy gun. I like that about it it helps to clear the room in a situation like this. One shot was all it took. He slumped forward onto the counter and knocked over Jed's beer. ''I'll buy you another one some time,'' I promised him. ''But right now I have to go.''
Archived comments for Lost Property
Nomenklatura on 22-10-2012
Lost Property
Ha, well done. I liked the misdirection towards the customer when the landlord was the target. (or did I get that wrong?)

I enjoyed this one, gripping.

Author's Reply:
No, you got it right. Many thanks for the kind words.

franciman on 22-10-2012
Lost Property
I enjoyed this story. Kept me absorbed although I knew from midway that the barman was the target. On the technical side, it felt as though dialogue was taking place in a vacuum? Probably due to the static nature of the story.
More tell than show here, though it didn't distract the reader that much. Overall, a great concept and generally well executed.

Author's Reply:
Thanks franciman. Since a story from the past had to be literally 'told', I was a bit stuck with 'tell' for that.

bluepootle on 22-10-2012
Lost Property
I enjoyed this. It had a theatrical quality, with the setting of the scene and the way in which the main characters addressed each other - the bar seemed like a stage for these stories. Plus, of course, the Chekhovian notion that if you're going to introduce a gun at the beginning somebody's got to have fired it by the end.

I think, because the image of the gun seems stronger than me than telling us a murder is going to be committed, I might have made this para my opening:

'I allowed my hand to rest against the bulge of the Cobra Patriot 9 mm in my trouser pocket, to reassure myself that it was still there. A superb little weapon: light, accurate, deadly – and completely reliable. I could fire it without taking it out of my pocket. Often that was the best way. '

It's a beautiful bit of writing and then maybe because you're not leading with a tell, it makes the rest of the piece look less tell-driven. Just a thought. But a very involving story still.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Aliya. That's a very good idea for a change. My first sentence was just there to grab the reader's attention, but that one you've picked out of the text from a bit later works much better and gives away less. Thanks for being a great editor.

BATEMAN on 22-10-2012
Lost Property
A griping read Sirat, well written made me feel like i was there xxxx

Author's Reply:
Glad it worked for you. Many thanks.

TheBigBadG on 22-10-2012
Lost Property
(Trying Griff's thing and not reading the comments above, so you know) I like the red herring here. I worked out that Jed wasn't our man roughly when he said about Rick heading off on his own, but that's not important to me. With these reminiscences I often feel that the dramatic reveal cheapens the process - recent Hollywood ghost stories like The Others and The Awakening for instance. This doesn't do that though. Tracking Jed's tension, then the unpleasantness of the reveal, then Jed's entirely different fear because he knows what's going to happen brings it to life. It's a neat little arc, and the fading concern with the right and wrong of The Troubles and the desire to move on in peace seems pertinent as well. Revenge stories should be about more than the act of violence, after all. Deserving of the nib IMHO.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much, large evil one. Much appreciated.

Mikeverdi on 22-10-2012
Lost Property
For me this was first class story telling. I do not feel qualified to critique as I am still a novice at this, but its from writing such as this that I will learn. Thanks for posting this. Mike

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much, Mike. Kind words much appreciated. Everyone is 'qualified' to say what they think of a story. Please don't be shy.

Andrea on 23-10-2012
Lost Property
I can hear you reading this, David.

'I didn’t know anything about the rights and wrongs of it all. I didn’t have an opinion then and I don’t now.' - That's the problem, isn't it? No opinion and therefore blind obedience.

No crit - can't fault it. Gripping. And I didn't twig until the last para that it was the barman who was the target. Good stuff.

Author's Reply:
Thanks, Andrea. Glad you liked it. An
Engineering Paradise spinoff.
ValDohren on 23-10-2012
Lost Property
Really enjoyed reading this story, it kept my attention to the end which, like Andrea, I didn't see coming. Well done.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the kind words. Glad the story worked for you.

zenbuddhist on 24-10-2012
Lost Property
The main problem with this is the dialogue between the two main characters, it's not really a conversation, while reading it I was very conscious of the fact that I (as the reader)was the intended beneficiary of a very detailed series of events which actually had a detaching rather than an involving effect. Maybe a better idea would be the assassin silently passing Jed a torn out old newspaper article that says more or less the same thing without the high emotion...after all he's a cold blooded killer hell bent on revenge.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the feedback. I don't entirely agree that you as reader were the intended audience for the descriptions, except in the sense that any reported dialogue within a story is intended for the reader. The two men are comparing their memories of the same night, each filling-in details from his own point of view. The assassin's motivation in engaging in the conversation is to confirm that he has got the right man in Rick, the barman. That's the main reason he doesn't just walk in and shoot Rick. But he also wants to meet the man who tried to save him, the young soldier who wanted to stop the armoured vehicle to pick up a possibly injured child, and literally buy him a drink. He doesn't want to make the same mistake that Rick made – killing an innocent man.

You've actually got two-cold blooded killers in this story, but I haven't given either of them the stereotype silent, morose professional killer personality.

chant_z on 25-10-2012
Lost Property
No comment on my part.

Author's Reply:
None on my part either, except 'thanks'.

teifii on 31-10-2012
Lost Property
Briliant story. I only stsrted to suspect that Jed wa not the target after he introduced Rick. And I never did guess Jed's actual part in it.

Author's Reply:


Loss of Face (posted on: 17-08-12)
This one is for the 'Workshop Challenges/Writing Exercises' forum challenge, a story in which 'at least some of the action takes place in a House of Mirrors'. I hope you like it.

A man and a woman were standing by the door of the Reinhardt house when I arrived. They'd come in a small red Japanese car and parked it on the paved section of the driveway, much too close to the solemn pillared entrance, flanked by its two stone goddesses. It looked very wrong. Far too bright and modern, thoughtlessly disrupting the dignity and even solemnity of the front elevation that the architect had so lovingly devised. The young couple waited patiently for me to park in a generously proportioned alcove at the side of the building and crunch my way across the gleaming marble gravel to where they stood. They were young and casually dressed in jeans and 'T' shirts. I suspected that my much more formal appearance made them uncomfortable. The woman gave me a bright if not entirely sincere smile and the man held out his hand in greeting. It was he who addressed me. ''Hello, Mr Cunningham. You found your way all right?'' ''No problem. I hope I haven't kept you waiting.'' ''Not at all. I'm Claude Selby. This is Rita. We run the Selby Agency together.'' I nodded. ''Shall we go in then?'' The young man frowned. ''I've unlocked the door. You've seen the printed material. You're very welcome to have a look around yourself if you would like, and I'll be here to answer any questions.'' I was slightly surprised that he didn't want to come with me, if only to make sure that I didn't pocket any of the old man's valuables. Although in reality the personal effects would have been removed by now. Anything of real value would have been sold to pay the death duties. There would just be some furniture perhaps some family portraits. But always that faint chance that something had been missed. I wondered if they were actually scared of the old place. If they'd been listening to the stories about the Reinhardt family. ''I believe old Otto was a bit of a recluse?'' I offered, to provide an opening for anything they might want to tell me. ''Very much so. I've never met anybody who's actually seen him. There was just the old butler who found the body. Mr Reinhardt lived on his own here for more than twenty years. Ever since his father died in the 1990s. A very private man.'' ''Oh well. I suppose I may as well take a look then. Sure you don't want to come with me?'' ''No, sir. Quite sure. We'll leave you alone to have a good look. Take as long as you like.'' I thanked the pair of them and pushed the heavy door open. It took my eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. My initial impression was of a big dim space, cut across by a single shaft of sunlight from a high window, and smelling of furniture polish. Then, slowly, the details of the entrance hall began to show themselves. An elegant and highly decorated curved staircase sweeping up to a balcony from which two corridors disappeared into the distance. On the wall beneath it an enormous faded battle scene of soldiers on horseback with chainmail and broad-brimmed hats, wounded men bleeding beneath galloping hooves, pikemen in the distance, musketeers squatting in the foreground, flags waving, pain and death everywhere. Smaller framed pictures to either side. An oval wooden table in the middle of the floor with two elegant carved wooden chairs at either side, presumably where the butler would have asked visitors to wait until Mr Reinhardt was ready to see them. If anybody had ever come to see him, that is. Cabinets and book cases lined most of the walls, heavy curtains hiding high-up leaded-glass windows. The space seemed to radiate antiquity and neglect. A room where nothing much had happened for a very long time. It was a museum piece dusted and polished undoubtedly, but no longer enjoyed, if it ever had been. There were light switches on the wall close to where I had entered. I tried each of them in turn but to no effect. The electricity, understandably, was switched off. I took the phone from my pocket and used its display as a light to take a closer look at the pictures hanging in the gloom beneath the balcony. Formal family portraits of indifferent quality, nothing much older than the middle of the 18th century. Strange how the people managed to look German rather than English, even when there were no obvious clues or indicators in their surroundings. The battle scene was the only one that might possibly fetch a worthwhile price, but up close the technique with which it was painted was relatively crude, and I didn't recognise the artist's name. Another large reception room on the ground floor a dining room a kitchen a smaller lounge. Masses of period furniture. Dozens of pieces of art. But, as expected, the best pieces represented only by rectangles of un-faded wallpaper or vacant spaces where one might have expected a chair, a cabinet or a desk. The auctioneers appointed by the solicitors had done their job well. By the time I got to the upstairs rooms, of which there were many, my phone was displaying a warning that its battery was about to give out, and I had found nothing to suggest that the remaining contents were worth any more than the estate agents' crude valuation. I wondered if I should get somebody to come up from Southeby's to take a look at the battle scene, but decided that it probably wouldn't be worth their fee. The upstairs room at the far end of the left-hand corridor bore a German inscription on a tarnished brass plate: 'Gefahr. Zimmer von Spiegeln'. I was pretty sure that 'gefahr' meant 'danger' and 'zimmer' was a room. There was presumably something dangerous about this room. I located Selby's number on my phone and called him, waiting at the door with his wife. ''Mr Selby? It's Nick Cunningham here. I've found a room with some kind of brass plaque on it. Something to do with danger'' ''That's the Room of Mirrors, Mr Cunningham. I wouldn't go in there.'' ''The Room of Mirrors? Sounds like a fairground attraction'' ''No, Mr Cunningham. Its purpose was rather more serious than that'' As he spoke I turned the handle and opened the door. There was no light whatsoever in the room. It was like stepping into the blackness of space before time had begun. I stood still, waiting for my eyes to accommodate, hoping that the feeble glow of the telephone would show me something of where I was. Selby's voice continued. ''As you may know, Mr Reinhardt was the unfortunate victim of severe facial disfigurement. He was trapped in the family home on the outskirts of Dresden when it was firebombed by the Allies in February 1945. His family had money and influence and he got life-saving treatment straight away, but the reconstruction of his face couldn't begin until the war ended about three months later. It was too late to do very much then. There had been infections, complications. They managed to save his sight, it seems, but in retrospect, it might have been better if they hadn't.'' ''What has that got to do with the Room of Mirrors?'' As I asked the question the door clicked shut behind me. But instead of total darkness, I seemed to be floating in a night sky filled with clusters of faint blue-white stars stretching to infinity in every direction. It was quite stunningly beautiful. As I lifted the telephone very slightly towards my face the entire universe seemed to surge upwards to follow it. The telephone was my universe it's feebly glowing screen was every one of the stars, reflected endlessly backwards and forwards from unseen walls of facing mirrors. ''It's beautiful,'' I whispered into the phone. ''It's absolutely beautiful.'' ''I don't quite understand you, Mr Cunningham. What's beautiful?'' ''Everything. The Room of Mirrors. The stars. The little stars that my phone is making. They're everywhere. The whole world is made of stars'' I turned around and reached out, trying to touch the stars, or the mirrors, or whatever it was that was out there. I walked forwards with my right hand containing the phone outstretched, moving it up and down and side to side, making the universe shimmer and dance, painting with stars, creating order and beauty out of the points of light. But there was nothing there, my hand continued to wave about in empty air. I could find no opposite wall. I turned and walked in a different direction. Exactly the same. No mirrors. Nothing but the faint, infinitely numerous points of light, moving to my command, under my control. How many steps was that I had taken? I wasn't sure. Selby was saying something. I held the phone closer to my ear. ''designed by his father. It was supposed to make him overcome his revulsion about his own appearance. Make him get used to it and accept it. Force him to acknowledge who he was.'' ''I see. That was a pretty cruel thing for his father to do to him, wasn't it? Though well-intentioned, I suppose.'' ''Cruel and futile, Mr Cunningham. However you want to say it, whatever euphemism you want to use, Otto Reinhardt retired from the world as soon as he saw what he looked like. It's generally accepted that he lost his sanity and had to be hidden away by his family. The room you're standing in has some very bad stories connected with it. I'm not a superstitious man but I wouldn't want to go in there personally.'' ''It's just a room, Mr Selby. With mirrors on the walls. And the ceiling, I think. Maybe even on the floor. I wonder how they did that? It's a very strange room. But I think I've seen enough now. I'm coming out.'' ''Good idea. If there were such things as ghosts sorry, I'm talking nonsense now.'' ''Don't worry. I'm coming out.'' I tried to remember exactly where I had come from. Had I changed direction twice or only once? I tried to estimate where the door was but the stars looked the same in every direction. I hadn't even noticed whether the door had a handle on the inside. But of course it must have a handle. How could a door not have a handle? I walked, but found no door. No mirror, no wall. The stars seemed to be getting a little fainter. I felt a rush of anxiety. ''Mr Selby? I'm really sorry to bother you, but do you think you could come up here and open the door for me? It's very difficult to see where it is in the dark.'' There was no reply. I glanced down at the screen. There was only a red battery alert and the words: 'no signal'. Then, without further warning, there was nothing. No light from the screen. No light from anywhere. And the phone itself seemed to have gone. I must have dropped it. What a silly thing to have done! But why hadn't I heard it hit the floor? It was almost as though the device had disappeared. Passed out of existence. I was clutching nothing just making a fist with my empty hand. All I could see now were the after-images of the stars on the backs of my eyes. A powdering of white dots remembered by my retinas. The darkness was absolute. But Selby must have heard my call for help. How could he not have heard it? ''Selby?'' I spoke his name aloud, pointlessly. The dots on my retinas began to swim. They were trying to coalesce into some kind of image. I closed my eyes, unnecessarily, because there was no light to shield them from, but somehow it seemed the right thing to do. The dots were brightening a little. Forming an image. An image of a human face! A face staring straight into mine. A melted, distorted, asymmetric face, the most repulsive one I had ever seen or could ever have imagined. I took an involuntary step backwards to get away from it, but the position of the face did not change. It still hung in the air, just a few inches from mine. When it spoke its eyes narrowed into the caricature of a smile. The lips pulled aside to reveal random crooked teeth in decayed and eroded gums. Its accent was thickly Germanic, its diction slurred, but still the words were unmistakable: ''I am handsome. I am normal. For the first time I can see myself as I really am. The mirrors have stopped telling me lies. I am cured! I have got my real face back again I'll always have it now!''
Archived comments for Loss of Face
TheBigBadG on 17-08-2012
Loss of Face
I'd say this was more a ghost story or horror, but I also enjoyed the fact that I wasn't trying to double-guess it so perhaps it's better for the 'drama' label. It feels quite different from your normal stuff indeed, which is good and interesting. There are Lovecraftian moments in there, with the decrepit house and the sense of invading an incomprehensible gateway. Nothing too overt or heavy-handed though, which I like; just hints and tones.

To return the favour, a couple of technicalities: on capitals but I'd use 'Selby Agency' and 'death duties' personally, and phones either have a symbol for no signal or say 'Emergency calls only' in my experience.

As for the story overall, I think the slipping into the mirrors is handled very well, everything from the dying battery onwards in fact. The gentle drifting away, the vanishing of the phone etc are the strongest moments IMO. You step back from the cliched 'horror and the unknowable' at the right moment which captures the confusion and enchantment. I'd perhaps lose the 'for all eternity' at the end though because I don't think you need to spell it out that explicitly. The reveal is to do with the narrator being trapped and claimed by Reinhardt, that's enough for me.

I'd be inclined to cut the para with the description of the battle-scene down as it feels like a red-herring once you get to the end. The antiquity and unpleasant, dominant nature of the artwork is the message, which could be expressed more efficiently.

Good stuff though, not the kind of thing I was expecting, which is always my favourite kind of thing.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the feedback. It's not really an unsual kind of story for me, I used to do lots of this kind of thing when I was starting out, but I've veered away from them.

You're right that I didn't want to use the 'Ghost Story' or 'Horror' categories because they would give too much away.

Taking your points one by one, I agree about the Selby Agency, and strangely enough ' Death Duties' was originally 'death duties' but I thought it looked wrong and changed it. Will change it back.

A phone offering 'emergency calls only' would be telling you there was no money in your account, surely, not that there was no signal? You couldn't make emergency calls if there was no signal. Whether words or a symbol are used to convey the 'no signal' condition would vary from one model to another. I think I'll leave that. The idea is that he has passed into a region where radio waves don't penetrate. His link with the ordinary world has gone.

I tend to agree about 'for all eternity'. There's probably a better phrase, but I think it needs something to round off the story. Maybe 'I'll never lose it now' or something.

I'm not sure about the description of the picture. It explains what Cunningham is doing there, where his interests lie. And all you've got really is a description of the scene and his opinion that it's crudely painted and of little value. I think I'll probably let it stand.

So I've made a few small changes in response to what you've said.

Many thanks.

WendyJ on 17-08-2012
Loss of Face
This is a great story and had my heart pumping with anticipation and a little bit of fear of the unexpected.
I do agree with TheBigBadG though, in thinking the battle scene on the picture was a little more than it needed to be, but the discription of the house was great and really set the scene.

Author's Reply:
Thanks, Wendy. Much appreciated.

bluepootle on 31-08-2012
Loss of Face
Sorry to get here so late. I think there's a wonderful bit of writing here when he first discovers the room of mirrors. It really draws the reader in. Nice use of the phone to fill in the backstory too. I think you could heighten the creepiness by lengthening the later description of the ruined face, and not ending on that dialogue, but on internal realization of what has happened that builds to a crescendo. The dialogue just feels a bit forced at the end there. Still, I love this kind of macabre story and really enjoyed this example of it.

Author's Reply:


Testament (posted on: 27-07-12)
For the Workshop Challenges/Writing Exercises challenge. I wasn't sure about submitting this one, I'm not really very happy with it, but I said I would put it in so here it is.

Luke watched the hovercar rise above the red sandstone hills to the east and follow the contours of the land, disappearing for a few moments into the hidden dry valley of the Rillito River before reappearing above the clump of giant Saguaro cacti ten or twelve kilometres from the farm, a distance which it covered in seconds, coming to a noisy stop and settling to the ground a few metres from his porch. The two mares in the north paddock cantered to the far end of their enclosure but didn't seem too alarmed. A country person would have had more sense than to come careering up to a pair of horses in a cack-handed way like that. The older he got the less common sense there seemed to be left in the world. The supply was no doubt running out, like all the other resources. He watched the two young men, one carrying a holocorder, descend clumsily from their craft and amble over to where he was sitting. They were wearing no hats, but full city suits with jackets and even neck-ties for the 42-degree noonday heat of the Arizona desert. Luke's pessimism for the future of his world deepened. ''Luke Morgan?'' the first one asked cheerfully, while his companion switched on his machine. ''Not much likely to be anybody else, am I?'' He gestured towards the two other chairs on the porch. ''Best sit down boys, get out of the sun before your brains melt.'' ''Thank you kindly, sir.'' They settled themselves down in the shade of the generous porch, angling their chairs so as to get eye-contact and a better holo. ''I'm Scott Mason and this here is my cameraman Jay Denker. Thanks for consenting to an interview.'' ''There's a few beers in the refrigerator in there.'' Luke indicated vaguely behind him. ''Just help yourselves.'' ''We're good for now, Mr Morgan. Is it okay if we call you Luke?'' ''That's what every other folk calls me.'' ''Okay. Well, I think you know why we're here.'' ''Come to see if it's time to put me in a museum someplace, with a little brass plaque to tell folks what I am.'' ''Not quite, Mr Morgan Luke but since the sad passing of Mrs Holly Kemp in New Jersey, you are currently the oldest living citizen in the United States of America, and we want our viewers to have the chance of benefitting from your experience and wisdom and insights'' ''Before I go join Holly Kemp?'' ''Well, yes sir, I suppose there isn't much point in pretending that any of us is here for ever.'' ''No. There isn't. First sensible thing you've said since you got here.'' Mason beamed across at him, a patronising smile like a kindly uncle regarding a somewhat naughty but engaging nephew. He laughed politely something between a giggle and a cough. ''I understand you were brought up on a farm not far from where we are right now?'' ''My folks were dairy farmers. Managed to grow some of their own feed, but mostly it was just cattle and horses. That was our business.'' ''And what was your family like?'' ''Like every other family back then. Two sisters and me. We all went to college. One sister married a farmer and kept the business going when my folks died. We all went our separate ways. I wanted to work with computers, so that's what I did. All that was pretty new back then, so it was a good move to get in on the ground floor.'' ''I guess the world was very different to what it is now?'' ''The world was a mess. America trying to take it over before the oil ran out. One stupid war after another. Making enemies left right and centre. Folks scared of terrorists. Scared of one another. Economy up and down like a yoyo. Cities ruled by drug barons. Everybody toting guns. Murders every five minutes. Folks afraid to leave their houses in the big cities. Politicians telling them it was all because China and the East had got too powerful, and our economy was going down the pan. Only way out was to teach the bad guys overseas a lesson. Arming-up for another war to end wars. You remember all that? 'Course not. You're far too young. But thank God we came through it. Started to grow up a bit just in time.'' ''I know the USA was pretty obsessed with defence back then. And in fact I think I'm right in saying that your working career began in what was then the Boeing Defence, Space & Security Division in Seattle, Washington. That would have been the most important military research and development centre in the country. What was it that you actually did there, Luke?'' ''I helped to design the software for machines that killed people.'' The two visitors glanced at one another. ''Isn't that a little harsh, Mr Luke?'' ''Killing people? Yeah. Very harsh. It don't come much harsher than that.'' ''No, I was thinking of Sorry, never mind. I think you found your first romantic partner while you were working there. Is that right?'' ''I'm sure you know that I paired up with that little Chinese girl, Ling Mee. You've presumably done that much homework.'' The interviewer became more serious. ''And how many years were you and Miss Mee?'' ''It's Miss Ling, actually. Chinese people's first and last names go the other way around. I was with her until the CIA shot her in 2021.'' There was a silence. ''Are you accusing the US authorities of having somebody killed, Luke?'' ''What do you think?'' ''You've got to be a bit careful there, you know. Unsubstantiated accusations and all that'' ''What's Uncle Sam going to do? Sue me? Put me in prison? They shot her. Two of their agents. They'd been hanging around her apartment block for days. Finally, they saw their chance and they put a bullet in her head. You want me to lie about it? Why should I? Enough lies been told about it already.'' There was another pause. ''This isn't really the tone of the interview that we had in mind, Luke.'' He signalled to the other to switch off the holocorder. ''I'm too old for fairytales, Mr Mason. Believing them, telling them or listening to them. The CIA killed her because they thought she was sending top secret computer code back to China. Back then you had to write every line of code by hand, type it into the machine and then test it over and over again until it did what you wanted it to. Nothing was self-correcting, computers didn't understand English even the cars had big control wheels that you turned and they would go any way you pointed them. No protective systems whatsoever. Did you know that?'' ''Yes, Luke. I've heard about that. But tell me, what makes you think Ling Mee was killed by the CIA? Because there were two men hanging around where she lived?'' ''Because they told me they were going to kill her unless I could find out who her contact was, how she was getting the information out of the country.'' ''And you think they killed her because you couldn't do that?'' ''I couldn't do it because there wasn't any contact. It was a fantasy A load of bullshit. She wasn't a spy. Neither was I. Back then.'' ''Back then? How do you mean, back then? Are you saying you became one later?'' ''Who cares? It's something like seventy-five years ago. What does any of it matter any more? You want to talk about how I've lived so long? What keeps me so fit? That's what most of the boys who come here want to talk about.'' ''Luke, I don't think you know what you're saying here. You're talking about committing treason against the United States of America. Passing classified information to a hostile foreign government.'' ''So? Turn me in. Let's have a trial. I'll tell the world a thing or two about how the USA conducts its foreign affairs. I'll bet it hasn't changed very much.'' ''Look, Mr Morgan Luke. We don't want to get involved in this kind of thing. Nobody has anything to gain from it. Let's start over. Okay?'' ''No. Not okay.'' He nodded towards the holocorder operator. ''Why don't you turn that thing back on again? Why don't we get a few things out in the open. Educate people a little bit.'' ''You've got the wrong idea, Luke. It isn't that kind of programme. No spies. No cloak and dagger stuff. Just ordinary folks talking about their lives. Thanksgiving, family members, service in the military, grandchildren, apple pie. This other stuff it isn't for us. If you want to get it out in the open you'll have to publish it yourself, some other way. Sorry, but that's how it is.'' Luke turned away from the two men and stared out into the desert. ''They made a bad mistake when they shot Ling Mee. Up to then, I'd been pretty indifferent about politics. All I wanted was a chance to use the computer skills I'd learned, earn a decent wage, drink a few beers and watch a ball game at the end of the week but seeing what they done to her, I began to think that maybe I did care about politics about the way this country and the world was run. I knew Mee's family in Shanghai, and I knew enough written Chinese to say what I needed to say to them. To make them a proposition. And I knew a hell of a lot more about information technology than Mee ever did. I knew how to link China into the Seattle computer so that they knew every detail of every project that ever took place there, about half a second after the teams themselves did. And nobody ever found out that they could listen in. That's why Chinese military technology kept perfect pace with American for about two decades after that. Why there could never be a war between them. The balance of power. Mutual assured destruction. MAD. That was what they called it when it was just nuclear bombs the two sides had. I guess you folks are too young to have heard of that, ain't you?'' ''You're telling me that you systematically betrayed your country for at least twenty years, that you were never found out, and that as a result there could never be a war between the Chinese bloc and the Western Allies?'' ''That's about it. I consider it a proud accomplishment. Instead of ripping each other's guts out we eventually learned to work together and solved some actual problems. Got the world population down a bit, stopped the runaway global warming we had back then. Developed all the new energy sources. Learned how to cooperate instead of scratching each other's eyes out. That world out there isn't perfect, far from it, but at least there is a world, It's held together for my life time, and I think what I did back then helped to make it that way. I wanted somebody to know before I died. Even if it's just you two, I suppose. Didn't want to take it to the grave with me. It don't make any difference to anything now, but I just wanted somebody to know.'' Scott Mason said nothing. He started to touch his fingernails with the tip of his tongue. ''Luke,'' he said at last, ''I think you're bullshitting us. I don't buy any of this. I think you're playing us for a couple of chumps. That's not the way the world works. The way history works. It works because elected governments look after their people, make pacts with foreign powers, sit down together and talk things through. It doesn't all come down to one or two maverick individuals working behind the scenes'' Luke shrugged. His attention seemed to be diverted by the two mares, who had come back to the near side of the paddock. ''Yeah. Just like there's a god up in the sky that knows every time a sparrow falls and has our future all planned out for us. My mom and pa used to believe that. Scary to think that it's all as finely balanced as it is, ain't it? Maybe I am bullshitting. Maybe I dreamt it all. Made it all up so I could feel important. How are you ever going to know, eh? Yeah. You believe what you want to. That's what everybody does. But now at least I've told you the way it really was. And when you two have lived long enough to find out what the world's like, you'll know whether I was bullshitting you or not. I just wish I could be around to say I told you so.''
Archived comments for Testament
bluepootle on 27-07-2012
Testament
I really enjoyed this. It's a bit dialogue heavy, but it's interesting dialogue and I got caught up in it. I think maybe it could end with him watching them go, just to bring it back to description and give it a full circle, but I liked this vision of world affairs, of his role in it. And the idea that they weren't interested in the truth - that will stick with me.

So, maybe more descriptive elements needed to intersperse and finish up the dialogue, but very enjoyable as it is.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for that Aliya. I've been messing about with it for a while and couldn't make up my mind if it was worth keeping or not. Glad you found some merit in it.

Turbot on 27-07-2012
Testament


Author's Reply:
Thanks Turbot. If you have any comments I would be interested to hear them.

TheBigBadG on 28-07-2012
Testament
It's definitely a solid story, some nice interplays on youth and wisdom and that, ultimately, it's a love story. I also like the implication that whilst there has been some progress in the world but people are still predominantly interested in puff over content. It does seem to me that you have it all planned out before you start writing, in fact. It means your pieces are normally well structured and plausible (something I don't always manage, because I work bits out as I go).

Blue is right that it is a bit heavy on the dialogue, and the ending is a bit abrupt, but some tweaking can address that. The question I'm left with is why he talks like a rural type at the start but then becomes pretty eloquent? It jars a little for me; if it's an intentional affectation maybe put something in to make that a little clearer?

Author's Reply:
Thanks for that, George. Quite a perceptive comment. You're right that it is my style to do at least 90% of the writing in my head before I put anything down on paper. I don't know if that is a particularly good technique, I sometimes think it betrays a kind of insecurity, in that I'm afraid to start writing until I'm certain I know where I'm going and it's going to be 'all right'. But whatever the reason it's a style that I seem to be condemned to. I can't get spontaneity to work for me.

You're also right that the register in which the old man speaks was one of the things I wasn't happy with when I posted the story. He's essentially an old cattle farmer who has retired from the technical and engineering world of the big cities and gone back to his roots to live the simple life for whatever little time may be left to him. But he is also very sophisticated in his thought processes and intolerant of what he sees as the stupidity and insensitivity of others. So he can switch. He can live in either world as he chooses. That's difficult to build into the dialogue.

Both you and Ailya agree that the dialogue and the ending are in need of more work. Point taken. Depending on what I eventually do with the piece, if anything, I'll look at those two areas.

Weefatfella on 08-08-2012
Testament
The piece reads well and has body and substance.
The way it goes from past to present to future and back.

The very real concept of conscience filled people taking huge risks for the common good, I liked.
Very close to reality i thought. Albeit if we reach that future.

I've read Sirat and also enjoyed. Thank You. (Weefatfella).

Author's Reply:
Many thanks for your kind comments. Pleased to hear that you read and liked Sirat also. Much appreciated.

David.

e-griff on 17-08-2012
Testament
David. (I haven't read other comments yet, BTW)



you know that my personal taste sometimes finds your stories overheavy with moral messages and repetition. I was (sorry!) expecting this as I started what is clearly a traditional piece of writing by you, solid, workmanlike, and certainly almost nothing to complain about technically. I was wrong! (teach me). This is indeed a moral tale, but for me this was not at all overdone. the emphasis was just right, the story simple but involving,and one of those stories that 'does what it says on the can'. It is what it is, and it does that very well indeed. Interesting to the end, well adorned with side-issues and curves, at the end I felt the length and content was just right, and I had enjoyed the reading. For what it is, I have no criticism whatsoever. There. Is that a first?



best JohnG

PS: reading Aliya's and BBG's comments, I can see their point. But maybe I'm just used to your style now. i can only speak as I find.

Author's Reply:
May indeed be a first. Thanks, John. Appreciated.


Spoiler (posted on: 06-07-12)
This is my response to my own challenge in the 'Workshop Challenges/Writing Exercises' forum thread. It was a big effort to get it posted in time and if I had spent longer on it it might have been better, or at least different. I hope it isn't too under-cooked and that you like something about it

Young Frasier was with me when I saw the display of books in the window of Waterstones, so I couldn't say very much. He's the junior partner's son and not really one of my favourite people. A lot of influence in the Company though, and impressions count. ''I say! You're not interested in chick-lit surely, old man?'' I had stopped and he had walked on a few strides before realising he had left me behind. I needed to think of a plausible excuse in a hurry. ''Not for me, obviously, but Susan has mentioned this one. And it's her birthday soon.'' I prayed that he wouldn't ask me when the birthday was, and oblige me to come up with another lie. ''Women, eh? Can't live with 'em'' ''And can't live without 'em. Quite right. Look, could I be an absolute bore and go in the shop for five minutes? You could order the drinks without me, and whatever the special lunch is today is fine with me.'' ''Whatever you say, old man. See you in five, eh?'' ''Yes. Absolutely.'' He hurried on, and I made my way first to the display, where I lifted one of the books, and then to the cash desk. The girl at the till was young, rather plain in appearance serious expression, eager to please. ''Miss Sherne will be doing a signing here on Friday. If you would like a signed copy you can pay for it now and pick it up any time after lunch on Friday.'' I felt suddenly flustered. ''Oh I'm not absolutely sure I want it'' ''It's not just a woman's book, you know. It's extremely good. I can thoroughly recommend it.'' ''Is it her first novel?'' ''Yes. Like it says on the display.'' ''On yes, of course. Foolish of me. You see'' I spoke quietly and glanced around to make sure there was nobody else within earshot, ''I think I met her once. Just going on her picture, and the name 'Linda'.'' As soon as I said the words I realised how stupid it sounded why should a girl in a shop want to know that I might have met somebody who had written a best-seller? Why did it even matter to me? But she took the remark as an opening to tell me something about the book, which was exactly what I was hoping for. ''It's really good, sir. I read it in one sitting. I was late for work the next day.'' ''Can you give me an idea of what it's about? More or less?'' ''Well, the narrator is a beautiful young office girl living in a bedsit with this ex-boyfriend that she doesn't sleep with any more''
ooOoo
I know I was having a vivid dream when I heard the voice, but I've no idea what it was about. ''Sir! Excuse me, sir! Time to get off. End of the line. Are you awake, sir?'' I opened my eyes and found myself peering into the large red face of a stooping man, just a few inches from my own. ''Sorry. What was that?'' ''End of the line, sir. End of the service for tonight.'' I looked around. Apart from myself and red-face, the carriage was empty. All those milling people, jostling for seats. Gone. Outside the window, on a notice board next to the orange and blue London Overground symbol, was the name of an unfamiliar station. Suddenly I was very wide awake. ''Oh god no! Where on earth are we?'' ''Surrey, sir. Gone past your station, have you?'' ''Yes. Absolutely. Miles. I've got to get back. When's the next'' My voice faded away. ''Nothing until the morning now, sir. The next one into London is 4.48.'' ''You're kidding me? 4.48 AM.'' ''That's right sir.'' ''But isn't there anything else?'' I fumbled to my feet as I spoke. He shrugged. ''You could get a taxi, I suppose.''
ooOoo
As though choreographed, the only lit-up building I could see as I emerged from the station and felt a flurry of drizzle against my face was a rickety-looking blue hut about the size of a small caravan, with the words 'Claygate 24 Hour Taxis' and a telephone number on a flaking red-and-white notice above the door. Inside, which was where I hurried, the space was divided in two. There was a waiting room area with three chairs, a wooden table and a coffee machine; and the other section was a glass-fronted service booth where a pleasant-looking girl of about my own age sat reading a book. The counter in front of her bore a telephone, a computer with a bulky old-fashioned monitor, a compact two-way radio with a desk microphone, and an untidy pile of papers and notebooks. She seemed pleased to see me. ''Hello. What can I do for you?'' She laid her book face down on the counter. ''I've missed the last train into London'' I told her my story, at far more length than was necessary, and she listened, nodding to acknowledge the details. ''So you want to get to Peckham. That's a long way.'' She consulted a chart, running her finger down the right-hand column. ''Forty-five pounds,'' she announced, looking up to gauge my reaction. ''Forty-five pounds?'' ''There's a surcharge after midnight.'' I said nothing. When she spoke again it was in a softer tone. ''You haven't got forty-five pounds, have you?'' I confirmed this with a nod. ''Why don't you have a coffee? It's free.'' She gestured towards the machine. ''I think I'd better go,'' I said, now thoroughly embarrassed. ''Why? You've got nowhere to go around here, have you? This isn't Peckham, you know. This is the stockbroker belt. People don't wander around here in the middle of the night. You'll get picked up by the police, no question. Stay where you are. Have a coffee. Tell me your life story or let me tell you mine. You can catch the first Overground at 4.48.'' ''Is that the one you catch?'' It was a cheeky question, it slipped out before I could stop myself. But she just smiled and said it wasn't. That her shift didn't end until 7.30. And so I sat there on one of the chairs and drank free coffee, and we talked all night. A lot of the night was already over of course, but I think we were together for about four hours. It was like some kind of therapy session, she in her little cubicle and me in mine, a sheet of glass between us, with an opening about the size of a shoe-box. Almost no chance that we would ever see one another again, so we could be as candid as we liked, and we were. I told her about the abortive job interview that I had had that day, and the almost exhausted savings that I had used to travel over from my native Belfast and somehow make good in the big city. About the lies I had told my family, like so many others before me, with regard to how close I was to finding my feet. I even talked about Eva, and the 'Dear John' letter I had received from her a week or so after my arrival. I held nothing back. In return the girl told me about her journey to London with Colin, the sweetheart she had known from school and then right through University, to share a room in a boarding-house that sounded very similar to my own one sink, one Baby Belling cooker, one table and one bed. Although they were both law graduates she took a job for which she was over-qualified, as a legal secretary, and supported the two of them until he found something better, in the legal department of a city bank. It had been a tedious hard grind for both of them, and living in each other's pockets as they were obliged to do, the magic went out of their relationship, and it withered and died completely before the end of the first year. That was when Linda (which was her name) came up with the idea of working nights so that she didn't have to share the bed, or for that matter very much else, with Colin, the now aspiring young city executive. It was an odd arrangement, something they drifted into because they didn't actually dislike one another, they had simply fallen out of love simultaneously, which was a stroke of luck. With neither of them earning enough to rent or buy decent single accommodation in London, there was little incentive to move out of the room that they had grown used to. The room wasn't the problem. It was a very civilized arrangement.
ooOoo
''Yeah. She works at night in a taxi control room and sleeps in the daytime, and he works in the daytime and sleeps at night. They only see one another for a couple of hours each evening. And her work-base is in a posh place in the suburbs, and she meets all these rich men, and has adventures. Love affairs, and weekends in Paris and things.'' ''I see.'' I studied the author's picture on the back cover. There no doubt that it was the same woman. Not that her appearance was particularly striking. Pleasant enough, but hardly the kind of woman a rich man would want for a mistress. Then again, who was I to judge? She was certainly a good listener. Maybe that's what you need, when you're rich and stuck in a loveless marriage. ''The only thing is, you're never quite sure whether it's real or all going on in her head, while she's sitting in that little office late at night. You know what I mean?'' ''Yes, indeed I do.''
ooOoo
The phone rang. I listened as she dealt with the call. ''Mission Grove, madam? Yes. I know the street. Is that at the park end or the cemetery end? Yes, no problem. About half an hour.'' As she put down the phone she touched the 'transmit' button on the microphone. ''Tranquility Base to Charlie Seven.'' I smiled when she said it. I wasn't old enough to remember the Moon landings but I knew the reference. And it was a good name for this place, in the loneliness of the small hours of the morning. '''Ello there, Lindy sweetheart.'' came a jolly cockney voice ''When is us two running away to the Bahamas, then?'' ''Well, not just yet Eddie, because you've got another one after Betchworth. Do you know Mission Grove, over by Dean Wood?'' They chatted for a few moments and she entered the job on her computer. ''You must feel a bit vulnerable, working here?'' ''This is toughened glass,'' she hit it with her closed fist to demonstrate, ''and I have a straight-through panic button to the local police. Anyway, like I said, this isn't Peckham.'' ''You must get a few drunks, though? A few unpleasant types?'' ''Depends what you mean by 'unpleasant'. I get propositioned regularly. Mostly by men who would be too drunk to do anything about it if I said yes. More sad than unpleasant, the men around here. Lots of money and miserable as sin. They're living the life that Colin and I were working our guts out to achieve. Big detached houses in gated communities with private golf courses, servants, cooks, gardeners, flash cars, exclusive clubs, nannies for their kids, holidays by Lear Jet to Saint Tropez and Bondi Beach but they never smile, never laugh, never enjoy any of it. I'm lucky that I found out in time.'' For a moment we were both silent. ''So, when you're propositioned, you never say yes? No matter what?'' Her face slowly brightened into a smile. ''Now that's a rather personal question. What I want is to be a writer. I decided that very early on when I first started working here. And a writer should be open to all experiences. Good, bad, shallow, deep, happy, sad at least that's what I think.'' I nodded. It felt like some kind of vague come-on. I think I was flirting with her without ever having intended to. ''That's what I think too.'' ''Why, do you want to write?'' ''No, I wouldn't know how to begin.'' ''I don't know how to begin either. But I'm going to find out.''
ooOoo
''Yeah. It's good. They go to all these fantastic places Saint Tropez, Bondi Beach...'' ''The Bahamas?'' ''Yeah. That's right. How did you know? But all these men, you see, they're all unhappy, even though they're filthy rich, all in bad marriages, and she kind of counsels them. Ministers to them. Sorts out their lives. Sends them back to their marriages ready to start again, or gets them to make the clean break and go off and work in an orphanage in Africa or something, and find themselves. That kind of thing. ''But the ironic bit is, no matter how hard she tries, she can't sort out her own life. Can't find her own happiness. Are you with me?'' ''Absolutely.'' ''Then, after all these adventures, she's back in the taxi office somehow or other, and this dead-ordinary young man comes in because he's missed the last train home. No money, not specially talented or good looking or anything and she falls for him. Head over heels.'' ''I see.'' There was a pause. ''Well, aren't you going to tell me how it ends?'' ''I'm not sure that would be right. You wouldn't want to read the book then, would you?'' ''No. You're right. I don't suppose I would.'' There was another pause, a longer one this time. ''So are you going to buy it?'' I flicked it open towards the back and let the pages spill across my thumb. ''No, I'm sorry, I don't think I am. I've enjoyed talking to you though. Thank you for your time.''
Archived comments for Spoiler
bluepootle on 06-07-2012
Spoiler
I didn't find it undercooked at all. I like it very much in this format. It's got quite an elegant structure and the characters come across really well. I love the mix of the novel with reality, and the end point is perfect.

Only one thing jarred and I reckon it might just be me - I'm not sure a female bookshop assistant would say, 't’s not just a woman’s book, you know' - sounds a little harsh on her own sex - mightn't she say, 'It's not chick lit?' or something like that instead? Could be I'm overly sensitive to those types of remark,being a woman writer who hates being classed as a woman's writer...

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much. I'm glad you liked the structure, and that I manages to produce some kind of 'inter-penetration' of reality and imagination.

I take your point about the shop assistant's implied deprication of her own sex. I'm not entirely sure I want to change it though, because a lot of what she says is a defence of her own taste, which she knows is a bit stereotype 'female'. I think she has some issues about liking 'chic-lit' and is trying to redeem or re-define the genre. I've heard people say the same kind of things about science fiction, including, I think, me.

TheBigBadG on 06-07-2012
Spoiler
I'm not sure it's under-cooked either, you know. Gently understated is more what I'd go for. The interplay of the book and the reality, that bittersweet sadness of the ending, give it a nuanced emotional range. The mix of narrative and 'reality' (also a narrative, of course) leads me to think it's about experience and how we can re-tell events until we get it right. All the variations on the theme of the relationship lead you to hope the narrator takes heed of the warnings when he tries to track her down. No idea if he will track her down or not, by the way, i'm just feeling optimistic/romantic today!

What would improve it is a little tightening up of the dialogue. For instance, a bit that felt unnatural to me was, 'Stay where you are. Have a coffee. Tell me your life story – or let me tell you mine. You can catch the first Overground at 4.48.' The substance of the line works but the phrasing needs a little tweaking to make it flow. Perhaps leave it for a week or two and when you come back to it tap these little bits into shape.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for that. Yes, I'll have a look at the dialogue again.

Regarding the general shape of the thing, I wanted to leave as much room as I could for the reader to interpret what's going on in the narrator's mind, and where fantasy and reality begin and end. There's also, I think, a question regarding how much time has passed since this brief encounter and what takes place in the bookshop. The narrator has a wife named Susan now, and some kind of highly respectable and conventional job where he worries about the impression he's making with the junior partner's son, so he has travelled quite a long way down the road that Linda scorned, all those years ago. Maybe he doesn't really want to think too much about what might have been? I'm glad you spotted what I hoped was the multiple ambiguity in the ending.

I'm still thinking about yours and will comment soon.

Andrea on 07-07-2012
Spoiler
Dunno, I think '“It’s not just a woman’s book, you know.' is fine, and fits the rest of her tone and the way she speaks. Imo 'chick-lit' would sound out of place (I loathe the expression 'chick-lit anyway, so that may well be why :))

Gosh, I remember those Baby-Belling cookers in bed-sits...

I know what BBG means re the dialogue (I could definitely hear 'you' in there, if you know what I mean) but, overall, much enjoyed and rather clever, I thought

Author's Reply:

e-griff on 13-07-2012
Spoiler
sorry to be so late. funny how in hospital you have loads of time but do less 🙂

This was a refreshing change from you. A style I've read before about couples and relationships, the big difference here is you have made it lighter and maybe more entertaining thereby. No big thumping moral message or justifications or authorial debate, just a 'decide for yourself' story, with plenty of entertaining detail and adornment. Still a bit 'telly' (not directly so, but through the girl's dialogue) and conequently 'heavier' in that sense.

So the read was entertaining and agreeable, but at the end (and I re-read it to check) I felt it was missing something -- What was the end of the story? 🙂

Author's Reply:


Doubt (posted on: 25-05-12)
This is my response to the latest challenge from e-griff on the Workshop Challenges/Writing Exercises forum thread, to write a story suggested by this picture (image removed).

Day 1 In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful, the cherisher and sustainer of worlds, and of His prophet Mohammed (peace and blessings be upon him) I begin my testimony. It is two days before the appointed time for my martyrdom in the cause of justice. May it bring forward the release from foreign oppression of the wronged peoples of Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq, and throughout the Islamic world. I arrived at the airport called 'Heathrow' this morning, having prayed, and for a short time slept, in the aeroplane. The arrivals area is a large and crowded place, adorned with the most revolting posters showing Western women in a state of undress, urging the citizens of Britain to buy commodities aimed at feeding their vanity and lustful fantasies. This was my first encounter with the depths to which the enemies of Allah will sink in their efforts to undermine morality and express their contempt for the laws of Islam. I was questioned by a painted Western whore in a uniform at Passport Control, but I feigned friendliness and recounted the story that I had been given to tell, and was duly admitted into the country. I took an underground train, which was crowded with men and women indulging in intimate demonstrations of affection, and with young people using the most profane language imaginable, and after that a bus to the home of my contact whom I shall call Azad, in case the enemies of Allah may one day read this document. Azad is a British-born Muslim brother, living in a single room in a house shared with Westerners in a district of London called Stoke Newington. I noticed that a large number of the shops in the area were owned by Turkish people, nominally of the true faith but degenerate and slovenly in their way of life and religious observance. Azad told me that very nearby, enormous numbers of Jews reside, staunch supporters of the occupiers of that part of Palestine that they have re-named 'Israel'. We have no more powerful and entrenched enemies than these, save for those across the ocean in the Satanist State itself. We discussed possible targets for the device that Azad had already constructed in a small briefcase, and although I was in favour of delivering it into the Saturday crowd at the large local synagogue, Azad was of the view that a neutral target such as a shopping centre or railway station would make a more powerful statement, namely that every citizen of this degenerate puppet state of the Western aggressor is deserving of execution. Day 2 I slept but little last night, lying on Azad's floor, thinking about the glory that lies ahead of me when I enter the highest plane of Paradise. He has told me how he envies me, but he has much to do on earth before he can make his own ascent to Firdaws. Today Azad took me to a great temple of greed, exploitation and usury called Wood Green Shopping City, a covered labyrinth of market stalls and shops, staffed by sellers of indecent female attire, unclean meat and alcoholic beverages. As one walks through its passages of concrete and glass the very stench of Iblis' breath pollutes ones nostrils. If it is the will of Allah, it is from this earthly hell that I shall commence my ascent into Paradise, at noon tomorrow. In going, may I send to Jahannam as many enemies of Islam as there are leaves on the tree outside the building where Azad lives. On the bus returning to Stoke Newington we were spoken to by a young Western woman known to Azad. She greeted him in a familiar manner, and by listening to their conversation I was able to establish that she is a participant in a relationship of fornication with one of the men living in the same house as Azad, and a frequent visitor to the building. I averted my eyes as her appearance was putting me in danger of improper thoughts, but she insisted on speaking to me, and rather than arouse her suspicions as to my reasons for staying with Azad I answered in a courteous manner. She asked us if we would like to accompany her and the man named Richard, Azad's house-mate, to dinner at a local restaurant that she described as 'Indian' and halal. Naturally I tried to decline, but Azad, in an effort to divert suspicion, accepted on both our behalves. I had little alternative but to comply. The dinner consisted of over-cooked and under-flavoured meats, served in greasy sauces with plain rice and indifferent nan-bread. I ate in order to be polite, wishing that my ordeal with this superficial and talkative couple might soon come to an end. I gathered that the degenerate woman is a student at an art college, and the man, a recent university graduate, is attending interviews and seeking employment. As we got to the pudding course, the conversation turned to the recent spate of martyrdoms in this city. The young couple were careful to point out that they believed the bombings were the work of a very small minority within Islam, and in no way did they wish to suggest that Azad or myself would have anything to do with these 'atrocities'. I opened my mouth to reply, but Azad signalled me to keep quiet and spoke for the two of us, condemning the acts of our martyrs with a vehemence that shocked me. He went so far as to describe such acts as 'anti-Islamic'. It was all I could do to hold my tongue, but I understood the need for such subterfuge. At this point the woman began to talk about a friend of hers who died in an explosion some years ago. She told us a number of things about this woman, ending with the revelation that she had been a Muslim, from a Pakistani family. It was clear from her account that the woman had been innocent and devout. I dismissed the story from my mind in every Jihad some innocent people must die. After death, Allah shall restore the balance of divine justice. I know that is so, and yet her story upset me. I admonished myself for my weakness and lack of resolve, and I do again now. Allah, come to my aid. Make me strong in righteousness. Day 3 It is the appointed day and the appointed hour, and I have come to the appointed place, yet I sit here, the briefcase upon my knee, where it serves as a desk for the paper on which I write. People hurry by in all directions in the great echoing space around me, some pushing babies in folding carriages, some carrying shopping bags, some driving ludicrous mobility scooters with shopping piled in baskets at the rear. Voices cry out, cell-phones burst into life with strange musical ringtones, loudspeakers announce special offers and tell of lost children waiting at the security office. There is a smell of disinfectant mixed with that of a discarded fast food container steaming in the waste bin by my seat. I look at all of this and I do nothing. Since last night, everything has changed. Last night I was robbed of something more valuable than life. My right hand trembles as I try to find the words to write of it. As I lay on Azad's floor, sleep as far out of reach as on the night before, I became aware that something was going on in the room across the corridor. Richard's room. I heard voices raised, doors slammed, the sound of glass shattering. Azad did not waken. I got up quietly and went out to the corridor. Richard's woman was standing by the door of his room, which was open. ''He's gone,'' she told me, speaking very quietly, as it was after midnight and people were asleep all around us. ''Gone to get drunk at a place he knows. I hope he gets run over and killed. I hope I never see him again.'' I asked her what had happened and we started to talk. She led me into Richard's bedroom and closed the door so that people would not hear. She told me personal things, shocking things that a woman should never speak of to a man, even to her husband. I blushed, but I did not leave. It was as though I was talking to a visitor from another planet who had somehow learned my language. The language was the same but the life experiences of which she spoke were strange and profane beyond my comprehension I certainly shall not repeat them here. Let me write instead of my shame and my sinfulness. Because this what shall I call her? This wild beast in the body of a woman, offered herself to me. This disgusting whore who barely knew me assumed that I was a fornicator too, asked me when I had last been with a woman, laughed when I told her I was not yet married and therefore the answer was never. She said she would initiate me. Teach me a few tricks for my wedding night. She asked me what I was waiting for. And forgive me, Allah, I did not have the strength to resist. I allowed myself to be seduced, and I sinned. But I thought it quite a small sin. This was barely a woman after all, hardly even of the same species as my mother or my sister. A white whore, a woman who, if she lived in my own country, would have died by stoning many years ago. I wanted to treat her as the whore that she was, to use her and then punish her for what she had made me do but I could not. After the act, when I should have thrown her to the floor and struck the beauty from her face with the nearest weapon all that I wanted to do was to embrace her, to comfort her and ask her to comfort me. Something strange had happened to me. I could no longer pretend that she was not a human being, or that I was revolted by the sight of her naked body, or that sexual behaviour is unclean or unnatural. I could no longer think of her simply as the enemy of Allah. I could no longer think of her sisters, or her brothers, or her kindred, simply as the enemies of Allah. I have been humiliated by this woman and I have been robbed. My life is of no consequence, you know that I would give it cheerfully, but what she has taken is something far more precious than that, and now I am paralysed. I sit here and I stare at this briefcase, my finger hovers above the firing button and I do absolutely nothing. Please Allah, I beg of you, give me back what the whore with the white skin has taken from me. Make me whole again. Give me back my certainty.
Archived comments for Doubt
TheBigBadG on 25-05-2012
Doubt
Before I start on the comments, living in Hackney I do have a great fondness for this bit - 'a great temple of greed, exploitation and usury called Wood Green Shopping City'. It takes me right there. ;op

It's a very big (and bravely undertook) topic to address though. From my atheist viewpoint it comes across with a good amount of respect for the tenets of Islam which is necessary. The voice is consistent and distinct from a more 'typically Western' narrator and the story-arc works for me as well.

There are a lot of potential tensions to work with for the narrator arriving to the UK for the first time. Enough for a book's worth, easily. I wonder if the tensions would be better explored between Azad and the narrator though, between their sharing similar beliefs and intentions but living very different day-to-day lives? Perhaps having the narrator unable to explicitly say what it is he did even too himself and leaving the reader to infer from his discussions with Azad?

It also puts me in a strange place as a reader because I can't really offer anything other than supposition on how plausible it is - the reason I state all of this is that, to me, 3 days seems quick for the sudden change seen here. I get that the narrator will inevitably have doubts but you don't get a lot of space to explore them in something so short. I wonder if a simple fix would be dated entries and more space between them?

Anyway, this is me riffing off the story - as I said I can't really tell you what's 'right' or 'wrong' because I'm unqualified. It made me think, and probably will continue to do so, which is a good thing. It's an important story to tell these days as well as anything working against alienation and separatism is a force for good. Nicely done.

George

ps: I did also get a wry chuckle from the inference that he leaves the suitcase on the roof of a church.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for that feedback. Much appreciated. I think as Aliya has said below, it's the personal relationship, the intimacy with the 'white whore', that has shaken the narrator's world. I didn't see the timescale as important. In fact, give him a bit more time and he might have resolved his doubts, one way or the other. The feeling that he's being rushed into his 'martyrdom' is quite important, I think.

bluepootle on 25-05-2012
Doubt
I think you've made an excellent job of this. The voice is very good and well sustained. I'm not keen on the exclamation mark at the very end, and think it would be better just as a full stop, being incredibly picky, but I'm thinking that's down to personal taste.

I like the setup of the diary and the chronicling of the time, and I like the way you've captured how an intimate relationship can very quickly change everything for a person. I found it very believable, to be honest. Very well written.

Author's Reply:
Many thanks Aliya. I greatly appreciate and value your comments. And in your honour, that exclamation mark goes.

e-griff on 25-05-2012
Doubt
and you ticking me off for 'telling'! 🙂 - but no, seriously, this was a full and competent story, with credible detail (if a little stiff and formal - yes I know he was - but then he wasn't, inside his head) I have no real niggles apart from the seduction, which seemed a rather hurried, implanted device. Maybe it might have been more convincing if there was no Richard, and the attraction slowly built up between them? I do feel his inner debate on that deserves more space/substance in the story than it is given, a more complex consideration would improve the story, I feel.

best JohnG

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the feedback. I take your point that he wasn't necessarily stiff and formal inside his head, but we weren't inside his head in this story. This is his written testimony, presumably to his fellow militants initially: it's him presenting himself to the world, being careful to say all the right things, present all the right attitudes. But then he encounters something that he can't cope with. A sexy Western woman on the rebound who wants (probably) to use him to get back at her boyfriend – although really her motives don't matter – decides she would like to have a bit of fun with him, and he gives in. Now he has done something he can't properly explain or justify to his brothers in Allah or even to himself. His carefully constructed world of certainty has come tumbling down around his ears. The inner conflict has been there all the time, I think, but he only admits to it at the end. At least that was the way I saw the story. Thanks again for your thoughts.

Andrea on 25-05-2012
Doubt
Whew, kudos for daring to tackle such a subject and yet producing something so believable. Gripping and fascinating from beginning to end. My only observation is that I think you could possibly lose the last two sentences for maximum impact.

Author's Reply:
Yes, you've got a point about those last two sentences. Maybe it's overwritten. I'll give that a bit of thought. Thanks very much for the feedback, glad you liked the story, and if the nomination was from you, many thanks.

e-griff on 25-05-2012
Doubt
oh, just for the record - it was Aliya's prompt! 🙂 me next ...

Author's Reply:

Romany on 26-05-2012
Doubt
I think this is an excellent, well thought out piece. I only wish more people could be dissuaded from acts of violence by a simple act of, if not love, than at least tender human contact.

I don't know how believable it is that such a devout individual would change in such a way, but I don't think that matters here. Your message is strong and clear and I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

Romany.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much for your comments, Romany. I don't think it's implied in the story that there has been a massive change in this individual, all that has been planted is the smallest seed of doubt, as implied in the title. And he really needs his certainty.

Corin on 07-06-2012
Doubt
I enjoyed this David. I think you got inside the head of a Muslim Fundamentalist very well. The crucial scene in the bedroom seemed a bit short to me, the details of the conversation are important I think and something more significant than sexual arousal surely happens here:-

"I asked her what had happened and we started to talk. She led me into Richard’s bedroom and closed the door so that people would not hear. She told me personal things, shocking things that a woman should never speak of to a man, even to her husband. I blushed, but I did not leave. It was as though I was talking to a visitor from another planet who had somehow learned my language. The language was the same but the life experiences of which she spoke were strange and profane beyond my comprehension – I certainly shall not repeat them here.
Let me write instead of my shame and my sinfulness. Because this… what shall I call her? This wild beast in the body of a woman, offered herself to me. This disgusting whore who barely knew me assumed that I was a fornicator too, asked me when I had last been with a woman, laughed when I told her I was not yet married and therefore the answer was never. She said she would initiate me. Teach me a few tricks for my wedding night. She asked me what I was waiting for. "

I was accosted in a pub by a drunken young woman like this on Saturday night, but it was not that difficult to resist, I suppose the fact that my wife was there helped:-) Even if she hadn't been I would not have got involved, but if she had been less drunk and more emotionally upset I could see that temptation would have been a more realistic outcome. Never the less an intriguing and very well handled story.

Congratulations on the Nomination.

David



Author's Reply:
I'm afraid I haven't been accosted by a woman (drunk or sober) in that way for some decades. But if it happened I would probably consider it bad manners to refuse.

Many thanks for the kind words, and sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I've been at the Hay Festival, camping in a lake of mud. Very character-building.

Thanks also to whoever nominated the piece.

As you know, it's one of those 'challenge' pieces, which are done to a deadline, but I'm not sure I would want to enlarge too much on what went on between the two in the bedroom. The essential point is that intimate relationships change things. It doesn't have to be a big change, the protagonist in this one can't afford ANY chink in his ideological armour.

Glad you liked the piece.

Best wishes,

David.


Escort Duty (posted on: 04-05-12)
This is my story for the Workshop Challenges/Writing Exercises forum 4th of May challenge: a story where the main character is (or are) a nobody in a court.

Martin had developed a thick skin where the death threats and shouted obscenities were concerned, but having someone spit in his face was a different matter. It was an impressive shot, from the top tier of the raised benches across the wide aisle that separated the public from the barristers and court officials. He increased his pace, forcing his two escorts to do the same. As soon as the heavy mahogany doors closed behind them the party stopped and the older of the two uniformed men fished a packet of paper handkerchiefs from his pocket and handed one to Martin. ''Sorry about that, Mr Ellis. It happens sometimes.'' He wiped the wetness from his cheek and screwed-up the tissue. The escort took it from him and flicked it into a nearby waste bin. ''They always wait until the hearing's over for the day. Then they can't be excluded, or charged with contempt.'' Martin's shoulders slumped. ''Oh well. Thank god it is over.'' He started walking again, towards the short flight of stone steps leading down to the corridor of holding cells, his faithful escorts keeping pace at either side. ''We may have to wait a little while for the prison van,'' the older man said in a tone that managed to convey euphemism. ''Just like every other day of this trial.'' ''I'm afraid so, Mr Ellis. The problem is, we have to segregate you from the other remand prisoners. You have to have a van of your own.'' ''How flattering to be a celebrity.'' ''Rules, Mr Ellis. Not my doing. Yours is categorised as a high profile trial. You saw yourself the way some members of the public treated you. We have to do everything possible to ensure that nothing untoward happens while we're transferring you to and from Pentonville. Fellow prisoners are not always nice to one another.'' ''You don't say?'' They had reached the end cell, which contained three soft chairs and a coffee table littered with old magazines. Martin sat down. The older escort did the same, while the younger man took a seat in the corridor, out of sight. ''As you know, Mr Ellis, the rules require that I stay with you. But Bob out there will be happy to get you a cup of tea and a biscuit, or escort you to the toilet if you want to go. You might want to wash your face, after that little performance up there.'' ''I'm fine for the moment thanks. I just want to unwind. And can we drop all this 'Mr Ellis' stuff? It's Martin. You know it is. Presumably you have a name too?'' ''I'm sorry, Mr Ellis. We aren't encouraged to get on first-name terms with the prisoners.'' Martin sighed. ''You're quite a man for the rules, aren't you?'' He shrugged. ''I've been in this job a long time now. I'm very close to retirement. I respect rules they make for a simpler life. When there's a rule, you don't have to make a decision. They don't pay me enough to make decisions, Mr Ellis. It's not part of the job description. I believe in the simple life. I'm here to carry out the decisions of others. My father used to say that too.'' ''So what's your job all about, really? To stop me if I try to do a runner?'' ''Not so much that as making sure you don't communicate with anybody involved in the trial. Witnesses or jurors, for example. It doesn't apply so much in your case of course, because you're segregated.'' ''You make it sound like I have leprosy.'' For a moment neither of them spoke. ''God, that woman prosecutor is a nasty piece of work. If I listen to her much longer I'll start thinking I'm guilty myself. She's a proper little hell-hound, isn't she?'' ''I wouldn't know, Mr Ellis.'' ''Yes you would. Of course you would know. You've listened to this kind of thing every day for god knows how long. Before this trial I'd never stood in a courtroom in my entire life. Not even as a witness or a juror nothing. Is it really going as badly as I think it is? Are they building the gallows in the prison yard?'' The escort looked him in the eye, seemed to consider whether or not he should reply. ''Not a very funny joke, if I may say so. The last woman hanged in England had the same surname as you. Did you know that?'' ''Yes, I certainly did. Ruth Ellis. Believe it or not, I'm distantly related to her.'' ''That's the one. Before my time of course.'' He lowered his voice to a husky whisper. ''I know I shouldn't do this, but if you really want my opinion of this trial, I'll give it to you.'' ''Please. I would be very grateful.'' ''Well, as far as I can see, they haven't anything but circumstantial evidence. They can prove that you were in Mrs Wesley's flat on the night of the murder, but you don't deny that. In fact you reported the murder, which you needn't have done. Her husband was there earlier on the same evening. He doesn't deny that. Both of you had a key for the flat. Either of you could have done it. Of the two, I would have thought the wronged husband had the greater motive. But motive and opportunity aren't enough. You've got to have something that actually links one or other of you to the crime. Some kind of forensic evidence that one of you delivered the fatal blow. And so far, they haven't produced that evidence, have they?'' Martin considered this. He found himself whispering too. ''Well, they must have something, mustn't they? Otherwise why am I here and not Desmond Wesley?'' ''That's a very good question. How much do you know about Mr Wesley?'' ''Only what Linda Mrs Wesley told me. We didn't talk about him much. It wasn't that kind of affair. She wasn't looking for a shoulder to cry on. Neither was I. We just liked each other. We got on. We enjoyed each other's company. There was never any question of divorce, or leaving our partners. It was just a secret, beautiful little bit of both our lives. ''So what is it this thing that I should know about Desmond Wesley?'' The attendant lowered his voice even more. ''I don't have the least idea. But it smells fishy. You've got a lawyer. Ask him to do a bit of scratching around. He should be doing it anyway, it's part of his job. I think there must be some reason why the police passed him over and went for you instead, and that reason hasn't come out yet.'' ''Is anybody listening to us here? Secret cameras? Hidden microphones?'' The old man smiled. ''You've been watching too many James Bond films, Mr Ellis. But Bob's sitting outside that door. We're not supposed to talk about the case. But now that I've got so close to retirement, I suppose I've become a little bit indiscreet. It's been hard, holding it back all these years. Because you're right. I do get a feel for things that are going on around here. I do get a chance to well, to spot patterns that the ordinary public miss. And very often, where there's a rich and powerful man involved, and an ordinary man like you, it's the ordinary Joe that ends up in the dock. I think it's a bit more than coincidence.'' He looked Martin straight in the eye. ''Get your lawyer to do his job, Mr Ellis. That's all I'm saying.'' ''Thank you. I will. You're a very intelligent man. Why didn't you become a lawyer yourself?'' ''Oh, I know my place, Mr Ellis. Crime and punishment has been the family business for us for many generations, but down at the coalface, not in the courtroom, where all the double-dealing goes on. In fact my father did meet Miss Ellis as it happens, but he didn't know her for very long. Pierrepoint was his name. Albert Pierrepoint, public executioner.''
Archived comments for Escort Duty
bluepootle on 04-05-2012
Escort Duty
I found this to be an absorbing conversation, well written with the personality of the escort coming through very well.

I was interested in the case, so I wanted to know what happened there - what evidence did they have after all? I suppose that's a danger with using a court setting - the case can become as interesting as the characters! The only way I can think round it is to use what you've already got as a meat in the sandwich of the story, and bookend it with the defendant later on in life, perhaps, reminiscing about the trial. That would also free you up from having to do the exposition early on, all the 'as you know, you need a separate car' etc type dialogue that I feel comes across as a bit clunky.

But what you've got here is good, and it definitely held my attention.

Author's Reply:
Thanks Ailya. You're quite right, I wasn't clear whether it was a story about the trial or a story about the escort. I'll probably just file it away and use it some day as part of something else. That's a perfectly acceptable result from these exercises i think.

TheBigBadG on 04-05-2012
Escort Duty
I'm with Blue here, it's solid and engaging. It does have that feel of being an extract from something larger, but that fits with the walking away from the courtroom as well. Personally I don't mind if short stories leave things open and just give a quick glimpse so that side of it's fine with me. It can work better to leave things unsaid and pithier than to fill in every crack with shorter pieces.

One thing I didn't get is the 'tone that managed to convey euphemism'. Am I missing a subtlety here?

The characters are definitely the strength of this though, in particular the guard. He's a perceptive and sensitive type, which means his family history could be counter-pointed to this in something longer. Sure, Martin gets all the drama, but he's not as distinctive. As Mr Ellis points out, the guards see everything, including unprecedented access to defendants, over the course of years. If you're filing things away, that's what I'd keep.

Author's Reply:
Sorry for the delay, for some reason I thought I had replied. Thanks for the comments, much appreciated. Regarding the tone that conveys euphemism, I just mean that he said in such a way as to imply that there would be a pretty substantial wait. Maybe I could express it more clearly. I agree with your advice as to what I should keep.

Now, whose go is it next?

e-griff on 05-05-2012
Escort Duty
Although obviously highly competently written technically, I found this rather stolid and uninspiring. As a reader, I felt I was being targetted by a lecturer, telling me a story, never letting me in to guess or bring my own interpretation. The tone was neutral and impersonal, as befits a 3rd person narrator, but I didn't get any of the emotions, hopes, fears or feelings of the main character. It seemed just a flat recital of some events which lead to a (rather lame IMO) 'punch line'. I'm sorry if this sounds cruel. You DO write in this style frequently, but usually we get motivation, characters and plot coming out. This seemed to me to be just flat and one-dimensional. Things like 'As you know, Mr ...' surprised me with their obviousness (ie simply a crude device to tell the reader something (sitting round a corner)) . And even 'Pentonville' - why? who cares? really unecessary overdone additions in my book.

Maybe I missed the core message. I'll come back later and re-read and re-comment if so. Sorry bout that 🙂

Author's Reply:
Okay John, it's more or less what I said myself (although in a more polite way so as not to hurt my feelings). There's nothing very profound here, just a bit of literary doodling. One thing puzzles me – why wouldn't the escort say the van was going to Pentonville if that was where it was going? What should he say? And the business about Ellis being a segregated prisoner was simply the explanation for why he always had to wait for a special van. Sometimes I think you're struggling to find weaknesses that aren't really there. Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting.

Andrea on 06-05-2012
Escort Duty
I really enjoyed this and it held my attention to the end. A wonderful crop of entries all round I thought.

One teeny tiny thing jarred (and it is a very minor thing) is screwed-up the tissue (more than likely because I associate screwed-up with being mentally stressed) and though that perhaps 'screwed into a ball' might be better?

Excellent as always, though, a winner for me.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for that Andrea. It's not very profound, I know, but ikf one or two people like it I'm happy.

e-griff on 06-05-2012
Escort Duty
David, I don't think your comment on my supposed motivation (struggling) is worthy of you. I read, I react, I note my reaction, I pass it on to the author honestly and try to explain it. It’s my genuine opinion. Others may not share it, you may not agree, but what else should I do? I will say that the standard I apply to workshop submission is higher than normal, but that's what I assume we are in it for.

On your specific defences:

1. If you omit Pentonville, the story is unchanged. It brings nothing to the story. It’s a small detail in itself, I agree, but I chose it as an example.

2. Why on earth should you have to explain to the reader why he is segregated? All that is grey filling. Okay if a reader says ‘hey! I never knew that, great!’ – but I don’t expect they will. It strikes me as not just ’telling’ but ‘teaching’. It doesn’t advance the story or add colour or interest in any way. So, he sits away from the others, has to wait for a separate van – who cares/who cares why? The story is about the dialogue between the old officer and the prisoner, IMO it should focus on that. They can just be sitting there – no explanation needed (maybe just ‘waiting for the van’).

So, no, I didn’t ‘struggle’ to find problems. You simply presented them to me. But let’s be clear, I don’t think there’s anything ‘wrong’ with the story –no bloopers, no discrepancies. But if, in workshop, you present this, I think my comments are quite reasonable and I stand by them. And if I, in turn, am permitted to ascribe motivation to you, comparing this to much of your other (good) work, I gain the strong impression that you wrote it on ‘autopilot’ (which, yes, yes, I have been guilty of myself). 🙂


Author's Reply:


A Collaboration (posted on: 16-04-12)
This is my reply to my own challenge in the Workshop Challenges/Writing Exercises forum to write a story inspired by a song. Both the songs I suggested had the theme of big dreams leading only to disillusionment and disappointment. This was what I ended-up with from that starting point.

''I'm Donald Kinnaird. I live across the corridor. I just wanted tae say hello.'' ''Okay. You've said hello.'' ''Ye seem tae be a wee bit up tight. It's nae bad here, ye ken. I've been in a hell of a lot worse places than here. Could a' no come in an' talk tae ye?'' ''Door's open.'' He came in and perched on the edge of the small single bed. ''De ye hae a name then?'' ''Samuel Musgrave.'' ''Well, it's good tae meet ye, Sam, even if ye'r nae at ye'r best just at the minute. Sure a' ken it's no great shakes here, but if ye'd a slept under as many railway arches an' doon as many back alleys as I have ye'd appreciate it. Ah ken ye've just moved in. Where were ye before this, then?'' Samuel didn't answer at once but took a bottle from the bedside cabinet and hunted around for two glasses. His visitor gestured that he didn't want a drink. ''That's good a ye', Sam, but ye ken that's where I was before I come here, an' a' dinne want'e go back.'' ''You want to know where I was before here? I was in my own house: a very nice one, five bedrooms, not a bad neighbourhood, big garden'' He poured a shot of whiskey for himself and sipped it. ''Was it too much for ye, like? The upkeep an' aw' that?'' ''Life was too much for me. That's what was too much.'' ''Life was too much? For a man in his own grand house wi' his own grand garden?'' Donald thought about what the other had said for a few moments. ''Ye dinn'e mean that ye tried tae end ye'r life, de ye?'' ''Does it matter?'' ''Well, a' course it matters. A've been doon, God knows, but a've never been doon as low as that.'' ''I'm glad to hear it. It's not a nice place to be, Donald. Not nice at all.'' He took another sip from his glass. ''Ye must a' had a reason?'' ''You know it's strange, I've had all these counsellors and social workers and God-knows-what, but you're the first person who's asked me that straightforward question. I suppose they thought they didn't need to ask. They had a label for me, and that was all they wanted. Why don't you sit on the other chair?'' Donald did as his host suggested. ''Yes, I had a reason. I've still got a reason. But I've thought about it a lot since it would just be an empty gesture. It wouldn't change anything. Wouldn't make anything better. Whatever chance I might have to put things right, only exists while I'm still alive. I may as well see it out whatever time is left for me.'' Donald looked genuinely concerned. Even a little shocked. ''Have ye no got family then?'' ''Nobody who would give me a second thought.'' ''Nae missus?'' ''My missus died a long time ago. Cancer of the colon. They could probably treat it if she was alive now. I'm a bit of a loner, Donald. Have been for a long time. I've got used to my own company. It isn't so bad. What's your story then?'' ''Och, I was a bit of a tearaway when I was a lad. Got intae a lick a' trouble with the law. Done a wee bit a' porridge an' never really got back on ma feet afterwards. Got a bit too fond a' the drink. I'm okay now though. Aw' that's behind me. A'm just an auld fart in a home now, the same as aw' the others here. Harmless, Sam. Nothin' much te say about me any more.'' ''Harmless. Yes, I'm afraid I wasn't harmless. I did rather a lot of harm.'' ''What's done is done, Sam. Aw' in the past. That's one thing ye get in here. A new start. You an' me both. We're nae deid yet, Sam!'' ''No, I suppose we aren't.'' He paused. ''I feel like a little walk in the grounds. Would you like to come with me?''
ooOoo
Samuel was a better walker than Donald. His back was straight and his stride regular and confident. Donald's legs were shorter and his progress clumsy, as though his shoes didn't quite fit. ''Can ye slow down a wee tad, Sam? I canne keep up wi' ye'.'' ''Sorry. Let's sit down at the top of the rise. There's a bench.'' Donald lowered himself heavily by Samuel's side. ''I lost a couple a' toes one winter,'' he explained. ''Got a wee bit drunk an' fell asleep in the frost.'' ''Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't think'' ''That's fine. Nae problem. I'm well used tae it.'' For a few moments they admired the great sweep of farmland they could see from this vantage point; the valley with the tree-lined stream, the village in the distance with the church and the little white houses huddled around it. Samuel broke the silence. ''My family comes from around here, you know. My father and three of my grandparents are buried in that churchyard. My father owned quite a lot of land. It was sold off when he died. We were all well provided for. I'm guessing that your background was a little different?'' ''Aye. I think you could say it was a little different.'' ''It doesn't mean a thing now of course. The other brothers are still quite comfortably off but my share is long gone. I was the youngest. The prodigal son. But I never went back to feast on that fatted calf.'' He became silent. Donald continued to watch him, as though waiting for him to go on. ''I was wonderin','' he said at last, ''if ye wanted tae tell me about the bad thing that ye say ye done?'' ''Oh, it's very ordinary. Very unexciting. I used to run a business, investing other people's money. For a long time I was lucky. All my investments came up trumps. I paid people very good dividends. Then my luck ran out. Several of my biggest speculations came a cropper. I didn't tell anybody because it would have shaken confidence in my company. I started paying dividends out of capital, investing money that I didn't have, throwing good money after bad. Needless to say, it all came tumbling down around my ears. ''It didn't feel real at first. Like losing a game of monopoly. All just symbols, figures on paper. But pretty soon I discovered that it wasn't just figures on paper. For quite a lot of my clients, it was all that they had. People that I had a relationship with, people I'd known for years, who trusted me. I'd lied to them, misled them, cheated them. Financial collapse is nothing new, it's happened on a national and even a world scale many times. But this wasn't anybody else's fault. This was me. My judgement, my dishonesty, my incompetence. That's pretty hard to live with, when your financial ability is the only thing about yourself that you take a pride in. There simply wasn't anything else to me. Nothing else I could do. I couldn't cook a meal, drive a car, sew on a button, mend a fuse, dig the garden other people had done everything for me, all my life. I was a one-trick-pony, completely and totally. And I couldn't get the trick to work any more. ''And worst of all, I suppose, was the hatred, the vindictiveness of other people. Justified, perhaps, but horrible nevertheless. Who's going to feel sorry for a greedy and dishonest hedge fund operator who's tumbled down from a standard of living that most people can't even imagine and come to rest in the gutter?'' ''So, this is the gutter for you? Ah thought a'd found the Promised Land a warm bed, three meals a day, my own wee door that I can lock behind me an' you reckon you're in the gutter? Ah've been in the gutter, pal. Ah know the gutter. An' this is nae it.'' ''Forgive me, Donald. I didn't mean to be offensive. Of course this isn't the gutter. I wasn't thinking.'' ''Ach, it's aw' right. Ye could'ne offend me if ye tried. It's sort of ironic though, isn't it? I robbed folk by brekin' inte their hooses an' takin' their things. You robbed them by trickin' them out a' their money. An' where did it get the both of us? This place, just across the corridor from one another. Same hoos, same floor, same scran.'' ''Maybe that's as it should be. Doesn't it bother you, though? Don't you find yourself wishing that there was some way you could give just a tiny bit back?'' ''Ah gave them about twelve years a' ma life in the big hoose. That'll have tae dae them.'' ''You know what I mean. Something that'll make a difference. Something worthwhile.'' ''Och aye. Thon's a good idea. Am only seventy-two, ah think a'll go tae Oxford University an' become a brain surgeon maybe find a cure for cancer in ma spare time while a'm aboot it.'' Samuel looked at his companion. ''You're wrong, you know. You think you have nothing to offer and you're quite wrong. What you've got to offer is in there.'' He pointed at Donald's head. ''It's a lifetime of experience. Everything that's happened to you, since your earliest memory. Your family, your school, the crimes, the prisons, living rough, the drinking don't you think all that counts for something?'' Daniel narrowed his eyes and considered. ''Aye, ah could tell you a story or two if that's what ye mean. No question.'' ''Then why don't you?'' ''Why don't I what? Tell stories?'' ''Write them down. The story of your life. All the things that have gone wrong or right. The good breaks and the bad ones. The mistakes and their consequences. The street life, the prison life. The opportunities that came along that you didn't take I'm sure there were some. Everything, from start to finish well, everything up to now. It isn't finished yet, is it?'' Donald smiled. ''Yer takin' the piss.'' ''I swear to God I'm not. The more I think about it the more right it sounds. Glasgow, was it?'' Donald nodded. ''The life of one of Glasgow's undistinguished sons, cradle to the rest-home, nothing held back, straight from the heart. It could be a best-seller. You could be the next Irvine Welsh. A different generation, of course, not the trendy young drugs set, but their parents and grandparents. The war babies, the ones who left school and started wandering the streets before there was a Welfare State. A new angle, even if the basic story isn't all that different.'' ''Och aye. Always getting' mistaken for a famous author I am. Always in the library, studyin' somethin'. A born man o' letters.'' ''You could do it if you wanted to. I could help you. It's not as if either of us have any pressing engagements, is it?'' ''A've never read a book in ma life, never mind writin' one.'' ''That doesn't matter. It's the same as writing anything. Or talking. It's just telling people your story'' ''Shite! De a have te spell it out for ye? I canne read, man. I canne write. I never learned. Now, will ye stop talking bullshite?'' ''You can't read? But so what? I can't cook, does that mean I can't eat? Does it mean I can't tell a good meal from a bad one? Reading is a trivial skill. I'll teach it to you some time when we're not busy. First we've got work to do. A book to write. I can be your secretary, and your editor'' ''Yer talkin' bullshite man. Ye'r embarrassing me. ''Humour me. Please. Just for a little while. Imagine you're writing your book.'' ''For Christ's sake, Sam. Who's goan'te read if, even if I could write it?'' ''I'm no expert but I think people will read it. Maybe only a few, I don't know. But just think about it. Suppose just one teenager in one slum reads it and says to himself: 'That's not the life for me'? Suppose it rescues just one soul. Wouldn't that be something worth doing? Wouldn't that be giving a little bit back? For both of us?'' ''Ye're outa' yer heid, man!'' ''Just go along with me. Humour me, like I said. This is your story. The beginning. How is it going to begin? Give me the opening words.'' Donald smiled and shook his head in a gesture of exasperation. ''Okay then. I'll give ye the opening words: My name's Donald Kinnaird. I'm an ignorant, sick, old penniless, oh aye, mustn't leave out penniless ex-con from the back streets o' Glasgow, livin' in a posh old folks' hame in Surrey, courtesy o' the English taxpayer. Who the fuck would want tae listen tae anything I have te say?'' Sam stared at him in disbelief. ''And you say you're not a writer? That's brilliant. I'm bowled over. That's the opening of a book that I would have to read. Wouldn't be able to close until I knew what came next. You're a genius, Donald. Let's get back to the house quickly so that I can write it down.'' ''I'm tellin' ye, man. Yer out'a yer heid.'' Samuel helped him to his feet and ushered him back down the path. ''While we're walking you can be thinking about what comes next.'' Donald was quiet for a few moments. Then his expression grew more serious. ''Aye, well I suppose the next bit could be''
Archived comments for A Collaboration
TheBigBadG on 16-04-2012
A Collaboration
Considerably better formed than my effort - technical thing to start, it's nice to see accents done well. I find them very time consuming to write because my fingers get ahead of the editing and I have to check it all thoroughly so I always appreciate seeing it done well, ye ken?

The story about writing a story works well too, new beginnings from some other beginnings end and all that. It is a great opening para for a book too. The odd-couple mechanics work for me as well, Daniel's insecurities about his own worth against Samuel's public-school immunity to doubt for instance. I am still curious about how he was driven to attempt suicide and when as he seems very collected and reflective here - that could be part of the public-school character though, I accept.

If I was being really picky I'd want to know more about why Samuel never claimed his inheritance and how he made his fortunes without it. For the sake of a brief line it perhaps raises more questions than anything.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

I'll just come back on the technicality of the inheritance: it isn't that he didn't claim it, simply that there isn't any of it left, and he has never gone back to the family expecting more financial support (return of the prodigal son).

I'm glad you thought the accent/dialect was convincing. You're right, it takes a bit of an effort, especially if it isn't your own accent you're trying to reproduce.

e-griff on 16-04-2012
A Collaboration
a worthy David story: morals, right/wrong, redemption, repentance, hope etc.

I saw no reason why the characters needed to be scottish. While not complaining about the accent, any accent, however well done, is intrusive, and unless there is a distinct need for it, why do it? (to be honest I felt a flash of Hamish and Dougal and 'you'll have had yer tea?')

Nontheless, complete, history, stories (yes, why did he not go back?) to encapsulate a scenario with live characters.

Good read.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the comments.

I felt there was a need for some kind of regional accent to mark the difference between the two characters, and Scottish seemed to fit Donald's character fairly well. We tend to assume (rightly or wrongly) that Scottish people have a bit of depth and canniness to them, even if they aren't educated or sophisticated.

Why did he not go back to his family? Well, he says he doesn't get on with them, and facing bankruptsy the amount of family money he would need to bail him out would probably be astronomical.

ChairmanWow on 18-04-2012
A Collaboration
Dialogue as well done as any thing i've read on this site so far. Two interesting characters. I guess Glasgow used to be a rough place.

Ralph

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Ralph. I'm glad you found the dialect convincing. I'll admit I'm happier with this one than I have been with most of my recent stories.


Hyve (posted on: 06-01-12)
My offering for the Prose Workshop challenge: write a story inspired by this song: The Matador.

A huge black security guard escorted her to the outer office. ''This is Miss Laura Kerr, I've checked her ID. She's got an appointment with Mr Calder.'' Dean Calder's blonde secretary turned on a false smile. ''Sorry about the heavy security, Miss Kerr. You know what it's like.'' Laura nodded, hoping to appear worldly. She glanced at the poster on the wall behind the secretary's desk a large artist's impression of the Hyve, in earth orbit and approaching the International Space Station with its main rocket motor blazing. There was going to be a pretty massive collision in about half a second. ''He asked me to send you straight in,'' the blonde added, in a tone of saccharin sweetness that Laura found unnerving. Dean Calder was sitting casually behind his large untidy desk, a foot-long silver model of the Hyve pushed to one corner, his computer monitor perched precariously at the other. It was angled towards Calder but she could see the text file it was displaying. He looked smaller and more ordinary than she had imagined him: it was silly, Laura realised, but somehow she had assumed that an ex-astronaut would look like some kind of body-builder Superman in his Clarke Kent outfit. He offered a hand but didn't get up. ''Dean Calder. Good to see you. Take a seat. Would you like a Scotch?'' ''No, thanks, I don't drink.'' ''I couldn't in my old job. Now I'm making up for lost time.'' He poured himself a generous glass. ''So you're from England, right?'' ''Yes. Flight International magazine. It isn't quite as international as it sounds. We're UK-based.'' ''I love the UK. I trained for eight months with the Red Arrows. Great guys. Even the US Air Force has a thing or two to learn from them. What's your angle?'' ''You mean, for my series? Well, I'll try to cover most aspects of the Hyve, the retirement of the NASA Shuttles, how the project got started, the commercial slot it's intended to fill, the design innovations, the two accidents of course we can't ignore those but most of all, the human angle. That's what people want to read about, even pilots and engineers. I'd like to include a bit about your background, your personal life'' ''Sorry Ma'am, a personal life is something I don't have. Haven't got the time to fit one in.'' ''I'm sure that isn't true'' ''I'm just letting you know, so you don't waste your time. I'm an engineer and a businessman. My family are the five hundred other engineers and technicians in my team. My life is this,'' he picked up the shiny model and set it down again. ''It doesn't leave me time for anything else. Can I tell you about it? Have you read the press handout?'' ''Yes, of course, I've studied it very closely. It's a wonderful project. Absolutely inspiring.'' ''We're pretty proud of it. We're further down the road than any other company in the commercial space shuttle race. Our design ticks ninety-five per cent of the boxes: it flies, it doesn't need any cryogenics, it lands and takes off horizontally like a conventional aircraft, in principle it could operate from any large runway on earth. It's smaller than the old NASA Shuttle, and it can't put as big a payload into orbit, but the operating costs are about one fifteenth as much. Every single bit of it is reusable. No tanks or anything else are jettisoned. Compared to the shuttle, it's simple, elegant and efficient. And it can easily be scaled up. What more can you ask for?'' ''Safety?'' ''Two accidents. One of them on the ground, nobody hurt. The other one a failure of the main engine at the most critical moment in the flight. Okay, we lost the pilot and the ship, but that won't happen again. Fourteen people died in the two Shuttle disasters. We're still in the lead by thirteen. It's a tragedy, and I'm not trying to minimise it, but this is a dangerous business. Even when you've done everything humanly possible to make it safe, things are always going to go wrong in the space flight game. You've got to learn from every incident, and make sure it can't happen again. That's all anybody can do.'' ''And have you learned from what went wrong?'' ''Of course we have. We've been studying the telemetry and the engineers' reports solidly for three months now. It's what I was doing when you came in.'' He gestured towards the monitor screen and Laura read the heading: 'Fatal Incident Report Main Engine Failure Sim on Hyve 2, 6/11/14'. Beneath the heading were the words: ''Security Rating 1''. As she glanced at it he touched something on his desk and the screen went blank. ''And have you worked out what caused the engine failure? And the airframe to break up?'' ''Absolutely. It's crystal clear. All we have to do is modify the transition procedure so that the same combination of circumstances can never happen again.'' ''Would you like to explain?'' ''I'm very sorry, Miss Kerr, but the exact details are commercially sensitive. I'm not at liberty to discuss them.'' ''Even though a man got killed?'' ''Test pilots and astronauts occasionally get killed. It's very sad, and it's one of the reasons I never had a family myself, if you really want to know, but it's the way the world is. The way this business is. Our pilots have to sign a special disclaimer that releases us from the obligation to conduct public inquiries in the event of their accidental death. We have competitors who would kill for that information. We can't go public. Sorry.'' Laura was beginning to feel a certain amount of tension and smiled in an attempt to break it. ''I suppose I'll just have to restrict myself to what's in the press handout then.'' ''On the engineering side, yes, I'm afraid you will. But you said you like to give a lot of attention to the human angle. Why don't you talk to our chief test pilot, Tex Glenning? He was one of the Shuttle pilots, he's been to the International Space Station many times, and he's been married. Twice, in fact. I guess that means he must have a personal life, but he doesn't talk to me about it. I think he'll talk to you though.'' ''Do you? Why do you think that?'' Calder looked embarrassed. ''Well, Ma'am, I think you have some assets that he would appreciate. He's a bit more swayed by a pretty face than the boring old bachelor you're looking at.'' He hunted amongst the debris on his desk and found an envelope bearing the company logo. He scribbled a number on the back. ''This is Tex Glenning's personal number. Please don't give it out to anybody else. I'll let him know you're going to call him. You can arrange your own meeting. He's a nice guy. Well, fairly nice, but you're a big girl, right?'' ''Right. Thanks, Mr Calder.'' She folded the envelope in two and carefully stashed it in her handbag. ''I'll ask him out to dinner.'' ''He'll like that.''
ooOoo
''So you work for this Flight-what's-it magazine?'' He tried to pour her a glass of wine but she fended it off with the back of her hand. ''Flight International. Haven't you seen it? I'm a freelance really, an overseas correspondent for that publication and a few others.'' ''I think I've seen it. And Dean sent you to talk to me?'' ''He thought you might be a good person to interview. And I think he's too busy himself, to be honest.'' ''Yeah, always busy is Dean. What did you think of him?'' ''Polite a bit secretive, maybe. He didn't give very much away about himself.'' ''He's a lot smarter than you think when you first meet him. You won't ever put one over on Dean, but he'll put one over on you all right, if it suits his purpose.'' ''Am I detecting that you don't like him very much?'' ''I'm wary of him. He's totally focussed. Just one thing matters to him: the Hyve. Nothing else. He won't let anything stand in his way. I guess you need to be like that to make a success of a big project.'' ''Do you think he will make a success of it?'' ''Yip. Even if he has to plant every team member and every rival six feet under to do it. If anybody can make it happen he can.'' ''Do you admire men like that?'' He shrugged. ''I'm not sure. I think there needs to be something more some other concerns. Something else in your life. But he's a type. A lot of the Shuttle pilots were like that.'' ''But not you?'' ''I hope not.'' As he spoke, the starter arrived. ''Florida Keys lobster,'' he said. ''Best in the world.'' She tried it and nodded. ''He more or less said that he knew what went wrong when Watson died, but he couldn't tell me for commercial reasons. Do you think he was telling me the truth? Do you think he really knows?'' A smile spread across Tex's face. ''You're a smart girl. I think he's got theories, but he's not really sure. I could tell you a bit about it but he'd put a bullet in my head if anything commercially sensitive got out.'' ''Okay. I won't quote you. I'll make it clear that it's speculation on my own part.'' ''I'm not sure how much I trust you. But I'll give you a hint. As you know from your handout, the name 'Hyve' is made up of the first two letters of each word in 'Hybrid Vehicle'. It's got two kinds of motor, both running off the same hydrogen fuel. There's an air-breathing SCRAMJET and a conventional rocket main motor that's used at takeoff and to accelerate the vehicle to Mach 4.6. That's the speed the SCRAMJET needs to start working. The SCRAMJET takes it up to Mach 18 and 74 kilometres altitude. It's very fuel efficient, and it gets its oxygen from the air, so we don't need to use the on-board oxygen. That's a massive weight saving. It cuts out when the air gets too thin, then the main rocket engine cuts in again and handles the final insertion into orbit. The transition from one engine to the other is the tricky bit. On Watson's flight the SCRAMJET cut out but the main motor failed to cut in. Now in theory that shouldn't present a problem. You just lower the nose, come down in a gentle arc, and go into the normal re-entry sequence. But for some reason Watson couldn't get the nose down. The ship remained in the nose-up attitude and started to fall flat into the atmosphere. The temperature built up and the stresses on the airframe exceeded the limit. She broke up like a meteorite and came down as a dozen fireballs, straight into the Atlantic. Now the question is, why couldn't Watson get the nose to come down? The control surfaces don't work at those altitudes, and vectored thrust couldn't be used, because with both engines dead there's no thrust to vector. But the positional jets on the fuselage should work normally. The attitude in space is controlled by four small rocket thrusters. Up, down, right, left. Couldn't be simpler. They work perfectly well in vacuum, so why wouldn't they work in low-density air? The answer is, we don't know. We encountered some kind of weird effect that we've never seen before. Something the computer model didn't predict. No doubt it's got to do with laminar and turbulent flow over the surfaces, but exactly what the mechanism is we don't know. My guess is that Dean still doesn't know, and if he says he does he's bluffing.'' Laura was fascinated and had stopped eating. ''But that's very serious. Surely they can't go on with test flights until they know what it is?'' ''He's got other groups snapping at his heels. People like Dean can do whatever they want. He's got full NASA backing, the White House wants an all-American replacement for the Shuttle, the military are slavering for Hyve technology, the commercial world is keen to invest he can barge ahead if he wants to, and he wants to. The lazy solution is to change the procedure at transition: lower the nose while the air-breather is still running and go into level flight temporarily, perform the transition to rocket power, then bring the nose up again with vectored thrust and continue into orbit. There's a price to pay, a little bit more fuel so a little bit less payload, but it should be safe. You don't get stuck in the nose-up attitude without control authority. Maybe that's all we can do anyway, even if we understand the phenomenon.'' ''What if there's still no control even with the nose down?'' Tex shrugged. ''Doesn't bear thinking about. But somebody's going to have to try it out and make sure that doesn't happen.'' ''And I suppose that somebody is you?'' He shrugged again. ''Wouldn't be too surprised.'' She toyed with her food, thinking about what he had said. ''You're calmly telling me that you're willing to put your life on the line to save Calder the expense and delay of a proper investigation?'' It was Tex's turn to pause and consider. ''To be a test pilot you need to have an irrational faith in your own abilities. You need to believe that no matter what kind of fix you get yourself into, you're going to find a way out. If you didn't believe that you couldn't do the job. If the controls refuse to respond, I'll find a way to make them respond. Or I'll get one or other of the engines back on line. Or something. I'll find an answer. That's what I'm paid to do.'' ''How can anything pay a man to do a job like that?'' ''You sound like my wife now.'' ''Which one?'' ''Both.''
ooOoo
Laura pulled the duvet up, partly for warmth and partly because she felt vulnerable, and even a little embarrassed. ''You know, I didn't expect to end up here tonight. That's the truth.'' ''I didn't expect you to either. In my job, the unexpected often happens. You've always got to be ready for it.'' He lifted her hand and kissed it. ''I hope it's going to happen again though.'' ''I hope so too.'' She held her fingers against his lips a little longer. ''Doesn't it frighten you? What you do for a living? I mean, that could just as easily have been you in Hyve 2, couldn't it?'' ''Could have been. And I may be wrong, but I think I might have acted just a few seconds quicker and got myself out of it. I mean he was climbing at a steep angle at Mach 18. He had given the command to shut down the air-breather. But there was still air outside the ship. I've done the sums, and for at least eight to ten seconds the SCRAMJET could have been re-started. Then he could have regained control with vectored thrust.'' ''Eight to ten seconds? You think you would have worked out what was wrong in eight to ten seconds?'' ''In this game it's got to be instinctive. A good pilot has done the right thing before he's consciously considered the problem. As soon as he had the tiniest doubt about the responsiveness of the controls, that's what he should have done. If something didn't feel right, if something didn't smell right, that's what he should have done.'' ''God, I wish you were out of this game. Life and death shouldn't be balanced as finely as that.'' ''I won't stay in it after the Hyve project. I know I'm slowing down. Just a tiny bit. Nobody else knows it, but I do.'' ''I don't believe you. I don't think you'll ever stop. Not until something happens.'' ''Relax. Nothing's going to happen.'' She cuddled-up closer. ''Please, Tex. Don't leave it too long.'' There was a pause while he seemed to gather courage for what he said next. ''Will you hang around for a while? Let me think about things? Maybe give me something to stop for?'' ''What do you think?''
ooOoo
Laura was wearing her blue dressing gown when she peeked out of the bedroom at the top of the stairs. ''When are you coming to bed, Tex?'' ''Sorry, sweetheart. A new message came in from Dean. I just need to read it. I'll be right up give me ten minutes.'' She continued down the stairs and stood behind him, gently massaging his shoulders. ''I can feel a bit of tension tonight. I suppose it's because the big day is so near.'' ''It's not that big a day. Just a routine flight. We're not doing any sims.'' ''What's a 'sim'?'' ''Simulation. Where you simulate some kind of problem and go through an emergency procedure.'' ''Really? That's what 'sim' means?'' He put his hand over one of hers and patted it gently. ''That's right. Why do you ask?'' ''Well you're probably going to tell me I'm wrong but when I met Dean Calder there was a report on his computer screen. I didn't see very much of it, just the title and the security code. It was called: 'Fatal Incident Report Main Engine Failure Sim on Hyve 2, 6/11/14'. Doesn't that mean the engine failure on Hyve 2 was a sim? A simulation?'' Tex's hand stopped moving. He seemed to become rigid in his chair. ''You don't think you could be mistaken about that, do you?'' ''How could I? I'd never seen the term 'sim' before. I couldn't have made it up. And I noticed that as soon as he realised what was on the screen, he turned the monitor off. It was definitely something I wasn't supposed to see. I'm certain of it. What was it, Tex? What does it mean?'' He turned around and Laura saw that the colour had drained from his face. ''It means the main engine didn't fail. It was a simulation. It was switched off. Holy shit! No wonder Watson couldn't start the motors. He wasn't meant to. It was all set up by Dean to test the aborted transition procedure. It was a way to telescope half a dozen different tests into one. He was absolutely confident the procedure would work, and he'd never have to go back to that part of the test programme. He took a chance and it didn't come off. Bastard!'' ''He took a chance with somebody else's life? Is that the kind of man you're working for?'' ''Was working for. He can't treat his pilots like that. The fucking bastard! I can't believe it! Well, that's not true, I can believe it. He ought to go to jail for that, Laura. That's the worst stunt he's ever pulled at least the worst one I know about.'' ''What are you going to do?'' ''I'm going to do what you and everybody that's ever cared for me told me to do. Get out. Do something else for a living. Fly airliners. Train pilots. Work for one of the rival space engineering companies. There's lots of things I can do and stay alive.'' She embraced him and stooped down to kiss him on the cheek. ''Do it now, Tex. Before you change your mind. He won't be in bed, will he? He'll be in that office of his, figuring out what 'sims' to do on your flight.'' ''Wait here, sweetheart. I won't be very long.''
ooOoo
''Tex? What are you doing here at this time of night?'' ''The game's up, Dean. I quit. I ought to ram that stupid model up your ass too, in memory of Watson, but I won't.'' ''What are you talking about?'' ''Find yourself some other mug. Laura saw that report on your screen. 'Main Engine Failure Sim'. The cat's out of the bag, Dean. And I'm going to be telling the rest of the team. We may not be able to prove anything, but just wait and see which of us they believe.'' ''You're stressed, Tex. Sit down. Let's talk.'' ''Don't tell me I'm stressed. I've come to my senses, that's all. We've got nothing more to talk about. The Hyve project is finished. Nobody's going to touch it when this gets out.'' ''So you want to walk out, do you? Cuddle up in your love nest with that little English hooker? Take me down with you? Holy shit, Tex, you know we have to cut corners from time to time in this business. You of all people know that. Some times we get it wrong. What are you, some kind of kid from Sunday School? Grow up, Tex.'' ''What do you mean, English hooker?'' ''Well who the fuck do you think she is? She's no Flight Magazine reporter. Call them, ask them if they've ever heard of her. Did you see her with the envelope I gave her, the one with your phone number on the back? What do you think was inside that envelope when I gave it to her? Do you think I would let an aviation reporter see that stuff on my screen?'' Tex became completely still and a shadow seemed to pass over his face. ''Are you telling me that you set me up. That Laura was paid'' ''She's a high class hooker from Miami. Nothing wrong with that, a girl's got to earn a living. I hired her because you needed cheering up. A depressed chief test pilot is no use to me. But if you think she loves you, if you think you've found Miss Right well, think again, buster. She's high maintenance. You'd better find yourself a job that pays real good if you want to keep Laura around.'' ''You're lying to me.'' He spoke very quietly. ''That's a lie. Laura isn't a hooker'' ''What's the matter? You having some kind of righteousness attack? You got something against hookers?'' Tex sat down heavily. Dean went on talking. ''I don't pretend to be a man of the world, but let me ask you something. Have you ever been with a woman who didn't lie to you? Have you ever been totally up-front with them, for that matter? It's all a game, Tex. Everything is public relations, making the right impression, feeding the right fantasy. But the Hyve isn't a fantasy. The Hyve is reality. It works. It's the next step on the way to the stars. It's a dream that's worth living for. You've got a chance to do something worthwhile with your life. Something that really counts. Don't throw that away, Tex. You'll never forgive yourself if you do.'' Tex said nothing. ''Keep Laura if you want to. I'll put her down as expenses. Keep your job. This interview never happened. What do you say?'' Tex and Dean met each other's eyes. At last Tex spoke. ''You can take her off the payroll. I'll find my own hooker if I need one.'' Dean reached across and took Tex's hand. ''Six o'clock Monday morning then, as planned. You'd better go home and get some rest. What are you going to tell her?'' ''I guess I'll tell her that I never had her down as a hooker. That they're usually better than that in bed.''
Archived comments for Hyve
bluepootle on 06-01-2012
Hyve
I loved the first meetings between Laura and Dean, and particularly Laura and Tex, but there are elements of it that make me uncomfortable. I got the fact that Dean had let her see what was on the screen ("angled so that she could see") - but why? Did I misunderstand that it was deliberate? And Dean's power play to keep Tex on the team at the end, saying she was a prostitute? I'm confused.

I think this is a story about a battle to keep a man either tied to work or home, but am not sure why Tex would so easily give up on either work or love. Maybe I'm missing something. Will be interested to read what others think of it.

Stylistically speaking, I felt the sudden change to conversation between Tex and Dean at the end didn't work, and you should stick to Laura's POV. I wanted to know what happened to her, not to Tex, to be honest, because you'd set it up as her story.

I thought the science was incredibly well handled, as was a lot of the dialogue.



Author's Reply:
Thanks very much for that. Keeping Laura's POV at the end is an interesting idea. Tex could just come back, ashen faced, and tell her to get out...

I don't think I'll go into author intent at this stage, as it would influence other people's interpretations and comments. I'll wait to see what people make of the story. In the meantime, your feedback is very much appreciated.

(Edit) Since I've gone into author intent a bit replying to John, I'll just come in again here to say that I hadn't intended to imply that Dean deliberately let Laura see what was on the screen, I meant it to be a mistake – a moment of carelessness that he tries to cover up by quickly blanking out the screen. I'll see if I can make that a bit clearer.

Re why he is so willing to give up work, it's because he realises that Dean is completely irresponsible and liable to get his pilots killed by the shortcuts he's taking and his attempts to deceive them and cover things up. But when he discovers that Laura (as he thinks) has been lying to him too, he finds that he's more hurt and angry about that than he is with Dean. Partly to get back at her he acquiesces to Dean's wishes and carries on with the flights – he's back in his depressed phase, and a lot more maleable. We assume he'll continue with his career until, in Laura's words, 'something happens'.

e-griff on 06-01-2012
Hyve
the essential plot and action is convincing and progressive, captures the attention. Highly competent writing.

I found the early conversations a bit plodding and formal, lacking the normal shortcuts of human dialogue, so was not that convinced, and this highlit the included 'tell' . I think a more natural conversation would hide the amount of tell and lighten the read.

Although I'm an old sci-fi buff (been reading it for over 50 years) I found the section with all the detail of angles/motors/ etc boring and unecessary. A shorter, more direct focus for the technicalities would be welcome.

I found the relationship with Tex okay, enlivening change, etc. But sadly, I really did not understand the conclusion at all. Maybe you haved aimed for something too complex, when the real story is about the relationships and characters of the players and the moral values of success versus human risk ( a rather hackneyed perspective of Dean which IMO could be enlivened to make him just not a typical stereotypical villain)


Author's Reply:
Thanks for the feedback John. After a bit of thought and re-reading though, I don't think I agree with very much of what you say.

The initial interview with Dean is a relatively formal one, and he is indeed 'telling' her about his project and trying to influence her to portray it in a favourable light. I don't find the tone of the conversation out of character with the setting, or lacking in what you call the 'normal shortcuts of human dialogue'. I don't think Aliya did either.

Regarding the engineering detail, I know from experience that it's something you don't like very much, maybe for the very reason that you have been reading science fiction for so long and it's such familiar territory to you, but I need to present the conversations between the former astronauts and the aviation journalist convincingly, and I don't think it would work if I had them do a Brian Cox 'aeronautics for idiots' job. Neither Calder nor Tex would talk down to Laura, or if they did she would surely pick them up on it and want to know why. In the same way I don't want to create the impression that I'm just bluffing my way myself on the technical side and don't know what I'm talking about. I need it to be a plausible account of a space engineering project. There's only so much you could cut away and still make it convincing. Lots of readers, I think, will appreciate the attention to engineering detail.

Regarding the ending, and the overall story, my take on it is that it's a picture of a ruthless man pursuing his dream, feeling perfectly justified in lying, falsifying evidence and callously manipulating people so that he gets the outcome he wants. Absolutely nothing matters as much as completing the test programme and getting the Hyve into service. He is an engineer obsessed with making his spaceship work, and that's so important that mere human beings have no right to get in the way. Tex even knows how ruthless and resourceful he is and still gets taken in. For me, Dean is the central character and Tex is putty in his hands. Laura is the threat and has to be removed at all costs. Dean made a mistake initially in letting Laura see the title of the report, and he has to patch it up later, just as he was wrong to fake the engine failure and assume that the back-up procedure would work. He has to cover that up retrospectively too.

He knows Tex's Achillies heel where women are concerned (being lied to) and he's able to use it to get what he wants, remove the threat of the woman who's turning Tex against him.

Maybe none of that comes across, but that's what I had in mind. The aspect that I'm most concerned about is whether the plot is clear, so that's the bit I'm likely to re-work if anything.


A Cold House (posted on: 19-12-11)
My submission for the Prose Discussion/Workshop challenge: 'This house is cold'.

Wilbur's wife grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him out of his pleasant dream. She spoke straight into his ear in a breathy, urgent tone: ''Who's that man, Wilbur? Why didn't you tell me about him?'' ''Eh?'' He lifted his head and reamed out his right ear with his index finger. ''What man? What are you talking about?'' ''In the kitchen. There's a man sitting at the table in the kitchen. You didn't tell me about him.'' Dora was evidently annoyed. ''There's no man in the kitchen.'' He lowered his feet from the sofa and sat up. ''You must be seeing things.'' ''Like hell I am. I just came back from the shops and there he was, Scared the life out of me. Who is he?'' ''You're not listening, Dora. There's no man in the kitchen. It's probably a coat draped over a chair. Did you turn on the light?'' He pulled himself to his feet and started unsteadily towards the door. ''Come on. Let's take a look together.'' He moved down the darkened passageway, swaggering slightly to conceal his apprehension, and turned the handle of the kitchen door very slowly. He eased it open and turned on the light. ''There you go,'' he announced with an air of triumph. ''Empty like I said.'' ''Then he must have got out through the back door. Because he was here. I'm not daft.'' Wilbur tried the back door. ''Locked. Like always. And the key's hanging here on the hook.'' They looked at one another but said nothing more.
ooOoo
The incident would probably have been forgotten if it hadn't been repeated in a slightly different form a few days later. Wilbur was sitting up late to watch a rugby match on TV and Dora was going up the stairs to bed on her own, when he heard her scream. He muted the sound. ''Dora? Is that you? Did you fall? Are you okay?'' She was back in the sitting room before he had time to stand up. ''It was him, Wilbur. That man. He was at the top of the stairs. I'm going to call the police.'' ''Now steady on, Dora.'' He stood up and took her hand. ''Calm down. No need to involve the police. Not just yet anyway. Are you sure it was a man?'' ''I knew you were going to say that. Of course I'm sure. I'm not mad, I don't see things'' ''Come and sit down for a minute. I'll make you a cup of tea'' ''Don't patronise me! I know what I saw.'' Despite her protests she allowed herself to be led to the big sofa, where he gently drew her down beside him. ''No. I wouldn't do that. Of course you saw him if you say you did. What did he look like?'' He noticed that her hand was unusually cold. Even though it didn't make much sense, the whole room suddenly seemed colder than it had before. He reached out and touched the radiator by the side of the sofa. Still working normally, almost too hot to touch. It had to be his imagination then. ''He was tall and slim and wearing a dark suit. I think his hair was dark too.'' ''And his face?'' She hesitated. ''It's a funny thing, but I didn't really see his face. Even though he was only a few feet away. Both times.'' She looked at Wilbur and he knew what the glance meant. A man without a face. It was beginning to sound even crazier. More clinical and less forensic. When she spoke again there was doubt in her voice. ''You don't think that I could be seeing things, do you?'' Wilbur smiled and shook his head. ''No, not us. We're not that kind of people. We've got common sense. Let's take a good look upstairs together. Then, if we can't find anything, and if you want to, we'll call the police.'' ''No, I don't think I want to call the police. Not until we're sure.'' ''Right, Dora. Whatever you think best.''
ooOoo
The man at the desk stood up. ''Ah, Mr and Mrs Crothier. Good to see you again. How are you getting along in the cottage?'' They both sat down before Wilbur answered. ''The cottage itself is fine,'' he began, ''but there is something that we want to talk to you about.'' The estate agent donned his 'concerned' expression. ''You see, we've only been there a couple of months, as you know, but on three occasions now, we've seen a male prowler inside the house.'' ''Inside the property, Mr Crothier?'' ''That's what I said. And we wondered is there someone else who still has a key to the cottage? Because he gets in silently, without doing any damage, and he goes away when we see him. As if he has his own key.'' ''Good lord. How upsetting for you. Well, as you know, we were simply the seller's agent. We certainly don't retain any keys ourselves when a property is sold, but we have no control over what the seller might do. It would be highly unethical of course and surely illegal for a seller to retain keys and return to a property in the way you describe. Obviously it would be trespass, and probably a few other things as well. I can't really see it though. They're such a nice young couple, the Munsens. Have you been to the police?'' ''Not yet. We just thought we'd like to talk to you first. And maybe to the previous owners, if you could arrange it.'' ''I'm afraid it would be unethical for me to give out the Munsen's new address. But you could possibly contact them through their solicitor. In fact you would have their solicitor's details yourself already, on the paperwork relating to the sale.'' ''Oh yes. I hadn't thought of that.'' ''And the other thing the obvious thing have you changed the locks?''
ooOoo
Wilbur and Dora were admitted by a pretty, heavily pregnant woman in her late twenties, wearing jeans and a tight white top that displayed rather than concealed her condition. She ushered them over to one of the sofas by the coal-effect hearth and bade them sit down. Her equally neat and attractive husband joined them almost at once from the door at the far end of the through lounge. The apron he wore, printed with the puzzled face of Homer Simpson, proclaimed that he had been cooking in the kitchen when the doorbell rang. ''Hello Mr and Mrs Crothier,'' he greeted them, ''nice to meet you again.'' ''Wilbur and Dora,'' he corrected them. ''Mr and Mrs makes us feel very old.'' ''And as you may remember, my name is Gerry, and my wife is Sian. Sit down. Make yourselves at home. Let me make you some tea or a snack?'' ''No, we've just eaten but thanks.'' Everyone took a seat and for a moment the two couples smiled at one another in silence. ''We haven't seen you since those times you came to see over the cottage. It's a beautiful little place, isn't it?'' ''Yes, we like the cottage a lot. Not too big to manage, and we're glad to be out of the city. But there's something we need to talk to you about. Can I ask how long you were in it?'' ''In all, about four years. It is all right, isn't it?'' ''All right? Yes, in most ways. But there's something I have to ask you and it's going to sound very odd''
ooOoo
''You're serious, aren't you? You're asking us if the cottage is haunted?'' ''That's what I'm asking. I know how daft it sounds, but I have to ask. Dora here isn't losing her marbles, Mr Munsen. She did see something.'' ''Something, yes, but you said yourself it might have been a prowler'' ''We've changed all the locks, Mr Munsen... I mean, Gerry. We've put additional locks on the windows. It didn't make any difference. Dora has seen him twice since we did that. We don't believe in ghosts either, we're sensible people. But if you see one, what are you supposed to do?'' Sian looked uncomfortable but said nothing. Gerry was the first to speak. ''I don't really see how we can help you. We lived there for about four years, like I said, and we didn't see anything.'' ''And the cottage didn't have any history that you know of like being the scene of a murder, or anything like that?'' Gerry shrugged. ''The cottage is very old, as you know. There's no telling what might have happened there. But there's nothing that we know of. Is there, Sian?'' She didn't reply. ''I see. Another dead end. Not your fault, of course'' Gerry looked serious. ''Wilbur I hope you don't mind me asking is it just Dora who's seen the ghost, or is it both of you?'' Wilbur knew exactly what he was implying. ''Just Dora. So far.'' He started to get up. ''No, please don't go yet.'' It was Sian making the protest. ''I think I may know something about this.'' Gerry stared at her, a puzzled expression on his face. ''You asked what you were supposed to do when you see a ghost, even though you don't believe in them. Well, what I did was keep it to myself. Always. What's the point of having people think you're insane?'' Gerry stared at his wife. ''You're joking, aren't you?'' ''No, dear. Not joking. And I'm sorry about never telling you. It isn't all that important really. I mean, what is there to say about it? That I'm crazy? I don't think I am.'' There was a pause. ''Are you going to tell us about it?'' Gerry asked a little coldly, it seemed to Wilbur. ''It began years ago, when I was in my early teens. I've never told anybody. I mean, when you're a teenager the last thing you want is to draw attention to yourself. To be thought of as different or weird. Then as I got older well, what was there to say? And I never felt in any danger from him.'' She reached out to take Gerry's hand, but he didn't respond. The colour seemed to have drained from his face. ''Please, Gerry. Don't be angry with me. I would have told you if you'd asked me. It really isn't all that important.'' For a moment, nobody spoke. ''I suppose I'd better tell you all about it then. First of all, it's the same ghost. The man without a face. It's me he's looking for. It took him a few months to find me the last time we moved house. Now I suppose it'll take him a few months again. You'd think it would be easy for a ghost, wouldn't you? When he finds me again, he won't bother you any more. And he will find me. Maybe he followed you here tonight. Who knows? ''I don't even remember the first bit of this story. I was very young. About five or six. I only know about it because my mother told me''
ooOoo
''Now listen, Sian. Morgan is your great uncle and he's a very brave man. He flew an aeroplane during the war to stop the Nazis coming over here and killing everybody in England. He was given a medal by the old King, before the present queen came to the throne. His plane was shot down by the Nazis, and he was quite badly burned. He's frightened of fire and heat now. He likes to keep his house nice and cool. But he's a very nice man, and I want you to be nice to him and talk to him and answer all his questions. He hasn't got many people left, and you're the only young person. The only little girl in his family. Do you understand?'' Sian nodded. ''Will he give me sweets?'' ''He might. I don't know. But he's very keen to meet you. He's seen your photograph and I've told him all about you, and he says he'd love to get to know his little niece, and I know he'll spoil you rotten when he does. There aren't any young people in his life, Sian. He's old and he's lonely. Do you understand that?'' Sian nodded again. ''Is he like Santa Claus?'' ''Yes, a bit like that. But he doesn't have a beard. And this is the awkward bit... his face doesn't look very nice any more. Do you remember that time you knocked over the kettle and got boiling water on your arm?'' Sian didn't need to reply. ''Well, your skin went red and wrinkled and all funny for a while, didn't it? That was because it was burned. Because the water was very hot. Uncle Morgan's face got burned when his plane went on fire. He was a very handsome man before it happened, everybody said so, and even now he's tall and straight and very fit for his age but his face isn't handsome any more. I need to tell you so that you don't say anything to upset him. That's very important. Do you understand?'' ''Is his face very ugly?'' ''His face is injured, not ugly. And you mustn't say anything about it. Absolutely nothing. Do you understand?'' ''But my arm got better.'' ''Yes. That's right. Your arm got better because the water wasn't all that hot. It didn't do too much damage. Uncle Morgan's face got hotter than that. So hot that he couldn't get better. Not completely better. Even with no, you wouldn't understand about that. Do you think you'll be all right? That you won't forget and say something?'' Sian shook her head. ''I'll remember, Mummy.''
ooOoo
''And did you remember?'' Gerry asked. ''According to Mother I started to scream and cry when I saw him. I didn't need to say anything. I had to be taken home. Mother was mortified. She cried too. I was never taken to see Uncle Morgan again. He was never even mentioned in the family until he died. They took me to his funeral when I was about twelve or thirteen.'' ''And that's when you started seeing the ghost?'' ''I think so.'' ''What did his face look like?'' Wilbur couldn't resist asking. ''I have no idea. I don't remember the episode at all. I suppose maybe I've blocked it out of my mind. And the man we've both seen his ghost I suppose doesn't have a face either. Or doesn't show it. Or maybe it's me. Maybe I'm afraid to see it. I don't know.'' There was a pause as the others absorbed the information. ''I'll fix us all a drink,'' Gerry suggested, taking Sian's hand as he stood up. ''Will you turn up the central heating a bit while you're on your feet?'' Sian asked. ''It's getting very cold in this room. Is that okay?'' she asked the guests. They nodded. Glancing at Dora, Wilbur realised that she was staring past Sian with an expression of wide-eyed amazement, as though she was seeing something that he couldn't. ''Don't turn around, Sian,'' she said very quietly. Everyone in the room froze. ''He's there, isn't he?'' Sian whispered. Gerry let go of her hand. ''I can see his face,'' Dora said, so quietly they could barely hear. ''I was never able to before He's speaking now. Can't you hear?'' ''No.'' Sian remained motionless. ''He says that he's sorry that he made you cry. And not to feel bad about it He says he cried himself the first time he saw it And that he's pleased about your baby... And that he wishes you a long and happy life. That was all he wanted to say.'' She hesitated. ''Sian. This is important. He says that if you turn around now you'll be able to see him properly.'' Sian rose from the settee and turned around slowly. She looked into the empty rear of the lounge, at something that Wilbur could not see. As she did, a smile spread across her face. ''Hello Uncle Morgan,'' she whispered. ''Thanks for showing me. You were a very handsome man. There's nothing wrong with crying, is there? Thanks for all the trouble you've taken. I understand now. You don't need to come back again. You'll always be with me now.''
Archived comments for A Cold House
bluepootle on 19-12-2011
A Cold House
The theme lended itself perfectly to a ghost story and this is a pretty good one. I wonder if a touch more menace in the middle section might inject some pace, but that might just be me wanting a bit more spookiness. It's quite nicely understated at the moment.

I thought the first section was a bit jerky and dialogue-heavy, and 'they looked at each other but said nothing more' felt very objective rather than placing us in our shoes. But I liked the switch into Sian's past directly - I thought that was very well handled.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the feedback. I intended it as a gentle, not-too-scary kind of ghost story, but I'll look at the points you have mentioned.

e-griff on 19-12-2011
A Cold House
I did enjoy this and it read well.I've no great problems with the writing, pacing and plot as a framework, but I do have a few observations in detail:

I agree that the language at the beginning was ponderous and heavy in places.

I don't think the 'confidentiality' stuff with the estate agent etc is that credible (we ourselves just moved and I'm in touch with the previous owners and have their address for forwarding any remaining mail that arrives - it's a pretty normal custom). But more importantly, I don't think it is necessary for the plot.

'it's a welsh name' stuck out at me - I can't see why anyone would say that, and it's not an unusual name anyway. AND they've met several times before, so it's nothing new.

I felt you built up the mystery well - not too obviously, and we could not guess his intent. I think it called for something a bit darker. It seemed to proceed up to a pint where there was suddenly a 'one bound and he was free' moment. Suddenly we can see his face, suddenly he speaks, is nice, says he will leave. Is that it? It seems far too pat to me - easy and a happy ending. But looking back at the various trails in the plot, it simply doen't make complete sense - he's haunted this woman for 15 years or more - what for? Now he won't - why not?

I want to know!!! 🙂

I think this could be a more powerful story with added depth if you could conjure some more credible rationale, and some darkness. At the moment it's a very good, capable, fluffy woman's mag story, but it could be a good piece of literature. (Whoops! there I go again).

best, JohnG

Author's Reply:
Thanks for that, John. As I said to Aliya, I was aiming more at the fluffy women's mag story this time than the more sinister / horror end of the market. The reason he had tried to contact her for all that time was simply because he had been upset by her reaction, he hadn't wanted to frighten her as a child, and didn't want her to blame herself as an adult for the way she had reacted to his appearance. He wanted to show her, so to speak, his real self, which is what we assume she sees at the end. I'm not convinced that more 'darkness' would give the story more depth. It would turn it into a different, more conventional ghost story, and I was consciously trying to get away from that if I could. I'll certainly look at the more detailed stuff you've mentioned though. Re contact with former owners, my daughter was refused the new address of the couple she bought her flat from, I think because there was a dispute going on about unpaid service charges. It's really their choice whether they want to give you their address or not, an estate agent won't supply it automatically.

TheBigBadG on 20-12-2011
A Cold House
One typo, Gerry is Garry at the start of the last section.

I quite liked the lack of sinister elements to it and the happy ending myself - the bit I thought didn't add up is why the ghost needed the old couple to come round before he could reveal himself. If Sian never felt any threat and wasn't scared she must have faced it before. It's not a deal-breaker but it does jar a little as it is.

A nicely handled telling though - I always find it gratifying to read a story that works well without nasty characters and aggression. As John says the mystery builds well as well; it felt more curious than sinister but that would fit with your step away from the traditional ghost story. Perhaps an angle for development could be the relationships of Wilbur and Gerry with their wives, given they seem to be quite different and it all centres around the uncle?

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the feedback, and sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I'll just answer your point about the plot first: '...why the ghost needed the old couple to come round before he could reveal himself'. Sian couldn't hear Morgan's voice, she could only see him. He needed someone to act as 'medium' – someone more receptive than Sian, or maybe less personally involved. I don't know whether this is clear from what I've written, but that was what I had in mind.

I take your point about the two husband/wife relationships. The danger is that you might start introducing material that isn't really relevant to the story, which is permissable in a novel but not to be encouraged in a short story. Their relationships aren't really relevant to what's going on here, but there's scope to exploore why Dora can communicate with the ghost but not Sian. I'll think about it.

discopants on 21-12-2011
A Cold House
This kept flowing along for me (I didn't find it too ponderous at the start).

I couldn't help but give out a little shiver when reading this even though, as you say, you haven't gone for the sinister ending. That said, the ending did seem a little convenient- I've noted your reasons as to why it unfolds as it does but wondered if there could be a little more of a struggle portrayed in Uncle Morgan being able to communicate his reasons for haunting Sian.

It had also seemed significant that only the women could see him- was there a particular reason for this as Dora doesn't seem particularly more disposed to believe in a ghost than Wilbur.

One inconsistency- the Crowthiers become Crozier when Gerry addresses them...

Author's Reply:
Hello Discopants. Thanks for the comments. Well spotted on the typo – now fixed.

Re who could and couldn't see Morgan, I hadn't intended to connect this with their willingness to believe, but rather to their natural sensitivity or 'ghost-seeing ability'. Initially neither of the women believes in ghosts. Also I hadn't intended any particular point in the fact that the two people who are able to see Morgan are both female. It just felt right somehow that they should be.

Extra struggle – I don't know. I'm reluctant to add anything that isn't essential. I'm more tempted to take bits out (see my reply to John, below).

If I do a full rewrite I'll look at all these points again, but I think I'll leave it for a while first and come back to it.

e-griff on 21-12-2011
A Cold House
my point about the estate agent 'business' is it is padding - entirely unecessary. Cut it, it wouldn't change the story one iota. just do it. 🙂 snappier and more direct.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the extra feedback. I've read over that section again and had a think about it. It's part of the build-up to the notion that there's something supernatural going on. Without it they seem to jump to the 'ghost' hypothesis a bit too abruptly. I like the element of self-doubt and looking for natural explanations that the section provides. Of course when you see the category at the top of the story there isn't much surprise in the discovery that we're dealing with the supernatural, but if the story were to appear without that spoiler I think it would work slightly better
with the estate agent scene than without it. It's very much a matter of judgement.
teifii on 23-12-2011
A Cold House
At this rate I'm going to get addicted to short stories. It held me in the first part but the grip faded by about half way.

Author's Reply:
Oh well. In that case I'll consider my glass half full rather than half empty. Thanks for the feedback.


Suicide Watch (posted on: 12-09-11)
This is the second of two pieces written for my own Prose Workshop challenge: to write something inspired by Kesang Marstrand's song Bodega Rose. 'Bodegas' (Spanish) are the all-night convencience stores in the Hispanic neighbourhoods of American cities.

After the usual punching-in of numbers to the keypad and clanking of doors, a young and rather scared-looking woman of Asian descent entered the room and introduced herself: ''I'm Mara. The agency sent me.'' I held out my hand and gave what I hoped was a reassuring smile. ''I'm Aidan. We'll be working together tonight. Sorry about the short notice, one of the staff came down with food poisoning.'' She nodded but didn't take my hand and didn't reply. Diana, who had been holding on for her arrival, waved her goodbye and left towards the locker room and home. ''Have a good shift,'' she mumbled as she left. ''You haven't been here before, have you?'' She shook her head. ''Well, sign in first,'' I handed her the book, ''and take one of these badges. Why don't you sit down? The coffee machine is just beyond that door, and if you keep going you'll come to the kitchen where you can make a sandwich or anything else you fancy. The fridge is well stocked.'' I waited while she signed in and returned the book. ''You look a bit worried. Don't be. There's practically nothing to do. It'll be the easiest shift you've ever worked.'' I invited her once again to take a seat, and this time she did. ''Why don't you have a coffee first, then I'll explain the routine to you.'' ''No, thank you. Maybe later.'' ''Okay then. Straight down to business.'' I smiled again. She still looked very uncomfortable. ''That's a nice name, Mara. Does it mean anything?'' ''The bringer of death.'' I laughed. ''Oh, great! Maybe it's me who should be worried!'' Looking around I could sympathise a little with her unease. Over the years we had accumulated a lot of electronic gadgetry cameras and monitors, remote door security pads and sound and movement detectors. Although hardly a quarter of the equipment was actually in use, the desk had begun to resemble the flight deck of a large airliner. ''Don't let all this gadgetry bother you. Very little of it works, or ever did. All we're here for is to keep an eye on five very unhappy people. Room 6 is empty at the moment. We look in on them every half hour. We don't use cameras any more because it's considered intrusive. We just go to the door and look in through the panel. If they're awake they can see us doing it. That's all that happens, ninety-nine nights out of a hundred. What did you think went on here?'' ''Well I know the people here are sectioned and that means'' ''Hannibal Lecter? Forget it. Hollywood hokum. Nobody here is a danger to anybody but themselves. I can't say that mentally disturbed people are never dangerous, because some of them can be a tiny, tiny minority but we haven't got any of them here. These people suffer from various forms of depression. There but for fortune, Mara, believe me. And our stories aren't over yet. They're on medication, but medication isn't magic. They can waken up in the middle of the night feeling worse than you or I can even imagine. They can try to injure themselves. We're here to see that it doesn't happen. That's really pretty well all there is to it. Any questions?'' She looked thoughtful for a moment. "I suppose I'm being silly. There's nothing dangerous about working here, is there?" "Oh, I wouldn't say that. The biggest danger is that it gives you too much time to think. If you're not careful you can get to know yourself better than is really healthy." She looked understandably puzzled. ''Have you always done this job?'' ''No. About eleven years. Somebody very close to me took her own life, and I decided that I wanted to try to stop other people from doing the same thing. I was a teacher once. And an electrical engineer before that. And a factory worker before I went to University. I've been a lot of things. I was a late developer How about you?'' ''I'm doing a nursing course. I'm trying to get a bit of experience and earn a bit of money, of course.'' ''I'll say one thing for the mental end the money is as good as you can get in nursing.'' ''I don't think I want to go into the mental end. I want to be a children's nurse.'' I shrugged. ''I wanted to be an astronaut. Doesn't seem to have happened though.'' At last, she smiled. ''Come on. Let's meet the residents.'' We walked down the corridor, trying to be as quiet as possible, and stopped at the first door. I beckoned Mara over to the glass panel. ''Gina,'' I whispered. ''Our youngest.'' She looked in. Gina was wide awake, sitting in a soft chair by the window, reading a book by the light of an angle poise lamp. She wore a blue flannel dressing gown that buttoned down the front. Not long out of her teens, her hair was long and straggly, her face thin and pale. A tiny flick of her eyes in the direction of the door told me that she had seen us. I doubted if Mara had noticed. ''What's her illness?'' Mara asked. ''She was a student. Pushy parents, especially her dad. Her parents are her illness.'' I was being deliberately obtuse because I hated labels. Mara seemed to understand. We continued from room to room. The other patients were all in bed, and seemingly asleep. Just lumps of varying sizes beneath the covers in the single beds, lit by soft lighting that never went off. I said a few words about each of them. The residents' lounge was at the end of the corridor. I led her in and took a seat on a long sofa, inviting Mara to do the same. She sat at the opposite end and looked around her, taking in the details of the room: the soft seats, the reproduction paintings on the walls, the two large bookshelf units, the TV and stereo, the glass-fronted games cabinet, the upright piano and the two guitars in their cases beside it. ''So they all sit here in the daytime?'' ''Some, not all. The ones who smoke have to go outside. That's a strict rule nowadays. And of course some of them prefer to stay in their rooms.'' ''And what do they do? I mean, do they talk, or watch TV, or play the piano?'' ''All those things. They're just people, you know. They're not a separate species or anything. The ones you need to watch are the ones who want to stay in their rooms all the time. If they're out here socialising, or even just sitting here, you don't have too much to worry about.'' She nodded. ''And how long do they stay on average?'' ''That's almost unanswerable. They have a review, at least monthly, sometimes more frequently. When two doctors say they can leave, then they can leave. Of course some of them come back again. We have our regulars, just like the Rose and Crown down the road. The longest I've known anybody stay in the secure unit is about eighteen months. That's pretty unusual though. Shortest is about three weeks. There's no average, it's meaningless.'' ''But they can't just leave when they want to. Really, it's a kind of'' ''Prison? No. More like a refuge. These people need protection, need looking after at this particular point in their lives. Quite honestly, very few of them would want to leave, even if they could. It really is somewhere secure. It's a good place to be if you're having trouble coping. We try to make it as stress-free as we can. I wouldn't mind signing up for a few weeks as a patient myself.'' ''You don't mean that, do you?'' I hesitated. ''No well, yes, why not? Everything's pleasant here. Your meals are made for you. Your laundry is done for you. Your room is cleaned for you. There's a trained counsellor who'll listen to you any time you want to talk. It's like a five star hotel really.'' ''But one where you can't check out.'' I couldn't think of a good answer. Through the glass door I caught a movement in the corridor. Somebody was out of bed and approaching the lounge. Mara saw her too. It was Gina. ''Don't say anything,'' I hissed beneath my breath. ''Let her speak first, if she wants to.'' She came in and stood looking at the two of us. ''Who's the girl?'' she said after a pause. ''This is Mara. It's her first time here. She's standing in for Ruby.'' ''Oh. I thought maybe she'd come for the empty room.'' ''No. You can tell by the little plastic badge she's got on. Staff, not resident.'' ''Is that it? The only difference?'' I smiled. ''No. We get paid. You don't.'' I was pleased to see a flicker of a smile from Gina. ''And you get to go home, don't you?'' She sat down on a soft chair opposite the sofa. ''Why? Do you want to go home?'' ''No. Not home. Not there.'' She looked at Mara. ''Where's your home then?'' ''You mean, where does my family come from originally?'' Gina nodded. ''Kashmir, Northern India.'' ''So. Do you want to go home?'' Mara looked flustered. ''Just tell her,'' I suggested. ''If you want to, that is.'' ''No, Gina, I don't want to go home either. But but I may have to.'' ''Family twisting your arm?'' ''Yes, I suppose you could say that. Families are a bit different in my country.'' ''Don't do it,'' Gina advised. ''Do what you want to do. Don't be like me. Be strong. Don't let the bastards get you down. Pardon my French.'' Mara seemed to smile, then I realised she was holding back tears. ''I think this is a good country,'' she whispered. ''I think people can have a good life here. I don't want to go back. I don't want the life that they have planned out for me. But I don't think I'm strong enough to beat them. Do you understand me?'' ''Of course I understand you.'' Gina suddenly rushed over and embraced her. ''You and me together. We can be strong together, right?'' Mara was crying freely now, not trying to hold back. ''I think I'm in the way here,'' I said quietly. ''Don't let her do anything silly, Gina. I'll look in again in half an hour. Call out if you need me.'' ''But isn't she the one with the plastic badge?'' ''Yeah. I think maybe we need a different kind. They don't seem to work very well.''
Archived comments for Suicide Watch
bluepootle on 12-09-2011
Suicide Watch
What a wise and calming story. Very nicely done. I have to admit I had to read the dialogue at the end a few times to work out who was saying what. Might just be me being thick-headed on a monday morning, but it was a shame (from my point of view) to have the momentum interrupted in such a delicate story in order to backtrack and check I hadn't confused the speakers.



Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Aliya. I'm glad that you found that the story had those qualities.

I'll look at that piece of dialogue again. It seems clear enough to me, but then it would, wouldn't it. Maybe a single attribution word somewhere would make it completely unambiguous. I'll see what I can do.

franciman on 12-09-2011
Suicide Watch
Hi David,

I liked this story. It flowed throughout and it kept my interest. Unfortunately, I had already made up my mind that this was fantasy. It is almost impossible to conceive of untrained, inexperienced carers being sent to sensitive mental health facilities. Naming your child "Bringer of Death" seems most unlikely too.

Overall, still a very good story.

Cheers,
Jim

Author's Reply:
Thanks Franciman.





Mara is actually quite a common girl's name on the Indian sub-continent, and 'bringer of death' is only one of its meanings. She could have claimed that it meant 'temptation' or the god of the mortal (human) world. Her concentration on the 'bringer of death' meaning was intended to illuminate something about her character.





As to her not being trained, nurses coming to England to do their training often work as carers first, and during their nursing courses. The agencies put them through the NVQ qualification either to Level 1 or Level 2, which would be deemed perfectly adequate to do a night shift in a secure unit attached to the mental wing of a hospital. I agree that it wouldn't be a common placement, and the hospital would only call in such a person if they had exhausted all other possibilities, but it isn't regarded as different to working in any other part of the care industry – unless there were potentially dangerous patients present, possibly suffering from schizophrenia or severe psychosis. In most cases there would be nothing to stop Agency casuals being used alongside permanent staff, especially at night when there is very little to do. In the care industry you just try to cope and live within your budget, and believe me, even where there are rules or policy recommendations, they get bent from time to time.





Thanks for the feedback. Glad you liked the story.

franciman on 12-09-2011
Suicide Watch
Hi David,

Just for the record, I was a registered nurse and nurse manager for 14 years before retiring.

Cheers,
Jim

Author's Reply:

e-griff on 12-09-2011
Suicide Watch
Note: 'Mara' is a european form of Martha, also related to Mary. It means 'bitter'.

This was a curious piece. Overall when I finished, I understood I had been delivered a 'crafted' piece. Too crafted in my view - running from a to b - done! No diversions, nothing sending your mind off on an imaginative flight, just a nicely-delivered 'worthy' story - in some places very stiff and formal, marginally unnatural, stilted description and speech. All the time, you know the statements are being lined up in a logically-inescapable pyramid until it's done. Not a bad story, but not a memorable one - no depth of characters, stereotypical in my view.

And, very surprisingly in the writing, some errors, particularly near the start: who says 'of Asian descent' in the real world? why not say 'Asian'? or better, let us know her origin by other, less direct means if you want to be 'delicate' That just jarred with me.

Ruby --- 'left toward the locker room ..... as she left'
repetition of left, and how do you 'leave toward' something? what's wrong with 'headed for' for instance.

his first speech (you haven't ...) needs attribution

and what is a 'mental end'? I maybe can forgive a character an odd phrase, but then she repeats it. I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone call a branch of a profession an 'end'.

anyway, I too wondered how an apparently untrained temp would be allowed to mix with the patients .

the stuff about the equipment/unused etc was obviously meant to make some point, but for me it was superfluous. I'd cut it out completely.

David, i know I'm beiing a complaining old sod here, which seems impolite as you have been so nice about my last two stories, but I have to be honest. This story clonked out like a player piano - it lacked the subtlety and wit of a measured and finely-tuned hand. I think the topic is a good one, and think you could rewrite successfully in a much more involving and flowing way.

best, JohnG

Author's Reply:
Okay, thanks for the honest assessment. Like you with your change of tense I'll wait for a slightly bigger consensus before making up my mind about the story as a whole.

The comments on manners of expression I've noted and will think about. I can't really let you 'know her origin' right at the beginning without stepping into a rather 'omniscient' mode, all the narrator sees is a girl of what looks like Asian origin. She could just as easily come from Walthamstow as Lahore, that's something that at this stage has to be established. Would 'of Asian appearance' be better, I wonder. The phrase 'Asian descent' or 'Asian origin' comes completely naturally to me, I don't feel the 'jar'.

Re Agency staff, they aren't strictly speaking untrained, and not only are they widely used throughout the National Health Service, it's something that you're going to see more and more of in the future. You're doing pretty well if you've got one full time staff member on every shift in places like this now, even in the daytime.

Thanks again for the feedback.

franciman on 13-09-2011
Suicide Watch
Hi David,

If you are looking for consensus, let me return to your story. There is again liberal use of adverbs. This as we have considered elsewhere is lazy writing. There are 43 -ing verbs, which again as instructed robs the writing of pace. A lot is spoken about the use of alternatives to said in speech attribution. Said is invisible, so does not disturb the flow, though the alternatives do. In this piece, in place of said, we have:- mumbled;hissed;suggested;advised and whispered. On your point of factual reference, NVQs level 1 and 2 can now only be gained at work. The award is the result of continuous assessment whilst at work and is quite impossible to deliver as an agency. Either Mara is a Nursing Student in which case she has no qualification at present, or she is an agency carer and has an NVQ and experience within a secure unit. In any event you MC would be very quickly hauled in front of the NMC for leaving a member of staff alone in the hands of a patient known to be at risk. His Clinical Nurse Manager would ask what were you thinking? I am forced to ask the same question.

Last, but by no means least in consideration is the very tenuous link again with The Bodega Rose.

Sorry for being so blunt David, but you seem unwilling to take criticism unless it is given with sound rationale.

Cheers,
Jim

Author's Reply:


An Urban Fairytale (posted on: 12-09-11)
This is the first of two pieces written for my own Prose Workshop challenge: to write something inspired by Kesang Marstrand's song Bodega Rose. 'Bodegas' (Spanish) are the all-night convencience stores in the Hispanic neighbourhoods of American cities.

There was no special reason why it should be so, but Cahal had expected Deirdre's place in London to be a bit more impressive-looking than was actually the case. There was an old sofa and what looked like builders' rubble piled up in the small front yard, and the paintwork on the windows and the front door was peeling to reveal wood that had rotted into a pattern of rectangular cracks. Two strands of thin plastic-covered wire projected from a hole in the doorframe where the bell-push had once been mounted, and a faded notice behind the dirty wire-reinforced glass panel announced NO JUNK MAIL OR SALESPEOPLE. He considered knocking on the panel, or throwing a pebble at one of the upstairs windows, because he knew that her room was on the upper floor, but it wasn't necessary, because as he stood considering his next move the door was pulled inwards by two scruffy young men, one black and one white, who were obviously leaving and seemed indifferent to his presence. ''Oh, hello'' he said hesitantly. ''I've come to see Deirdre McDermot'' ''Up the stairs, door's straight ahead of you,'' said the white man, still not registering a great deal of interest. As the two of them pushed past him, Cahal caught a whiff of a hot woody smell, like a campfire of damp new branches. He entered the dingy hall and noticed that he was treading on a carpet of old pizza shop brochures, special offers from supermarkets and invitations from estate agents to put the property up for sale. Perhaps this was a category of hand-delivered junk mail that the notice on the door didn't cover. The same burning wood smell permeated the hall and stairwell, but here it was mixed with the odour of damp decay. He ascended the single flight, taking care not to touch the banisters, which looked filthy. He knocked smartly on the door in front of him and heard Deirdre's voice from the other side. ''Who's that?'' ''Guess.'' After a delay she opened the door and stood before him in a pink dressing-gown tied at the waist and carpet slippers. She looked rough, her eyes dark, her complexion pallid maybe just the absence of makeup, maybe the absence of joy. Her chestnut hair was long and straggly, her expression one of alarm. ''Cahal? What are you doing here?'' This wasn't the reception he had hoped for. ''I wanted to surprise you You said I was welcome any time'' ''Well, you have surprised me. You might have phoned.'' She stood to one side. ''You'd better come in.'' He went through and opened his arms for an embrace but she turned away. Embarrassed, he watched her make her way to the tiny kitchen area with its Baby Belling table-top cooker and electric kettle. She started to fill the kettle at the sink. ''Make yourself a cup of tea. I'm going to take a shower'' ''If it's a bad moment I can come back another time'' It seemed crazy to be talking to Deirdre in such a formal way. ''No, it's fine. Just give me a few minutes to sort myself out. If you'd called I would have straightened the place up. I was in bed very late last night. Sorry if I seem a bit cold. I am happy to see you. Really.'' She collected a towel and some things from a pile by the bed, more from an open bedside cupboard, and disappeared onto the landing. As Cahal found a place to sit he heard the water running in the bathroom. He put down the bag he had brought, with its bottle of the cherry brandy that had always been Deirde's celebration drink, and looked around. He checked his watch. It was just coming up to eleven thirty. He wasn't very sensitive to mess, but back in Ireland Deirdre had always been neat and tidy. This place was chaotic. Abandoned items of clothing on every surface, drawers open, toiletries and makeup in a higgledy-piggledy heap on the dressing table, plates piled in the sink, stacks of paperback books and random items in cardboard boxes on the floor as though she had never fully unpacked, bare walls, apart from the self-adhesive notes stuck behind the cluttered little table that she was evidently using as a desk. Back in Ireland she could never have lived like this, even if her mother had allowed her to. Her room had always looked tidy and loved. There had been some major change in Deirdre's life, and it wasn't a change for the better. He decided he would try not to say anything if she didn't bring it up herself. He stood and rummaged around for two glasses, but without success. Instead he washed two teacups in the lukewarm water at the sink. Remembering the kettle he rinsed them in boiling water and dried them. He got the cherry brandy out of the bag and cleared a space for the bottle and the two teacups. Then he sat and waited. After a few minutes she returned, looking a lot fresher, and wearing a pair of light blue jogging bottoms and a loose cream top, her hair wrapped in a towel, turban-like. He stood up to greet her and this time she managed a faint smile. She put the bundle she was carrying on the bed and kissed him. It was the kiss of an embarrassed stranger. As she tried to draw away he held her back. He waited, expecting her to say something, but she didn't. Instead she started to sob very quietly. He led her over to the bed and they sat down together. He took her hand. Ignoring his earlier decision, he spoke to her tenderly. ''I know something's wrong, and I want you to tell me about it, no matter what it is. If you've got somebody else I won't get in the way. We haven't seen each other for about five months. I have no right to assume that everything's the way it used to be. I'll understand. Whatever it is, you can tell me. I need to know, and I won't be upset, or angry.'' It took her a while to stop crying and collect her thoughts. He hugged her gently and she didn't resist. ''There isn't anybody else now, but there has been. I need you to forgive me for that, and for this place. For this life. The life you wanted to share with me was a different life. That one's gone now. All those letters I wrote they weren't true.'' He stroked her back. ''I knew they weren't. Not the whole truth anyway. Are you really a singer in a band?'' She shook her head. 'What about the promotion in Sainsburys? Supervisor, wasn't it?' ''There's no Sainsburys any more. That job only lasted a few weeks. I do something else now. It's night work. It's a lot more money for the hours.'' ''And is that what matters to you? A lot more money?'' ''Things are expensive here. I need a lot more now. It's not like Ballyrowan... You shouldn't have come over, Cahal. You don't want to know about this life. It's not for you. Go home. Find yourself a nice Irish girl. Get married and have children. You made a big mistake with me. I'm sorry I wasn't honest with you, and I'm sorry it didn't work out. But it didn't.'' He paused for a long time, still holding her. ''Go home. Just like that?'' ''There's nothing for you here. Nothing at all.'' ''Then why is this the only place I want to be in the whole world?'' ''Cahal, don't you understand anything? I'm a stranger now. If I told you about my life here, you would never want to touch me again. Never want to talk to me again.'' ''All right. Don't tell me about it then. I don't care. I'm not interested. That's the God's honest truth. What I'm interested in is the future. What happens from this moment forward. I want you to come for a walk with me and tell me a story. The story of how you would like our life to be together. Not the truth, the fantasy. Every little detail of it. Where we live. What we do. What our friends are like. How many children we've got. Where we go for our holidays. I want you to make it all up. I want you to be outrageous.'' ''You're mad, Cahal.'' ''That's right. And you have to humour madmen. Otherwise I might turn nasty.'' He held his hands out like claws and made a sound like the Bogey Man. From the general direction of the dressing table a mobile phone sounded, its ringtone a series of low warbling trills. ''That'll be the men in white coats looking for me. Leave it. Come on, it's warm outside, you won't need a coat. We'll need this though.'' He bundled the bottle and the two cups into his crude fabric shopping bag and led her towards the door. ''Wait. I'll need my shoes and my key'' She pulled the towel from her hair and threw it on the bed. ''The key, but not the phone. You won't be needing that any more. Better get a new SIM card.'' ''You really are totally insane. Where are we going?'' ''Buckingham Palace. I don't know. Where do you want to go?'' ''What about the caf down the street?'' ''Good idea. Have they got bacon sandwiches? I could murder a bacon sandwich.'' ''The best you've ever tasted.'' As they left, Deirdre was actually smiling. Cahal put his arm loosely around her waist. ''Where do we live then? Dublin or Paris or Venice?'' ''No. Ballyrowan.'' ''Good choice. On the Main Street or down by the bridge, where you can see the river?'' ''Oh yes. Where you can see the river. Definitely where you can see the river.''
Archived comments for An Urban Fairytale
bluepootle on 12-09-2011
An Urban Fairytale
It took me a few paragraphs to get into this one. The initial description of the arrival at the house didn't grab me straight off; I wonder if it might work better if you start with Deirdre opening the door, and then give us the detail of the house later.

This line felt like overkill: "There had been some major change in Deirdre’s life, and it wasn’t a change for the better"

Having said that, I loved the final bits of dialogue between them, and the way we didn't find out all the worst details of her life. So I wasn't too keen on the beginning but loved the ending. I definitely warmed to it.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for that, Aliya. You confirmed a worry that I had about the piece myself, lack of a hook at the beginning. It might be a bit difficult to get the house details in if you start with his knocking at the door – also the scene would then lack context, you wouldn't know what kind of neighbourhood he was in or the significance of the visit, but I may come up with a better way to arrange the opening. Roger on the over-kill too, a valid point, I think.

The piece really relies on atmosphere, the feeling of fairytale, the rescue by the hero of the (potential) princess imrisoned in the tower. I think you got that. Thanks for the feedback.

e-griff on 12-09-2011
An Urban Fairytale
I found the first part stodgy (oh, it's the innocent farm boy and his girl in a moral dilemma .... I groaned)

But the ending picked the story up from the stodge and made it special. Very nice. I'd suggest working on the first part, making it a bit looser with less 'moral/philosphical' dialogue - perhaps she evades the questions by telling him about things - theatres, restaurants, how great life is etc, and he plays along. gradually we understand he knows, then he goes into his performance ...

enjoyed this one 🙂

Author's Reply:
Okay, thanks, sounds like good advice. It would make it a bit longer, but that wouldn't matter. These 'challenge' pieces are always done in a bit of a hurry, the thing is to work out whether you've got something worth further thought and work. I think I might have here.

teifii on 12-09-2011
An Urban Fairytale
I found the beginning hard work but right now I find everything hard work. Then got into it and was very glad of the happy ending. It sure needed one.
Daff

Author's Reply:
Yes, your feelings seem to coincide very much with both Aliya's and John's. I'll try to rework the beginning. Thanks.

franciman on 13-09-2011
An Urban Fairytale
David you are right about being done in a bit of a hurry. There is an obvious over-use of -ing words which draws the strength from the story. There is also evidence of lazy writing in the liberal use of -ly adverbs. The first half is stodgy. In part this is because of the proliferation of adjectives, the overdone description and the self-indulgent use of your own literary 'darlings' - the absence of make-up, maybe the absence of joy. Like a campfire of damp new branches.

The second half redeems itself in some measure, though there is nothing new here, nothing in the characters that makes me want to care. As a long time sailor, my knowledge of joy-girls is such that I find your naive perceptions of them touching, but feel there is no place for them in an adult story.

My greatest criticism though, is that a writer of your experience should not be guilty of authorial intrusion to the extent exhibited in this piece:- i.e.
"who were obviously leaving":"he said hesitantly";"still not registering a great deal of interest";"taking care not to touch the bannisters, which looked filthy";"maybe the absence of make-up, maybe the absence of joy".

In terms of the theme, this would seem to have a very tenuous link to the song.

I am sorry if this seems negative. However, I realise if I am to be an asset to this workshop I need to be honest in my critique.

Author's Reply:


Checkmate (posted on: 08-08-11)
Prose Workshop challenge. "The priest should conform himself to God, whose minister he is... God does not reveal the sins which are made known to Him in confession, but hides them. Neither, therefore, should the priest reveal them." Summa Theologica St. Thomas Aquinas (12251274)


Father McDermot entered the classroom at the back and waited for Miss O'Brien to finish what she was saying and announce his presence, before walking up to the front of the class and smiling at the children. ''Good morning, Miss O'Brien. And good morning boys and girls.'' ''Good morning, Father,'' came the reply, in monotone chorus. ''It's good to see you all looking so well. God bless you all. Does anybody know why I have come here this morning?'' Six hands immediately reached upwards. ''The boy at the back with the green jumper.'' ''For our first confessions, Father.'' ''That is exactly correct. To hear your first confessions. Now, can anybody tell me what is meant by the holy sacrament of confession?'' Almost every hand was raised. ''The little girl with the flower in her hair at the front.'' She was also very obviously the only black girl in the class, but Father McDermot was careful to make no reference to that. ''It's when God forgives your sins through a priest, Father.'' ''Yes! That's a brilliant answer! Absolutely one hundred per cent correct. Most people, even adults, say that it's the priest that forgives your sins, but it isn't the priest. It's God who forgives your sins. The priest merely acts on God's behalf, like the telephone between you and God. Very good. Miss O'Brien has done a great job here. Now, I'm going into Mr Dynan's office in a few minutes, and each one of you is going to come and speak to me, one by one, and I'm going to hear each of your confessions, and I'm going to give you absolution and a penance. Can anybody tell me what absolution is?'' The hands shot up. ''Over on the right you, young man.'' ''Forgiveness.'' ''Correct. And penance? You, the girl with the book open.'' ''Punishment, Father.'' ''Not exactly. But you're very nearly right. We use the term 'reparation'. Repairing the wrong. Making up for whatever it is that we have done. For example if you had stolen money, what do you think you might have to do to make it right?'' ''Give it back, Father.'' ''That's correct. Just so. But often we can't really make things right in that simple kind of way, so what do we do instead? No, not you again. Somebody else. The boy with the lunchbox.'' ''Say prayers, Father.'' ''That's right. Talk to God. Tell him we're sorry. Ask his blessed mother to intervene on our behalf. And now here's a very important question. What if one of you were to tell me a secret during your confession? What if one of you were to tell me that you had just robbed the Bank of Ireland in the High Street?'' Giggling broke out but soon subsided. '' Could I go to the police and turn you in? The boy at the back with the white shirt.'' ''No, Father.'' ''That's right. And what if I had to go to court and give evidence under oath. Could I repeat what you had said then?'' He looked at the same boy. ''No, Father.'' ''And what if they were to tie me to a post and a firing squad had their rifles trained on my heart, and they told me they would shoot me if I didn't tell them? Would it be okay to tell them then?'' ''No, Father.'' ''That's right. Not even if they had me chained to the rack and they were pulling my body apart with winches, or pulling my fingernails out with pliers.'' Some of the little girls began to look alarmed, but the boys, he could tell, were enjoying the image. ''No children. Not even then. Does anybody know what that rule about not telling is called?'' Only one hand went up this time. The black girl with the flower in her hair. ''It's called 'the seal of the confessional', Father.''
ooOOoo
''Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.'' ''Quite right. Now, if this wasn't your first confession, what would I ask?'' ''You would ask how long it was since my last confession, Father.'' ''Quite right. Very good. I was impressed by your answers in class. You're a bright girl. Is your family from Africa?'' ''Yes, Father. I was born in Sudan.'' ''Really. I've only been to Africa once. Cape Town. Beautiful country. Wonderful people. Is your whole family Catholic?'' ''No, Father. Just me and my little sister. Daddy wants us to be Catholic because he says this is the best school around here.'' ''Oh. I see.'' He paused. ''But you do believe in Jesus, don't you?'' ''I think so, Father.'' ''You only think you believe in Jesus?'' ''No I do believe in Jesus.'' ''Can you explain to me why you believe?'' ''Because if you believe in Jesus I think you don't get cut''
ooOOoo
The bishop's housekeeper opened the door and stared disapprovingly at Father McDermot's rain-sodden figure. ''I need to see His Grace. I'm sorry that I don't have an appointment. I need to see him urgently.'' ''Come in, Father. I'll get you a towel from the bathroom.'' The bishop came out to greet him as he dabbed the rainwater from his hair. ''Will you take Father McDermot's coat, please, Mrs Finnegan. And perhaps you could bring some tea to my study. Come in, Liam.'' ''Thank you, Your Grace.'' He followed the elderly cleric to a small inner room. The bishop indicated a chair. ''I feel terrible about bothering you like this'' ''I said when you came to the parish that my door was always open. I meant it. Relax. You're as pale as a sheet. Would you like something a bit stronger than tea?'' The priest shook his head. ''All right, Liam. No hurry. Tell me what's on your mind in your own time.'' He felt his tense, rapid breathing slow down. The bishop took his seat behind the desk, which was littered with open books and writing material. Out of the corner of his eye, Father McDermot noticed a chess board on a small table, the pieces set out in an uncompleted game. ''That's still the same game as when you were here three weeks ago,'' the bishop smiled, ''I think I'm in a bit of a corner. And I hate to lose to the Rabbi.'' ''I I need a bit of guidance. I haven't slept since Friday.'' ''Go on.'' ''I was told something by a very young child under the seal of the confessional.'' ''And?'' ''Well, I think I know the answer, but I need to ask you anyway. Are there any circumstances whatsoever, I mean when serious human good and ill are at stake, when other considerations over-ride the seal?'' ''I think you do know the answer to that, Liam.'' ''Nothing? No circumstances?'' ''Absolutely none. I find it easiest to think about what transpires in the confessional as a kind of dream. Another world, not connected to this one in any substantial way. What was said in the confessional wasn't really said at all, except in a dream. We're awake now. That world no longer exists.'' ''What if the person were to repeat the same thing, but outside the confessional?'' ''That would be different, of course. But you mustn't do anything whatsoever, directly or indirectly, to encourage or bring about that repetition.'' ''Then I don't think it's going to happen. I think she found it incredibly hard to say it the first time. She isn't going to say it again.'' ''Then it's out of your hands. You're only a priest, you know. You aren't God. It isn't your responsibility to control people's choices and actions. You can't force people to be good, or brave, or honest, or even sensible. People have free will, even children. If somebody won't or can't say something, that's the way it is. That's the way God has made the world. Your duties and responsibilities are clearly defined. The rest is for almighty God to decide. There's no need to torture yourself. Your duty in this matter is absolutely clear.'' He paused to consider the bishop's words. ''And what would happen if I disobeyed?'' ''To break the seal of the confessional would be a betrayal of the most sacred trust placed in the priesthood. If it became known to the Holy See it would mean automatic revocation of your ordination, and possible excommunication, depending on the seriousness of the offence. You'd be de-frocked. It's that serious, I'm afraid.'' ''So, the least that could happen would be that I wouldn't be a priest any more?'' He nodded. ''The least that could happen. Yes.''
ooOOoo
Father McDermot spent the following day thinking about a life outside the priesthood. He wore ordinary clothes and took the bus into town, looked at the display boards in the local job-centre, visited a bookshop and thumbed through some books of which he knew the Catholic Church disapproved. In a large newsagent's shop he lifted down one or two risqu magazines from the top shelf, only to discover that they were shrink-wrapped and inaccessible without purchase. He went to a multi-screen cinema to see a film that carried a warning about sexual content, but could muster no interest and walked out. After a couple of hours he made his way back to the parochial house, excused himself from lunch, and sat alone in his darkened room for most of the afternoon. Then he made his way to the police station.
ooOOoo
Father McDermot was still wearing mufti when he went back to the Bishop's House the following evening. This time he had an appointment, the sky was clear, and it was the bishop himself who opened the door. ''Good to see you, Liam. Your colour's a bit better today. Have you come to terms with things?'' ''Yes, I think you could say that.'' ''Please, come in.'' He followed the Bishop into the same study. The chess board was still laid out on the side table. The bishop's desk was as untidy as before. They took up their former seats. ''I I have a confession to make,'' the priest began. He opened and closed his hands, wiped sweaty palms on the legs of his trousers. ''Go on.'' I've done what you told me I mustn't do. I've been to the police, and I've spoken to Social Services. This morning, three little girls were taken away from their parents, and their father was arrested. He'll be appearing at the Magistrate's Court on Monday. I think he's going to be spending some time in jail. It's... that thing that they do to little girls in Sudan.'' ''Will you need to give evidence?'' ''I don't think so. It'll be mainly medical evidence. They say it's an open and shut case. He'll probably plead guilty.'' ''And the girls?'' ''It's too late for the oldest one. The other two are going to be all right. They may never go back to the family, of course.'' The old bishop smiled. ''You have broken the promise you made as a priest,'' he said. ''That's a serious sin. Have you committed any other sins since your last confession?'' ''I'm sorry. I don't understand. What are you talking about?'' ''What was the first thing you said when you walked through that door?'' ''That I'd been to the police?'' ''No, before that.'' ''Nothing oh, you mean, that I have a confession to make?'' ''Exactly. Your penance is the Lord's Prayer, which you shall offer for the peaceful repose of my soul. Now, if you would kindly kneel, I'll give you absolution.'' ''You mean you aren't going to take it any further? You aren't going to tell anybody?'' ''I mean that I can't tell anybody. Nor does anybody need to know. This is a dream, Father McDermot. We're both going to wake up in a moment, and then I'm going to ask you if you can help me to find a way out of the Rabbi's gambit. The Almighty is a chess player too, you know Liam. You are merely a pawn. I, on the other hand, am a bishop.''
Archived comments for Checkmate
teifii on 08-08-2011
Checkmate
Very good story and what an artful bishop. No wonder he plays chess.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much, Daffni. Glad you liked it.

bluepootle on 08-08-2011
Checkmate
Great story. Great ending, in particular.

The first para is very passive, with all the waiting and walking and -ing words. Maybe it could be made more active to bring it to life?

You've got a misspell in 'tern' instead of 'term' somewhere near the beginning.

I did wonder if you could get rid of the small starred section that is purely exposition, but a part of me quite likes the business of going to the cinema, then the police station, etc. I'd be interested to see if anyone else flags that section as unnecessary.



Author's Reply:
Thanks, Aliya. I think you've got a very good point about the first paragraph, I'll see if I can make it a bit more active.

In that short section you mention, I wanted to give the sense that he is trying to imagine what life will be like when he is no longer a priest, that he has already decided between his church career and what he believes is the higher morality dictated by his conscience. I think I would want to keep that in.

I'm glad you liked the story. Thanks for the kind words. Very much my kind of thing, as Griff will be quick to point out.

e-griff on 08-08-2011
Checkmate
That's why it was on the list David! 🙂 Couldn't have you saying 'not my kind of thing' could I?

will come back and read properly later .....

Author's Reply:

franciman on 08-08-2011
Checkmate
Great story. I really liked the structure, with the exception of the passage about trying out the forbidden things the laity can do. The Bishop, once a priest himself, had a worldly-wise knowledge of the real world. This was gained despite his priesthood, and would have been the same more or less for Father McDermot. The show/tell balance was excellent and the piece was very atmospheric both at the school and at the Bishop's house.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much. I tried to present the priest as a simpler kind of man than the bishop, somebody who went straight from school into the seminary, not really all that worldly-wise, but conscientious to a fault. The bishop on the other hand is a smart cookie and can be devious and manipulative when he needs to, like his namesake in the game.

Thanks for the comment.

e-griff on 08-08-2011
Checkmate
highly competent telling. the 'worldly' section I think adds to the story, but could be blended in differently (without stars!) ie more smoothly .... perhaps a bit more, more everyday life with a new view - watching teenagers, people's behaviour as one of them, not a priest, what real life is like, even referruing to the semniary and his upbringing if you liked. -- that would all enrichen the story, at the moment it remains a bit stark, and I think needs to be paced more gently, over a longer length, but maintaining our interest with fresh ideas as you go.

couple of punctuation gripes, but no more ..

a mini trad David Gardiner story, I'd say.

Author's Reply:
Thanks John. I'm beginning to wonder what's meant by these 'stars' now. Is it the little section dividers that I always use, these things: ooOOoo ? Or can other people see stars that are invisible to me? Have I drifted slightly in the multiverse?

Yes, that section could be enlarged without much trouble. The idea of him looking at women on the street in a new way quite appeals to me. But I have a built-in instinct that tells me not to make stories longer without a very good reason. If it works at this length I'm strongly inclined to leave it this length. I will give it some thought though.

Thanks again.

e-griff on 08-08-2011
Checkmate
oh! liked the chess allegory!

Author's Reply:

e-griff on 08-08-2011
Checkmate
I din't mean sex, which you seem focused on, I meant observing real life from a participant's point of view, not a 'standing outside society' point of view. how does he feel about this? It's alien for him - being an 'ordinary man' I think it deserves far more consideration and elaboration, it's a rich topic to explore (sorry about 'enrichen' BTW) . It's a separate aspect to his dilemma. Moral: should I do it? Personal: can i take the consequences? what are they?

This COULD be much longer, and justifiably so. I could almost think you are thinking 'flash' here and not 'short story'. I'd urge you to make it so ...

Author's Reply:
Well, it is the longest of the stories submitted for the challenge, by some way I think.

I agree that the feelings of a lifelong Catholic priest who is about to become a layman would be an interesting area to explore, but a short story needs to have a sense of unity about it. This one isn't about that particular realm, it's about the dilemma of choosing between conscience and Canon Law, the spirit or the letter of the moral code. I don't think it would be appropriate to wander too far into that other domain. I've tried to select the areas where leaving the priesthood would have an impact: one would be the need to earn a living, so he looks at the notice boards in the job centre; another would be greater intellectual freedom, so he has a look at some banned or frowned-upon books; and a third very big one for a Catholic priest under a vow of celibacy would be the possibility of relationships with women, sex and marriage, so I give that one perhaps a bit of extra weight. But really I think that to go beyond this might be milking it a bit within the confines of this particular story. Save it for another one, I think.

expat on 08-08-2011
Checkmate
Father McDermot was nicely characterised, the dialogue & narrative
well- balanced and the denouement fitted in like the ultimate piece of an interesting jigsaw. Just the right length too.
The word 'bishop' was unnecessarily capitalised in a couple of places but that's a petty criticism.
A good story.

Author's Reply:
Thanks Expat – sorry, expat. I'll root out those maverick capitals! Glad you liked the story.

e-griff on 09-08-2011
Checkmate
sorry to go on, but the issue of adaptation to real life IS the key turning point in this story as presented. Clearly, you show us that he is assessing the impact/consequences of acting on his conscience, and only after that deciding to go to the police. The reason for suggesting you expand that issue is because it is vitally important for THIS story. Frankly, looking at a girlie mag and going to a sex film is short-changing us in describing what has to be a very serious decision for him (and not just focussed in sex)(a bit like 'in one bound he was free). So I see I don't really mean this story should be 'expanded' , what I am really saying now is this story should completed by giving that central section the same attention as the rest. 🙂 hope this is clearer. JohnG

Author's Reply:
I'm flattered that you should consider it worthwhile making the same point twice, but I have done my best to answer it above. I think we'll just have to disagree about it. You do accept, I take it, that after we've listened to all the feedback, it's for authors to decide which bits of it to use and how to use it.

e-griff on 09-08-2011
Checkmate
well, it's a comment. and it's NOT the same as the preceding one. In that I said it was a separate aspect. in the last, I said I'd realised it was an intrinsic part of the story (ie not an add-on option). That's why I explained it further, so you could understand more clearly my reasoning.



Author's Reply:

niece on 09-08-2011
Checkmate
David,

Loved the exchange between the Father and the students in the first half...the rest of the story was fab too...a great story!!!

Regds
niece


Author's Reply:
Many thanks for the kind words Niece, and sorry for the delay in replying. For some reason I didn't get the notification about your comment.

Bikerman on 09-08-2011
Checkmate
Nothing to add, except my congratulations - an excellent story.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Bikerman. And if the nomination was from you, thanks for that too.

neotom on 09-08-2011
Checkmate
I found this story to be somewhat boring and full of beginner's errors. Too many to mention. The dialogue was not believable to me and the reader should find dialogue believable in the stories they read. The dialogue was also to long and tedious. The link between dialogue and place/action is sadly lacking. The ending was childish and didn't work for me. I did not find it descriptive enough, though that may be my own yearning. However, I think stories should be descriptive to the extent that the reader feels they are in the story. Stories should hold the attention of the reader, but this one does not.

Author's Reply:

neotom on 09-08-2011
Checkmate
Oops, I forgot to rate it. Sorry about that.

Author's Reply:

TheGeeza on 15-08-2011
Checkmate
I thought this was well set and I found the characters believable. I liked how he explored the possible life that he might lead outside of the priesthood - and interesting that he looked for the seedy side of life as a representation of that.
I was a bit disappointed with the ending - I thought it was a quick way out and a bit of a play on words - almost as if a single absent-minded word had triggered his absolution. I know it wasn't - but it seemed that way. Disappointed as I wanted the ending to match the approach.
Interesting theological subject, too.


Author's Reply:
Well, the single absent-minded word gave the bishop an opening to make his 'bishop's move'. If he could locate everything within the context of the sacrament of Confession he didn't have to take any action about what the priest had done, which was of course what he wanted to do. He finds a way out of his duty under rigid Canon Law, in fact uses the law against itself. Sorry if the ending disappointed. Best I could come up with. Thanks for reading the story and for the comment.


A Gift of Wisdom (posted on: 15-07-11)
This is my entry in the current Prose Workshop Challenge. It was set by Bluepootle and if you want to see what it was all about you'll need to go HERE.

''I don't believe it! It's happened again. That sweet old couple across the street.'' Morris put down his book and hurried to the window. ''Did you see them this time?'' She shook her head. ''I wasn't quick enough. But I'm pretty sure they were in a car. I just saw it vanish around the corner at the bottom of the road.'' ''Thugs who put bricks through windows in a car? Doesn't make sense, does it?'' ''Let's go over. Ask them if there's anything we can do to help.'' She took Morris' hand and led the way, before he could think of an excuse not to go.
ooOOoo
After a lengthy rattling of locks and bolts the door was opened by the old man that everyone called the Colonel, dressed in a rather severe dark grey suit and a spotless white shirt with a crimson silk tie. He smiled and wished them good night. ''We're the Cunninghams from across the street,'' Morris began, ''This is completely intolerable. I've never known anything like it. People don't behave like that in this neighbourhood. I can't tell you how angry it makes me, the way you and your wife are being victimised. I hope neither of you was hurt.'' ''No, Mr Cunningham, we're fine. But it's very kind of you to offer your sympathy. And your good lady, of course. How are you, Mrs Cunningham?'' He looked at her affectionately. He was far from young but she couldn't help thinking that he looked quite dashing. His accent was unusual, she thought. Latin American, perhaps. ''Please call me Louise, Colonel. And my husband's name is Morris. I'm afraid I wasn't quick enough to see them, but I'm pretty sure they were in a car. It looked grey, but of course you can't really tell at night, under those orange street lights. Have you called the police?'' ''Good heavens, no. What would be the point? Person or persons unknown in a car that might be grey? I don't think there's very much they would be able to do. But do come in, Morris and Louise. Have a drink with us.'' ''Can we call a glazier for you then? Some kind of emergency boarding-up service?'' ''Oh, we can manage. The downstairs windows have bars anyway, as you can see. Nobody will be able to get in between now and tomorrow morning. We'll sort it out. Come in, please. It's cold out here.'' They followed him inside and through to the spacious rear lounge, adorned with large exotic pot plants arranged around a baby grand piano, where his elegant wife was sitting at a wooden dining table bearing a cut glass vase of large white lilies. She wore an old fashioned blue evening dress that clung to her slim figure. Her silver necklace ended in a cluster of sapphires that toned-in with the dress. She reached up to greet them, squeezing each of their hands as her husband introduced them. He used the newcomer's full names, but referred to the seated lady simply as ''my wife''. They sat down while he made his way to the drinks cabinet and started placing bottles and glasses on a silver tray. ''You've been here for a few months now, haven't you?'' Louise said with a hint of embarrassment in her voice. ''We should have come over to say hello before'' ''That's perfectly all right, my dear. People don't in this country, do they?'' ''Were you about to go out, Mrs?'' Morris enquired. ''My name is Chalina, dear, but in English it is simply 'Rose'. Please call me Rose. No, we were not going out. We normally dress for our evening meal. It's a rather ridiculous habit that we've acquired, something left over from happier days.'' ''Oh, but I think that's beautiful,'' Louise assured her. ''Wonderful.'' ''Do you my dear? And what do you charming young people do?'' ''Morris is an architect in a firm, with two other partners. I teach Yoga and Tai Chi. Just three times a week night classes at Chester Tech. I can't work full time yet, one of our daughters is still quite young.'' ''Architecture is a wonderful profession,'' the Colonel put in. ''You have a vision and you make it a reality. I can identify with that.'' Morris smiled. ''Well, usually it's a vision of a loft conversion, or a granny-flat extension.'' Rose ignored the interruption. ''Ah yes, I have seen your two girls. Charming. Quite charming.'' ''Not when the older one comes in drunk and crashes out in the front room. Sorry, I shouldn't have said that. Yes, they're not bad girls really. Do you have children Rose?'' It was uncomfortable to address the old lady by her first name, so commanding was her presence. ''No, I'm afraid we never did. We were a military family, always moving around. Then later Clemente went into politics. Life was very hectic, state functions and official engagements all the time. We never had time for children. We regret it now, but one can only do so much in this life. Decisions have to be made. It's never possible to do all that one would wish.'' ''Where was it that your husband had his political career?'' Morris asked. ''A small Central American republic. I doubt if you would have heard of it.'' ''It's very hot there, isn't it?'' Louise wanted to hear more. ''The hot season is very hot, and the wet season is very wet. It's a part of the world where the weather does not do things by half measures.'' ''You must miss it?'' ''Yes, some aspects. The sunsets, the sounds of the rainforest the beauty of our garden, with the ornamental lakes and the magnificent plants and shrubs, flowering all the year round but in many ways it was not an easy life. It was a turbulent place, where all my husband's efforts were needed to keep order. A family in our position could never relax. There were many factions, hungry for power. Always unrest. Trouble of one kind or another.'' The Colonel joined them with his tray and started to arrange the glasses on the white lace placemats. ''I see.'' Morris toyed with a glass. ''Did you rise high in the political ranks, Colonel?'' ''Yes,'' was his cryptic reply. He showed them the ornate label of the bottle he was holding, a deep green background with the Spanish writing in blood red across a forest scene outlined in white: palm trees, enormous blossoms among twisted vines, and a little group of racoon-like animals holding their tails high in the air. ''This is a liqueur from my country. It's called Sapiencia. In my language 'sapiencia' means 'wisdom'. You will please try it? It is made from cashew nuts, sorrel and ginger. My wife and I are very fond of it.'' He poured each of them a generous measure of the green liquid and raised his own glass. ''To peace and stability in our troubled country,'' he said with a smile. ''To peace and stability everywhere,'' said Morris. They touched glasses and tasted the content. ''It's delicious,'' Louise smiled. ''Absolutely heavenly.'' ''When you go home you shall take some bottles with you.'' ''Oh, but we couldn't'' ''I insist. The good things in life pass away quickly, dear Louise. You must enjoy them while you can. Share them with others, savour them. Hold them in your heart for the times when they shall no longer be there.'' ''My husband can be a little morbid,'' Rose apologised. ''Do you think you'll ever go back?'' Morris asked. ''No. That won't be possible. We are dependent now on the hospitality of our former friends, like the people of the United Kingdom. Your former prime minister, Mrs Thatcher, was a great friend to my family.'' ''Really? You knew Maggie Thatcher? Golly!'' Louise was highly impressed. ''You too, perhaps? You call her by a familiar name.'' ''Oh, no.'' Louise was embarrassed. ''Everyone in England called her that. It was a mark of affection.'' ''What a lucky lady she was, to enjoy the love of her people. One can not always retain that love when firm action is needed to quell insurrection. Sometimes unpopularity is the price one must pay for political effectiveness. The surgeon must be willing to yield the knife before the gangrene spreads, don't you agree?'' ''Oh yes.'' Louise was a little puzzled. ''I should think so.'' ''But let us not dwell on unhappy things. Do you like classical music?'' ''Why yes. I'm not an expert, but I have some favourites'' ''My wife was a concert pianist before we married. Do you have a favourite piano piece?'' Louise thought quickly. Did she actually know the names of any classical pieces for the piano? ''I remember I once heard a Chopin nocturne that I loved'' ''Opus nine, number two?'' Rose seemed delighted. ''It's one of my favourite pieces! How wonderful. And such a graceful and peaceful composition. May I play it for you?'' ''That would be fantastic. I've never had anyone play just for me before.'' ''Oh, not just for you. For myself also. And for Morris and Clemente, of course.'' She walked to the baby grand and made herself comfortable on the stool. They turned their chairs to face the instrument, and she began to play. As Louise had fully expected, Rose's performance was sensitive and flawless. She drifted into a peaceful haze as the music embraced her. This, she thought to herself, is the high watermark of human civilization. Calm and heavenly music, played by a mature and gifted lady, in beautiful surroundings, to her life partner and their honoured guests. Surely nothing could ever surpass this? As the piece came to an end, and everyone applauded, and certainly not just out of politeness in her own case, Louise noticed that she could hear the sound of car engines outside more than one. They stopped, one after the other, and silence returned. ''I think there's something going on outside'' she began, but Rose was not interested. ''Let me play you another of the nocturnes. This one isn't so well known, but I think it's very beautiful. It predates Opus 9, although it was published posthumously. It is usually referred to as Opus 20.'' She started to play again, an equally beautiful and restful, but less familiar melody, and Louise's anxiety seeped away. As this piece ended Louise was certain that she could hear the beating of helicopter rotors high overhead, growing in loudness. Then the loud squawk of some kind of crude megaphone, the voice too distorted for her to make out the words. The Colonel excused himself and stood up. He went to the drinks cabinet and returned with a black carrier bag containing bottles that rattled as he walked. ''You'll have to be careful how you carry these,'' he explained, ''I don't think I have time to wrap them for you. Perhaps you should leave now, I believe there are some other people anxious to talk to me, and I wouldn't want to place you in any danger.'' Louise took the bag and rose to her feet in numb incomprehension. ''I hope you'll forgive me if I ask you to find your own way out. Thank you so much for the visit. It was an enormous pleasure to meet you.'' She turned to leave. ''One more word before you go, Louise.'' She looked back and their eyes met. ''Never do wrong because you think a greater good will result. Never make that mistake. It is a pathway with no turnings, and only one ending.'' The loudspeaker barked again. The helicopter now seemed directly overhead. The Colonel started to return to his seat. He had to raise his voice slightly to speak to his wife. ''Will you play Opus 19, my dear? You know it's my favourite of Chopin's works.'' As Louise and Morris made their way to the front door Rose, began to play the slow dreamy introduction that seemed to speak of a world of utter peacefulness, beyond time itself. They opened the front door with difficulty, releasing the large steel bolt and unhooking the chain to do so. Outside, six bright sets of vehicle headlights shone straight into their eyes, obliterating everything from view except the helicopter with its red and green navigation lights, which was hovering just a little above rooftop level across the street, silhouetted against the moonlit sky, and causing a wind that threatened to propel the two of them back into the hallway. Yet the sound of Rose's delicate piano-playing penetrated and remained perfectly audible beneath the churn of the mighty rotor blades. The voice from the megaphone, when it came, was clearer now, the words perfectly distinct. ''Put the bag down. Keep your hands where we can see them. Walk forward slowly.'' They did as they were told, shading their eyes from the blinding headlights. As they reached the line of vehicles, arms reached out and pulled them to a taped-off piece of roadway behind the police cars. Uniformed police officers, one male and one female, frisked the two of them for weapons. Only then did any of them speak. ''Okay, what were you doing in there?'' ''Visiting. Having a drink. They're our neighbours.'' ''Are they both in there?'' ''Yes. Of course.'' ''Anybody else?'' ''No, I don't think so.'' ''Are they armed?'' Louise swallowed hard. ''I don't think so.'' She paused. ''If the helicopter wasn't there you'd be able to hear Rose playing the piano.'' The officer thought for a moment, then spoke into a small radio that he took from his belt. ''Can the air support pull back a bit, please?'' The helicopter ascended, turned, and moved off out of sight. The noise of its rotors diminished sharply. Louise could hear the piano again peaceful, unhurried, the melody winding down towards the closing bars. The piece ended, and there was a moment's pause. Then, two gunshots rent the air, separated by about a second. Officers shouted orders and men wearing heavy body armour surged forwards towards the front door and crouched down, guns drawn, awaiting the order to go in. The bag that the Colonel had given them lay incongruously directly in front of the door. Everybody surely knew what had happened, but nobody made any comment. After a few seconds, the men stood up and in an unhurried line walked through the doorway. The sound of the helicopter grew dimmer and all but one set of vehicle headlights died. Freed from the glare, they could see hundreds of their neighbours now, held back behind the police tape in both directions along the road. An excited drone of conversation was starting up. A small group beyond the tape to their right were holding up hastily constructed banners bearing words like ''Murderer'' and questions such as ''Where are my two brothers?'' and ''Why have you betrayed your people?'' Morris turned to the senior officer who had been asking the questions. ''Was the Colonel a very evil man?'' ''Not for me to say, Sir. He had an appointment at The Hague, but I don't think he'll be keeping it. It's between him and his maker now. What you might call, an appeal to a higher court. All I know is that they're still finding more and more mass graves back where he comes from.'' Louise shuddered and took her husband's hand. He put an arm around her shoulder and held her gently. For a few moments, nobody said anything. ''Can we have our bag back?'' he asked the officer at last. ''It was a gift.''
Archived comments for A Gift of Wisdom
Harry on 15-07-2011
A Gift of Wisdom
I don't know what the challenge might have been, Dave, but you've got yourself a mighty fine little piece here. It gets a little hectic toward the end and gives a somewhat bitter taste to the genteel social call ... but that's irony I suppose.

Author's Reply:
Thanks Harry. I'm very pleased that you liked it. I think the Colonel and his wife die in a reasonably genteel way.

Bikerman on 15-07-2011
A Gift of Wisdom
Yes, a very enjoyable read! (even with the occasionally overwhelming flurry of adjectives).

Author's Reply:
Thanks Bikerman. It would be useful to know where you think the adjectives are excessive.

Bikerman on 16-07-2011
A Gift of Wisdom
Sorry, I was trying to avoid my sometimes heavy-handed approach by not pointing out the actual culprits. Although I appreciate you were setting a scene, I thought the narrative sections were sometimes overdone with description, especially: '..through the SPACIOUS REAR lounge where his VERY ELEGANT wife was sitting at a POLISHED WOODEN DINING table . She wore an OLD-FASHIONED BLUE EVENING dress that clung to her IMPRESSIVELY THIN figure. Her SILVER necklace..' Twelve-plus adjectives/adverbs in two lines just seemed a bit much. But maybe it's me?

Author's Reply:
Well, you haven't actually mentioned any adverbs, but I don't think twelve adjectives in a descriptive passage worry me. Thanks for the feedback.

e-griff on 16-07-2011
A Gift of Wisdom
Overall a good little story indeed.

My methodical mind said to me, however, that it didn't believe UK police routinely shoot people who are going to appear at the Hague and be tried, and who earlier comments may have indicated were under their protection. I've thought round it several times and it doesn't fit for me, slightly troublesome I have to say.

A much lesser worry (I'm a worrier) is that she indicates her daughter is too young to leave alone. Yet they appear to have left her (the older daughter's out boozing by all accounts 🙂 ) It's funny how daft things like this worry me ... sad, I guess.

Author's Reply:
Well, the police don't shoot anybody in this story either, but I think they might well have armed officers present at the arrest of a foreign military dictator with a scary human rights record. His protection would presumably have gone with the end of Mrs Thatcher's premiership, although there's no specific suggestion that protection was what she had given him, more likely just an open back door to get into the UK when he was on the run from his own people. Again we don't know that Louise's elder daughter is drunk at the time of these events, just that she has offended in this way in the past. So, overall, I don't think I agree that these are plot weaknesses. Let's see if others think so.

Thanks for the feedback.

David.

e-griff on 16-07-2011
A Gift of Wisdom
oh yes, I misread it - the shots come before they go in of course ... 🙂 silly me ..

Author's Reply:

Bikerman on 16-07-2011
A Gift of Wisdom
Maybe I ought to go back to school. My apologies if I'm wrong, but I always thought 'impressively' and 'very' were adverbs - aren't they?

Author's Reply:
Okay. Sorry, my mistake.

bluepootle on 16-07-2011
A Gift of Wisdom
Brilliant build-up here. Very culturally interesting. I wasn't keen on Louise 'just noticing' the baby grand - would rather have it built in up-front in the description of the room (yes, I want more description rather than less!) but could just be me being picky. I think it's very strong.

Author's Reply:
Thanks, Aliya. Glad you liked it. I'll see what I baby grand.

franciman on 18-07-2011
A Gift of Wisdom
I thought this was a great read. The many strands were introduced in a seemless manner and it is only predictable to those who have the benefit of reading the inspiration poem as the theme. My one concern is that whilst descriptive adjectives are fine, qualifying ones are author intervention. You gave us the Colonel and his wife so well that you didn't need to touch up on the references. I hope you see what I mean?

A super story, interesting right to the end.

Cheers,
Jim

Author's Reply:
Thanks Jim. I'll try to remove the offending qualifiers.

e-griff on 18-07-2011
A Gift of Wisdom
David

I hesitate to say this, but as you are someone who, years ago, taught me to be above all honest in critique, this is what I think on my second visit to this piece.

I felt bad about misreading the gunshot thing, but also , I felt there was something about the story that was leaving me unexcited and uninvolved, merely reading each step in the plot and thinking ‘I wonder what’s gonna happen at the end?’. So I came back again and read it with more care, taking my time, and noticing more along the way – and I did ‘notice’!

It honestly did not register with me first time (as I’ve said about poetry -- I read to enjoy, not to analyse) but when I got the first warning tinkles on this one, second time round, I focused.

First, punctuation: punctuation around interrupted speech we have discussed before, and here it is wrong (Morris began). But sure, that’s a minor technicality; commas – just a few out of place not checked. As Louise and Morris made their way to the front door Rose, began to play ... ; What you might call, an appeal...
These could all be seen as trivial, careless, fixed by a swift edit – I agree.

This is the biggie:
I think the story would be radically improved if it was written from the POV of one character (probably Morris or Louise), and dump the omniscient narrator (the most boring and uninvolving for a reader it is reliably observed).

but there’s more: speech attribution and intrusion. Some of this can be blamed on omniscient narrator, but not all. eg ‘He looked at her affectionately’ you can’t! ‘Morris was clearly intrigued’ was he? how do we know this? Is it by what he asks, in which case why not let that stand for itself and not give a narrative commentary on it? (similar is “ ‘Yes,’ was his cryptic reply” ‘yes’ is pretty cryptic in context, why say it again? ‘Morris modified the toast’ (presented as a ‘said’ substitute --- never!) and we know he did, we just read his words – why repeat it – are we that dim?
Then we have ‘said’ substitutes such as ‘put in’, ‘apologised’ (a little like ‘I’m sorry,’ she apologised. redundancy or what?) at least you didn’t use adverbs (as in ‘she apologised apologetically’)

Intrusion? ‘Louise was highly impressed’ (er, she did say ‘Really’ and ‘Golly’ do we need to be told?)
‘Louise was hesitant’ ‘Rose was clearly delighted’ (in the middle of her saying something which SHOWS she is clearly delighted. – again redundancy/repetition – all mush to bog the reader down )

After a plethora of speech attribution with intrusion, we have some places where there is no attribution and we don’t know who is talking.

Frankly, this is not your best writing, but also I don’t think it’s at all typical of your writing generally. Maybe write it off to a bad hair day?

On the basis of this, I’m hiking myself up to 3rd place!!! ha ha 🙂

*wanders off belatedly, dreaming*

very best, JohnG


Author's Reply:

e-griff on 18-07-2011
A Gift of Wisdom
and who the hell is Lillian? 🙂

Author's Reply:
Lillian has been 'disappeared'. Thanks for that.

Actually it's supposed to be from Louise's POV, she is the one interpreting the mental states of the others.

Speech attributions are something that I'm not all that bothered about (as I have said many times, I think) but just for you I'll go through it some time and change everything to the Authorised Version.

The focus of the piece, in terms of emotion and involvement, is the last few moments in the life of someone who knows that he has done great wrong and made huge errors of judgement, and now, uselessly, regrets it. Someone for whom insight and wisdom have come too late. I suppose if I have to explain this the story hasn't worked, at least for you, but so it goes. One tries one's best.

e-griff on 18-07-2011
A Gift of Wisdom
No, it is not from Louise's POV as written, as is totally apparent (and I have demonstrated above), and that shows how much this story has gone awry.

David, I am not stupid. The intention of the story is obvious (perhaps too much so).

My comments above are on the method of achieving your intention. No amount of obfuscation/defensiveness hides that (you don't understand/it hasn't worked for you ... bollocks!) It's about writing technique, pure and simple. You may not 'be bothered' about attribution - but for a reader it's a mess . When were you ever 'not bothered' about what readers thought? Surely that is the point of writing?

This is not your typical writing, which is why I feel free to be so critical. It is multiply flawed. Maybe you were busy with UKAway, I dunno. BTW I have my own problems with writing at the moment (frankly, I'm crap 🙂 ).

So maybe the David Gardiner that I know and admire will simply say, 'Yes, this is a duff piece, I shall do better.'

After all, we've all done it. i do it often *sobs* 🙂

sincere best wishes, JohnG

Author's Reply:
Well the simple fact is that few seem to agree with your overall assessment. Okay, I've noted your point of view about the story, and I have made various adjustments based on what you have said, but I'm not interested in having a slanging match over whether or not it's crap.

delph_ambi on 19-07-2011
A Gift of Wisdom
Far too modifier heavy for my taste, but the story-telling is smooth and convincing and I enjoyed the read. A thoughtful piece.

Author's Reply:
Thanks Catherine. I'll have to download a modifier removal tool from somewhere. Glad you liked it.

e-griff on 19-07-2011
A Gift of Wisdom
neither am I 🙂 as in fact I said MY (recent) writing was 'crap', not yours. Unless you want to disagree? (ha!)

I based my comments on what I normally expect from David Gardiner, not the average writer. I did this especially (yes, okay, maybe a little exuberantly, but you're a big lad 🙂 ) because Jim and bikerman in particular have been struggling manfully and working very hard (and it shows!) to master some of the very things you've let slip a bit here.

You've a reputation to keep up, man! 🙂 very kindly, JohnG

Author's Reply:

neotom on 31-07-2011
A Gift of Wisdom
I can see e-Griff's confusion over what he sees as an omniscient narrator. For me the story is written in third person past tense with Louise as the POV character. I think e-Griff sees the narration of the piece to be possibly over-descriptive. Also, although Louise is the POV she seems to carry only an equal part in the story of the main four characters (not that this should not make her a suitable POV).

Rather can get bogged down in the craft of writing theory I'll just say how I believe the confusion could be removed.

Firstly, Sirat could introduce the POV earlier. It is introduced in the third paragraph (after the beginning lines, which I presume are not optional?):

“No, Mr Cunningham, we’re fine. But it’s very kind of you to offer your sympathy. And your good lady, of course. How are you, Mrs Cunningham?” He looked at her affectionately. He was far from young but she couldn’t help thinking that he looked quite dashing. His accent was unusual, she thought. Latin American, perhaps.

This is confusing. One would assume the narrator is pointing out that the Colonel is looking at Louise. But when we complete the paragraph we undergo a mental re-alignment in our new POV and wonder if perhaps it was Louise thinking he was looking at her affectionately. And we only find out her name after a string reading the Morris name (she comes in the fourth paragraph after the beginning lines).

To cut a long crit short, to solve the problem, I would say the POV should be established immediately in the first paragraph, or possibly the second (in which it seems as if Morris would be the likely candidate, unless we were going to get a strict omniscient narrator). Also do a bit more of Louise noticing the objects rather than the narration simply describing them.

A suggestion was made that the POV should be made as first person present/past tense? I don't think this would work with Louise's character as she is not particularly interesting. I think the POV in third person past tense is the correct one but that it was not introduced nor used well enough.

I hope that might explain e-Griff's problem with this piece.

I enjoyed the story.

My criticism would be the poor handling (in my opinion) of dialogue in relation to action. There are large sections of the story that feature Manhattan skyline syndrome (see: "Brenda Starr dialogue. Long sections of talk with no physical background or description of the characters. Such dialogue, detached from the story's setting, tends to echo hollowly, as if suspended in mid-air. Named for the American comic-strip in which dialogue balloons were often seen emerging from the Manhattan skyline.

http://artlung.com/smorgasborg/Sterling_SF_lexicon.shtml")

Then there was the opposite: Large sections of non-dialogue narration.

Sorry if I'm not putting this crit forward well, but I'm listening and watching the cricket!

So in summary, establish POV character early and maintain it throughout the piece. Also improve dialogue (including thoughts) mixed with actions.

I enjoyed the ending as I could feel the off-scene activity and wondered what would happen when Louise and Morris left the house with the bag. There were many possibilities.

Cheers,

Tom



Author's Reply:
Thanks for that very detailed analysis. I'll be honest with you though – it isn't a favourite story of mine, it was one flung together rather rapidly to comply with the 'challenge' requirements, and I don't think I'm likely to go back to rework it. But I do appreciate your comments though.


Daddy's Little Angel (posted on: 24-06-11)
A daughter's love for her father acknowledges no limits. This is my entry in the current UKAuthors Prose Workshop challenge.

Lucy woke up early because she was excited. This was the day she went to stay with Daddy overnight. He did much better things with her than Mummy ever did. Theme parks and zoos and the seaside if it was hot, or a ride on a Thames river bus, or a trip to the market where they had Punch and Judy and buskers and fire-eaters, or the place where you could pet all the farm animals, or the place where they put on plays specially for children. Mummy just took her for boring things, like walks in the park and trips to the swimming baths. She had no car and she was always telling Lucy to be quiet and keep her clothes clean and not run around so much. Daddy let her do pretty much whatever she liked, and sometimes she even went to bed without brushing her teeth, or had two puddings and no lunch. He never told her off, and never had to get on with housework and leave her alone with a DVD or a computer game. When she was with her daddy, she had his full attention. She was the centre of his world. Daddy loved her much more than Mummy did. She hurried through her breakfast, which wasn't very nice, and then took Mummy's hand and pulled her into the bedroom to pack her overnight bag. She made her mummy give her clothes for warm weather, because even though it was very early the sun was already up and the sky was clear and blue. It was going to be a hot day. She knew she would be doing something good with her daddy. When everything was ready she sat on the wooden chair in the hall, bag by her side, and waited. ''There's no need to sit out there,'' her mother told her, ''why don't you wait in the lounge?'' But Lucy had already left her mother's flat in spirit. She had no intention of back-tracking by returning to the lounge. Minutes went by. Lucy began to fidget with the handle of her bag. ''Isn't it time yet?'' she shouted to her mother. Her mother reappeared, looking slightly puzzled. ''Yes, as a matter of facts he's a couple of minutes late. He's usually a couple of minutes early.'' ''Can you phone him?'' ''Well, it's only a few minutes'' ''Please, Mum!'' She produced her mobile, then thought better of it and went to the normal phone in the hall. She punched in the number and waited. ''It's gone to voice mail,'' she told Lucy after a few moments, replacing the receiver. ''What does that mean?'' ''Well, he doesn't seem to be there, sweetheart. Maybe he's driving and can't answer.'' ''But he answers his phone when he's driving.'' ''Does he? Well he shouldn't. Especially with you in the car. That's very dangerous.'' She paused. ''You're right though. It isn't like him not to answer.'' Lucy's mother stood still for a while, clearly deep in thought. ''I'll just check with Marion,'' she said at last, lifting the receiver again and punching in another number. ''Marion? Sorry to bother you. We were expecting Edward this morning. You don't happen to know if he's changed his plans or something?'' There was a pause. ''Oh. I see. You think he might be with her?'' Another pause. ''Well, it's not very considerate if that's where he is. I couldn't care less myself, as you know, but Lucy will be terribly disappointed if she can't go over there this weekend. You know how attached she is, the way she looks forward to it Yes, I would be very grateful if you could do that. And I'm sorry to have to trouble you. It's just that Lucy Yes, of course, Marion. I knew you would understand. Thank you very much.'' ''Where is he?'' Lucy demanded. ''What did Granny say?'' ''Well Why don't you come into the lounge and sit on a softer chair?'' Reluctantly, Lucy followed her mother into the lounge and they sat down together on the long sofa. ''You see, Daddy has been on his own for a while since he left us you know that and now it seems he's met somebody else. Made a new friend. Your Granny thinks that he might be with her this weekend, and he might have forgotten to tell us. She's going to try to find out for us.'' Lucy's little face became very serious. ''Daddy does forget to do things sometimes,'' she conceded. ''Yes, he does, doesn't he. If that is what's happened, I don't really know what we can do about it.'' ''You can take me over to his flat on the bus. We can knock on the door.'' She saw her mother's shoulders tense-up. ''I very much doubt if he's in his flat.'' ''But he might be. You don't know for sure.'' ''Well, no but it's a long way to go on a wild goose chase and then, maybe he's just stuck in traffic. If we go out we might miss him.'' ''You could go, and I could wait here.'' ''On your own?'' ''Just for a little while. Until Daddy comes, or you come back.'' ''But you know I can't leave you in the house on your own, sweetheart. It's much too dangerous.'' ''Daddy does.'' ''Really?'' Lucy's mother was clearly shocked. ''Just for a little while. When he goes out to get things, like Chinese takeaway.'' ''He leaves you on your own? I find that hard to believe. No, I suppose I don't, actually. I'm going to have to have a very serious talk with your daddy when I see him.'' At a loss for something to do, Lucy started to unpack her bag. ''His friend's name is Laura.'' ''Really? Did he tell you?'' ''I saw her. She was there for a little while the last time I stayed with Daddy.'' ''Indeed?'' Lucy's mother came closer and took the empty shoulder bag away from her. ''Don't fidget for a minute. I want to talk to you. Tell me about Laura. Is she old or young? Is she pretty?'' ''I don't like her. She kissed Daddy and she shouldn't do that. He's my daddy, not Laura's daddy.'' ''I see. She kissed him. What does she look like? What kind of person is she?'' Lucy shrugged. ''I think she's a bad person. I hope she dies.'' ''Lucy! That's a terrible thing to say!'' Lucy looked dejected. ''I do,'' she whispered defiantly. ''I'm sorry, Lucy, but you just can't say things like that. It's a nasty, horrible thing to say. And imagine how you would feel if it really happened if she died, and you had said something like that.'' Lucy shrugged. ''She's sick. She takes funny blue injections. They look like the stuff you put down the lavatory to clean it. I think she will die.'' For a few moments the two of them were silent. Then the tension was broken by the sound of the doorbell. Lucy jumped to her feet and was pulling the door open before her mother had time to move from the sofa. ''Daddy! You're late!'' ''Edward?'' Lucy's mother spoke from the doorway, ''You look terrible. What's happened?'' Lucy had her arms around her daddy's thighs, clinging like a limpet. Edward was pale, his eyes dark and sunken, his lips trembling. ''I've been at the police station all night,'' he said in a hoarse, cracked voice. ''I'm out on bail. I may be charged with murder.'' There was a moment of total silence. Lucy relaxed her grip and looked up at her father. ''But it wasn't you, Daddy. It was me. I put lavatory cleaner in the little bottles while you and Laura were out getting the Chinese takeaway. Will the police be very angry?''
Archived comments for Daddy's Little Angel
bluepootle on 24-06-2011
Daddys Little Angel
I think this is very well done. The voice is believable and it all leads nicely to that shock ending, in a way that makes you think it was possible rather than out of the blue. Very nicely handled.

Author's Reply:
Thanks Aliya. I wasn't very confident about this one – it feels to me like too much plot and not enough characterisation.

Bikerman on 24-06-2011
Daddys Little Angel
I enjoyed this for the most part, but, unlike bluepootle, not sure about the ending - too melodramatic? (says he who's last story finished with a knife in the neck!) It was disappointing because the set-up was of a high quality. But also, I did find the constant repetition of Mummy and Daddy and my mummy and my daddy in the first couple of paras a bit annoying - but maybe that was intentional?

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the comment. Well, it's supposed to be from the child's point of view, and mummies and daddies more or less constitute her world. We were supposed to end with a big surprise, and that was the biggest one I could come up with. But I agree to a large extent, this very plot-led kind of story isn't really my kind of thing, or what I do best.

e-griff on 25-06-2011
Daddys Little Angel
a simple story, but very effective. well done.

Author's Reply:
Thanks Griff. Not often that you don't have some kind of reservation. Appreciated.

Corin on 25-06-2011
Daddys Little Angel
Brilliant David - I like the hints, the clues to the ending though I didn't spot it before it came. But what is the blue stuff when it isn't bleach?

David

Author's Reply:
Thanks David.

Couldn't answer the pharmacological question, but a few moments on Google produced the following:

In patients with methaemoglobinaemia, methylene blue administered intravenously can lower the levels of methaemoglobin in the red blood cells. It activates a normally dormant reductase enzyme system which reduces the methylene blue to leucomethylthioninium chloride, which is then able to reduce methaemoglobin to haemoglobin.

So there you are. She was an unfortunate sufferer from methaemoglobinaemia. (You can do the Googling this time.)

franciman on 26-06-2011
Daddys Little Angel
Hi David,

I thought this was a well written piece. Apart from a couple of "tells", I was with it to the end. Unfortunately the little girl recognises murder straight away and even manages to know before her father says, that it is her father's new girlfriend. Its forced ending disappointed me. Sorry,
Jim

Author's Reply:
I don't really understand what you mean by her recognising murder. She has already said that she wants Laura to die and she has already done something that she (rightly) berlieves will kill her. Her father in fact doesn't say that it is his new girlfriend. Lucy knows perfectly well what it's all about. Why wouldn't she? I don't get your point.

dylan on 03-07-2011
Daddys Little Angel
It`s great, David.
I never feel comfortable offering an opinion, when you are an accomplished prose writer and I ain`t.
(Well, not particularly.Anyway... )
But por moi, this works very well -particularly within the context of the prose challenge.


Author's Reply:
Thanks Dylan, much appreciated. Your comments here show what a perceptive and insightful prose critic you are.

dylan on 03-07-2011
Daddys Little Angel
Behave, you auld rascal!
Go on and comment on my latest poem, then.


Author's Reply:


The Frog Prince (posted on: 20-05-11)
This is my entry in the current Prose Discussion/Workshop forum challenge. It's short and very straightforward.

''What are you doing in my mummy's bedroom?'' It was her mother who answered, sitting in her dressing gown at the mirror, brushing her long straight auburn hair. She turned to face her daughter. ''You shouldn't just walk into my room like that. I don't walk into your room without asking, do I? You should knock, and wait until I say 'come in'. But it's all right this time. He's our guest. He arrived last night. I would have introduced you, but you were already asleep...'' ''Who is he, Mummy?'' ''Don't be rude, Jenny. Speak to the man. Say hello nicely.'' ''He's fat, Mummy. Like a frog!'' ''Jenny! How dare you?'' Her mother's affected show of anger was spoiled by the smile that she was trying to hold back. ''No, it's quite all right, Claire. The young lady is correct. You see I was a frog until last night. Then your mother kissed me and now I'm a prince. Prince Leonard of Lithuania, at your service.'' He stood up and bowed regally, and Jenny saw that he was wearing what had once been her father's dark red dressing gown, which was considerably too small for him, and that he was red-faced and jolly looking. On the backrest of her mother's bedside chair an orange paper crown was hanging at a jaunty angle. ''Is that your crown?'' ''Only a temporary one. Until my proper one arrives from Lithuania. You see I didn't have any clothes as a frog, so I've had to borrow this dressing gown from your mother.'' ''But those are your clothes on the chair.'' ''Are they? Good lord, I believe you're right. There must have been a special delivery from Lithuania earlier this morning. But they do seem to have overlooked my crown. I'll need to speak to my footman.'' ''Have you been drinking beer? Because when my daddy drank beer that was what it smelled like.'' ''Honestly! I'm really sorry, Len, she's a cheeky little devil. Just says the first thing that comes into her head.'' ''But isn't that wonderful? You're not afraid to say what you think. How many adults in my principality have that much courage? Not very many, I think. You'll forgive me then if I say what I think too. I think your mother is a very beautiful and wonderful woman, and I hope that she's going to agree to become my princess. I haven't asked her yet, but I think she may well have guessed. You would become a crown princess too of course. How would you feel about that?'' ''Would we live in a palace?'' ''Not right away.'' ''Why not?'' ''Well, you see, the thing is, I've been a frog for so long now, I don't think I'm ready to step straight back into the life of the court, the responsibilities of sovereignty, the worries of affairs of state. I thought what I might do is live for a while as a humble hospital porter at St. Raphael's down the road, and learn all about the modern world before I take up the reins of office once again. Maybe go on holiday to the seaside with you and your mother while the weather's so nice. What do you think?'' Jenny considered this plan. ''No, I think you should become a prince straight away, Mummy once said she wanted a prince. I remember. A prince, not a hospital porter.'' Claire made her way over to where Jenny was perched on the edge of the bed and put her hand on her daughter's shoulder. Jenny noticed that she wasn't laughing any more. In fact she thought that she could see the trace of a tear in her mother's eye. ''Jenny dear, everybody wants a prince. But you never get one straight away. You always have to wait. And sometimes you have to help a frog to make the change. Frogs have to learn how to become princes. Just like your mummy is going to have to learn how to become a princess.'' ''That's right. It's going to take a while for me to learn how to become a prince. I mean, only yesterday I was eating worms and dragonflies down by your garden pond. This morning I woke up feeling human for the first time in a lot of years actually.'' He glanced at Jenny's mother who seemed to find it difficult to meet his eyes. ''And now I've got to start learning to be a prince. It might take a little bit of time. You've got to be patient.'' ''I thought people were born princes.'' ''Well, that's right. Some are. But I've been a frog for a long time and now I've got to start again and become a prince the hard way. By really working at it. A little bit at a time.'' ''That's okay. I'll make breakfast for you and Mummy.'' So saying, she hurried out of the room and down the stairs. A few minutes later her mother came down the stairs also, wearing a long green dress that Jenny remembered her buying at a charity shop a few days earlier for a party that was coming up at the hospital. She was on the arm of the portly and dignified Prince Leonard of Lithuania, who wore for the occasion, along with his paper crown, Jenny's father's best grey suit and white shirt, with an elegant blue bow tie. A more regal and impressive couple Jenny could not have imagined, although the waist of the trousers would not quite button and a brown leather belt had been improvised to hold them up. ''Is the royal breakfast prepared?'' His Serene Highness inquired. ''Yes, I've got the royal cornflakes, and the royal apple juice, and this is specially for you.'' She indicated a bowl from which a few fat pink worms were making determined efforts to escape, foiled by Jenny's vigilance in pushing them back into the centre. ''That's extremely thoughtful of you, Jenny, but I think on this occasion I'll try to stick to human food. I may as well begin getting used to it again. I think it's going to be expected of me at state functions. Could you put them back in the garden, please close to the pond so that all my friends can enjoy them.'' As Jenny left to carry out his wishes he embraced his royal consort and kissed her. By the time Jenny returned they had sat down and were about to tuck-in to their cornflakes. ''Did a wicked witch turn you into a frog?'' Jenny inquired with obvious fascination. ''As a matter of fact, yes. But the spell's broken now. I don't have to worry about her any more. You see, the fact of the matter is, good magic is a lot stronger than bad magic. The bad witch was able to turn a prince into a frog, but your mother, the good witch, was easily able to break her spell, just with a kiss.'' ''Is my mother a good witch?'' ''Of course she is. Didn't you know?'' Jenny glowed with delight. ''When I grow up, will I be a witch too?'' ''You're one already. Your powers are just going to get stronger day by day. But only to do good things. Everything you do, wherever you go, is going to make the world a better and more loving place. Just like your mother.'' ''Really? Is it as easy a that?'' ''Well, the hard bit is to think out what to do so as to make it a better place. But you'll get better at that too as you get older.'' ''But you'll be here to help me, won't you?'' Prince Leonard looked over at his princess and waited for her to answer. ''Yes, Jenny. Of course he will.'' They linked hands beneath the table.
Archived comments for The Frog Prince
bluepootle on 20-05-2011
The Frog Prince
I like the change of POV at the end to give us them linking hands under the table - that's a lovely touch.

It's a bit wordy, particularly at the beginning, for me - lots of explaining, which would be difficult to avoid, but maybe a bit of description would break it up. And I do think having a long conversation in the bedroom is a bit static. I'd be tempted to have her run from the bedroom when she first sees him, then have them coming down the stairs regally (that bit is great) and maybe they go out for the day together - they take Jenny to the duckpond, maybe, or froggy-related haunts, and explain with a bit more of an interesting background than just the house. It might give us a nice insight into Jenny's life too, rather than the sketchiness of it at the moment.

But it would make it a longer story! Well, those are my thoughts. I'll be interested to read what others think.



Author's Reply:
Thanks for that. I can see what you mean about potential for making a longer story, but I think it would be a very different story to this one. What I was attempting to do here was to provide a vehicle for a lot of subtext – Len and Claire's tentative steps towards pairing-up, her acceptance of the fact that Len isn't really the 'prince' she had in mind, her decision to give it a try, based finally on the way he relates to Jenny and her ready acceptance of him. As I saw it, it was Jenny's influence on her mother that had put some of her misgivings to rest, turned it from a slightly drunken one-night-stand for Claire into a faltering attempt at something more solid and permanent. A small triumph of hope over experience. I think the story might become a bit unwieldy if you tried to load a great deal more than that into it. Just my opinion.

Michel on 20-05-2011
The Frog Prince
I think it's a bit wordy, but it works so long as he is the sort of hospital porter who talks like that, and the girl knows (as I feel she would, being able to follow his dialogue) that he's inventing to a *large* degree. I pictured him as an actor I remember, working at a big hospital, whose voice boomed down the long corridors. He was a highly educated man who loved using fanciful sort of language to entertain, who loved quoting, and had a huge library. Actors often worked as hospital porters. That was the way I saw it, for it to be convincing - I also was sure the worms were a joke she was playing, being the smart sort of girl she obviously was.

In style, I thought it was all good, but would have taken out the trace of the tear in the eye.

Author's Reply:
Yes, I wanted to imply that everyone is inventing to a large degree, even Claire and Len who are colluding in the creation of a fantasy about their future together, in the face of obvious past hurt that they have both suffered.
I'll think about the tear in the eye. Something more subtle would work equally well.
Thanks for reading and commenting.

Bikerman on 20-05-2011
The Frog Prince
Not sure that I can add anything useful. I certainly don't agree about making it a longer story. Maybe, going on from what Michel said, you could make the guy more obviously into (amateur?) dramatics (why else a paper crown?) - that would then explain/overcome the rather forced 'wordiness' of the bedroom conversation. Still, it was enjoyable.

Author's Reply:
Okay. Well, the paper crown is just because they have come from a hospital party of some kind. No real link to amateur dramatics.

The notion of this very articulate man working as a hospital porter, at least in my mind, is more to do with him having fallen on hard times. I have at the back of my mind somebody I knew who had quite a good job in the London Underground (something to do with their finances) and deliberately gave it up in order not to pay maintenance to a woman who had divorced him. All a bit bitter and twisted, perhaps, but you get all kinds of people doing all kinds of jobs for all kinds of reasons, especially in a big city like London. That was what I was hinting at when he says that he was turned into a frog by an evil witch. I can well imagine my friend saying that!

I'm sorry you found the conversation 'forced'. I think two people caught out in the bedroom by the daughter of one of them would do quite a lot of nervous talking to justify themselves. But maybe I'm just a wordy kind of person myself.

Thanks for the feedback. Much appreciated.

Harry on 20-05-2011
The Frog Prince
I haven't seen the beginning of this exercise, but what I see here is very promising. Jenny asks a few obvious questions and the frog seems all too ready to take over the household ... almost as though this was something he does for a living. You've kept their clear, clean and separate. Really a charming little piece.

Author's Reply:
I hadn't intended any sinister undertone or implication. I had seen Len as more of a pitiable character, begging for acceptance. As for the beginning of this exercise, I'm afraid this is all there is. it's just a (borderline flash fiction) piece where two people who've spent one night together decide what to do next. I'm pleased that you liked it. Thanks for the comment.

e-griff on 26-05-2011
The Frog Prince
I think Len's self doubt and feeling of weakness came across successfully, and the mother's embarassment. The whole relationship came out in 'showing'. with the girl acting as the catalyst for them both to express maybe something that had not been spoken or maybe tangible before.

In that sense it works very well. However, it did go on too long, esp in the bedroom, as the central idea (frog prince) was quickly exhausted of interest and then became a clunky, obvious device to hang the revelations on. A bit too twee for me - maybe woman's mag stuff.

But interesting, nonetheless. G

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the visit and the comment. I could more or less have predicted how you would react to this one (hope that doesn't sound dismissive). I know it's not your kind of story, but glad you found something in it nevertheless.

David.

e-griff on 27-05-2011
The Frog Prince
Just to clarify here: It doesn't matter whether it's 'my kind of story' or not. Only in the sentence 'A bit too twee for me ... ' do I (clearly) express any personal opinion (like/dislike). The majority of my comment is about the writing, period. As such I stand by what I've said. It's entirely up to you what you do about comments of course, and you don't have to justify your reaction in any way. 🙂

Author's Reply:

neotom on 04-08-2011
The Frog Prince
I didn't think there was an 'illegal' shift in POV at the end, but it may have felt like it simply because there was a strong emphasis of the girl's POV throughout the story. If there was a touch more non-dialogue narration this could be overcome. I did, personally, feel the POV camera jerk to the frog prince's POV though.

In analysis (not that I'm an advocate of too much analysis) the narration prior to the ending says: "Jenny glowed with delight." Now if the reader sees this as Jenny feeling herself glow with delight then the ending becomes a big shift to the frog prince's POV. But it could be interpreted by the reader as the POV camera viewing Jenny, whom we see glowing with delight. Then the POV shift at the end would not feel jerky at all. I think the writer did intend Jenny to feel herself glowing with delight and not to merely be seen to be glowing with delight at a distance.

So in summary, to remove any jerkiness we could dip the POV camera more deeply into Jenny. Or we could dip in and out more often and possibly more into the other characters. So if we try the former, the ending might be (after perhaps also changing the beginning in a similar fashion):

“But you'll be here to help me, won't you?”

Prince Leonard's loving eyes blinked innocently towards her. Huge soft grey eyes that seemed all that remained of the frog he had been for oh so many years. She watched these eyes carefully and deliberately swivel and turn their attention towards her mummy, his beautiful princess...

“Yes, Jenny. Of course he will.”

And Jenny knew it was all true, because of the way the prince and her mummy's eyes were locked in a warm embrace and because her witches' powers could tell they were holding hands beneath the table.

***

Anyway, something like that might be of interest.


I didn't think there were too many 'tells' (some writers seem to think 'show don't tell' is always best--this is completely ridiculous, of course) On many occasions, 'tell don't show' is the right way to go. On others, 'show don't tell' is the best way to sell. Excuse me for the rhyming, but it might help to see that both should always be considered depending on the effect the writer is after.

I thought this was a good story for its length, and well-suited to reading on a screen in a single session. The only thing I would change is the ending. Probably in a consistent fashion (unlike my analysis because that is more my own style creeping in) like this:

Jenny watched Prince Leonard look towards his princess in askance...

“Yes, Jenny. Of course he will,” said her mummy, her hand squeezing affectionately the hand of her prince.


Cheers,

Tom






Author's Reply:
Thanks for all that detailed and thoughtful analysis. The more I look at this one the more I think it might actually be a candidate for the omniscient author treatment, as in a true fairytale. I like your slightly modified ending, though I'm a bit uncomfortable with the phrase 'in askance'.

The story is supposed to work on two levels, the fairytale world that the little girl would like to believe in, and the subtext of the tentative beginning relationship which is of course for adult and reader consumption. Keeping those two consistent and separate matters more than sticking to any one POV, I think.

Thanks again for these thoughts.

neotom on 05-08-2011
The Frog Prince
Yes 'in askance'. is poor. I ran out of time and shoved that in just to get my comment across. I would use the language of the girl. I do think this is a good story of publishable potential so it might well be useful to rewrite it a little (though I don't know where it could get published--People's Friend might be interested, see http://www.jbwb.co.uk/pfguidelines.htm). I would definately advise sticking to the girl's POV though, and the reader through the actions and dialogue of the adults will see the adult meanings, and the story would be all the more powerful and entertaining for it.



Author's Reply:


A Note of Reassurance (posted on: 08-04-11)
This is the first thing I've submitted for a long time, other than chapters of 'Enginering Paradise'. It's a simple story, well inside my comfort zone as Griff will be quick to point out, a cleaned-up version of something originally scribbled-down against the clock in a writers' workshop. I hope you like it.

I thought I'd better get in touch with you all to quash these rumours that I've gone into some kind of a depression. I hope you'll forgive this carbon-copied letter if I wrote to each of you individually it would still be the same letter, so there doesn't seem much point in writing it all out over and over again. I'm using genuine old-fashioned carbon paper. I know it's not how they do it nowadays but it works all right. And I'll write the addresses on the envelopes and give them to the postman when he makes his delivery tomorrow. He always says he's not supposed to take letters for posting, but he always takes them just the same. I can't pretend I'm completely all right, how could I be so soon after losing my partner of forty-six years? But I'm coping well. I'm eating okay, and the house is okay, and I'm even going out occasionally to do the shopping and that kind of thing. I'm not sitting in the dark and moping all day if that's what you thought you were wrong. Thank you Tony for your suggestion that I should join things and meet people. Yes, maybe I will, when I feel ready for it. At the moment I'm happy with my own company. I've been alone quite a lot since I retired anyway, Beryl and I didn't live in each other's pockets as you well know. She had her committees and her Reading Group and her Neighbourhood Watch and her part time job in the charity shop, and I had my golf and my gardening and my fishing. I've still got those things I admit I don't go out as much as I used to but they're still there if I need them. It's just as well that I was never a great reader because I find it hard to read now I think maybe these glasses need changing again but I can watch TV and read the subtitles if I sit up close. The garden's a bit overgrown I suppose. The flower beds aren't too bad they could do with some weeding but the lawn definitely needs doing again. At this time of year you've only got to miss a single week and it goes to pot. I'm not asking any of you to do it for me, it was very good of you Raymond to send the two boys over when you did, and they made a lovely job of it, but I've got to get back into the habit of doing things for myself. It's better for me to do a bit of physical work like that from time to time, it gives me exercise. It's just a matter of putting aside a couple of hours on a dry day. I'll get to it, no need to worry. The washing is more urgent, actually. The dirty laundry, I mean. The big wicker hamper is full. It's only a matter of putting it in the machine, it wouldn't take more than a couple of minutes, but I think it'll need to be done in two separate loads. Too much for one wash. Amazing, how quickly it piles up, isn't it? I'll do it this afternoon. Or this evening. Or maybe tomorrow morning. I'll get to it. It'll be fine. I bought in a lot of tins the last time I did the shopping. It doesn't seem worthwhile cooking when there's just yourself, so often as not I open a tin of soup or something and maybe have it with a bit of bread. It's only human fuel, after all, isn't it? Just another task to be got out of the way. No point in making a meal out of it, I nearly said! An example of accidental wit, that. The only kind I can achieve. But no, I'm not a fancy eater. Not when there's just me. There isn't really a great deal more to tell. I don't suppose you want to hear about my little aches and pains. It would be surprising if I didn't get them, at my time of life. I get the occasional cramps in my legs these days. I seem to wake up with them in the morning. It can be either the right or the left, both legs are equally affected, but it's nothing bad. If I give it time it goes away. I Just take it easy and get up about lunch time, and everything's fine. It saves on the heating too, and the TV and the lights and things, not getting up too early. I think I'll carry the trash out today. I missed Bin Day last week. Bin Day is on a Tuesday now. It smells a bit if you forget especially in this kind of weather. I think they missed the week before as well, because I forgot to open the side gate for them. Easily done. Beryl used to remind me. I'm no good at remembering things on my own. Do you think these old houses can get mice? Or even rats? Sometimes I think I hear a kind of scratching at night. It might be just something in my ears. 'Tinnitus' isn't that what they call it when you start hearing things that aren't there? I think I may be catching it. But only at night, I don't hear any scratching in the daytime. I'm going to learn how to load the dishwasher today. Definitely. And which knob switches it on. I'm running a bit low on cups and plates. And knives and forks, come to think of it. It can't be very hard, Beryl just touched something and all the dishes came out clean. Just a matter of finding out how it works. I'll be okay until tea time though. The ones here on the bottom of the bed were only used once. They're as good as new. It's funny, I always used to wonder what Beryl did with herself in here all day, and there were two of us then, and now there's just me, and yet the day doesn't seem to be long enough to do all the things that need to be done. But I'm coping very well. I don't need any help. If ever I need it I'll let you know. I'm perfectly okay at the moment, and as I explained, I've got lots to do. Always lots and lots of things to do.
Archived comments for A Note of Reassurance
Michel on 08-04-2011
A Note of Reassurance
I enjoyed this. I like this kind of first person story with such a convincing voice. I can't put these stories of yours down when you write in this close voice; it's so engaging - making you follow the character 'to make sure he makes it' or that you make it yourself. You can't be sure what's coming, either, and have to laugh at the black humour but feel a threatening depth.
At the end: Neat and convincing, but I feel it twindled off where it didn't need to. You have so many good lines toward the end, I think it could have closed more crisply on a strong note or even been clipped (as if he had got up to see to something) to good effect.

Author's Reply:
Many thanks for reading this and for the kind comments. I'll certainly think about what you have said re the ending. I was trying to reveal in that last line the true depth of his depression and despair. Maybe it's a bit over-written. I'll think about it.

Bikerman on 08-04-2011
A Note of Reassurance
It might be simple, but it works really well. And, for me at least, the ending fits the story perfectly. (It's good to see you back with the shorts.)

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much, Bikerman. Much appreciated.

Michel on 09-04-2011
A Note of Reassurance
I think if just that last (neat finishing) paragraph was taken out, it would have more immediacy, leave the reader working.



Author's Reply:

Bikerman on 09-04-2011
A Note of Reassurance
Yes, on second thoughts, maybe Michel is right - maybe it would be better without the last paragraph.

Author's Reply:
Okay, since it's unanimous I've taken your advice. Final paragraph removed and final phrase repeated, just as a way of rounding it off.
Thanks.
David.


Assilem (posted on: 06-08-10)
This is something I came across in one of my 'work in progress' folders when I was looking for something else. It's fairly slight and written a long time ago, but on re-reading it I thought maybe it wasn't too bad and I may as well let people have a look.

Do you mind if I talk to you? I won't be offended if you say no. It's just something that makes me feel better when we're taking off. I'm not a very good flyer. You're absolutely sure you don't mind? ... That's very good of you. I've been to visit my daughter. We only had the one. She's living over here now, settled down with a local man. She says he's a good man. I was hoping they would get married and we could come over for the wedding, but they never did. They just live together, like young people do nowadays. We never met the young man, and then of course my wife died. My daughter came over for the funeral but she didn't stay very long. That was more than ten years ago now. She's got quite a high-powered job over here, in a theatrical agency of some kind. She was always a hard worker, my daughter. I took early retirement myself. What's the use of working yourself to death and never having the time to enjoy the little bit of money that you've saved? A lot of things change in ten years, don't they? Sorry, that's a silly question. You're too young to have an opinion. At your age things seem to change a lot in one year, never mind ten. My daughter was about your age when she settled down with this man. Too young I think. And imagine living all those thousands of miles away from home. You'd think she was trying to get away from us. She was always asking us to come and see her, of course. But my wife's health wasn't good, and she was an even worse flyer than me. She knew we weren't going to come, it was just a token, really. A sort of ritual she went through, asking us over every Christmas. She knew perfectly well we wouldn't come. That if she didn't make the journey herself nobody would. I think I surprised her by saying yes this time. I've done a little bit of travelling since I retired, you see. Just coach trips to Paris and Amsterdam at first, then a flight to Ireland, then Venice. I've always wanted to see Venice, and I'm glad I did. It was worth feeling a little bit queasy on the plane, was Venice. And this time it was a ten-hour flight. I'm quite proud of myself really. I suppose you fly a lot, don't you? Young people do nowadays. Yes, I think I surprised her. They've never given me any grandchildren. I've always thought that was a pity. It's not too late, but it's getting that way. You don't want to start having children too late in life, do you? You don't want to be mistaken for a grandparent when you go to pick them up from school. It doesn't matter of course. That's their decision, nothing to do with me. It would have been nice, though, coming over to see my grandchildren. She told us her man's name was Assilem. Funny names these Americans have, I remember thinking, when I first heard it. I thought it sounded Biblical, but I couldn't find any reference to it in my Bible Companion. I didn't meet him this trip either. He had to go away somewhere, suddenly, she said, because of his work. There was just this best friend of hers, an American lady named Melissa. Lovely woman. She was staying with my daughter while I was over. She's younger than Sally Sally, that's my daughter's name. Sally and Melissa have a lovely friendship. I remember thinking, I bet Assilem is jealous of the way they get on. She's a singer, this Melissa. A performer, you know. She sings at a nightclub that's just for women, no men, which seemed a bit strange to me. At least it did until I started thinking about it. Then, a few things started falling into place. I couldn't help noticing that Melissa was expecting. Not very big yet, you know, but noticeable. I didn't meet her young man, in fact she never mentioned him, but they had a lot of male visitors. Very polite young men, very affectionate. Always hugging people and calling each other "love" and "sweetheart". I suppose that's what singers and theatrical people are like in America. I started turning things over in my mind towards the end of the week. Things in general. Maybe the way we brought Sally up was too conventional, too narrow you know what I mean? It was an act we put on. We never had the confidence to let Sally see us as we really were. We thought that was what you had to do when you had children. Sally always thought of her mother and me as very old-fashioned, narrow-minded people, I'm sure of that. She was wrong, but it was our fault that she saw us like that. I think she under-estimated both of us, really. After all, we grew up in the 1960s, when people did a lot of what you might call off-the-wall things. That's something they say over here, off-the-wall. I wonder what it really means. Oh, we're in the air now, aren't we? You know, that hardly bothered me at all. Thanks ever so much for letting me talk to you. Oh, yes, I'm sure I'll be back here before too long. I have a feeling Sally is going to ask me back when Melissa has her baby. I do a lot of crosswords and word puzzles, you see. I'm used to reading things backwards. I think I may get a grandchild after all, or something pretty close. Don't you?
Archived comments for Assilem
Nomenklatura on 06-08-2010
Assilem
A very convincing voice, the slightly querilous tone of people of a certain age. I felt you gave up "Melissa" too early in the piece, leaving no doubt in my mind what the situation was. Of course, you may have been trying to elicit our sympathy for the unworldly grandparent.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for that. It's always difficult to know when to reveal the hidden element in a story like that. I'm not much drawn to 'sting in the tail' stories, so I think I deliberately avoid that format when I can.

Many thanks for the comment.

Nomenklatura on 06-08-2010
Assilem
oops! Querelous.

Author's Reply:

Nomenklatura on 06-08-2010
Assilem
Or even querulous, never could spell it.

Author's Reply:
Please see my reply to your three posts below.

sirat on 06-08-2010
Assilem
I think 'querilous' has alternative spellings. I'm not entirely sure it applies to the speaker here, or at least if it does that wasn't my intention. What I was trying to present was a picture of how parents find themselves deliberately misrepresenting their real selves to their children, and children to their parents, 'toning it down' so that they won't shock the other party. I've found myself doing it once or twice in my life and tried to avoid the tendency. The old man and his daughter are collaborating in a shared fiction to protect each other from embarrassment. I think they both know perfectly well what the real situation is and will be able to acknowledge it later, when they've got used to one another again.

A beautiful instance of this kind of thing occurs in the film Cinema Paradiso where Salvatore's mother pretends that she doesn't realise that every time she speaks to her son's girlfriend on the telephone it's a different voice. We realise by the end of the film that there is very little about her son or about life that the old woman doesn't understand.

Thanks for dropping by and for the comment.

Author's Reply:

Nomenklatura on 06-08-2010
Assilem
Ah, I see. I should have paid more attention here:

"Sally always thought of her mother and me as very old-fashioned, narrow-minded people, I'm sure of that. She was wrong, but it was our fault that she saw us like that. I think she under-estimated both of us, really. After all, we grew up in the 1960s"



Author's Reply:

Bradene on 06-08-2010
Assilem
I enjoyed this very much, when I began it ,it put me in mind of that Joyce Grenfell monologue, when she was traveling to The US to see her Son. Mind you whenever I read your stories I can always hear your soft Irish brogue too. I thought the same as Ewan, that you may have revealed the Melissa thing too soon but then having read your explanation I could see your point. A very enjoyable piece altogether. Hope you enjoy the UKAway this year, wish I could be with you but I am still not able to travel. Best Valx

Author's Reply:
Hello Val. Yes, we're all getting psyched-up for UKAway – only about a week to go. I think it will be very different to the other three – much more writing and much less lying around on beaches (real or metaphorical). I'm really sorry you can't be with us.

Re the story, several people have said the same thing about the 'moment of revelation', so maybe there is a problem with it. I don't feel strongly about it myself because I don't think the story hinges on it, but I will certainly give it some thought.

Thanks for dropping by.

Bikerman on 06-08-2010
Assilem
I enjoyed this, but I think it would be better still without the last two paragraphs. I think the reader should be included in the 'shared fiction' - hopefully, we realise what's going on without being told.

Author's Reply:
I think you've got a very good point there, and the more I re-read those two paragraphs the more I agree with you. It's also been suggested that I should remove the crossword reference. There is a fine judgment needed in this sort of story as to how many clues the readers are going to need in order to get a handle on the story. I think I should probably leave it for a while and come back to it.

Thanks for a very useful suggestion.

pombal on 06-08-2010
Assilem
Assilem - Melissa - Doh! - Im so stupid I had to read it twice to get it. And I was going to say that maybe you dont need the line "I do a lot of crosswords and word puzzles, you see. I'm used to reading things backwards." but then its for people like me! I like the writing and the theme very much - is this the start of something longer? Maybe a title change for dunces like me would then negate the crossword line?

Author's Reply:
Well, it's very difficult to get it just right. I wrote a story called The Counsellor, which was an account of schizophrenia told from the point of view of one of the voices. I thought it was perfectly clear what was supposed to be going on but almost nobody 'got it', despite several amendments and attempts to clarify. I think it's more important if it's a story where you're trying to create a lot of impact with the 'shock' ending (my Lilac Wedding, for example) but if the point of the story is contained more in the situation as a whole, as in this case, I don't think it matters so much. I want people to understand what's going on between the narrator and his daughter – I'm less concerned as to the exact moment when the truth dawns.

Regarding lengthening it, I doubt if there's enough in this little vignette to carry a longer story. Having said that I've written very little about gay relationships so maybe it's an area for future thought.

Anyway, glad you got something out of it and thanks for the comment.

pombal on 07-08-2010
Assilem
Hi David - what if you peppered this monologue with some of the mundane or minutia of his life and keep coming back to sally - would that make more of his character and help the dawning? Also if the point is more about the dynamic between the narrator and his daughter would it be better if the reader was made aware in the first few lines about Assilem - Melissa - the reader is then complicit - making it more interesting. (oh I forgot to say, I hope you have a great time tonight)

Author's Reply:
Thanks Paul. Yes, we did have a great time.

I think there's a danger of trying to make this slight tale too serious and losing the entertainment value of the little puzzle. I think to be honest I'm reasonably happy with it as it is. It's not one I would include in a collection or anything like that.

RoyBateman on 08-08-2010
Assilem
Yes, it's very difficult indeed to know exactly how to pitch it - leave the revelation until right at the end, when it may go unnoticed because so many readers seem to rewrite things as they see them in the first few paragraphs and run on mental tramlines to the end, or slip in clues earlier. I think you got it right, and the length seemed correct too - any longer would have seemed like flogging it. It summed up neatly the petty fictions we create within families...well, within life in general, without which it would all become just slightly uncomfortable. We don't need too much truth, do we? A clever and entertaining piece, I thought.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Roy. If it's entertaining I'm happy. I don't think it's all that profound.

jay12 on 19-08-2010
Assilem
I've written stuff like this many times... with one person talking on and on at the reader. I liked it. But I like anything with lesbians 🙂

Author's Reply:
I do a lot of stories in monologue form too. It makes them highly suitable for reading aloud, for one thing. I've always found lesbian relationships interesting, more so than male gay relationships, but I'm not sure I have enough understanding or insight to present one convincingly. I tried a long time ago in a story called The Go-Between, and was very flattered when it was requested for reprint by a gay publication.

len on 22-08-2010
Assilem
I think I may get a grandchild after all, or something pretty close. Don't you? :o)

I loved that ending line...This seems to be a story about everyone pretending not to see the elephant in the room. I guess as long as we ignore the obvious, the longer we can pretend things are as we would wish them to be....len

Author's Reply:
I think the 'elephant in the room' is a very good way to describe the theme I had in mind. You have understood the exact tone I was aiming at. Many thanks for commenting.


A Question of Pace (posted on: 30-07-10)
This is my submission in response to Pombal's challenge in the Prose Discussion/Workshop forum to create a piece of writing in which the pace seems to make time pass more quickly for the reader.

As Sandra emerged from the station she realised two things: firstly that it was starting to rain, secondly that she had left her stylish and rather expensive Italian umbrella on the train. One more misfortune to add to the list. The first was the big one and she didn't want to think about that. Then the excruciating leaving-party for Earl, with fat Jason leering at her and trying to touch her all afternoon. Then he had somehow managed to get into the same compartment on the train and sit opposite her for forty minutes, alcohol on his breath, spouting incessant stupid chat-up lines until she had snapped and told him to sling his hook. Now she regretted doing it. He was somebody she had to work with. She hoped that by tomorrow he would have sobered-up and forgotten the whole thing. Sandra hated confrontations. It was probably because of the scene with Jason that she'd left her cherished umbrella on the train. Pausing now by the station exit, she watched the concrete darkening as the raindrop circles joined up. I used to enjoy my life, she thought, before I allowed men into it. Jason's drunken attentions seemed to symbolise all the cruelties, disappointments and broken promises she had ever suffered at the hands of men. Self-centred uncaring bastards, the lot of them. She now had a choice. Go home the long way on the bright main road, or cut across the waste ground behind the housing estate and be there in half the time. In the daylight she would have taken the shortcut without hesitation, but the light was failing and the rough path through the high brambles would be scary for a woman on her own after dark. The alternative of course was getting soaked. It's not all that dark, she decided, the path will be fine. She hurried to the gap between the houses and along the alley that separated the back gardens from the high stone wall of the churchyard. It had seemed quite bright around the station, but here, half way along the rambling path through the undergrowth, there was just the eerie afterglow of the winter sunset to light her way. Invisible now from the road and the houses, and with her heels sinking into the damp earth, she began to regret her decision. As well as the incipient depression she had been fighting back for the last few days she was now in clear physical danger. How could she be making all these silly mistakes and bad decisions? What was wrong with her? Tears began to blur her vision and she paused. Should she go back? Through the hissing of the rain, from somewhere behind her, she imagined she could hear the drumming of heavy footsteps. Impossible. Ridiculous. But no, it wasn't her imagination. Those were footfalls. She could hear twigs snapping now. Somebody was running in her direction! Instinct took over. Lifting her shoulder-bag to shield her face from the overhanging branches she started to run mindlessly into the gloom, ignoring the path that others had traced out, ripping her tights, insensitive to the cruel contact of thorns against her arms and legs. Faced now with a wall of impenetrable undergrowth, far from the path and in almost total darkness, she stopped and tried to separate the sound of the footfalls from the pounding of her own heart. The sounds were still there. Panting now somebody frenzied and out of breath. Was he still running or had he stopped too? Why didn't she carry an attack alarm, like other girls at work? Should she make a noise? But who would come to her aid, out here in the darkness and the pouring rain? It would just tell him her position. Better to be silent crouch down maybe he was still on the path. Maybe he hadn't seen her flee into the bushes. Close to despair, she looked to right and left. Was there some other possible route, some way to get even further in? All she could see was a little hollow under the dense bushes in front of her. Maybe she could crawl in there. Make herself invisible. Maybe he wouldn't see Sudden inspiration. Her phone! Where was it? If he just saw her using it he might think twice No time for niceties. She emptied her shoulder-bag onto the ground. Horrified, she watched everything disappear under the vegetation, the phone nowhere to be seen. She knelt down and started to scrabble through the spilled items in the wet undergrowth. ''Wherewhere the the fuck'' Too late. He had found her. It was a voice she knew all too well. The bitter taste of vomit invaded her mouth. Slowly standing up and turning around, she faced him. He was only feet away. Short though he was he seemed to tower above her, trembling with exertion from his run, rocking back and forth, gasping for breath as he tried to get the words out. He might not be physically fit but he had easily twice her body weight. Realistically, she didn't stand a chance. Her spirit seemed to give up. She felt her shoulders slump. I don't want to be raped, she screamed in her head. I don't want to be hurt. God, if you're real, have mercy on me. Yet when she spoke, the calmness of her voice surprised her. It came out in the kind of tone you might use to humour a child, or a madman. ''What are you doing here, Jason? This isn't your stop.'' ''Wherewhere the fuck are you going in such a bleeding hurry?'' he managed to stutter before returning to his panting, gathering enough breath for his next sentence. ''Are you trying to fucking kill me?'' She looked up at him without comprehension. He threw some dim object towards her and it fell at her feet, vanishing like everything else into the tall ground-cover. ''You left your sodding umbrella on the train,'' he said between gasps, before turning and commencing his painful journey back towards the station.
Archived comments for A Question of Pace


pombal on 30-07-2010
A Question of Pace
Thank you for joining in David.

Yes - a very different approach with a twist that I wasnt expecting but now it seems so obvious. I liked the way you built up the pace here and then staccato sentences when the action was in flow - nice technique - opposite to mine where I used long sentences with loads of 'ands' instead of the punctuation. You succeeded in your intention in my opinion to build the suspense. Very cool.

The guy Jason in the end - the dialogue made me feel a bit unsympathetic towards him - maybe if you gave the impression that he was a nice guy it may add another dimension to the ending?

Author's Reply:
I think after his run he's no longer in a 'nice guy' mood.

Well, I tried to practice what I preached in the Prose Writing Tips forum thread. This technique seems to work for me, but I don't think it's the only possible way to create pace.

pdemitchell on 30-07-2010
A Question of Pace
Hi David - yeah, I agree with Pombal here. A simple idea and well-crafted tension bulding with balanced sentence structures and the business woman upending her handbag into the undergrowth was a nce touch leading to a satisfying 'whew' anti-climax. Excellent read. Mitch 🙂

Author's Reply:
Thanks Paul. Glad you thought it worked as a story.

pombal on 30-07-2010
A Question of Pace
The fact that he is not in a nice guy mood in some way vindicates what the protagonist is saying in the beginning - whereas if he is just some overweight loser trying to please or garner her affection ... I think the dialogue of Jason at the end (the first time he speaks) could be a good opportunity to subvert what her impression is of him and maybe indicate to the reader that there is another interpretation to what she is saying/observing...

Author's Reply:
Fundamentally, I can see that you're right. It would be a more satisfying ending if he said something like: "Sweetheart – you left your nice new unbrella on the train. I couldn't bear to think of you getting wet on the way home". But it's quite difficult to make it sound convincing. What exactly do you think he should say?

Nomenklatura on 30-07-2010
A Question of Pace
I've been hunting about for the challenge (I'm obviously being dense) I'd like to have a go myself.

You could go all Mills and Boon, I suppose.

One thing I considered that he could have said,

'I should have used it, shouldn't I, then at least one of us would have stayed dry."

Author's Reply:
The challenge is HERE. I think Griff is going to enter late so there's no reason why you shouldn't.

Re your suggested ending, to be honest, I don't think it tells us very much about Jason. We want to put across the notion that he's a nicer person than Sandra thinks he is, but without being too crass. My worry is precisely the one you have mentioned – that we might turn it into a piece of Mills and Boon.

pombal on 30-07-2010
A Question of Pace
It could be something like this ...

“Sandra, Sandra ...wait up Sandra,” he managed to stutter before returning to his panting, gathering enough breath for his next sentence. “Why are you running away from me?”       She looked up at him without comprehension. He threw some dim object towards her and it fell at her feet, vanishing like everything else into the tall ground-cover.       “I only wanted to say ...I wanted to say ...oh, forget it ... I wanted to say you left your umbrella on the train,” he said between gasps, before turning and commencing his painful journey back towards the station

Author's Reply:
Okay – ending accepted. But we know he won't get the girl anyway – fat people never do (trust me, I know about these things).

zenbuddhist on 31-07-2010
A Question of Pace
In elmore leonard's ten rules for writing he said,

'My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.'

Which may sound absurd at first glance, but I took out one of his books from the library and realised that what he meant was the writer should try his best to be invisible. The third person narrative in this depiction of panic is in my opinion writer intrusive. Sandra is being forced along a path that seems ridiculously unlikely by a determined writer hellbent on forcing her to imagine that she's about to be raped and murdered because it's raining and dark and someone else happens to be walking behind her. It's a bit obvious that ' a twist' awaits the reader, I find these endings more an act of the writer trying to be cleverer than their readers rather than an attempt to produce an admirable work of art which the reader feels a part of.

Author's Reply:
To a large extent I agree with you. This was just a response to an exercise set by Pombal, in producing a 'fast pace' effect. It isn't one of my better efforts. Surprise endings have to be done very well if they are to work, and this one was just an afterthought.

Is it the fact that it's third person narrative that makes it writer intrusive or do you just find Sandra's panic implausible? If the latter then I disagree, I think a woman walking alone at night in a relatively isolated location like this would be spooked very easily. Somebody running up to her would certainly do it IMO. In fact I think in the situation described it would even spook me!

Michel on 01-08-2010
A Question of Pace
I think the fear would be real, but I thought those thoughts, 'I don't want to be raped, she screamed in her head. I don't want to be hurt. God, if you're real, have mercy on me' sounded a bit artificial, David. Loved the pouring rain atmosphere, and the handbag fiasco!

Author's Reply:

zenbuddhist on 02-08-2010
A Question of Pace
Aye it's obvious that this is a response to an exercise, it explains the forced nature of the narrative, I feel a first person internal monologue would be a much more fruitful approach to the tension build up but as michel has pointed out it has its moments.

Author's Reply:


The Arrangement (posted on: 07-05-10)
This is my submission for my own challenge in the Prose Discussion/Workshop forum to write a story inspired by the words of a song. This song has been running through my head since I heard Trinity Demask perform it live: The Song I hope you enjoy my interpretation. I suggest you read the story before listening to the song.

''Who goes there?'' the lookout demanded mechanically, his hand wandering half-heartedly to the grip of his sword, as the lone female figure came into view, dimly lit by the feeble moon and the glow of the campfire. ''Good evening to you, Tessarius,'' she said quietly. He seemed taken aback. ''You speak Latin? You know my rank?'' ''I have been a friend to the Roman army for many years. Since long before you were born, I should think. May I sit by your fire for a little while?'' ''There are rebels in these parts, Ma'am. I have orders not to let anybody enter without the password.'' ''Do I seem to you like a rebel? Do I have a sword or a dagger? Do I even have a decent robe to wear, or sandals for my feet?'' ''I am sorry, Ma'am. I don't have the authority to let you through without the password.'' He hesitated, looking her up and down. She lowered her eyes, ashamed of how she must appear. ''Have you come far?'' he asked more gently. ''I've walked from the village of Magdala. It's behind that furthest olive grove,'' she pointed to the dark hills behind her, ''I had a fine house there once, and shared food and wine with centuriae and tribuni. More of them than I can remember more than I can name.'' The sentry seemed to relax. He gave her a look of what she was fairly certain was comprehension. ''I'll ask my commanding officer,'' he relented, ''but I can't leave my post.'' He turned and shouted to a small group of soldiers seated outside their tent: ''Novanus! Will you ask Ordinatus Lucillus if he can spare a moment, if he is not too busy?'' There was a grunted acknowledgement. After a minute or two spent in silence a tall middle-aged officer with a magnificent scarlet cape over his tunic strolled up to them. The sentry stood to attention. ''At ease, Tessarius. I see we have a guest.'' ''From the village of Magdala, Sir. She would like to sit by our camp fire for a while.'' ''Would she, indeed?'' He came close and studied her face. ''By Jupiter! It's Mary, isn't it? Mary who joined that cult in Judea, back in Pilate's time.'' He flung his arms around her. ''Don't you remember me? Menius Lucillus? I was an ordinary legionary then. An immunis. I had to borrow money to pay your fees!'' She smiled and returned his hug. ''I hope you had value for your borrowed money,'' she whispered in his ear. ''Value and to spare!'' He released her and looked her straight in the eye. ''Tonight we have an honoured guest, Tessarius. I will send you wine to keep out the cold. You have done well to send for me.'' ''Thank you, Sir.'' He led her into the camp, towards the glowing fire and the largest tent. Before he got there he noticed that she was crying. He stopped and took both her hands. ''Mary?'' ''I'm sorry. Please forgive me. It's a long time since anybody has offered me kindness.'' He hugged her again. ''Here. Sit by the fire.'' He guided her to a space between the seated legionaries, waving them not to get up, and sat by her side. The babble of conversation ceased as they joined the circle of enlisted men. ''Novanus!'' The young soldier hurried over. ''Our best wine for yourself and your friend the sentry. And for us. And see if you can find us something to eat.'' The young man nodded and hurried off. ''I know that you don't remember me,'' he said softly, ''and that's perfectly all right. Time melts all our memories, the bad as well as the good. There is little in my own past that I care to think about now. Battles and killing, long hard campaigns and sneak attacks by rebels. Braving the hatred of the primitive races that Rome requires us to render governable. But the nights I spent with you will always be in my thoughts, and my dreams.'' He reached over and put his arm around her shoulder. "What is it that you dream about now, Mary?'' She found it difficult to speak. The younger soldiers were watching the two of them, their faces curious and amused. ''My own people no longer want me, Menius. I was once the lover of Jesus, a man that many thought to be the Messiah, a wrongly executed innocent man, whose blood is on their hands. I stir up memories for them too, memories they would rather forget.'' ''But weren't you the lover ofalmost everyone?'' A faint murmur of laughter went through their audience. Menius silenced it with a stern glance. ''Noit was different with Jesus. And now nothing can ever be the same.'' ''But that's decades ago. Nobody even remembers that little cult now. There have been half a dozen other Messiahs since that one.'' ''It wasn't the cult, it was the man. There's never been another man like him. Idon't know how to explain it'' ''Are you saying you fell in love with him? You!'' She wiped the tears from her eyes. ''He wasn't just an ordinary man, Menius. I know he wasn't. I know men. You will grant me that, won't you?'' A titter of laughter went through the seated ranks and Menius laughed too. ''Yes, I will grant you that. Here, our wine is coming.'' He reached up and took the two cups. ''Have we bread and meat?'' ''On the way, Sir,'' the soldier assured him. Menius handed her one of the cups. ''What shall we drink to?'' He glanced at her face. Before he went on he lowered his voice to a level that only she would hear. ''Please don't cry again. What is it that troubles you so much?'' The nearby soldiers seemed to understand and resumed the low buzz of conversation that their arrival had interrupted. They could speak with a measure of privacy now. ''I hate people to see me like this. In rags, begging for food and wine. People who knew me back then'' ''I understand the people in the Jesus cult gave everything to the poor. Their houses and garments even.'' ''Yes. And now I have nothing, and the poor are still poor. All I've done is join them. I think I've lived too long, Menius.'' ''You must never say such things. It tempts the gods.'' "I changed for Jesus, Menius. Changed my life and changed my self. I believed it all the salvation to come, the everlasting life, the meek inheriting the earth. But he's gone now and everything has changed back. Everything except me. I can't pretend any longer. I can't live the way he wanted me to live hold on to this idea that there's going to be a good world, full of love, without poor, and armies and battles and hatred.'' ''You're right of course. I've met his type before. The Romans used to believe that kind of thing once. Back in the days of the Republic, before we had an emperor or an empire. It's a fantasy. The rich and powerful will never let it happen. Mark my words, there'll still be poor people and armies and wars a hundred years from now. Maybe even a thousand. Human nature, Mary. You can't fight it.'' ''I know. I used to think that too. But Jesus was human. And he didn't hate anybody. Even the ones who hated him. And he wanted people to share all they had so that nobody would ever have to go without and it feels good to live that way. You feel really good about yourself. If people just understood, maybe that's the way they would want to live. I can still feel myself pulled in both directions. I don't want to believe that I've wasted so much time chasing a hopeless dream... '' ''I'm afraid I'm a realist. I've seen too much of the way people really treat one another to believe in children's stories like that. Take away rulers, take away Roman laws and Roman armies to keep the peace and what have you got? Chaos. Murder and mayhem. Naked savagery, weakest to the wall. The Roman Empire is the only hope that the world has to become civilized and orderly, to offer security to everyone the weak as well as the strong. That is Nero's sacred promise to his subjects, and I think he is going to succeed. Nero is a good man. His subjects love him.'' ''You know, the people who were with Jesus loved him so much they couldn't accept that he was dead. Even when they saw him taken down from the cross. Me included. We imagined we saw him everywhere, that he was still alive'' ''What did I tell you? Delusions. Wishful thinking... Ah, some food'' He reached up again and took the two pewter plates. ''Eat. Enjoy. Life is still worth living, Mary. It can still be good!'' She took the plate and tucked in eagerly. ''Thank you,'' she said, her mouth full of food. ''Thank you so much, Menius.'' ''You know, you're right about one thing. It makes me feel good to give a meal to somebody who needs it.'' He paused and watched her eat, sipping once from his cup of wine. She glanced towards him and a faint smile flickered across her face. Then her attention returned to the food. He allowed her to finish and take a mouthful of wine before he spoke. ''I've got a proposition for you, Mary,'' he said with slow deliberation. ''I've been in the army all my life. I only get back to Rome a few weeks of each year. I have no wife in Romejust lovers like you. In twenty days my term of duty here is over. It's my last one. After that I'm retiring. I'll have a good army pension, and I've got a fine house, right in the middle of Rome. It's big and it's empty. Now I'm not going to talk about romance and falling in love. We're both a bit past that kind of thing. But if you want to come to Rome with me and share that house, you'll be more than welcome. You won't be a prisoner, if it doesn't work out for the two of us you can move on again and you won't be penniless, I'll look after you financially, whether you stay or whether you go. Or even if I should die. I give you my word as a Roman.'' She noticed that the soldiers had gone silent again. They watched him with what she took to be comradely affection, no doubt intrigued at this insight into the private life of their commander. He held out his hand and she put down her spoon and took it. ''Is it a nice house?'' she whispered. ''Like the one I had in Magdala?'' ''As fine as any in the city. Built from imported cedar, with two stories and its own deep well. Even a small garden. You're still a businesswoman, I notice.'' ''No, not really. I would accept your offer if it was a tent outside the walls of the Forum.'' ''You will come with me then?'' He put down his plate, leaned over and kissed her gently on the cheek. ''You have made me a very happy man tonight. Until this moment, I had nothing to go back to. Now, I begin a new life. Thank you, Mary. I may not be Jesus but I do know how to treat a woman.'' ''It's I who should thank you. What is there for me here? Who among my own people has offered me anything but hostility and suspicion? And you think Nero will treat us well?'' ''Nero will be our friend and guardian in our fine house in Rome. The future can hold nothing but happiness. I thank the gods for my good fortune!''
Archived comments for The Arrangement
e-griff on 07-05-2010
The Arrangement
Har de har!!! 'fiddling' with history Mr Gardiner?

This was, of course, well done - no problems with execution (except perhaps for 'a little while' ('a while' seems more of the time) and 'tuck in' (which really stood out as out of place).

So we move to personal opinion. Midway, I drifted a bit during the para-tell (ie it was 'tell' but carried by dialogue) so not sure if I missed some detail there - but it didn't really seem that important to me - it really seemed like a long attempt to be 'credible' (I am an impatient reader, I admit) and at the end, I had my doubts as to whether the 'joke' came off, and even if it was worked for too hard (repetition of 'wooden' etc)

But, my picky soul having picked, it was well worth reading, detailed and deep and enjoyable and certainly to a high technical standard ...

best, JohnG

Author's Reply:
Well, I don't think I've tampered with history in too gross a fashion. Nobody really knows what happened to Magdalen after her flirtation with Christianity. It's perfectly possible that she ended up 'on the streets' and went back to her old ways – in so far as her advancing years would allow her to succeed in her old profession. I think becoming the 'kept woman' of a Roman officer would be a very plausible career move. By the time the young Nero came to the throne she would have been in her late 50s or early 60s, and he was indeed a very popular ruler at the beginning. I didn't really see the ending as a 'joke', and in fairness 'wooden' is not repeated: it's 'imported cedar' the first time and 'wooden' the second time, but I'll take your advice and remove the second reference to this building material. Thanks for the comment – if it's a good enjoyable yarn that's all I really care about.

e-griff on 07-05-2010
The Arrangement
I think the difference between us is what is considered 'interesting'. You (and many others) have an interest in the character because she is a biblical figure and you are speculating about what her 'story' was. If you take away the biblical references and Jesus, does the story still stand? ie, does the story have its own substance without props? Does it interest readers? - as you so often say - do we care about the character?

I'm supremely indifferent to the biblical context and Jesus - not meaning to be rude, but that means I read it as a straight story. I have a blind spot, I think. I don't like poems that are based on external references either ... 🙁 sad fellow I am... at least it explains my reaction ....

best JohnG

Author's Reply:

bluepootle on 07-05-2010
The Arrangement
I like the voices and the characters, but overall I found myself losing interest. I think the first sentence put me off, with the lookout 'barking' and the 'darting to the grip of his sword' - all just seemed so stale, and then the walking slowly... it doesn't come across as fresh. I then got interested in the dialogue, but it seems in places to be too much dialogue without anything breaking it up. I wanted to cut away from the chunks of dialogue and be given some great images, or body language, so we see the setting or the weary attraction between them.

I think it's an incredibly difficult challenge, to realise a song into prose, actually. I don't know the song. Will go listen to it now.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the pointers. I'll look at the beginning and at breaking up the dialogue. There is a short pause while she's eating and smiles at him, but clearly not enough.





The challenge wasn't really to render a song into prose necessarily, although that's close to what we all ended-up doing, it was just to use the words of the song as a jumping-off point. I've done it lots of times before in other stories (I usually say when this was the starting point) but what I found difficult was doing it to order, when it didn't just happen of its own accord.





Thanks again for the comments.


EDIT: 16/5/10


I've dropped by again on a break from doing something else to try to take account of your suggestions. I've tried to make her mental state a bit clearer too – the disillusionment with cherished ideals, sense of betraying Jesus. If you have time please let me know if you think it's an improvement.



Thanks.



David.

Rupe on 09-05-2010
The Arrangement
I'm not sure if I can add much to the above. The writing slips down nicely - the narrative is clear and it works - but I found I didn't care enough about the story I was being told: it came off as too linear and accordingly anti-climactic.

Rupe

Author's Reply:
Yes, I don't think this one came off the way I wanted it to. My excuse is that although I knew what song I wanted to use it took me a long time to come up with a story line for it, and so I settled for a fairly literal account of the ageing and near-destitute Magdalen of the song, disillusioned with the faith in which she had invested so much, slipping back into her old ways, hankering after the luxurious life of the high class prostitute that she had given up to go with Jesus, looking for something else to believe in, ready to make a deal. And of course I was aiming for irony in the fact that her new faith, in a much more conventional leader of men who embodies the power of a mighty earthly empire, is destined to fail her in an even more terrible way. I think I'll leave it for a while and come back to it again when and if I think of a way to make it better.

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

bluepootle on 16-05-2010
The Arrangement
Hi David - have just read it through very quickly and think it is an improvement. I did notice you've got smiles flickering across faces twice, but that's the only bit which stuck out for me. It's a good read.

Author's Reply:


Memories (posted on: 11-12-09)
This is for the December challenge in the Prose Discussion/Workshop forum: a story in which the central character makes three mistakes which cumulatively bring about the denoument. It's inspired by Rick Hayter's and my song Memories of You

Just seeing the name of the little town on the motorway sign brings on a wave of maudlin self-pity. It hadn't occurred to me that I'd be passing right by it on this route. My concentration lost, I allow the car to slow down. A van blasts its horn and passes me angrily on the inside. I return my attention to my driving and pull back into the middle lane and then the slow inner lane, and, without ever having made a conscious decision, join the slip road to leave the motorway. I glance at the dashboard clock. It's only six-twenty. There should be plenty of time. My first impression is that it's much smaller than I remember it and incredibly run-down. It wasn't much when I lived here, but Christ! It wasn't this bad. Big sheets of plywood are nailed across the windows of half the shops in the High Road, the wood almost hidden by tattered layers of fly-posted advertisements; shells of abandoned vehicles clutter-up the car park of what we used to call the 'new flats'. Not much new about them now. Crude graffiti daubed on the concrete walls, grey washing slumped along improvised lines on the balconies and walkways, a few mean looking youths leaning on their motorcycles at the opening to the underpass, a stray cat rummaging for food around an overturned wheelie-bin by the line of plundered and doorless garages. I roll down my window and am assaulted by the smell of decay, and the acrid fumes left over from a recent bonfire. I turn left into an old familiar network of narrow back streets and slow to a walking pace for a good look. It's no better. Row upon row of two up, two down terraced workers' houses from the turn of the twentieth century. Flaking paint, rubbish piled in most of the front yards, rusting cars held up on bricks, litter drifting gently along the pavements on the evening breeze. The chip shop is closed and shuttered, the sign over the front crudely painted out. Passing close to the toilets at the rear of the local pub I catch a whiff of urine and wind up my window. It's hard to tell if the pub is still in business at a glance it seems derelict. Did it ever look any better? It's difficult to remember. I slow to a halt directly outside its door. This is where Laura and I used to meet. We considered it quite sophisticated, sipping lager in the dimly-lit snug of the Duke, listening to David Bowie and Gilbert O'Sullivan on the piped music system. Why does it make my heart ache just to think about it? Where is the contempt I used to feel for these dingy streets and that shabby inept teenager that was me, back then? Haven't I risen above all this? What's wrong with me? I seem to be feeling emotions that I don't understand. I'm turning into the kind of person that I used to despise. I move off gently and turn one more corner before parking-up in a big space across the street from Laura's house. It's silly to call it that, she must have left here decades ago. The house is still here of course, and looks much the same. I doubt if the woodwork has even been painted since I was last here. I carefully lock the car and make my way across to the building. The gate is missing from the front and the little yard is overgrown and choked with litter. There is no sound, light or movement from inside. I find it hard to believe that anybody still lives here. After a brief pause I gather sufficient courage to push my way through the weeds and rubbish to the window of the sitting room. I wipe the dust from the pane with the side of my hand and stare in. It's Laura's old room. The net curtains make it difficult but I can see the shape of the scruffy sofa where we so often embraced, or one much the same, just where it used to be in front of the gas fire. I lost my virginity on that sofa, the very first time that Laura invited me back. I've never known anybody else who enjoyed sex so much, who was so relaxed about it. My heart seems to be racing, I don't know why. I'm not that tensed-up teenager with his raging hormones any more, damn it! I remember all the times we sat there, listening to the rain, or the trains passing on the line behind the house. I remember her face, and her body. I feel a dull longing for Laura, I suppose, and for my youth. I acknowledge how many times I've dreamed about that room, those days and nights, her face, her body, this town 'Can I help you, Mister?' The voice is mild, but I am startled and embarrassed as I turn to the middle-aged woman standing by the front door. 'I'm terribly sorry. I didn't think anybody lived here. I was just passing through and I well, I used to live in this town and I knew somebody who lived in this house. I just wondered if it had changed' 'You don't sound like somebody from around here, Mister.' I am doubly embarrassed. The years spent carefully cultivating a middle class Southern accent flash before me. I open my mouth to launch into some kind of explanation but abandon the idea. 'I live in London now,' I offer feebly. 'That's a right posh car you've got there, Mister. You want to be careful parking something like that around here.' 'Oh well, I'm only stopping for a moment. I'd best be on my way.' I move towards the door and the woman. 'This friend who lived here,' she enquires, 'what was his name?' 'It was a girl, actually. A woman I suppose I should say. She didn't own the place, she just rented a room here.' 'It must have been Laura then.' I smile. 'Yes. Do you remember her?' 'Not really. I moved out when I was sixteen. It was Mum who took in the lodgers. I remember the name though. And Mum only ever had the one female lodger. The others were all men' 'Oh. So you moved out, and then you must have moved back again.' 'That's right. Mum needs me now. She's not well.' 'I'm truly sorry to hear that. I don't remember her when Laura lived here. We always seemed to have the place to ourselves.' She nods. 'Mum went out a lot. She's making up for it now.' She pauses. 'Look, Mister, I can tell you want to know about this Laura. I know a little bit, not very much. Would you like to come in and talk about it? If Mum was a bit better you could talk to her, but she's too far gone now. It ain't a nice thing to say but it's the truth. She don't see nobody no more.' 'Oh, I wouldn't want to bother you, or your mother' 'Ain't no bother.' She steps aside and I find myself guided firmly through to the hallway. 'Kettle's just boiled,' she tells me, vanishing into the kitchen. The door of the living room is open and I stand in the entrance looking in at the sofa. I'm certain now that it's the same one. I try to estimate its age. Even back then it was old. 'Sit down,' she shouts from the kitchen, 'I'll be with you in a minute. Do you take sugar?' 'No thank you.' Soon we are sitting together on the ancient sofa with tea and biscuits on a tray between us. 'Mum stays upstairs,' she explains. 'Makes it easier for the toilet.' I nod. For a moment we sip our drinks and nibble our biscuits. 'It looks like you did pretty good for yourself down in London,' she ventures. 'You're right. My father worked on the railway. Our family was nothing special. I lived the clich, I was the first one in my family to get into University. Then I went into politics.' She seems excited. 'Politics. Are you famous then?' I smile. 'Evidently not as famous as all that. No, I had quite a good career at the beginning. I was a junior minister in my early thirties. Then I made a mistake. I was famous for a little while then.' She doesn't respond and I suspect that I'm being too indirect. 'I was accused of impropriety. Corruption. Brown envelopes changing hands. You know the kind of thing. I had to resign my seat. I was bloody lucky to keep out of jail. It was a ten minute wonder at the time. That's the way it is in public life.' 'But you were innocent, right?' 'Why do you think that? No, I wasn't innocent. I haven't been innocent for a long time. Not since the last time I sat on this sofa, I should say.' She seems genuinely shocked. Most people when they hear about my past see it as incurring a penalty in a sort of game. Everybody does it I just happened to be doing it when the referee was looking. But this woman actually cares. I had forgotten that people like that existed. I feel the need to justify myself. 'I meant it when I said we were just an ordinary family,' I plead. 'In fact we were a lot worse than ordinary. My mother drank and my father worked like a madman to keep everything together. They fought about money all the time. When I got into University I saw a different kind of world, one where people had nice houses and holidays abroad and sent their children to private schools and talked seriously about art and science and ideas. I wanted that world. I was determined I would never turn into my father. Life would never get like that for me. I would be a success, somebody important, somebody with money and power. And for a long time that was all that mattered. The brown envelopes were just part of it. An easy way to get there, I thought. Maybe the only way. Whatever it took, that was my attitude. So don't mistake me for a nice man. I'm not a nice man. I'm an appalling man. I saw the higher path and chose the lower. That's who I am. I wasn't always like this but it's what I became. I'm not going to lie about it.' She shakes her head. 'I can tell, Mister, and you're not a bad man. I've been with bad men. I know them when I see them. What's wrong with you is something different. What's wrong with you I think is that you don't like yourself very much. 'Least that's how it seems to me.' I shrug. 'You ain't old,' she adds, 'you can start again. Some other line. Anyway, you ain't done so bad, have you? That's no old banger you've got out there. That's no C & A off-the-peg suit you've got on either.' 'No, you're right. I was able to find ways to make money. I had contacts. All I really lost was my self respect, I suppose. And my wife. But that's a different story. And maybe one or two other things. Like my direction in life.' 'Bloody hell, most folk around here would give their right arm to have what you've got. Bet you got a nice house, and maids to do your cleaning, and money to go to fancy restaurants, and abroad, and a big plasma TV set' I nod. 'Yes. You're right. That was exactly the kind of thing I wanted when I left here. And it's true, I've got them now. I've also got an ex-wife who won't speak to me and a teenage daughter that I meet in some public place twice a month. And a father buried about half a mile from here whose funeral I was too busy to attend. And a few posh-sounding hard up friends who'll tag along with me so long as I'm paying the bills. It's a wonderful life. Rich and fulfilling. So what am I doing back here, I wonder. That's what I ask myself.' She smiles. 'I like it. It's romantic. You've come back to find the girl you left behind.' I smile and chuckle for a moment. 'No, nothing like that. I know the difference between fantasy and reality. The road forked back then, and I've walked much too far down this one. Probably the wrong one for me. It would be good to see her again though. Just once maybe. I could tell her that I'm sorry for disappearing with my stuck-up University friends, and for not writing when I said I would; and for being a shit, basically. She was a lot better off without me then and she still is now. I would just like to see her once, and ask her if she ever thinks about those days. Because I do, more and more it seems as they get further away. I think walking out on Laura was my first big mistake, bigger even than the brown envelopes. I'd like to be able to tell her that. Not give her a load of excuses because there aren't any. I think I owe it to her. That's all I want.' I realise that I'm letting self pity get control of me again and pause to compose myself. 'You said that you know a little bit about her. May I ask you what that is?' She puts down her cup and looks me in the eye. 'Hardly nothing really. She was hurt when you disappeared down to London. Took it bad. Then she moved out. Mum said she went to a town in Wales. I can't remember the name of it, but there was something famous about it. Some kind of disaster.' 'Aberfan?' 'Yes. That's right. I couldn't remember what it was called. Did she have relations there?' 'Not that I know of. Is that all you can remember?' 'That's about it. But it's only a small place. You could ask around.' 'I think I've given you the wrong impression. I'm not doing some kind of detective work to track her down. I only stopped here because I saw the name on the sign on the motorway.' She is quiet for a moment. 'I don't know you very well. I can only judge by what I see, right?' I nod. 'Well, seems to me, Mister, that you've got unfinished business with that Laura and you won't be content until you meet up with her again and get her forgiveness. That's what you're really after, isn't it?' 'Forgiveness? Is it?' I begin to feel extremely foolish. Why am I spouting all this personal stuff to a complete stranger? I look down at my watch, making sure she sees me do it. 'Good heavens! Look at the time. I won't be back in London till midnight. You've been incredibly kind but I really must get going ' 'Are you going to take my advice, Mister? Tell me the truth.' I hesitate. 'No, I'm sorry, I don't think so. It would probably turn out to be a terrible mistake.'
Archived comments for Memories
Corin on 11-12-2009
Memories
O David - I wanted the fairy tale ending, the Shakespearian discovery of true self, the reconciliation and forgiveness - and you have to go and tell it how it is you bastard! 🙂
Lets have the post-modern version, à la Fowles and 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' or even beter - a sequel!

Regards


David

Author's Reply:
Thanks for your lovely comments, David, and (I think) the nomination. What a great thing to waken up to this morning! I think this one has to be a small tragedy – it would be out of character for the narrator to change at this stage in his life. I wanted to create the same atmosphere as Rick's song, which I love.

bluepootle on 11-12-2009
Memories
I enjoyed this one. I didn't feel it was 'more of the same' to be honest - I would have expected a confused narrator, allusions to events, but this one is clear and honest and I liked it for that.

I think maybe you overplay occasionally early on. 'Maudlin' seemed unnecessary in the first line and interfered with the rhythm, for me. This part seemed heavy-handed too - 'Haven’t I risen above all this? What’s wrong with me? I seem to be feeling emotions that I don’t understand. I’m turning into the kind of person that I used to despise.' You've got two 'genuinely's close together in the middle, and a typo in '...I gather sufficientl courage...'

Little stuff, really. It's a strong story.


Author's Reply:
Thanks for that very thorough proof read and your very thoughtful comments (damn! two 'very's too close together!) Yes, you can always tell when a story of mine hasn't been through the Storyshed mill. I'm not entirely convinced that 'maudlin' is redundant in the first line. For me it expresses his disapproval of the emotions he's feeling. Admittedly he returns to this in the other passage that you don't like. Again I think this is important for my understanding of this character. He wants always to get away from his feelings and his real self. He doesn't want to feel anything really. It's his way of coping with the two big mistakes. His survival strategy.

Anyway, I've fixed the typo and the two instances of 'genuinely'. I'm pleased that you think it's a strong story.

Thanks again for commenting.

Barronbourne on 11-12-2009
Memories
Nicely done. Good read good story. I feel the same as Corin with reference to happy ending but ...hey! all's good.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much. Glad you liked it. If you read more of my stuff you'll see that I don't often do happy endings. There's probably something I should take for it.

e-griff on 11-12-2009
Memories
no, not 'more of the same' at all... 🙂 maybe one of the more favoured trad Gardiner story forms, but that's no bad thing.

Well done and readworthy, thought-provoking. the only doubt for me was the wonderfully-knowing woman character who seemed a bit idealised ... but then, this story is not about actual real characters as such, is it? and maybe of course the 'woman' is his alter ego.

best, JOhnG

Author's Reply:
Thanks John. I hadn't thought of the woman as his alter ego, but why not? I've just re-read it with your comments in mind but I don't honestly see her as 'wonderfully-knowing'. She has plenty of clues to go on and all that she really 'knows' is that he needs Laura's forgiveness, that it's still eating him up inside. Many thanks for the comments though. Glad you liked it. Your challenge, wasn't it? These challenges work well I think.

Bikerman on 11-12-2009
Memories
Nice story - and definitely the right ending. (Offhand, I can't think of any great short stories that do have happy endings.) My only reservation is with some of the dialogue -I think he talks too much! - I'd prefer something like: 'Are you famous then?' I smile. ' Evidently not. I was a junior minister once. Then I made a mistake.. etc' 'But you were innocent, right?' 'No. I haven't been innocent since the last time I sat on this sofa.' (And do people really address others as 'Mister'? Sounds wrong to me, but, there again, I don't get out much.) Anyway, it was a very enjoyable read.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the comment.
Dialogue is very much a matter of judgement. I saw this character as a 'wordy' sort of person, fond of debate and analysis, not the kind of person who would put things in the simplest possible way. Somebody who lives a lot inside his head. I'm not saying the dialogue couldn't be edited down but I would want to do it with great care. The 'Mister' thing has a certain class loading, at least in my mind: it's somebody speaking to a man that she considers her social superior. The alternative I suppose would be for her not to call him anything, and of the two I think I prefer 'Mister'.

It's very useful to be presented with other people's ideas of how a character could be written, even if I don't finally adopt them. Many thanks for your thoughts and time.

teifii on 22-12-2009
Memories
Great story. I pasted it to Word to read and got quite engrossed. Very convincing I thought. I suppose it's human nature to want a happy ending but also not to expect it. I was sure this wouldn't be. The introduction of Aberfan made me feel that Laura might well be daed [intentional?]
Oh yes, and I'm old enough to know that people did used to call strangers mister, though not sure when the stoty is set; I suppose it is more modern than that, but then the woman is no chicken.

Author's Reply:
Hello Daffni. Glad you liked the story.
The Aberfan disaster was 1966, rather far back for the characters in my story. I wasn't trying to suggest that Laura's leaving might have pre-dated it, it was just introduced as a sort of symbol of tragedy and loss.
Regarding the Mister thing, I've said a few words about it above. For me it has more of a class connotation than a time association. The woman is a bit in awe of this affluent-looking stranger. She doesn't want to go so far as to call him'Sir', but she needs to call him something, so 'Mister' seems the natural choice. I don't think it's all that unusual. What about 'Penny for the guy, Mister?' and the Mister Men?
Thanks for dropping by.

jay12 on 18-01-2010
Memories
This was a very entertaining piece of work. I love the gentle way the narrative eld my attention completely and the ending wasn't what I expected. Good work. I've been a bit of a stranger lately David and I'm hoping to start dropping back in like the good old days. I'll try and catch up bit by bit on your subs I've missed.

Jay.

Author's Reply:
Thanks Jay. I'll look forward to hearing a bit more from you then. I haven't been around much myself lately either. Now I'm off on holiday for five weeks so I'll be trying to keep in touch from Internet cafes in Venezuela. Glad you liked the story.


Jesus II This Time It's Personal (posted on: 30-11-09)
This started out as an attempt to write something for Griff's challenge on the prose discussion / workshop thread in the forum, but I've gone so far off topic that I may as well post it as the separate little piece of whimsy that it is. I hope you like it.

The News Editor Walthamstow Guardian Dear Sir, I thought your readers might like to know that Jesus Christ is back. I met him on Hoe Street outside the Cooperative Bank at the top end of the Market. He looks much the same as in all those artists' impressions, with the white robe and the open-toe sandals, the long hair and the little beard, that was how I was able to recognise him, but one thing did surprise me I think he looks a bit Jewish. We got talking and I asked him if he was staying long, and he said not very long, he was just waiting for the Apocalypse and the planning for that is at an advanced stage. I noticed he didn't have any disciples this time and I asked if he'd been doing any preaching since he got back. You kind of expect a man like that to have followers, don't you? I told him he needed to get on the TV chat shows like Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake and Oprah, and definitely get himself a website, but he said no, he'd tried all that kind of thing the first time around and he had nothing to add to what he had already said. People knew his views, and if they didn't want to go along with his advice on how to live that was their choice. I told him the Bible was still the number one best seller of all time and I think he was pleased about that. We took a walk down the High Street and had a look at the market stalls while we were chatting. I thought he might attract a bit of attention, but no, he blended in very well with the hijabs and turbans and saris and yashmaks and shalwar chimeses and burkas and nobody gave him a second glance. He was interested in the way the stall holders didn't bother to pick up the fruit and vegetables that had fallen off their stalls onto the road. In fact he picked up a few himself and laid them out neatly on a park bench so that anybody who wanted them could pick them up. He said he didn't like to see anything wasted food, energy, opportunity, talent, youth, life. It's a big mistake to waste any of them, he said. And I think he should know, don't you? I asked him to come back with me for a cup of tea and maybe a bite to eat, because I only live five minutes walk from the market. I was pleased to be with a man like that, quite proud really. But he said I shouldn't be proud, it was the first sin ever committed and had led to quite a lot of trouble. He came back and I showed him around the house. He wanted to know why we had so many empty rooms when there were all those people sleeping rough in London. I said I would have to get back to him on that one. While the kettle was boiling I asked him if he could say something in Aramaic, just to let me hear what it sounded like. It's a very musical language. I think I might take lessons in it if it's available at Walthamstow Tech. I asked him to translate what it was he had said and it went something like: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' I told him I'd heard it before. He said, yes, you may have heard it before but did you listen? I don't know what he meant by that. I asked him what Mary Magdalen was really like, and he said she was full-on Page 3 material, but with a heart of gold. Of course she didn't lead a completely blameless life but then who has? I think he still has a soft spot for her. He was very interested in the advances in carpentry since the time of Caesar Augustus. I showed him the circular saw with the laser cutting guide that I'd got at B&Q. He said that, being God, he understood the principle of light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, but had never expected to see it used in that way. It seems we were given creative abilities as well as free will. I'm not sure what either of those are really, but the idea is that God doesn't control what we do with our free will or our creativity we control it ourselves. The Emperor Concerto wasn't written by God, it was written by Beethoven. And by the same principle God didn't order German troops to invade Poland Hitler did. All a bit intellectual for the likes of me I'm afraid. I think it was a nice way of saying: 'You're not going to get off the hook that easily, laddie'. By the time we'd had our beans on toast (it was late in the week and I didn't have very much in) he said that he had to go, had to be about his father's business or something. I said I understood and maybe he would like to call again some time if he was passing by. He thanked me but said he didn't think we'd be meeting again (and since he can see the future he was probably right). The last thing I asked him, just as he was going, was whether he thought we'd made as much progress morally in the last two thousand years as we had in carpentry. I never thought of him as having much of a sense of humour, but you should have heard the laugh that got! Yours, XXXXX
Archived comments for Jesus II This Time It's Personal
e-griff on 30-11-2009
Christ is Back
ah, The David 'letter' story!
first reactions: I thought Jesus might react to 'best-selling' !
too many 'pick up' s.

Very neat and enjoyable - bit of heavy David guilt at the end - but representative of a widely held point of view so valid. No complaints. The only thing I could have wished for was something surprising/pointed such as : 'No, we're off. Dad wants to start again somewhere else. He gets bored.' or 'We did a deal with Satan - quids in, we are. Off somewhere warm for a change.' this may well be the basis of a future challenge? - 'what God did next'

hah! best, JohnG

Author's Reply:
Thanks John. I think'What God did next' sounds like a very good challenge topic. It's pretty clear that this was just a training exercise where he got a lot of things wrong.

Jolen on 30-11-2009
Christ is Back
Hi David,

I think this is witty and fun. I especially liked that you addressed Jesus' appearance as him looking "a bit Jewish". I always find it interesting that he's so often portrayed as blue eyed and fair. There are several really clever bits in here and overall the piece is very enjoyable and fun.


blessings,
Jolen

Author's Reply:
Thanks Jolen. Much appreciated.

stormwolf on 30-11-2009
Christ is Back
Hi David
I don't usually read much other than poetry being that way inclined ;-)...probably a bit of laziness too...seeing as there are so many more words...;-) ok joke
so bear with me on this appraisal from a novice...
I read this on two levels..and enjoyed it equally on both.
It was very funny and well written. Like Jolen the fact that Jesus was Jewish looking was not lost on me...being one who had to break out of 'Sunday School programming' to even begin to see the truth. I came to the conclusion (after doing a correspondence course in the Old and New Testament) that folks believe what they believe and if it gives them comfort so be it....I still buy into the shepherds in the fields and the nativity scene because it gives me comfort 😉 but the critical part of me knows it's all 'chocolate box.'
But I saw the real issues you raise here and it really resonated with me. You took so many modern day situations and ran them past the 'master' and it was both funny but also very insightful. There were too many instances in this short piece to quote but suffice to say, I thought it was fabulous.
I speak as one who was a very fervent church attendee for many years but slid off due to the intransience of the majority to embrace rogue believers who actually believed that all of the manifested universe is alive...but that ,as they say, is another story......

Really, really enjoyed my foray.
Alison

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Alison. I'm very flattered.

CVaughan on 30-11-2009
Christ is Back
Very good piece of imagining of what if? The character of Jesus (you let's face it) made some amusing responses to the reflections you made to him as the mortal in the scenario. I thought a film story a comedy along the lines of Crocodil Dundee is something I'd like to see, we cannot expect hollywood to go there though. Frank

Author's Reply:
Oh, I don't know. Hollywood has made some pretty irreverent films about Jesus. Not just The Life of Brian and Jerry Springer the Opera but Bruce Almighty, Dogma, Ultrachrist (which is uncomfortably close to your suggestion), Banished From Paradise, Saved, and probably dozens of others. It would just be a matter of sustaining it for 90 minutes or whatever.

Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

Bikerman on 01-12-2009
Christ is Back
Inventive whimsy, anyway. But I'm not sure why you wrote it as a letter (and would someone writing such a letter mention he was thinking of taking evening classes?) Also, did the man in white himself say 'she was full-on page 3 material'? or is that just the narrator's interpretation? Wouldn't it be better to say something like 'he didn't actually say she was full-on Page 3 material, but that was the implication'? I particularly liked the ending - there was nothing whimsical about that.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for dropping by.

I think writing it as a letter gives it some kind of context. I've often written straight monologues or plain first person accounts but I think this one presents itself particularly well to the letter format, the joke being that he's just politely writing to the local paper – imagine what a news item this would be if he could prove that there was any substance in it. And in fact I do think people get quite chatty and informal in letters to the paper, so I don't see a problem there either. It's up to the reader to decide whether Christ used the term 'Page 3 material' or whether it's the narrator's natural mode of expression. I think it would be hopelesly clumsy for the narrator to say: 'He didn't actually say she was full-on Page 3 material, but that was the implication'.

So on this occasion I think I'm just going to have to disagree with you about making those changes. It's 'thanks for your input but I prefer it the way it is'.

Pughguy on 02-12-2009
Christ is Back
And I prefer it the way it is now also. It's very insightful and funny as hel .. heck
mike ..

Author's Reply:

sirat on 03-12-2009
Christ is Back
Many thanks Pughguy. Much appreciated.

Author's Reply:

scrappaper on 08-12-2009
Christ is Back
My first day on UKA, and I have been a bit moody the last few days, however this was the cure. I could see me in the content trying to push Six sigma or Prince 2 (PM management) or if confession boxes could be kitted out with encryption (AES 256 military type).

On the whole a great, a Brit/London preempt Boon Dog Saints, possibly. I hope you add an Editors response, or you could set that as a challenge?


Author's Reply:

pdemitchell on 03-04-2010
Christ is Back
Jesus II - this time it's personal (shopping assistants). A pleasant dip inthe whimsy pool and begs the question again - why aren't you writing for Mr Hislop? Mitch

Author's Reply:
I love your title, much better than mine. May I steal it? Thanks very much for the kind words. I'm a big fan of Ian (Hislop, not Paisley).


A New Beginning (posted on: 13-11-09)
You never know who you'll meet when you pick up hitch-hikers...

I can see a tiny solitary figure standing by the side of the perfectly straight highway that stretches all the way to the horizon. How did he get there? There are only cornfields on either side, green and unripe, giant waves rolling across them like the surface of a lazy ocean. No houses, no vehicles, just the lone figure. He isn't even thumbing for a ride but he's watching my approach and as I draw level I feel a compulsion to stop. 'Having a bit of trouble, Mister?' I enquire in what I hope is a jovial tone. Up close he's quite a lot older than I thought, long untidy hair streaked with grey, the hint of a beard, but he's dressed respectably in jeans and a clean check shirt, and his rucksack looks new. 'That's what makes up a human life, isn't it? Bits of trouble. I think everyone is always having a bit of trouble. Sometimes a little bit, sometimes a big bit. Yes, sometimes quite a big bit.' I am not prepared for this roadside philosophy. My fingers hover above the 'drive' lever. 'Can I give you a ride, Mister?' I ask, perhaps a little coldly. 'A ride would be very welcome.' With surprising agility he hauls open the two side doors and deposits his rucksack on the floor in the back and himself in the front passenger seat. 'Kind of you to offer.' As we pull away I try to make conversation. 'So, where are you headed?' I ask. Out of the corner of my eye I see him shrug. 'The road goes down into Georgia. I guess that'll be alright.' For a time we motor on in silence. 'I get the impression you don't have any firm plans.' He seems to consider this. 'No. Quite right. I've never been one for firm plans.' He doesn't volunteer any more information. 'So what do you do? Just travel from place to place?' 'Something like that. If I like a place I stay for a while, get a job, save a little bit of money before I move on.' It's my turn to shrug. 'Why do you move on?' 'Why should I stay? I just get this feeling, after a while, that I've been some place long enough. You can't argue with feelings, can you?' I am beginning to think that I've picked up a hobo who's also a fruitcake. It reminds me of when I was much younger, just out of High School. I was always getting hit-on by losers that everybody else shunned I had a gift for collecting stray dogs and misfits. I thought I had outgrown it. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I haven't. I decide I'd better make things clear. 'The next big town we hit will be Augusta,' I tell him. 'I'll have to drop you off there. I've got business to attend to.' 'Augusta will be fine,' he assures me, and I think he means it. If I had said I was dropping him off two miles down the road he would probably have accepted that too. There seems to be something missing from this guy. I think it's the self preservation instinct. 'You sure you'll be okay in Augusta?' Why am I saying that? Leaving an opening for him to latch on, to become a parasite, to exploit my good nature. But no, he doesn't try to play me for a sucker. 'Augusta will be just fine,' he assures me. There is a long pause before he adds: 'I think you're a good man.' He says it with total sincerity and I am strangely pleased. Why should his opinion of me matter? I don't know, but it does. We drive on in silence. I calculate that if I stick to the state speed limit I'm going to be with this guy for the best part of two hours. That's a lot of silence. 'How did you come to find yourself out here in the middle of nowhere?' I ask as an opener. 'Some people who'd given me a ride decided they'd had enough of my company. Most folks do, sooner or later.' Normally I would be surprised by this kind of honesty, but with this guy I am not. 'Any idea why?' Another thoughtful pause. 'I tell people too much. Make them uncomfortable. Those last folks asked me some personal questions and I told them the truth. That wasn't what they wanted.' I recognise it as the way a lot of bullshitters talk, trying to make themselves interesting, but this time it doesn't seem that way. I can tell that this guy doesn't care whether he has a conversation with me or not. I can't pick up much from the tone of his voice but I don't think he's a psycho. There's nothing scary about him. If anything he sounds a bit detached and weary, a bit bored with his story, whatever it is. 'Do you want to take another chance and tell me the truth too?' 'And lose my ride? Why would I want to do that?' 'I don't care if you've made mistakes. If you've been inside or something. My life hasn't been blameless.' Reluctantly, he confesses 'I made one big mistake. A long time ago.' 'Only one? That's not so bad.' 'This one was bad.' 'Tell me about it. I won't throw you out on the highway. Scout's honour.' He reaches up and wipes the thin layer of sweat from around his neck. 'It was a long time ago. I mean a very long time ago. I lived in a country that had been occupied for a long time by a foreign power. Things were different back then, in that land. Human life was cheap. The rulers kept us in our place by public displays of cruelty. I doubt if you can even imagine it.' 'I can imagine it better than you think. My younger brother is in the Marines, he's done tours of duty in the Middle East. That's where you're talking about it, isn't it.' 'Yes, as a matter of fact it is.' 'I guess it's pretty easy to get things wrong over there. Get yourself into trouble. Tell me about it then. Tell me what it was you did.' He pauses again. He seems really reluctant to tell his story. I wait patiently. 'There was a public execution. A political execution of somebody who had bad-mouthed the occupying power. This poor guy was getting shoved and pushed along the street by the soldiers. I was just one of the onlookers.' 'And I guess you said something a bit rebellious?' 'No, the very opposite in fact. The prisoner hesitated just as he reached me. He tried to take a rest. I wanted to show how loyal I was to the regime, what a good a citizen I was, so I shouted at him: ''Go on! Move! What are you stopping here for?'' And he looked me straight in the eye and said: ''I shall stand here and rest, but you shall journey on until the day that I return.'' And that's how it's been. I can't die, and I can't rest, until that man returns. My name is Cartaphilus. It's possible that you may have heard of me.' It dawns on me what he's talking about. What a total fruitcake! 'The Wandering Jew?' Unconsciously I let my foot relax on the gas pedal and the car slows down. 'You did make a promise,' he reminds me gently. I can't deal with this and drive at the same time. Part of me is infuriated at being taken for a fool. Part of me finds his manner so compelling that I can't dismiss what he says. I let the car roll to a complete stop and put on the handbrake. 'I know you don't believe me,' he says quietly. 'There's no reason why you should. I'm not troubled by your disbelief. We can pretend I haven't told you if you like.' I turn and stare at my companion. Yes, his face is Middle Eastern, his nose slightly curved, his greying hair probably once thick and black. I imagine him in a crudely woven white robe with a prayer shawl over his shoulders and loose fitting sandals on his feet. Even his accent, now that I think about it, has foreign inflections. With almost no effort, I can picture him in a Biblical setting. I try to think of something to say. 'I don't disbelieve that you believe what you have just told me.' I say at last. 'You think I'm delusional. That's all right. It's a perfectly natural thing for you to think. You don't have to believe me. I told you the truth for my own sake, not yours.' 'How do you mean?' 'When that man comes back, he's going to ask me if I always told the truth. He probably won't even need to ask. I've done myself enough damage with my words. I don't want to do any more.' After a pause in which I can think of nothing more to say I release the handbrake and resume my journey. I am deeply troubled. I can usually tell when someone is lying, and (I flatter myself) when somebody is a little bit crazy, and in this case I am almost certain that neither applies. But my mind can not cope with the alternative. Miles go by before I manage to formulate my next question. 'If, just if, what you say is true how long do you think we've got to wait before this man comes back?' 'If I knew that my punishment would be almost no punishment at all, wouldn't it?' 'So you don't really know any more than the rest of us?' 'Only that there is a moral order in the world, that evil shall be punished and good rewarded and that death, as well as life, is a blessing. I am not afraid of meeting that man again and you shouldn't be either. You'll probably meet him a long time before I do. Give him my regards, won't you?' 'But if as you claim he's taken that awful revenge on you for a few thoughtless words then he isn't a kind, forgiving god at all, is he? He's petty and vindictive and to be feared.' The man smiles for the first time. 'Oh no. Along with my punishment I have been given the most wonderful gift. Certainty. Everyone else has to survive on faith, but I know how the story ends. I know that the ending is a happy one, for me and for all creation. All that is required of me is a little patience. A great deal more has been asked of you, and all your mortal brothers and sisters. Save your pity for yourself and your compassion for them. I have need of neither. I have peace.'
Archived comments for A New Beginning
Mezzanotte on 13-11-2009
A New Beginning
Hi Sirat,

how the hell are you...it's been a long time. Well, what do I make of this? It's a difficult one. At first, and a bit obviously, I presumed that the hiker was going to be a psycho, but then when I read the lines:

‘It was a long time ago. I mean a very long time ago. I lived in a country that had been occupied for a long time by a foreign power. Things were different back then, in that land. Human life was cheap. The rulers kept us in our place by public displays of cruelty. I doubt if you can even imagine it.’


I actually thought, "Oh, this guy is Jesus." So I wasn't too far off.

I didn't get the final paragraph though. If the hiker tells the driver that 'the ending is a happy one', then surely he has passed the gift of this knowledge onto the driver and then therefore the driver doesn't need to be pitied anymore. Just a thought...maybe you can explain this.

I loved your descriptions of the scenery and how effortlessly the dialogue carries the story along.

Good to be reading your work again.

Luv
Jack

Author's Reply:
Thanks Jack.
In the final paragraph, it does rather depend on whether the driver believes him or (as is perhaps more likely) goes back to his initial opinion that the man is delusional. Most evangelists are no doubt sincere in the beliefs they want to pass on, but are they correct or are they deluded too? The whole of Christianity and I imagine most other religions is based on revelation to somebody, but if it isn't revalation to me personally then I have to accept it at second (or third or fourth or thirty-fourth) hand. I have to make an act of faith. The driver is really in no different position to anybody else. The legend says that the Wandering Jew goes around the world prosletysing for Jesus – this is just my idea of how and why he might do it.
Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

Harry on 13-11-2009
A New Beginning
Very difficult subject, David. You've done a fine job of both concealment and revelation. Eventually you're left with making the answer palatable – and at this time of the year there is only one answer. Well done. (one caveat: corn? Georgia? How about cotton?)

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much for that much appreciated comment. They are just driving down into Augusta so would be in South Carolina, somewhere on that long stretch of road between Columbia and Aiken. I researched it as best I could and the principal crops grown in the area are listed as Grains, oilseeds, dry beans, and dry peas. The farms are also extremely large and the roads extremely straight and featureless. I think it's just a fraction too far north for cotton, but I may well be wrong.
Thanks again for dropping by.
David.

Bikerman on 13-11-2009
A New Beginning
An entertaining read with an interesting twist. (You don’t write for the Watchtower, by any chance?) I haven’t read such a dialogue-driven story since Hemingway; I know how difficult it is to pull it off. I’m actually reluctant to criticise a story by a writer of your standing (especially as most people on this site seem to just say nice things about each other’s work) but I do think this story would benefit from further editing - (things like ‘a barbaric Middle-Eastern political execution’ sounds overblown; we know it’s barbaric and we know it’s in the Middle-East; ‘a political execution’ would surely be enough? There are other examples. (This is a comedy, is unnecessary, isn't it? ‘Then I move on’ seems redundant.) There again, some people like overblown - and it is entertaining!




Author's Reply:
Many thanks for that very helpful comment. I agree with you about the redundant phrases and will prune, but have to go and eat my dinner first. Much appreciated.
David.

Corin on 15-11-2009
A New Beginning
Another 'Great Read' David - I did think that perhaps you might have held the mystery a little longer by a few cuts:-

‘There was a public execution. A political execution of somebody who had bad-mouthed the occupying power. This poor guy was getting shoved and pushed along the street by the soldiers,
[forced to carry… the instrument of his own death. ]

I was just one of the onlookers.’

and:-

so I shouted at the man

[with the cross: ]

“Go on! Move! What are you stopping here for?”


I was expecting a piece in the Drama genre to be in script format rather than simply being very dramatic.

Best Wishes

David

Author's Reply:
Hello David. Thanks for dropping by. Yes, I think you've got a point about hiding the mystery a little longer. I'll make those changes. Unfortunately the story has already been picked up for the UKAuthors/ABC Tales joint Christmas magazine, so I may not be in time to get the changes in that, but I'll try. Thanks for the suggestion. I didn't really see it as a 'sting in the tail' type of thing but maybe holding back that little bit longer nevertheless improves it.

There aren't that many category options on UKAuthors for fiction. 'Drama' covers anything that isn't genre (e.g fanfiction, erotica, crime fiction etc.). 'Script' has its own category, I think. 'Drama' is the catch-all.

Best regards,
David.


The Unknown Soldier (posted on: 16-10-09)
My entry for the October challenge in the Prose Discussion/Workshop forum, based on pictures of war graves.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is charged with the duty of commemorating any officers and men from Great Britain and her Empire who so courageously and selflessly laid down their lives in the service of their country. There are an estimated 45,000 of "The Fallen" missing from the Commission's registers and memorials throughout the world. Compounding this unfortunate situation, the records of those who the Commission do commemorate are marred by a very large number of errors in their name, rank, unit, date of death, age and next of kin. It is obvious that many errors have been in place since the Commission's founding, but in more recent years the matter has been further complicated by the defective OCR (Optical Character Recognition) computer scanning of its records, resulting in a corrupted electronic database. The Campaign for War Grave Commemorations Granny Brewster was still struggling to get out of the car, levering her weight forward with her stick firmly planted in the gravel as fulcrum. Barry had already pushed open the low metal gate and was charging recklessly down the main aisle between the stark white gravestones. At least there was nobody else about to see him do it. 'Don't run, darling!' Celia called after him, 'This isn't a playground! If your mother was here she'd be very cross!' We all knew it was a pointless gesture. Barry was going to be Barry whatever Celia or I might say to him. He got to the end of the long straight pathway and started to return at the same breakneck pace but weaving over and back across the pathway now, almost touching the end gravestone of each row, arms outstretched and with an accompaniment of fighter aircraft sound effects. Granny Brewster joined us. 'That boy has no respect, I don't know what's wrong with his parents.' His father was my son and I felt I should defend him but what was the use? GB had made up her mind about Barry a long time ago. 'Can you get the book out please?' she requested, sitting down on the low wooden bench just inside the gate. I took it out of its small oven-like cupboard built into the gatepost and handed it to Celia, who unlike GB or me would be able to read it without glasses. She thumbed through the pages for a while before reporting back. 'Only one Brewster,' she announced, 'but he was a captain in the 8th Devonshire Regiment.' 'Well, that's not him then, is it?' 'No, Mum, I'm afraid it isn't.' 'How many people are there in this graveyard?' She flicked to the last page. 'Four-hundred-and thirteen, of which two-hundred and seventy-five have been identified. An estimated one hundred more in the ossuary.' 'It's not really a very big graveyard then, is it?' 'I don't know where it comes in the league table, Mum. It looks big enough to me.' 'We're wasting our time here. What was the other one that the Frenchman mentioned?' I felt the time had come to intervene. 'Emily, I think we've looked at enough graveyards for one day. We're not going to find your father. We simply don't have enough information. Why don't we just go back to the hotel and have our dinner?' 'I'm sorry to have to say it but I think you're a very unfeeling person. Your father had a normal life and a normal death. He was there for you all along. You don't know what it's like never to have known your father. I'm not leaving this world until I've seen his grave and said my goodbyes. You two can go and have your dinner leave me with a guide and I'll get a taxi back.' There was no dealing with her when she was in this mood. And it was her ninetieth birthday treat, so an element of diplomacy was needed. 'It's no wonder Barry's getting restless,' I said as a way of opening negotiations, 'we've been out here since nine o'clock this morning. It's too much for a five-year-old. It's not good for him all this obsession with graves and death. We need to do something that he likes as well, something normal and healthy. Here's what I suggest. Let's all stay an extra day. Tell them in the hotel when we get back. I'm sure Rita and Bob won't mind. Then tomorrow we'll drop Celia and Barry off in Lille and they can go to the zoo. I'll come back with you and you can visit as many more cemeteries as you want to. All four-hundred and whatever if you like. Knock yourself out. How does that sound?' She hesitated. 'I still think your attitude is very unfeeling.' 'But you'll do it?' 'I don't have very much choice, do I? You just wait till you get to my age. You'll see what it's like.' 'Thank you Emily. That's a good decision.'
ooOoo
As we drove back GB sat with me in the front as usual while Celia tried to keep Barry entertained in the back, but he had passed his crankiness threshold. He was sleepy and hungry. I thought of stopping and buying him a hamburger or something to keep him quiet, but the villages were too small to have cafes. We would have to put up with Barry until we got back to the hotel. I found it hard to admit it to myself but he was the grandson that I liked least. 'You know, Emily, I have thought about what you said. About what it must be like for you, never having known your Dad. I don't know if you realise it, but you talk about him far more than people who did know their dads. I think you've got this totally made-up picture in your head about what he was like, haven't you? I bet he wasn't really like that at all.' 'What do you mean by that?' 'Well, he must have been an ordinary joe. The eighteen-year-old son of a wheelwright in a little Norfolk village. Not much money, not much education, no real prospects. All the trades connected with horses would have been failing in a big way back then. Have you really thought about how he would have felt, what his life was like, why he joined up?' 'He joined up because he loved his king and his country and wanted to do his bit like the rest of them. Because he was a brave man and not a coward. What more reason did he need?' 'He'd got a local girl pregnant, Emily. There was no way he could have supported a wife and a family. Be realistic. Take off the rose-tinted, eh?' I didn't really know why I was saying these things. There was just something about the attitude she had adopted towards this shadowy figure, this whole fantasy that she had built up about him, that irritated the hell out of me. 'Are you saying he wasn't brave?' 'I'm saying he wasn't free. He didn't have any real options. He was a victim. Another sheep herded down the road to the slaughterhouse. There was nothing glorious about what Trevor did or about what most of those poor foot soldiers did. They just got caught up in an obscene mass destruction of teenage boys, organised by their stupid elders. Thank god the world has stopped doing it. At least this part of the world. That's all it was. A mass blood-letting. An unspeakable obscenity.' 'Please don't start, you two,' Celia pleaded from the back. 'It's bad enough coping with one toddler.' 'My mother told me exactly what my father was like. He was a very polite and quiet young man. He didn't go out drinking or gambling or talk back to his elders or swear. He treated her extremely kindly. He was generous to a fault, even though he didn't have very much. He was a perfect gentleman. She was the very first girl that' She left the sentence unfinished, no doubt remembering that Barry was listening. 'My mother said that no woman ever had a better husband, or a kinder companion.' 'I wonder if his mates would recognise him from that description sorry Emily, I don't know what I mean really. Just that he was a real person a very sad and unfortunate person, but the same as all the rest of us. Good bits and bad bits. Not a plaster saint.' 'You know nothing whatsoever about him.' 'Leave it alone, you two,' Celia pleaded from the back. She was right. I drove in silence from that point and the main voice we heard for the remainder of the journey was Barry's, complaining that he didn't want French dinner, he wanted proper English food. Celia assured him we would do our best to please. As we always did. We had almost reached the hotel car park in Lille when I realised that GB was gasping for breath and her face was contorted in pain. Celia and I knew these symptoms all too well. They signalled the beginning of another nightmare for us all. 'She's having another attack, Celia.' I said the words as calmly as I could. 'You go in and call the ambulance. Take Barry with you. I'll stay here.'
ooOoo
The hospital doctor had an East European accent and spoke perfect English. He ushered me into the anteroom where Celia and Barry were seated. 'Perhaps the young boy would like to go to the candy machine and buy some chocolate,' he suggested. 'Nurse Coutet would be happy to accompany him.' The nurse behind him beamed down at Barry and reached out to take his hand. Feeling ridiculous I had to admit that I was carrying no French money. The doctor dismissed my embarrassment and supplied a coin himself. Barry and the nurse left hand in hand. There was little doubt what this was leading up to. The doctor sat down by Celia's side and his expression became serious. 'Mrs Collins,' he began, 'there is no point in telling you lies. Your mother's condition is very serious. I think you should prepare yourself for bad news.' 'She isn't' 'No, Mrs Collins. Not yet. She has a wonderful spirit she refuses to give in. But I have to tell you that the prognosis is not good. She is an elderly woman and her heart was already damaged from the earlier episode. To be perfectly honest, I am surprised that this episode was not instantly fatal. I'm sorry, but I think you understand what I am saying, yes?' 'Yes, of course.' Celia was pale and words seemed to fail her. 'I think I should take Barry to the hotel,' she said very quietly. 'This isn't really the place for' 'I agree, Mrs Collins. Perhaps you would like to say goodbye to your mother before you leave?' Celia looked more drained than I had ever seen her before. 'I'm not sure that I can,' she whispered. 'Stay here for a moment,' I suggested. 'Let me go in first.' She made no objection so I left her with the doctor. Inside the Intensive Care cubicle GB lay alone on the narrow hospital bed, wired-up to an impressive array of electronic equipment. She looked amazingly small, like a child in its cot. A cannula had been inserted into the back of her hand from which a long transparent tube led to an inverted bag of saline solution on a metal stand. A small screen monitored the flickering attempts of her injured heart to maintain the flow of blood around her body. She looked utterly exhausted but her eyes were open and her face still bore that almost fanatical focus and stubbornness. I could tell exactly what she was thinking about, just from that expression. I smiled at her and sat by the bedside. 'Don't try to talk,' I instructed her. 'Let me do the talking. There's something that I want to read to you.' I put on my glasses and produced a folded sheet of paper from my inside pocket. I unfolded it carefully on my knee. 'I've just come from the hotel,' I went on. 'A letter was waiting there, special delivery, addressed to you.' I looked at her face but her expression had not changed. 'I hope you'll forgive me I've opened it. May I read you what it says?' She nodded, almost imperceptibly. 'It's from your friend the Colonel, at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. He says: Dear Mrs Brewster. I have wonderful news to impart. I hope it reaches you before you leave for England. The Colonel-in-Chief of your father's regiment e-mailed me this morning in a state of great excitement, and I have to admit that I have been in a state of some excitement myself since reading what he had to say. The mystery of your father's war record and place of burial has been solved. The reason for all of the difficulties was that when he signed-up the name recorded on his military papers was incorrect. That kind of thing happened relatively often during the Great War many of the young men signing-up were illiterate and the papers were completed by the recruiting sergeant in response to verbal instructions from the recruit. All that the new recruit was required to do was sign his name, and sometimes even that was nothing more than a cross counter-signed by the recruiting officer. Your father's name was incorrectly recorded as 'Brewer', not 'Brewster'. Once this was realised, everything fell into place. It transpires that your father was posthumously awarded the highest military medal of that time, and indeed of the present time, the Victoria Cross. This was in recognition of his exceptional bravery in leaving the trench during enemy bombardment to retrieve three fallen comrades. Despite being wounded himself he retrieved the first two successfully, undoubtedly saving their lives. While attempting to rescue the third he was fatally wounded himself. Private Brewster was the only soldier in his regiment to be awarded the Victoria Cross, either in the Great War or any subsequent engagement right up to the present day. The Colonel-in-Chief requests that you inspect a parade of his men and tell the regiment what you know of your father, to be followed by a regimental dinner in your honour. When you return to England he will get in touch with you regarding these arrangements. Allow me to sayetc. etc.' I stopped reading and looked at her face. She was smiling broadly. I couldn't remember having seen her smile like that ever before. 'You were right, Emily,' I whispered. 'You were right and I was wrong. Forgive me.' Suddenly the room seemed to be full of people and a hubbub of voices speaking in French. Nurses and men in dark gowns were furiously attaching things to GB, and the doctor I had spoken to was guiding me gently back to the anteroom. Celia, pale and trembling, was sitting there with Barry. Even he was subdued. Celia spoke to the doctor behind me. 'She's gone, hasn't she?' was all she said. 'I'm sorry, Mrs Collins,' he confirmed. 'They're doing everything possible but I don't think there's any real hope.' He joined her again in the same chair as before. 'It's a funny thing, though,' he added, looking her in the eye, 'but I could have sworn she had a smile on her face. I don't think I've ever seen that before.' Celia suddenly noticed that I was holding a sheet of paper. 'What's that?' she asked. 'This?' I handed it to her. 'Nothing. Just a blank sheet of paper.'
Archived comments for The Unknown Soldier
bluepootle on 16-10-2009
The Unknown Soldier
It held my attention all the way through, but I think it's not entirely successful. It seems a little clunky, and the dialogue not quite right. I didn't get a strong sense of GB (I think because her dialogue seemed a bit too neat for me). I think that having Barry along is a great move, though, and that certainly works.

My main problem was that I saw where it was going as soon as he unfolded the sheet of paper. Maybe it's just me. And then the immediate death of GB felt very stagy, and the doctors rushing in... I think it just needs a lighter touch towards the end. Less dramatics. Lengthen the section in hospital, give the narrator more of a dilemma and let us know that he's decided to lie, instead of going down the 'twist in the tale' route? It could be very moving that way.

Just some thoughts. It'll be interesting to see what others thought of it and if I'm just being grumpy today.

Author's Reply:
I think I agree with you Ailsa. I finished it in a great hurry last night to get it in for the deadline – in fact I was still editing it this morning, after it had been published. I normally try to avoid the surprise ending genre. The reason for her dying straight away was supposed to be that she had 'let go' – had been released from her mental struggle.

bluepootle on 16-10-2009
The Unknown Soldier
Hmmm... I get what you're aiming for.... maybe just a change to her face, or her breathing, after he reads the 'letter'? Something that indicates that she's letting go? You've made it clear earlier that she will die. I think something more subtle might work.


Author's Reply:

chrissy on 16-10-2009
The Unknown Soldier
I found this story very completed if you know what I mean and I liked it. I've read it a couple of times since early this morning and it still feels whole and finished.
I'm not sure whether the old lady should actually, physically die at the end but for me that makes it complete and that she passes with her ideals, probably fantasies about her dad intact is a good ending.
I liked it a lot and it held my attention from start to finish.
Two v small typos 'God bits and bad bits' and '...regimental dinner in you honour'.
Regards.
Chrissy

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much for dropping by and commenting Chrissy.

You can tell this one was done in a hurry – I usually spot little typos like that. They're both fixed now.

I think in a way Granny Brewster has to die in order for the ending to work. If she recovers she's going to find out that her son-in-law has been bullshitting her and then we have an entirely different scenario!

I don't think this is the best thing I have written but at least I made the deadline and it's kind of okay. I'm glad it worked reasonably well for you. This was the hardest challenge I've tried so far I think. I'm not surprised most people ignored it.

RoyBateman on 20-10-2009
The Unknown Soldier
Considering that this was a rush job, I'm impressed with the quality of writing: very flowing and literate. Still, I'd expect that... I'm sure that a bit of sandpapering round the edges would produce a really touching tale, but it's difficult to know when to stop tinkering.
I was a bit concerned at the unfeeling tone of the way GB was talked to early on - I think that, especially if it was her (possibly last) treat, she'd have been a bit more indulged by her relatives. Most of us do that with old folks, at least putting our irritation into asides rather than direct comments. The switch to the caring persona seemed a bit Damascene to me.
The twist was, I think, signposted with the inaccuracies in the "letter", many of which, I'm sure, you know about. (The Colonel-in-Chief is purely ceremonial, usually a senior royal; no line regiment now exists in the same form as it did in 1914/18, so he/she would have changed anyway; I can't think of one that only has one 20th-Century VC; VCs are very carefully documented and have their own association - they don't go missing) So, that gave it away for me, though admittedly somebody making it all up on the hoof might well say these things. Overall, it's a compelling and touching story: considering it was rushed, it's very impressive. I'm amazed it has so few comments.



Author's Reply:

e-griff on 27-10-2009
The Unknown Soldier
I'm catching up ... 🙂

This was, as I would expect from you, a well-written highly competent story that is well worth reading. But I agree with your own estimation that no, it isn't one of your best. The style overall seems stilted, focussing on actions and dialogue rather than including surroundings and mood, feelings. (the feelings are stated by the characters, not shown). The family relationships were a little confusing, and not explained all that well, so that distracted me - even after I had read it the first time, I had to go back to find out what relation Barry was, and it's still not crystal clear to me now.

I. like blue, saw the 'twist' coming straight away, and found the details of the dinner etc overdone, laid on too thick, so the end really didn't give me the kick it should. Some lack of originality, I'd have to say. But, as I said, still a good read.

best JohnG 🙂

Author's Reply:


Harpsichord (posted on: 21-09-09)
My entry for Bluepootle's challenge in the Prose Discussion/Workshop forum. As a matter of interest, this was inspired by Guy Clark's song The Guitar.


''We have exceptionally good provenance for this instrument,'' the auctioneer explained in his measured, slightly superior Oxford accent, ''We know that it was made by Julio Antunes for the royal chapel of Lisbon in the year 1749, and presented to the Scarlatti family in Madrid by King Joseph I of Portugal in 1756. It was the actual instrument on which Domenico Scarlatti composed the majority of his sonatas. The instrument was also played by Dominico's younger brother Pietro Filippo, and remained in the Scarlatti family until the outbreak of the First World War. If I might venture a personal opinion, I believe this to be the finest instrument of its kind that has come onto the market in my twenty-eight years in this profession. It has been meticulously maintained and is in tune and fully playable, as Dr. Saul Lander, Professor of Harpsichord at Trinity College of Music, has kindly agreed to demonstrate.'' The tall slender professor approached the instrument as one might an emperor on his throne: slowly, respectfully, humbly. He seated himself at the stool, stroked back his unruly silver-grey hair with his left hand, and glanced at the classical landscape painted on the underside of the open lid before he began. When the voice of the instrument was heard it was mellow, understated, compelling. He played the beginning of a Scarlatti sonata in C major. The room seemed to hold its breath, the instrument responded as though it knew the notes itself. A charmed few minutes passed. Lander found himself choking up with an emotion to which he could put no name. He scolded himself for his lack of professionalism. Unable to finish the piece, he chose a suitable point at which to pause and allow himself to recover. A single individual in the silent audience began to applaud. Others joined in. In seconds the room had turned from an auction room to a concert hall, acknowledging the genius of the composer, the instrument maker and the performer. Lander stood up, offered a shallow bow to the audience, and returned to his seat, shaken. When the applause died down the auctioneer resumed his measured speech as though this glimpse of the divine had not happened. ''I have a reserve on this item,'' he announced coldly, ''and will therefore suggest that we start the bidding at two-hundred and twenty thousand. Do I see that in the room? Thank you. Do I see two hundred and thirty? Thank you, Sir. Against you at the back, Madam'' His voice droned on. Lander did not listen. There seemed something obscene about putting an instrument like that up for sale. An instrument that contained the soul of its maker, that for almost three hundred years had inspired composers and musicians to push forward the limits of human accomplishment. It had been made for a church, reverently and lovingly, by the foremost craftsman of his generation; now it was a commodity, like a sack of potatoes, to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Lander considered walking out, but he knew that doing so would attract too much attention that it would be interpreted as just what it was, an expression of contempt for those who put a monetary value on the likes of this. He sat tight and tried to lose himself in his thoughts. It would soon be over, and with luck the item might go to somewhere where its life could continue: a college or conservatory where new generations of talented musicians could hear what the harpsichord had to teach them and become better musicians and better human beings by their contact with its magic. At last the hammer fell and Lander's discomfort seemed set to end. He noted that the sale had gone to the young blonde woman seated near him at the front rather tartily dressed, he thought, bright colours, high heels, low neckline not at all the kind of person a conservatory would send along as an agent. More like a refugee from one of those adolescent girl bands, or a reporter from a fashion magazine. Her appearance did not augur well for the instrument, he thought. The business of the auction had paused now, the young woman got up to go to the office and sign the documents of sale. Lander stood up also, and to his surprise a murmur of applause rippled once again through the audience. He turned and smiled, gave them an embarrassed nod, and continued on his way behind the woman. In the antechamber the young woman turned towards him and smiled broadly. ''Professor Lander, I like very much your playing the Scarlatti tune.'' She had a strong accent, Spanish or Italian. ''Thank you, Madam,'' he replied, hoping that he didn't sound as hostile as he felt, ''Scarlatti wrote pretty good tunes.'' The sarcasm slipped out despite his efforts to be civil. Its sharpness seemed to be lost on the woman, possibly because she wasn't a native English speaker. ''I think so too. My husband played Scarletti tunes when he was student in Madrid. That why I buy the instrument. He has more time now, maybe he play again.'' Lander was becoming angrier but he did not want to let it show. ''Indeed. I hope that his ownership of the instrument may pave the way for a rewarding hobby.'' ''I think maybe I need to explain you, Professor Lander. Maybe we sit down, yes?'' Clearly some of Lander's feelings had communicated themselves to the woman. He had no strong desire to listen to her story but felt that courtesy demanded he should. They sat down together at a fine mahogany table and were immediately approached by one of the auction house attendants. ''Would you care for a drink, Madam, Sir?'' he enquired respectfully. ''I would love gin and tonic,'' the woman replied with enthusiasm. ''Coffee please,'' Lander said quietly, ''milk, no sugar.'' The man hurried off to do their bidding. ''You mind I smoke?'' the woman asked as she produced a packet from her shoulder bag. Lander intensely disliked the habit but assured her that he did not. As she lit up, another attendant appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and placed an ashtray on the table. There was really nothing at all that Lander liked about this woman. Lander thought of his own institution and his own students. Struggling, dedicated young musicians who worked night shifts to pay their fees, who would sell their souls for the chance to play for ten minutes on an instrument of that quality. ''Forgive me, Madam, but I am curious. Am I to understand that you have just paid almost half a million pounds for that instrument as a gift for your husband who is an amateur musician? Is this the kind of thing that you do often?'' ''No, I just do it this once. Don't worry Professor Lander. My husband have big house now, servants, he look after the instrument. Maybe our children they play it too. He make money in the computer industry, but not what my husband want to do. My husband soul is musician soul. I know this. He want this instrument for long, long time. Maybe some day you come to our house in Spain and play this instrument too, yes?'' ''That would be a great privilege. May I know your name?'' ''Sure. Here, I give you my card. We live outside Madrid. You come see us any time. Any time at all.'' Lander took the card. He was expecting to see a picture of a computer or something modern and technical but instead it bore a small family crest in blue and red, above the gold embossed name and address. The name on the card was Maria Magdalena Scarlatti.
Archived comments for Harpsichord
bluepootle on 21-09-2009
Harpsichord
What a charming story. I particularly liked the beginning, and the playing of the instrument. I wasn't quite so sure about the dialogue of the woman, as at first I wondered if you had some typos, but then supposed you were copying her speech patterns! Difficult to pull off, I think. But a very enjoyable read.

Author's Reply:
Glad you liked it Aliya. Written in a bit of a hurry while organising the Solid Gold book launch. I think I need to suggest that he woman's grasp of English isn't perfect for the business about the Scarlatti 'tune' to work. I'm on a short brek in France at the moment, on-line time a bit limited, so I'll read and comment on the other entries as soon as I get back.

e-griff on 21-09-2009
Harpsichord
highly competent story, well written. maybe the ending's a bit too obvious (not predictable) I had no probs with her accent as it was moderately done, and I got it straight off.

things I noticed:
I don't think you need 'mentally' with scolded himself.
bidding - I don't think an auctioneer would start with only a 5 thou raise on 220 thou - they usually start big and come down as response slows - at least 230 I would say (sorry I know it's niggly, but)
Typo: 'augur'

Author's Reply:
Many thanks John. Glad you liked it. I have made noth the changes you suggested.

I,m in the foyer of a hotel in Lille on the Eee PC at the moment. I thought you would want to knoe. Neither of us have been to France before outside of Euro Disney, and we're loving it.

Rupe on 23-09-2009
Harpsichord
A good, readable story. As e-griff says, the ending is a little obvious, but I enjoyed the telling of it nonetheless.

I felt Mrs Scarlatti's accent was generally well done, but her first utterance is at a markedly higher register than her later ones & that might be worth looking at:

'Professor Lander, may I say how much I enjoyed your playing of the Scarlatti tune'

'May I say how much', 'your playing of' (nice gerund) - it's more the Prof's idiom than hers, I felt.

Good otherwise though.

Rupe

Author's Reply:
Thanks for dropping by and for taking the time to comment.

I think you're right about her first utterance and I have now changed it. Thanks for pointing it out.

I don't know to what extent it works as a 'surprise ending' story, but so long as it makes its point and says something about the way we make assumptions I'm happy.

Corin on 23-09-2009
Harpsichord
Brilliant David -you lead us so engagingly right up the garden path, where insread of the expected nettle patch we find a beautiful single rose!

David

Author's Reply:
Thanks Corin. I'm glad it worked for you. I think it has gained a lot from the shaping it has gone through as a result of people's comments here. I'm pleased to see the site working the way that it should.

teifii on 16-03-2012
Harpsichord
Well, that picture worked for me as I fell for the harpsichord first and then had to read the story. Very good. First thing I've read here since surfacing from nasty bug.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Daffni. Lovely to get a new comment on such an old story.


Inseparable (Prose Challenge) (posted on: 31-08-09)
My entry for the current challenge in the prose discussion/workshop forum. To write a sad story.

'Come in, boy. Sit up there by the fire. Take that coat off. I'll get you a cup of coffee. You look like a High School kid. How old are you?' 'I'm twenty-eight, Ma'am.' 'Twenty-eight. I don't think I can rightly remember being twenty-eight. How did you hear about me?' He made himself comfortable on the wicker armchair and balanced his briefcase carefully by its side before he replied. 'Well, Ma'am, my grandfather died about two months ago and I inherited a lot of his stuff. He had a record collection easily fifty, sixty years old, some of them and when I looked through I found this one here.' He withdrew it carefully from his briefcase. 'It was recorded by a couple of local girls. It says they came from Redwood County, Vermont.' He handed her the delicate old 78, which she slipped out of its faded paper jacket. She put on her glasses to read the label. He could see that it choked her up slightly. 'You drove all the way up from Burlington because of this?' 'It's not all that far, Ma'am.' 'Forty-six miles and a hundred-and-fifty years, we always used to say. I was born in this house, you know.' 'Yes, I do know, Ma'am. I've been reading up a bit about the twins. I was surprised I'd never heard of you. You were pretty famous people back then.' 'Back then is right. And back then is a long time ago. What makes you think anybody'll be interested now?' 'Well, most folks are interested in local celebrities. Burlington even the whole state of Vermont doesn't have all that many famous people to boast about.' 'Famous people? Famous people are presidents and Nobel Prize winners and astronauts and film stars. We were never famous like that.' 'Your records sold pretty well. You played the Grand Ol' Opry. Got a bit of film work. Quite a lot of stage work. That's famous enough for Vermont.' She laughed. 'The two easy roads to success aim low or get yourself born in Vermont. Yeah, we done alright for a couple of country girls from out here. People used to ask us if we would've done so good if we hadn't been twins. We used to say: How the hell would we know? It was a way of putting us down, really. Saying we had no talent, just looked cute. Anyway, who cares? Being twins was our gimmick, and if that's what got us the bookings then thank the Lord for it. I ain't going to look no gift horse in the mouth.' She gave him back the record and went over to the wood-stove. 'Here's your coffee. Want a bit of stew? It's all I've got.' 'No thanks, Ma'am, I ate before I set out.' 'Can we drop this ''ma'am'' thing? My name's Tillie.' 'Sure. Is that your real name?' 'Are you kidding? Our agent gave us those names. Millie and Tillie. Millie really was Millie her name was Millicent but Tillie? Nothing like my real name. It was made up. I always resented that she got to keep her real name but I had to have a made-up one. Real name's Theresa. At least it begins with ''T''. I haven't used it since I was about fifteen, so best call me Tillie or I may not know who you're talking to.' He nodded. 'Is it okay if I take notes?' He slid a spiral bound pad out of his briefcase as he spoke. 'Sure. I'm glad it ain't a tape recorder. Those things make me nervous as hell.' 'Would you say that you and Millie were very close?' 'Name me a set of twins that wasn't. When we were little we were almost one person with two bodies. It never occurred to us to be selfish, or to keep secrets from one another, or to do anything on our own. There was us, and then there was the rest of the world. It's something you probably can't understand if you haven't lived it.' 'And did that closeness last for the whole of your lives?' Tillie hesitated. 'You want cream in that? I got some. Sugar maybe?' He shook his head. There was a pause, but he wouldn't be sidetracked. He waited for the answer. 'No relationship of any kind stays the same for a whole lifetime. You're too young to know that but you'll find out.' She sat down wearily at the kitchen table and rested her head in her hands. He couldn't see her face any more so he came over and sat nearby. His reporter's instinct told him to say nothing, simply wait. 'We used to take advantage of people because nobody could tell us apart,' she said quietly, not looking up. 'I guess most identicals do. People used to think they could, but we could easily fool 'em. Millie was a bit more shy and quiet than me, so if I wanted to be Millie I would act a bit more timid and everybody would be sure it was her. We used to play tricks on our beaus maybe Millie would go out on a couple dates and then she'd tell me to have a go and I would go out on the next one pretending to be her, and tell her afterwards how we got on and what I thought of the guy. We never got caught out, not once. Well maybe once.' She hesitated. 'You know, I don't think I ought to be telling you this here stuff. This has nothing to do with our career.' He sensed that he had struck a nerve. If he could find a way in he might have a story here. A real story. 'You know, Tillie, a reporter doesn't have to put everything in when he comes to write his piece. There's an ethical code sometimes we get told personal stuff that people don't want to go any further. And it doesn't. It's as simple as that. If it did folks would stop trusting our profession, stop talking to us. So I want to give you my absolute assurance that you'll have a chance to see whatever I write, and if there's anything whatsoever that you're not happy with then it doesn't go in. Simple as that. That's the way I work.' She looked him straight in the eye but remained silent. He closed the notebook and put away the pen, making sure that she saw him do it. 'This is something you haven't talked about before, isn't it? I can tell. Sometimes it's good to talk, you know. It's a clich but it happens to be true.' 'It was in the early 1950s,' she said in little more than a whisper, turning to watch the glow from the wood-stove, 'all the guys were going off to the Korean War. If you volunteered you got a better posting than if you waited for the draft. America had never lost a war back then, it was all like a bit of fun. Couple months and it'll be over, we all thought. Go in there, wipe 'em out, come home heroes. We didn't understand why we were fighting didn't care it was a war, America was fighting it and so America must be right. Simple-minded times, eh?' He nodded. 'We were at the height of our career then. Those were the Grand Ol' Opry days. And radio of course. Radio was big back then. Bigger than TV. We were good Republicans, like all our folks, like most people in Vermont. We volunteered to go out and entertain the troops. Us and a thousand like us. We thought it might be a little bit rough, didn't know what to expect, but what we found out there scared the hell out of us. Young boys getting hauled into field hospitals with limbs hanging off. Bits of blown-up bodies that they couldn't even identify. Trophy gook bodies cut up so that more than one guy could claim a kill. You think that only happened in Vietnam? That was invented in Korea. You've seen it all on MASH but I've seen the real thing. That's a bit different. And I was only about twenty-five. Younger than you are now. Hadn't even been overseas before.' 'I know a little bit about it, Millie. My dad was in 'Nam. I've been lucky, so far. My generation has been mostly lucky. Not the ones in the Middle East, of course' 'Well, you can imagine how it was, we were two young good-looking girls in amongst a few thousand combat troops, no chaperones, no holds barred. We had a pretty good time, romantically-speaking. I hope that doesn't shock you. I know each generation thinks it invented sex. Not true, kid. Not true.' She paused for a long time. He wondered if he should say something. His instinct told him that he shouldn't and it was right. 'We were playing that little prank I told you about switching roles, swapping dates, comparing notes, giggling about it all when we were on our own. Onlythis time it went a bit too far. You see, there was somebody Millie really did care about. Somebody from near home, as it happened, quiet type, not much confidence, hated the war and what he had to do 'Millie and me we didn't understand anything really. About our own feelings, I mean. All our songs were about true love, betrayal, jealousy, broken hearts but the truth is, we didn't know a thing about that side of life. The only relationship we gave a damn about was the one between the two of us. Everything else was just a big game. We were two kids playing with matches in a barn full of dry hay. 'Jace that was his name sent Millie a note to say that he'd got a new posting and he wouldn't be able to see her after tonight. I happened to know she wouldn't be around that night, but I guess she would've cancelled whatever it was she was doing to see Jace. Anyway I didn't tell her. I went in her place. Jace was pretty keen. Things got a bit physical. Jace and me went all the way. I know Millie and him had never done that. Like I said, we always told each other everything. Or at least we did up to then.' 'So that was the first secret you'd ever had from Millie?' 'Guess so. And it was a pretty stupid one to try to keep. As soon as he wrote her from his new posting she found out what had happened. I'd betrayed her and that would have changed everything even if there had never been anything else.' 'But something else did happen, didn't it?' Tillie sat back in her chair and sighed. 'You can probably guess what it was.' 'You got pregnant?' She smiled. 'No, we weren't that stupid.' The smile vanished. 'Something worse. Her next letter got returned. Soldier boy Jace had got himself killed in action. He only lived a few days after Well, let's talk about something a bit more cheerful, can we?' There was a longish pause. 'You didn't stop working together though, did you?' 'No, of course not. That was our living. The only thing we knew. We stayed together for years after that. But something had gone out of the act, you know what I mean? That closeness that you talked about, that was what made the act special. Just looking like a pair of bookends wasn't enough. People knew something was wrong, something had died. Our career went down after that. Quite slowly, thank the Lord. We had time to ease ourselves out of the music business. If things had gone different we might still be together now like the Beverley Sisters. Must be ninety if they're a day. I even tried to go solo for a little while. Now that was a mighty stupid move. Millie got out of the business moved down south somewhere.' There was really only one question left to ask. He wondered if he should if he even wanted to know the answer. 'What happened to Millie?' The colour drained from Tillie's face. 'You mean you don't know? I thought you said you'd read up about us?' He wriggled in his seat. 'I didn't find any reference to that,' he said. 'Millie swallowed a month's supply of sleeping pills and washed them down with a bottle of Southern Comfort. Nobody knew how she got hold of either of them. She did it sitting on a bench at The Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington DC on July 27, 1995 just after it was dedicated by President Clinton and Kim Young Sam. Nobody noticed that she was dead until the following morning.' 'Peopledidn't even notice?' 'I guess folks don't pay too much heed to an old bag lady, out cold on a park bench with a bottle in her hand. 'Now is there anything else you would like to know?'
Archived comments for Inseparable (Prose Challenge)
e-griff on 31-08-2009
Inseparable (Prose Challenge)
A nice complete story, well told, balanced. I had a small niggle with things like 'He sensed he had struck a nerve' which I think is tell which could be avoided. And I'm not sure, where this is set, about the reference to the Beverly Sisters. I feel she'd rather quote some american act (even if you made them up).

I think your story is akin to mine, each in our own styles. I think that Pom's story (as we've both recognised) has that extra something compared with both. Must get on and read others ...

Author's Reply:

Ania on 31-08-2009
Inseparable (Prose Challenge)
I enjoyed this piece and thought it read really well. Although your intro told us it would a sad story it wasn't a predictable end.

Ania

Author's Reply:
Thanks Ania. I'm glad you liked it and didn't find it too predictable.
David.

pombal on 31-08-2009
Inseparable (Prose Challenge)
I really enjoyed this David - very polished. A real pleasure. Are the last lines more shocking like this? -

The colour drained from Tillie’s face. ‘You mean you don’t know?’

He wriggled in his seat. ‘I didn’t find any reference to that,’ he said

‘Millie swallowed a month’s supply of sleeping pills and washed them down with a bottle of Southern Comfort. She did it sitting on a bench at The Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington DC on July 27, 1995.'

Author's Reply:
Thanks for commenting. I'm glad you found it a real pleasure.

I understand what you're saying about shortening the ending, but then you lose the information that Millie had become a bag lady. Also the fact that America had waited so long to give any official recognition to the soldiers who had died in that particular fiasco. I thought the final question: Is there anything else you want to know? might suggest to the reader that there wasn't really anything else to say about either of their lives, that they had for all practical purposes ended on the night of the fateful date in Korea.

hoopsinoz on 01-09-2009
Inseparable (Prose Challenge)
hi Sirat - I thought this was well told from beginning to end - I liked the revelation of the delay in recognising the Korean War as an event... thanks

Author's Reply:
Thanks Hoopsinoz – glad you liked the story.

David.

pombal on 01-09-2009
Inseparable (Prose Challenge)
I've thought about this David. The issue for me is that you have spent the whole story building up a very believable and understated character in Tillie. To me its about the twins relationship, betrayal and how something can eat away for years - not the really the Korean war or the soldiers - I think some of the author is coming out in the final few lines of dialogue and not really Tillie speaking which dilutes the shock ending.

‘Millie swallowed a month’s supply of sleeping pills and washed them down with a bottle of Southern Comfort. Her body was found on a Washington bench at The Korean War Veterans Memorial the following morning. ’

I think the baglady is still inferred ...and then what else does he need to know? - I think that is also inferred ...

This is just my opinion and I'm sure most would disagree with me ...

Author's Reply:
Thanks for coming back in Pombal, but I think we're just going to have to disagree about the ending. I think it matters to Tillie to get her point across about the way her sister died. She doesn't want any misunderstanding here, or to leave anything unsaid, so she states it very clearly and dispassionately as a series of facts to the young reporter, ending with 'Now, is there anything else you want to know?" She has told all, unburdened herself. I like the ending as it is. The shock element isn't as important as getting across the state of Tillie's mind and emotions, the destruction that her actions have caused. That as you have correctly identified is what the story is really about.

David.

RoyBateman on 01-09-2009
Inseparable (Prose Challenge)
I don't think that there is anything else we need to know - but the line made a good, clean ending. I could just see the camera pull back to fade on that line. Nope, I didn't see the ending coming and I love surprises: a gripping, well-told tale that could have been going in any one of several directions, had we not known beforehand that things, somehow, weren't going to work out. Well worth the nib.
ps I know it's been said...but the one line that stood out was the reference to the Beverley Sisters. I know 'em, you know 'em, but I'm not convinced that Tillie would've.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much for that Roy, I think I saw the camera pulling out at that point too, and the scene fading very slowly to black, maybe accompanied by a distant plaintive few bars of one of Millie and Tillie's songs.

I did think about the Beverley Sisters thing. The obvious choice would have been the Andrews Sisters (American) but they didn't have that staggering innings that I needed in my example. One of them died in 1967 and another in 1995. The third one I think is still alive. The Beverley Sisters are almost as well known in America as they are in Britain, particularly as gay icons during the Gay Pride celebrations in big American cities. They have been in the US charts as well as the British charts, though I don't think they have had a US No.1. And well into their 80s they are still going strong. I think somebody who was part of a sister act in the USA during the 1950s and 60s would know then very well. They are in fact the longest surviving sister act of all time, having performed together for more than 55 years. Maybe some of our older American members could tell me if I am right that in the period we are talking about they were pretty big in the 'States as well as in the UK.

Thanks for your very thoughtful comments, much appreciated.

David.


Falling Stock (posted on: 10-07-09)
This is my entry to my own challenge on the Prose Workshop forum: to write a story that breaks as many as possible of the revered rules of short-story-writing but gets away with it. In fact I don't think this one breaks nearly enough rules, but to come third or fourth in this particular challenge is perhaps the most desirable outcome.

It was a dark and stormy night when I decided to write this so I thought I had better wait a while as I knew that short stories should never be started during such weather conditions. Tonight there is a full moon, just a few wispy clouds and road conditions appear dry. Hence I shall begin. Leon Murphy was a rather sullen teenager normally to be found slouched at the back of various classes at the Lower Thamesmead and Belvedere Comprehensive School for Boys, wondering vaguely how the school could be both comprehensive and yet admit only male students. Of course he did not formulate the thought quite in these terms, it was more along the lines of: 'How come there's no effing girls at this shitty so-called comprehensive?' Leon was not a rebellious boy, a fact that would have disappointed his ideology-spouting father, who had seen to it that he was named after the leader of the October Revolution before disappearing forever out of his and his young mother's life. Leon instead had developed the chameleon's talent of merging so seamlessly into any background that few of his teachers even realised that he was in the room. He was not so much a physical presence as a disembodied faint voice that responded with a generic 'yessir' when the names on any register were called out. Leon's approach to education provided him with ample opportunity for reflection, as well as minor surgery on his acne and investigations into the ballistic properties of his nasal mucus. One of the topics to which his thoughts often drifted was his relative unattractiveness to the opposite sex, which seemed to him unaccountable, but was evident on those few occasions when he had actually mustered enough courage to talk to a girl. One such individual was the daughter of the local Greek corner shop owner who bore the enchanting name Triana Stamatis, sometimes cruelly corrupted into 'Try-a Tomato' by those among Leon's contemptible peers who would poke fun at this Hellenic goddess. Despite the scandalous over-pricing Leon found innumerable reasons to visit Mr Stamatis' shop for all manner of minor groceries and domestic items, especially at weekends when the sixteen-year-old diva would be assisting behind the counter. He could not help noticing, however, that her normally cheery countenance would darken somewhat at his approach, and the phrases she employed to complete each transaction tended to be terse in the extreme. What Leon needed, he decided, was a way to place himself in the role of knight-in-shining-armour to her damsel-in-distress. As damsels go, however, as far as he could see, she was singularly undistressed. He considered setting fire to the shop late at night, then phoning the fire brigade but rescuing the divine Triana himself prior to their arrival. On consideration though he felt that the scheme was not without risk, particularly that of detection, but also of single or multiple fatality. Besides, it was very handy having a corner shop so nearby and he and his mother would miss it. An alternative scenario that he considered briefly involved donning a hood and possibly some platform shoes and stalking his beloved late at night, making noises suggestive of a psychotic rapist/axe-murderer, and then somehow shedding the outfit when she wasn't looking and re-appearing as the hero who had driven the crazed assailant away. He could however envisage problems with this scheme also, such as the possibility of the unwelcome intervention of some busybody passer-by, the difficulties surrounding invisible disposal of the hood and shoes, and the possibility of Triana being in possession of pepper spray or some kind of personal attack alarm, a contingency that could not be ruled out. More to the point, he had never seen her out walking alone late at night. One thing Leon did know about Triana was that she had recently acquired a small black-and-white kitten of which she was particularly fond, and which she could frequently be seen playing with and stroking on her seat behind the counter, to Leon's intense envy and the disapproval of some neighbourhood hygienic extremists. It occurred to him that she might be willing to trade her virtue for the release of said animal if captured, but more likely she would simply involve other thoroughly unsympathetic parties such as parents and police, and the incident could well have a negative effect on his prospects for future preferment. Safer than kidnapping for ransom, he decided, would be the mere disappearance of the animal, to be followed up in a day or two by its retrieval and return by none other than himself. How could she fail to plant a kiss on the eager lips of the gallant boy who had so fearlessly rescued her cherished pet from whatever hideous fate was about to befall it? Then they could sit behind the counter together, initially fondling the feline, but before too long, one another. This mental image produced physiological changes in Leon which he found it necessary to attend to in the privacy of the WC.
ooOoo
It is a dark but mild night. Clouds drift lazily across the dim crescent moon as clouds are wont to do. Triana dozes in her bed above the shop, imagining that the lead singer from her favourite boy band is cuddled-up by her side whispering sweet nothings into her ear. What she is actually hearing though are the faint mewings of her beloved kitten Onyx in its basket in the old wooden shed in the back yard, which is unusual because Onyx, unlike Triana, is a heavy sleeper. Could there be something amiss? Almost at once she has her answer. The sound of something heavy falling or being knocked over, rapidly followed by a repressed expletive from a human throat. There is a prowler in the back yard. Silently, without putting on the light, Triana rises from her bed and pulls on a flannel dressing-gown. She tiptoes on to the landing and looks down from the window that overlooks the back yard. There is movement in the heavy shadows. Trembling, her heart pounding, Triana reviews her options. She is alone in the house, her father having as usual failed to return from his Friday night session at the local pub, her mother having failed to return from a holiday in Cyprus some nine years earlier. She is unarmed, although being in possession of the high ground it would be theoretically possible for her to rain heavy objects down upon the enemy. She looks around for heavy objects and spots a cardboard box containing thirty-six cans of chickpeas, a slow seller at the best of times and well worth sacrificing in the defence of her life and honour. As she hoists the box to window sill level and slides open the bottom sash (causing a few unavoidable clicks and scrapes), it occurs to her that it is just possible that the intruder below could be her father, having lost his front door key, attempting to gain entry to the back of the house over the rear wall. She decides to hold fire and accumulate more field intelligence. The mewing of Onyx becomes more insistent, as though an attempt is being made to gain entry to her shed. Triana's eyes are getting more used to the dark now. She can see the outline of a human form just below, and unless her father has shed several stone since he left her to lock up this evening it is not he. She takes careful aim and delicately slides the carton of canned chickpeas closer to its tipping point on the window sill. Some pigeon guano from the sill falls like snow on the dark figure and betrays her presence. There is an unrestrained expletive from the suspect. "Shit! It's gone in my eyes! What is it? What've you done to me?" "Leon? Leon Murphy from down the road? Is that you?" "'Course it's me! What is this shit? What've you done to me? I can't see an effing thing." "It's powdered nitric acid. You'll be blind for ever now. Serves you damn well right!" "Oh no! Shit! Not powdered nitric acid! What did you do that for? Is it really?" She speaks more quietly, remembering the sleeping neighbours. "No, you wanker. You were right the first time. It's shit. Now, what do you think you're doing down there?" There is a pause. Leon has not prepared an answer for this particular question. He rubs his eyes vigorously and searches for a clever reply that will establish his innocence. He fails to find one. If he can't establish his innocence the next best thing, he decides, is to be a romantic villain, in the mould of Clyde Barrow or Pretty Boy Floyd. "I'm an outlaw," he confides under his breath, "a burglar." "What kind of burglar?" This at least is an easy one. "A cat burglar." "You touch my kitten and I'll pour this here boiling chip fat all over you." "You've got boiling chip fat up there?" "Course I have. Wouldn't go to bed without putting the chip pan on." "Look, Triana, I'm sorry. I've made a mistake. All I really wanted was... well, to talk to you." "I see. Your chat-up technique is unusual. Go on then. Talk." Triana is beginning to enjoy herself. "Well..." "Yes?" "Well... you're very pretty. Has anybody ever told you that?" "Yes. Lots of people. Has anybody ever told you you're revolting?" "Yes. Same. Lots of people." "Well I think that kind of concludes the conversation, doesn't it?" "Yes... No. No. Triana. Look, I'm not as bad as you think. You... shouldn't just go by appearances..." "What do you go by then?" "Appearances. No, wait that's not right..." "Are you going to leave then, or do I have to call my dad?" It suddenly occurs to Leon that if Triana's dad is in there he's keeping a remarkably low profile. "I don't think your dad is in there. I think he would have been out to see what all the commotion is by now. You're on your own, ain't you, Triana?" The pause is confirmation. "I am too. Hardly see my mum on Friday nights. She goes down the pub, gets in all hours, next morning sometimes. Ain't got a clue where she is now." Triana remains silent. "It ain't fair, is it?" Triana speaks very quietly. "My Dad says Friday is the only time he gets to spend on himself. His only break all week. 'Cause the shop's open till midnight. You know that." In the dull recesses of Leon's mind, something clicks. "Here you don't think the two of them meet up every Friday, do you? My mum an' your dad? Rent some grotty little hotel room somewhere..." Leon's vision is clearing. He can see Triana in the open window, leaning on a stout-looking cardboard carton that is balanced on the sill, a tear glistening in her eye. "He brought somebody back here once," she whispers. "I think she was a prostitute. She was far younger than him. I didn't say anything but I thought it was ever so sad. He works all those hours... and he doesn't have anybody..." Leon realises that this conversation has gone better than he could possibly have hoped. It is time to drive home his advantage. His heart is racing and other parts of his anatomy are responding strongly also. "Triana," he gently urges, "Let's not be lonely like them. We don't have to be. You an' me... we could be..." Before he can finish the sentence his stinging eyes fleetingly register a rapidly expanding rectangle of blackness, which in a very small fraction of a second blots out his view of Triana and the window and then switches off all of Leon's inputs from the outside world.
ooOoo
Leon awoke to his mother's anxious face, staring at him from his bedside. On further examination he noticed that it was not his own bedside but that of a small hospital side-ward, and as well as his mother there were two other people seated on the opposite bedside, or rather lounging on the bed itself as the ward contained only one visitor chair. "Mum... Triana... Mr Stamatis..." he recited weakly, sounding rather like the calling of the school register, but without the spaces for the "yessir"s. "My little baby boy!" his mother exclaimed anxiously. Somehow it wasn't the image that Leon wanted to present to Triana. "Are you all right?" Leon considered the question. He had one stinker of a headache. "Yes. Never better," he lied. Then something life-changing occurred. Triana took his hand in hers. "I'm sorry, Leon. I didn't mean to drop the tins on you. It was an accident. Sort of." Triana had touched him. She was still touching him. She had spoken to him in a tone almost free from contempt. He lay motionless for a timeless interval, then remembered to breathe. "Don't even mention it," he whispered. "It was my own fault. Better than I deserved." "The doctor say you going be fine," Mr Stamatis assured him. "Just little concussion. Nothing worry about. Now I sell dented tins half price!" "Is... your kitten all right?" Leon asked softly. It was exactly the right question. Triana's face lit up. "Oh yes. Onyx is very well. You didn't frighten her at all." "Your accident not all bad," Mr Stamatis continued, "I meet your mother, very nice lady. Maybe we meet again this Friday." After the exchange of a few more pleasantries the two adults left, his mother advising him to get some rest, Mr Stamatis explaining that it was time to open up, and offering to show his mother how the cash register worked. Leon gazed into Triana's heavenly eyes. "And us, Triana. Can we meet again?" "Of course. If our mum and dad get together we'll be sort of brother and sister, won't we, and it doesn't matter how ugly your brother is. And you don't even have to like him." Leon's face momentarily darkened, then lit up again. After all, she was still holding his hand.
Archived comments for Falling Stock
e-griff on 10-07-2009
Falling Stock
I'm sorry David, but this is a complete failure. Useless! I'm so surprised that you could do so badly.

As I read the story, nothing in the style and technique interrupted my reading or confused me as it should have done. Pathetic!

*shakes head wonderingly*

the only thing I could pick up on was the fact that the primary characteristic of a comprehensive school is the breadth and levels of the subjects taught, not the sex of the students.

That's all!!!

Author's Reply:
I am indeed gratified at the extent of this failure and thank you for your most generous condemnation.


Family Matters (posted on: 26-01-09)
This is for the January challenge in the Prose Workshop forum. As soon as I read the phrase 'I threw the knife over the railings' I thought of a song. This was written in odd moments on my Eee PC while touring Southern India. It contains some fairly dark material.

Dear Mama I reckin I owe you an explanatin and this here is it. The first thing I want to say is that you wernt never a bad Mama and Papa werent never a bad Papa. You was the best Mom and Dad any girl ever had an you tawt me wrong from rite an I knew full well what I done was wrong an I done it anyway. Me myself, I done it, nothin to do with you. I knew what I was doin an I went right ahead an done it. Ive kept quiet nigh on two years an not said nothing becase of i was afraid of what Papa an you would say an what other folks would say. Along with evrey thing else I am a coward. So heres the truth. Tell the truth an shame the devil you used to say when I was litlle an you was right. I reckin you knew all along that Billy Joe an me had somthin goin on. Evreybody else round here knew so why wouldnt you know? You an Papa never thought much of Billly Joe. Papa said he never had a lick of sense and maybe that was true but he wasnt no retard. Billy Joe worked that farm his Pop gave him up on Chocktaw Ridge with just his own hands from he was 18 yeares old and always grew enough to get by even tho the land up there was nevre even near as good as what we got, an he could rede an rite an do his numbers as good as the next person only he was kind of soft an not much good at lookin out for himself. Werent no bad bone in Billy Joes body. He always treated me reel nice and respecful, even after hed slept with me few times. Sorry for talkin plain but I reckin this aint the time to mince words. I know you remembir that time two summers back when Billy Joe jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Folks thought hed gone a bit crazy. Well mabe he had but there was reasons why he'd gone crazy. Most times things happen for a reason. I don't need to remind you ether that ever since that day things has gone reel bad for this famly. Pappa got that virus and passed away an brotheer Ned married Becky Thompson and bought that no-good hardware store in Tupelo an their marriage is damn near on the rocks already. An the crops near failed two seasons in a row. An I know you been pinin since Papa passed away an lettin things get on top of you. Aint nothin whatsoever went right for this family ever since that day. Iv had no heart in anything myself ether. I aint hardly slept since then with nitemares and aint hardly et ether and just been feelin terrible all the time. All I want to do is wander round on Choctaw Ridge, maybe say a few prayers, pick a few flowers. A right pair the two of us was its a wonder anything atall got done on the farm, last couple years. Well now its time for me to do a bit of unburdenin an im reel sorry that i have to upset you like this but i reckin things cant get much worse anyhow an its likely better that this hole thing is out in the open, at least no secrets between you an me. Old Doc Ransom used to say there was a deal of folks secrets hed be carryin with him to the grave. Carryin secrets aint easy an Im not strong enouf to do it no more. Dyou remembir a few months before Billy Joe died his sister Charlene had a big bust up with there dad an got thron out of the house because she was goin to have a baby? I'm sure you do. Folks talked about it a lot. Well Billy Joe an me was seein one another at the time an I was workin in Anarine at the Four Eyed Jack. So I agreed to do Charlene an Billy Joe a favor. Charlene wanted to let her mom know she was OK only she dint want ether of them to know where she was, so what happened was she holed up with her brother in the Chocktaw Ridge farm an pretendid to her Dad that she had found a rooming house an a job in Anarene. She rote her Mom some letters an I posted them in Anarene an the return address was the place one of the other girls lived in Anarene so I got the letters from Charlenes mom an passed them on to Charlene. Any time her Dad visited Billy Joe at Chocktaw Ridge she hid out in the barn or some place so that he wouldnt see her. It only happened a couple times. Evrey body thougt she was in Anarene but she was with Billy Joe all the time. She told her mom shed moved to Anarne cause it was a big town with morein 2 thousand people in it so nobody would know her ther. It was a pretty smart story. I told Billy Joe he ought get her a doctor or somethin cause a girl can't just give birth to a baby like a mare drops a foal in fact even that can be pretty scary an risky. But Charlene dint want nobody else around, not even me reely i think. It took me a long time to work out why. Turns out the reason Charlene an Billy Joe dint want nobody else involved was Charlene reckind the baby was Billy Joes child and that was an awful sin an they could never hold ther heads up again if it got out, an if there Pop found out he would like as not kill the two of them. I was a might shocked when Billy Joe told me about that an I hardly even believed him an I'm not sure I believe him an Charlene even yet. Anyhow he said the two of them used to fool around from when they was kids an used to creep into each others bedrooms. There folks caught them a couple times but dint know how far it had got to. I reckin thats why his dad bought him the farm on Chocktaw Ridge, to get him out of the house and away from Charlene. I dont rightly know how Charlene MacAllister could even tell whose kid it was cause evreybody in school knew shed tried out more boys that the Anarene Tigres Football Club, but she said it was likely his an sure enuf when I saw that baby I reckind she was morein likely rite. It was an ugly little critter with a screwedup face and it hardley moved an dint cry at all even once. That child werent right, like when Stenny had the five pups an one was small an weak an had to be drownded. I wasnt there when Charlene had her kid cause it came a bit sooner than we was expectin an Billy Joe was on his own with her an I reckin he panicked a bit. Charlene was in an awful state, screamin enough to wake the dead when the baby finally come an there was blood all over the place, even hit the ceiling Billy Joe said. he cut the cord with his huntin knife cause hed heard you was supossed to do that, but he said the blood just kept comin an comin an he couldnt find no way to stop it an Charlene just lost all her strenth an was dead inside of about half an hour. The day after he buried her someplace up their an he never told me where an I never asked. He burned all the bedding an the mattress an him an me tried to clean the blood off the room best we could. Well you can imagen how Billy Joe felt cause he was a reel gentle soul an he loved his sister morein anybodey else I ever knew. He was gibberin like a madman, sayin how he'd killed Charlne with that huntin knife an how he was fixin to use it on himself. It was crazy talk, the way I saw it even Doc Ransom couldnt of saved Charlene her insides mustive been tore up pretty bad. Well I had feelins for Billy Joe like I said an I tride to do the best I coud to make him feel better. That tiny kid was near dead, she was hardly movin an her breathin sounded awful. I told Billy Joe there werent no point tryin to do nothin for her, most kind thing would be to put her out of her misery. First we baptised her an give her the name Mary cause that was the most holy an innicint name ether of us knew. Billy Joes folks is Roman Catholic an he reckind anybody could baptise a baby, dint have to be no preeacher. It made him feel bit better an I didnt argue. When wed done that we took her to the middle of the Tallahatchie Bridge an put her in one of them brown net onion bags that dont rot an tied a big rock to it. We said a prayer, then we held her out over the railing an let go the bag. She fell reel slow. must have been ten seconds before she hit the water. Went under straight away. Dint suffer. Just like Stennys runt pup. After it was done Billy Joe just stood there. I couldnt get him away from them railings. He still had the hunting knife an he got it out an picked up a bit of stick from the ground an started whittlin. He just went on an on whittlin it into a point, sharper an sharper, an he wouldnt say nothin. In fact I don't think he said a single word to me after that, or like as not anybody else ether. Billy Joe just stood their whittlin an lookin into the water, all that way down. Next I heard hed jumped over an done himself in. You know all the rest. Ive had nighmares ever since that day. Been scared to close my eyes at nite cause of what I'm goin to dream. Guess it musta been even worse for Billy Joe. Werent no way Billy Joe could of brought up that child even if shed been normal. His pop woulda found out pretty soon an it all woulda come out an like as not thed a killed Billy Joe. Either his pop or the neighbor folks up there. Wernt like it was a normal child. A child born of a brother an a sister is an abomnation. It says so in the bible I think. Wouldnt of lived anyhow. All we done was put it out of its misery. That was what I said to Billy Joe. An what I said to myself to. But I know right well it werent true. Mary MacAllister was a human bein with a soul same as you or me. What we done was murder, cold blooded. So now you know why this family has had a curse ever since that day. The Lord is angry with me an he has a rite to be angry. Hes waitin for me to own up to what I done an to pay the price. Ive got to meet my maker an give an account of my life an then itel all be over an you an Ned an Becky can get on with your lives an their wont be no curse. Thingsel be just fine again. So now Ive got to make my last journey to the Tallahatchie Bridge. Dont wory none about me Mama. It cant be any worse on the other side than it is on this one. An God is all merciful. Even Judas Skarriot got forgiven cordin to Brother Taylor. Say a prayer for me Mama. Its not so bad. In just a half an hour or so Im goin to be out of my misery, like Stennys pup an Mary an Charlene an Billy Joe, I just ask one thing. This here is family matters. I dont want nobody else to read it but you an nether would Billy Joe or Charlene. An when you've read it I want you to burn it. Pleese dont let me down Mama. Good bye Mama. Throw a few flowers over the railing of the Tallahatchie Bridge for us now and then. Aint much thats beautiful an innicint in this world cept flowers.
Archived comments for Family Matters
Rupe on 26-01-2009
Family matters
Dark, as you say, but in a good way - it's highly effective in making the reader feel the narrator's anguish. And it does have a kind of 'Southern Gothic' tinge to it.

I suppose my crits boil down to:

(1) Because the story is basically a suicide note detailing irrevocable facts, it doesn't leave the reader much space for interpretation, hope or much else besides. It's very self-contained. I think this is really the nature of the beast - and it has its good side too (a highly effective downer...) - but it does straightforwardly manipulate the reader's mind so that one's reaction is very black and white (mostly black).

(2) I wondered about the method of composition. Personally, I found it worked quite well - but there are obvious dangers in the use of repeated mispellings to indicate the narrator's lack of education and simplicity: i.e. do they replicate the idiom accurately, and is there a mismatch between the apparently poor use of English and the underlying articulacy of the piece? As I say, I thought it worked well (and quite liked the effect created by ambiguities such as 'he has a rite to be angry' - the confusion of 'rite' and 'right' is potentially effective here) but the technique itself is a little risky.

Rupe

Author's Reply:
Please see my combined answer below.
David.

e-griff on 26-01-2009
Family matters
another premature poster! What is going on?

I'm not reading this or Romany's until the due date. 🙂

Author's Reply:
Please see my combined answer below.
David.

Bradene on 26-01-2009
Family matters
Although I found it a little difficult to read at first I was soon well into the story I thought it was a great interpretation of the song, you even got the voice just right in my opinion. Thoroughly enjoyed this David. A great read in my view. Val x

Author's Reply:
Please see my combined answer below.
David.

Corin on 26-01-2009
Family matters
Brilliant David - I like the way you slide into letting the reader realise that its a resolution to the mystery in 'Ode to Billy Joe'

As you don't know that it's a suicide note until the very end I think you keep the reader guessing right the way through.

I really enjoyed reading this.

David

Author's Reply:
Please see my combined answer below.
David.

sirat on 28-01-2009
Family matters
Thanks very much to all who commented and for the nomination. I'll answer all of you at once because I'm in an Internet cafe in Thrisseur, Central Kerala and Jean and I are hoping to get to a local temple festival (with elephant parade) by bus in the next couple of hours, which may be a major undertaking!

First, sorry John, I forgot that although it was Monday in India it was still Sunday in the UK and posted a bit early.

'Ode to Billy Joe' is a song I always liked, and the challenge phrase started me thinking about offering my own interpretation of the back story. I believe there was a film based on the ballad as well but I haven't seen it and don't know if their interpretation was the same as mine. It was good fun to write but I know it's a bit derivitive. I've never really tried writing in that semi-literate English before either (except when I do it unintentionally!) and in fact I think it works well for some subject matter. I might have a go at re-doing 'Lilac Wedding' in the same style.

Anyway thanks for all the kind words and I'm glad people got something out of it. I know the song itself is a better short story than this one, with a far richer subtext.

Author's Reply:

niece on 28-01-2009
Family Matters
David,

Loved this dark story...I thought the dialect may be difficult to follow, but it wasn't that bad...hope you are enjoying Trichur. Which temple festival are you attending? Did you travel by the local bus?...I'd call you very brave if you did...

Regds,
niece

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the kind comments Niece. We're having a great time in Kerala, and in fact we have met your Uncle Soman and his wife and had a wonderful evening of Indian Classical music, dance and drama at Kalamandalam University. Also great Indian food cooked by his wife. Jean is reading your book at the moment and I can't get it off her. I haven't ordered Soman's yet but I will as soon as I get back. Yes, we're using the local buses all the time and they're fine. We attended a very small village Festival (one elephant) where we were made very welcome and given food, drink etc. We've also visited the huge temple at Madurai (sp?) in Tamil Nadu. The wildlife has been the least good aspect but too much to say so I'll do a proper Kerala report. Basically, we're loving it. We say Slumdog Millionaire in Thrissur and loved it. What do you think of it? Must shut up. Will e-mail properly soon.
David.

bluepootle on 30-01-2009
Family Matters
I thought the semi-illiterate approach was very well handled, and it had the effect of increasing my interest in the story, rather than putting me off. I enjoyed it very much.

By the way, I love my Eee PC. Great, aren't they?

Author's Reply:
Thanks Aliya. Yes, I had fun writing this one. Glad you liked it.
The Eee PC is indeed great, but WiFi access points are practically unknown in India so it isn't as much use over here as I had hoped it might be. Anyway, I shouldn't be hunched over the keyboard all the time, I'm here to enjoy the wildlife and oogling the Indian women - sorry, I mean the culture.

Romany on 30-01-2009
Family Matters
Interesting idea, to base prose around a song. In effect you've given the song a background. I enjoyed that. I think you caught the language well and I could picture the scenes quite vividly actually. One small typo I think:

"Seven Judas Iskarriot got forgiven cordin to Brother Taylor. "

Do you mean 'even?'

Romany.

Author's Reply:
You're quite right, I do mean "even". I'll correct it right away.

I'm glad the story worked for you. Thanks for the kind comments.

e-griff on 02-02-2009
Family Matters
A very good story in many ways. I found it convincing, even though this 'voice' has been done quite often. At first I thought it wouldn't be that interesting, just following the song, but you made an interesting story of your own which took over and had its own life.

However, that being said, the 'tell' got to me after a while and (sorry) after having my interest piqued, I started losing it again. It seemed too long for what it was, and I think shortening it by editing would sharpen it up a lot and make the key points much punchier.

In terms of the challenge, I really did think the last line (the key line) didn't fit at all - it was simply tacked on. and the knife was only marginally part of the plot, rather than being essential, which I think is what these challenges call for.

But nevertheless, a well-crafted story.

G

Author's Reply:
Hello John.
Yes, all points taken. I haven't time to do a thorough editing job just now but I think you're right about the 'knife' thread - it is a bit tacked-on. I had a vague logical sequence in my head – Billy Joe cuts the cord with his hunting knife, Charlene haemmorhages, he gets the idea into his head that he caused this with his amateur midwifery, narrator takes the knife away from him in the hope of preventing his suicide, throws knife over railings, Billy Joe throws himself over the railings. But actually the story works perfectly well without the 'knife' thread at all. I've taken away the last line and when I get the time I think I'll edit out all reference to the knife.
I think the 'tell' aspect is going to be hard to get rid of in what is, as you say, a suicide note – a personal confession. It usually isn't too objectionable in a first person narration, but anyway I think I'm stuck with it.
Re the challenges, my aim in doing them is just to end up with a presentable bit of writing – I don't really care whether I stick rigidly to the rules of the channenge or not. For me it's just there to start the brain working. I think there are some other people who treat it in this way as well – sometimes the link between the story and the original 'challenge' starting point is quite difficult to see. That's okay with me. I'm 'end-product' oriented.
Thanks for your very thoughtful coments.

e-griff on 02-02-2009
Family Matters
oh - BTW I'm on my Acer Aspire One - bit flashier than the Eee - but I mainly got it cos it only cost £160 in a sale (think there's a 10" model coming out, but I didn't want one that big anyway). Marvellous little thing.

G

Author's Reply:


Bowing Out (posted on: 07-11-08)
My attempt for the prose workshop November challenge: a character who is thoroughly good but still interesting. I don't know if either description applies but at least I've tried!

I know I can't live here forever. My Cyril is perfectly right. It's all going to be downhill from now on. That's the gist of what the Doctor said. Just like an old car, things breaking down one after the other. My eyesight's going for one thing. I can't read a newspaper any more. It's got to be super-big print, like the subtitles on the TV. The most important thing is to keep taking the pills. Four pills every day. That's what keeps me alive. I try to keep the place clean lord knows I try but Cyril said he found some cups put away dirty the other day. They looked alright to me, but Cyril said otherwise. Disgusting that, cups put away dirty. I'm becoming disgusting. I don't want to but I am. I used to be a soldier, you know. I was part of the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940 and 41. We got pushed back, right into the sea it would have been, only for those little boats at Dunkirk. We had to leave everything behind. Tanks, aircraft, guns... A shame we had to leave so much behind. Nearly everyone I fought with as well. All left behind. All blown-up or shot to pieces, lying in fields over there. They made graves for them afterwards with little white crosses, even though nobody really knew where they were buried. Or if they ever were buried. I was one of the lucky ones. Went through the whole thing with just a flesh wound in the leg. Cyril's a good boy really. He looks after his old Dad. I can't expect him to come around here every day. He's got his own life to lead. I'd rather he'd come himself than send the wife though. I can't say that I like his new wife a lot. The first one was all right, more like my own Mildred when she was young. Then he left her for the one he has now. It's all very complicated. I don't try to make sense of it. They're young, got their own lives to lead, no business of an old codger like me. I never understood their generation. Borrowing money, going out to get drunk, mobile phones... they've got too much, that's what's wrong. Never had to scrimp and save like we did. No, wait a minute, that's not Cyril, is it? That's Paul, Cyril's son. I get a bit mixed up sometimes. Wednesday, he said. Moving out day. He and the new missus have been tidying up here all week. Putting all my stuff into plastic bags, some of it for the dustbin, some for the charity shops, and maybe a quarter of it or less to come with me. I don't mind. Who needs all that clutter? Gramophone records that won't play on anything any more. Old bank statements. Pictures of me and my family from before the War. Me and Mildred on the park bench just outside the churchyard on the day they buried Auntie Alice. Even one of my own mother when she was a little girl, playing on the beach at Southend with Alice. Alice who died, that was. Oh, I already told you that, didn't I? I've been to see the new place. It's not that far away, Cyril and Mildred will still be able to visit. No, wait a minute, Mildred's dead, isn't she? I mean Cyril and... that new wife of his. Her name's on the tip of my tongue. I heard her talking to Cyril when they were in here yesterday. She didn't think I could, but I'm only a little bit deaf. Mostly in my right ear. The left one isn't too bad. She was saying to Cyril that if I sold up here and went into a home all the value of the house would get used up to pay for the rent in the home. They wouldn't inherit anything when I died. I hadn't thought of that, but it makes sense. You have to pay so much a week if you can afford it, then when your money runs out you get some kind of state handout that pays the rent. I don't fancy living on charity like that. Nobody in my family has ever done that. That's one of the reasons why I decided not to go into the home. That new wife of his will be pleased. She'll get her full share. It's a pity his other wife isn't still around. Maybe I could leave some of it to her, if I got a solicitor or something. Didn't they have a child too? I'm sure they had a child. No, wait a minute, it was Mildred who had the child. My Mildred. The child was Cyril. I forget things sometimes. I had to go back to the front after Dunkirk. I just had a couple of weeks with Mildred. That must have been when Cyril was conceived. He was a war baby, our Cyril. It's all in those plastic bags now. Mildred and little Cyril and the war and Aunt Alice. All packed away, nice and tidy. A lifetime in half a dozen plastic bags. I'm not going to the home though. But I have to be careful so they don't lose the life insurance money. That's probably worth as much as the house. They don't pay out on suicides. But an absent-minded old man forgetting to take his pills who's going to question that?
Archived comments for Bowing Out
Rupe on 07-11-2008
Bowing Out
Well, I think you've succeeded with the challenge & incidentally created a character who must typify the situation & mindset of a lot of men of his generation, while also being sufficiently individual & rooted that he doesn't appear as a mere mouthpiece. It's very good stuff, very fully realised but succinct, and with a satisifying story arc.

I suppose this story does however demonstrate the difficulty of creating a 'good' character - i.e. his goodness only comes through in the context of his powerlessness & the compassion created in the mind of the reader by the sense that he is a victim of circumstances. He has few choices left & takes the most selfless one, so we admire him (or pity him) for that. But on the other hand if he were a powerful character and had to make a number of difficult choices, but always chose the good & right way it might be harder to create the necessary dramatic conflict. It's definitely a difficult one.

Rupe

Author's Reply:
I'm pleased that you think it work as a story. I thought maybe it was too simple and lacking in incident. Really everything depends on the old man's voice. Many thanks for the comment.

bluepootle on 07-11-2008
Bowing Out
Yes, as Rupe says, it's very good. And interesting that the goodness must have an opportunity to be shown by difficult circumstances. A character can't just be good. They must be in a situation that forces a choice.

Great voice here, and I really felt for him. The confusion was very well handled.

Author's Reply:
Many thanks Aliya. I wasn't very confident about this one but I know I can rely on you not to flatter. Much appreciated.

e-griff on 07-11-2008
Bowing Out
You commented on one of my stories some time ago about achieving the first person voice in a story. I think you have done it well here, but I think you could make it better. For me, we should be inside his head - he should not be talking TO us, so phrases like 'Oh, I already told you that, didn't I?' spoil the mood - for me at least. Yes ,it is a device used in say a monologue read on the radio, but maybe it's a too familiar device. Try leaving all such out - also things like ' A lifetime in half a dozen plastic bags.' seemed too contrived and arty to me. I 'm not sure that I'm being clear here. Basically I feel this is overegged, if you stripped out the direct address to the audience bits and the 'bon mots' which the author has inserted, you might get a starker, more effective piece. Let us, the reader, decide his life is being tidied away by the simple actions that are going on ... don't tell us.

In the same way, I feel the end is also too telly. But maybe that's just me 🙂

Yes the central character came across as nice, but he's also a victim, which is what I found in the several stories I've done in the same vein (Minna, End of the Line, Jalendu, Hole in the wall ... etc - oh and that one where she has to sit in the BMW - sorry, rambling now ) - so you succeded in the challenge, IMO

best JohnG


Author's Reply:
Thanks for those comments, John.
You are right, I do tend to think in terms of spoken monologues rather than 'inside head' pieces. I'll think about all the points you have made and maybe improve it as you suggest. Although I worked fairly hard on it, it's essentially a 'first draft' that hasn't been through the Storyshed mill or been seen by anybody else. I think that always shows.

Bradene on 07-11-2008
Bowing Out
I thought this was brilliant David it captured so much more than a nice old man. I read this out to my husband, because I am trying to improve my reading aloud skills and he actually had tears in his eyes afterwards, his comment was " Well that certainly sums it all up exactly doesn't it." As you know Mac is a taciturn man but he is a thinker. I know he thought this was good too. Val x

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the kind comments Valerie. I'm delighted your husband was touched by the story. Also if it was you who gave me the nomination, very many thanks.

RoyBateman on 08-11-2008
Bowing Out
I'm not surprised that this was nibbed and nominated - it works very well. Possibly, a man in his position would have been less coherent in his thoughts, with more broken and half-finished sentences than here, but admittedly that would have made the whole more difficult to take in without the reader getting slightly frustrated - the way we tend to get with real old codgers rabbitting on. It sums up so neatly the situation many of us are going to find ourselves in, and that's hardly a comforting thought. It's a difficult thing to tackle without descending into either humour or something much more dark, so well done!

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Roy. I think you're right, an attempt to present the thoughts of an old confused man completely unedited might result in a less readable story than presenting it as it is here, a fairly structured monologue. Since the piece has been well received I'm a bit wary of going back to it with the blue pencil too soon. There is a brilliant story about an old confused person which is very much 'stream of consciousness' from Aliya here and I know I can't compete. I think I might just leave this one alone to be itself.

discopants on 09-11-2008
Bowing Out
It's certainly easy enough to engage with the character as he sees his life being swept away before him. I'm sure many of us know someone like him- my grandfather, for instance, was evacuated from Dunkirk, my mum was conceived and born during the war, and he suffered from Alzheimer's in his last years while living in a retirement apartment. Mind you, my grandparents never owned their own home so inheritance was never an issue!

Anyway, it worked for me. I can see the value of John G's comments but I'm not sure the changes suggested are necessary...

Author's Reply:
Thanks for dropping by and for the kind comments.

I often write monologues, I rather like the form, and although it might work slightly better as an 'inner voice' story I'm not sure I would be able to do that so well. For the moment at least I'll leave it alone.

Corin on 09-11-2008
Bowing Out
Brilliant David. You build up very carefully to the denouement - slowly allowing the reader in, letting the cat out of the bag just before the end and allowing the reader something to hold on to when the final stroke comes.

David

Author's Reply:
Thanks David. If it works for people that's really all I ask.
Your comment is greatly appreciated.

Bevvy on 11-12-2008
Bowing Out
The plight of this elderly man brought tears to my eyes - he is a truly good character - stoical, generous and forgiving, having lived through a terrible war, suffered the deaths of comrades and experienced privations that later generations have no comprehension of.
It's a tragedy that so many people like him are preyed upon by greedy, unscrupulous relatives when they are least able to defend themselves; but I digress from the point, which is that this piece fulfils the brief that you were given. There were parts which could be looked at again (previous comments have covered these) but all in all it works for me. I wasn't expecting the ending....the supreme sacrifice.
Love,
Bev
x

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Bev. Greatly appreciated.
David.

jay12 on 24-04-2009
Bowing Out
I think the character in this short story is great. I like how good he is and how he plans an ending that is great to... a suicide by any other name. Great work!

Author's Reply:


Drusilla (posted on: 08-08-08)
This is the one I read out at this year's UKAlive. It was designed to be read aloud so I don't know how well it will work on the printed page.

I call her Drusilla but that isn't her real name. It's just a nickname. The first place we ever went together was a little zoo called Drusillas Park down near Eastbourne, and the name sort of stuck ever since that. We've been to hundreds of places together since then of course. All over mainland Britain, from Thurso and Wick in the north of Scotland, right down to St. Ives in Cornwall and west to Fishguard in Wales, where the boat leaves for Ireland. I haven't taken her anywhere beyond mainland Britain of course. I know she wouldn't like it, she would get disoriented. I can't imagine not having her with me in the cab now. Not having her there to talk to. She's got such a calm, soothing voice, and she never gets angry with me. She's the only female I know who doesn't get angry with me doesn't lose it a bit from time to time. She makes me calm too. She stops me feeling all those impulses I used to feel when other drivers did stupid things, like cutting me up at a roundabout, or trying to overtake me just as I was signalling to pull out and turn right. She doesn't mind if I miss a turn that I should have taken, even one she told me about eight hundred yards before. "Turn around when possible." That's all she says. Quiet and relaxed. Not "Don't you ever listen to anything I tell you, you big moron," which is what a real woman would say, but just "Turn around when possible". Silicon women treat you a lot better than flesh-and-blood women. They don't get up tight so easily. Don't hold things against you. They're able to explain things calmly and clearly. They understand human limitations, human foibles. I used to find her conversation a bit limited at first, just directions you know "In six hundred yards, cross the roundabout, second exit." Things like that. Always connected with driving, always a bit impersonal. But then I realised, it was because I never asked her anything about herself, never made any effort to draw her out. So I did. I started asking her things about her feelings and needs, and her advice about how I should live my life. At first she didn't seem to understand, wouldn't answer, but then I realised that she didn't always give a direct answer, probably because she didn't have the vocabulary, but if you used your intelligence you could work out what she was trying to say, you could interpret her replies, tease out the hidden meanings. For example if I said: "Drusilla, I'm feeling pretty tired. Do you think we should kip down for the night and start out fresh again in the morning?" she might reply something like "In six hundred yards, bear left and stay in the left hand lane". Well, obviously that means stop, doesn't it? Get into the left hand lane and look for a lay-by. If she said something like: "Straight ahead at the roundabout, third exit" that would mean "Carry on. You haven't time to sleep." And so on. She was clever at getting her messages across. It didn't take me long to learn how to interpret her meanings. For example, last year I had done a lot of thinking about the way I was getting on with Monica, my partner and fiance of about seven years. She never liked me doing the driving job, staying away for days at a time. So one evening just before Christmas, on the way back from Dover, I asked Drusilla: "Do you think Monica and I are well suited to one another? Would it be better if we split up?" and she said "In five hundred yards, bear right at the Y junction and take the motorway." A Y junction. A parting of the ways. Obvious. And take the motorway. That meant get the hell out of there. Couldn't be plainer. So that night, when I got back, I told Monica I was leaving. She cried and asked me if there was another woman. I admitted that there was. I told Monica her name. "Where is she?" Monica wanted to know. "Out in the cab," I told her. She couldn't believe that I had the gall to leave Drusilla in the cab while I told her I was leaving her. I tried to tell her that Drusilla wasn't that kind of woman, but she wasn't in the mood for listening. She made me go straight away, that very night. Threw a lot of my stuff out the window after me. I didn't care. I don't have all that much personal stuff and it's a big cab. I spent the night at one of the London lorry parks, down near the Kings Cross arches. I left Drusilla switched on all night for company, and stuck to the windscreen by her little sucker so that she could see the satellites and wouldn't get lonely. She was there for me all through that night, her little screen all lit up and glowing, watching over me while I thought about my life and what I should do next. And every so often she would repeat the same bit of advice. Good advice it was too: "Turn around when possible". One of the Kings Cross streetwalkers came and tapped on the cab door in the middle of the night, but I told her I wasn't alone, and she seemed to understand. Well, I could hardly do anything with Drusilla watching like that, now could I? The following morning I asked Drusilla's advice about where I should look for somewhere to live. She gave me all kinds of lists: railway stations, parks, museums, places of interest... and then the one that turned out to be exactly what I needed, roadside hotels, motels, inns and guesthouses. It was just a matter of finding one near the depot, and when I typed in the postcode she was even able to work that out for me and make suggestions. So I went to live where Drusilla wanted me to, down a quiet backstreet, less than fifteen minutes walk from where the lorry is garaged. It was run by an Irish widow woman named Orla, who liked to chat, and always made me a cup of tea as soon as I got back from a job. I settled in very quickly. Orla was getting more and more friendly and might well have wanted more than the rent before long, when suddenly it all went wrong. Orla heard Drusilla and me talking in the bedroom late at night, and said I had no right bringing strange women up to my room, and that I would have to leave. She called me a lot of unpleasant things when I tried to explain to her about Drusilla. I was really going off flesh-and-blood women now. I packed my stuff and left. And so Drusilla and I are back on the road again, with nowhere to go, chased off by a mean-spirited woman who couldn't accept an unconventional relationship. But we don't mind. We have the postcode and location of every guesthouse and hotel in the whole of England, Scotland and Wales, and we know exactly how to get to them. We'll find somewhere to live. And we'll build a life together in spite of them all. And one day nobody will notice whether you're a six foot hulking expat Irishman or a layer of printed silicon a hundredth of a millimetre thick. There will be a world where carbon and silicon drive down life's highway together, guided by the shining satellite of equality, towards the ultimate cosmic Place of Interest, where the Almighty will announce to us all: "You have reached your Destination!"
Archived comments for Drusilla
Rupe on 08-08-2008
Drusilla
I thought this was nicely written, but found the premise on which the story's based too slight for it to really command my attention.

It seemed also to fall a little unhappily between two stools. On the one hand there are the themes of social alienation and self-delusion, which you handle well in other stories. On the other hand there's a kind of whimsical humour. I felt these two aspects didn't coexist very well. The possible pathos of the character's predicament seemed undermined by the whimsical element - but then again the whimsy needed to be a good bit more florid and 'out there' to be really comically effective.

This of course is merely a personal reaction, and you may well be right about it not working so well on the printed page (I didn't listen to the audio - I'm rather stuck in a text-based approach where stories are concerned).

Rupe

Author's Reply:
Fair comment. It was very much created for the occasion, to get a few laughs. Not the one I'll be entering in the Bridport. Thanks for dropping by.

DocOrange on 08-08-2008
Drusilla
I had a grin on my face all the way through this, I thought I had it sussed at the start that It wasn't a real woman, maybe a parrot or something, but then you revealed that it wasn't a real woman anyway (which took some of the wind out of my sails), and I never would have guessed what she really was. I was a little wary when I saw the 'romance' tab, but very glad I read this, it has to be one of the most original ideas i've read in a long time. I saw this more as a brilliantly surreal dark comedy more than a serious reflection on social alienation, I hope I got that right, but you can also tell that a lot of thought has gone into the interpretation of her 'directions'. Just the sort of mad-cap imagining I enjoy.

Author's Reply:
I think you have interpreted the tone of this one exactly correctly Doc. Surreal dark comedy is a very good description of what I had in mind. I'm delighted that you had a grin on your face all the way through, my mission was to keep an extremely straight face while reading it out at UKAlive.

Many thanks for the nomination, if that was you. And many thanks for reading and commenting.

SugarMama34 on 09-08-2008
Drusilla
Hi Sirat,

I liked your story, but if I'm completley honest i don't think it's one of your better ones. Even though it is written well there seems to some ingrediant missing from it that is usually apparent in your other stories. I guessed quite early on in this that Drusilla was not a woman, but his navigation instead. I'm not sure if that spoilt it for me because I prefer a twist that I can't guess at the end. However, on saying that I thought that the characters voice was strong all the way through and his thoughts and feelings were clear and as a reader I could almost get into his mind.

Lis'. xx

Author's Reply:
Hello Lisa. I largely agree with what you say. It certainly isn't a 'twist in the tail' story. What happens is that the narrator's account becomes increasingly bizzarre to the point where we realise he's totally bonkers. Surreal comedy describes it best. An extended joke that you either find funny or not. Also I still think it needs to be performed. The UKAudio version probably works better than the printed version.

Thanks for the comments.

Archie on 11-08-2008
Drusilla
I found this convincing and memorable, not so crazy. I suppose you achieve this by the understated, melancholic tone that struck me as grim rather than funny, but I can see how it could come across differently when read aloud. Works fine for me.

Author's Reply:
I'm glad it worked for you Archie. If you want to hear the read-out version from UKAlive it's on this page, just scroll up to the top and click on 'UKAudio'. I agree that he's a grim and melancholic character, but surely not really believable? More like somebody out of a Samuel Beckett play, a fair fraction madder than anyone you encounter in real life (or have I just not met the right people?).

Many thanks for the visit and the comment.

JeffDray on 19-10-2008
Drusilla
Now if we could get a sat nav that could give a blow job we wouldn't need women at all 😉

Author's Reply:


Wee Hughie (posted on: 08-08-08)
This is another story that I read out at this year's UKAlive. It's meant to be spoken in a strong working class Belfast accent. It may not work so well on the printed page. It was written at the last UKAway and is in the chapbook of that event.

We all got a day off school when they buried wee Hughie. The head of the Christian Brothers came up from Dublin to make a speech at the funeral. It was great. Ye shoulda' seen all the TV cameras an' the microphones an' everything. I don't remember what he said but it was right good, like. All about how guns never solve problems and ye still have to talk things through after all the shootin's done. I never said nothin' about it, never even told it in Confession, but I felt terrible bad about it. It's not like I really done anything bad, but I don't think what I done was too clever either. Ye see wee Hughie's house was on my way home from school an' I always dropped in to see him when I was passin' by. Wee Hughie's big brother Liam had a motorbike an' we used to sit on it, an' wee Hughie even knew how to turn on the engine an' make it roar only if Liam was anywhere near by an' heard us doin' it he would come back an' give the two of us a clip around the ear. Liam used to keep pigeons as well, in a wee shed up on the flat roof above the back extension, an' wee Hughie an' me used to go up an' feed them an' look at them like. Liam used to get annoyed about that too because he said we would make them too fat. They smelled bloody awful. Wee Hughie's other brother was only seven so we never paid him no heed. I hardly even knew his name even though I'd been around there all them times, but of course the whole of Ireland knows his name now. Pedro it is. They say he had to go into some kind of a clinic after he done it, so he must have known what it was he done. A lot of people said he was too young to know, but if he was too young then why did he have to go into the clinic, that's what I say. Liam used to play the guitar too an' sing rebel songs. Right good he was. He used to sing The Foggy Dew an' Father Murphy an 'The Rifles of the IRA'. He could do a few good songs as well, Beatles and Cliff Richard an' that, but mostly it was aul' rebel songs. He told us all about how the Protestants shot Kevin Barry in 1916 an' how millions of people died in the Famine because the Protestants took all the good potatoes for themselves. The same aul' stuff ye' get at school, but he seemed to really care about it. He said a war was comin', the Second Irish War of Independence, he called it, and how we all had a duty to do our bit. My Mammy thought he was a little bit touched. Not right in the head, like. Wee Hughie said Liam was a patriot, ready an' willin' to give his life for Ireland. I thought the two of them was right daft, but I didn't say nothin'. I just liked the pigeons and the motorbike, an' I wondered if Wee Hughie would inherit them if Liam gave his life for Ireland. The day wee Hughie took me up to Liam's room to see the gun, we knew Liam wasn't anywhere around because we'd had the motorbike engine goin' an' he hadn't heard it. The gun was under Liam's pillow, an' it was grey an' heavy, an' very cold when ye picked it up. It was a real one too, an' there was bullets in it. Wee Hughie said Liam needed it for personal protection, because he was in the Volunteers now, an' if anybody from the UVF found out about him they would be round to shoot him in his bed. Wee Hughie showed me how to take the magazine of bullets out and put it in again, an' we held the gun an' aimed it at one another an' said 'Bang! Bang! You're dead!' We didn't actually pull the trigger of course. We weren't that daft. The wee brother, Pedro, he must have been there watchin' us, but I never even noticed him. An' two days later was when it all broke. Wee Hughie wasn't in school, but I thought he'd probably bunked off like he often did an' gone up Cave Hill or somewhere to look for tadpoles or down the shipyards to watch the men with the welding gear an' the big cranes. The school secretary came around in the first period after Assembly an' told us all we had to go back to the hall again because Brother Bernard had an announcement to make. We had no idea what was comin', we were all dead excited, thought maybe the school was closin' down or something. Apparently Liam had gone off very early in the morning without tellin' nobody, probably something to do with bein' in the Volunteers, and Pedro and wee Hughie were out of bed before their Mammy and Daddy. Wee Hughie's Daddy heard Pedro shoutin' 'Bang! Bang! You're dead!'. And then there was a real bang. Loud enough for the neighbours to hear as well. And wee Hughie was dead. And Pedro hasn't said a single word since. And now he's in that clinic. When Liam was arrested for havin' the gun he said he was proud of wee Hughie, that wee Hughie was the first casualty in the Second Irish War of Independence. I think maybe my Mammy was right about Liam. He was soft in the head, that one.
Archived comments for Wee Hughie
Rupe on 08-08-2008
Wee Hughie
When I was a kid, I had a friend who was a bit wild, who'd sometimes point his air rifle at me and pull the trigger. Used to scare the shit out of me, even though I knew - or thought I knew - it wasn't loaded. This story brought all that back, damn you...

I thought this was a great little story which works very well on different levels. You can very easily see how this could happen - does happen. But it's the linkage to the wider issues & context, which you manage to do in a very smooth and natural way, that gives it real depth and makes it much more than just a chilling anecdote.

Rupe



Author's Reply:
Many thanks for the kind words, Rupe. Much appreciated.

Corin on 08-08-2008
Wee Hughie
I thought this story was brilliant when you read it David at UKAlive, I think it is still brilliant on the page. THe pointing of the finger of blame at the end is subtly done and the slow building to the obviously tragic ending was very finely controlled. Best of all was the way you managed to convey the utter madnessof such times.

Warm Wishes

David

Author's Reply:
Again, your comments are greatly appreciated. Thanks for dropping by.

DocOrange on 08-08-2008
Wee Hughie
In all honesty the Irish conflict side of this was pretty much lost on me, but that's not your fault, that just highlights my ignorance of such matters, but beyond that I really enjoyed it, and I guess the Irish setting could have been replaced with any other area where guns are numerous - this kind of thing supposedly happens in America often, and this well written story demonstrates why perfectly, guns are toys to kids, until one of their faces is blown clean off. That said though Liams final quote definitely set this aside as an Irish story, scary to think that anyone would think that, very believable.

Author's Reply:
You're quite right Doc, this kind of thing happens in all conflicts, indeed in all situations where guns are part of the furniture, no longer taken seriously. There's a little known cult Jack Nicholson film called The King of Marvin Gardens where casual attitudes to guns result in the same kind of unintended tragedy. I always remember a line of Nicolson's after the killing has happened: 'For Christ sake, we always kept it with the kids' water pistols'. The extra dimension I tried to bring in here is ideology, the catch-all bundle of bullshit which explains, excuses and glorifies every mindless act of slaughter or destruction.

Many thanks for dropping by and for the kind words.

SugarMama34 on 08-08-2008
Wee Hughie
Hi Sirat,

A touching and sad tale, that I guess this happened in Ireland at some point (maybe not quite in the way you have told it, but similar) and still happens now, maybe not there, but in other country's. Children just don't see danger, do they? This story shows that and how easily and innocently it can happen and shows the dire consequences. I liked character's voice through this. The only thing that stood out a little was the name Wee Hughie mentioned so many times in the first half.

I also noticed this typo, but can be easily fixed - We Hughie wasn’t in school - Should be Wee Hughiewasn't in school.

A good story that I have enjoyed. Congrats on the nib.

Lis'. xx

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Lisa, glad you liked the story. I see what you mean about the over-use of 'Wee Hughie' at the beginning, but it sounds okay to me, allowing for the working class Belfast dialect. Also the narrator is understandably a bit obsessed with Wee hughie and how he met his death. I'll look at it again though and think about it.

Thanks for the heads up on the typo. I'll fix it straight away. Thanks for dropping by.

Bradene on 13-08-2008
Wee Hughie
Loved this when you read it in Cyprus, I know that Sharon did too, she thinks you are the bees knees (-; val x

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Valerie. You and Sharon are women of great discernment in this field. And thanks very much for the nomination if it was you (or thanks to whoever it was). I hope we can all meet again at the next UKAway.

Whale on 26-08-2008
Wee Hughie
I don't know why you thought this wouldn't read well. I read it and you definitely are a writer. This is beautifully told, like a piece of music played with the accents all in the right places. It didn't matter that I knew what would happen - that only added to the tension, hoping I was wrong. This is true tragedy, the triumph of good over good.

Author's Reply:
Hello Whale. Thanks for dropping by and for the kind comments.

Each year when UKAlive is heaving into view I write one or two stories for the explicit purpose of reading aloud. I don't worry so much about what they're going to look like on the page. This is one of those. If it reads okay that's a bonus. As I've often mentioned, I have a lot of material about the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland which I return to from time to time for short story plots. I plan to have another go at turning it into a novel when I retire properly in a few year's time.

Doughnut on 29-08-2008
Wee Hughie
Enjoyed this very much. I guess you've been on holiday, as haven't seen anything new from you.
As we're both grammarians, or so it seems, I'd make the following suggestion - in helpful spirit like...
"Wee Hughie’s big brother Liam had a motorbike an(insert ') we used to sit on it, an’ wee Hughie even knew how to turn on the engine an’ make it roar - (replace comma with hyphen to show something shocking/unexpected) only if Liam was anywhere near by an’ heard us doin’ it etc. (basically, he'd thump us!) Very nicely told, but it was the voice I thought so authentic. Wonder if you have Irish connections. I'll rephrase that - relatives? I sang 'God save Ireland sing the heroes' when I was at school....Well done. Duncan

Author's Reply:
Hello Duncan. Thanks for the kind comments and helpful spotting of typos.

Yes, I was brought up in Ireland, both Co. Donegal and Co. Antrim, and went to Uni in Belfast. You'll find an Irish theme of one kind or another in most of my stories. If you want a full account of my early life visit my website! There's more there than any sane man would want to know.

I hope you'll comment on some more of my stuff.

Best wishes,
David.

Jolen on 31-08-2008
Wee Hughie
Hi David,
I've been meaning to read this for weeks now.David Turner told me about it and how great you were at UKA Live when you read it. He wasn't wrong about the story at all. It definitely is moving and real in the honest and simple voice you use, ie a friend of wee Hughie. The background is just glimpsed enough to carry it well without going overboard and losing the story in too many details. The tragic truth of these types of accidents is also presented well in lieu of the narrative. I'm glad I finally made time to stop by.

blessings,
Jolen

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the kind remarks. Glad you liked the story. It's gratifying to know that Dave Turner thought so highly of it too. I'm well pleased.
David.

len on 30-10-2009
Wee Hughie
This is a brilliant reading of a tragic human tale, buddy....IT seems like all you need to become a hero in any war is to get killed. The ord hero don't mean a whole lot these days....Lovely writing,,,,,,,felt REAL....len

Author's Reply:
I'm sure I've already replied to this comment but my reply seems to have disappeared. Anyway all I wanted to say was that it was great to receive a comment so long after posting the story, and such a nice one too, and I appreciate the trouble you took to record your thoughts.

It's a part of a much longer rather shapeless work about my time in Belfast – probably destined to remain forever unfuinished, but useful as somewhere to 'mine' for short stories. Thanks again for dropping by.
David.


Correspondence (posted on: 09-06-08)
This is my story in response to Aliya's challenge in the Prose Workshop forum: a piece of writing inspired by the painting 'The Letter' by Fernando Botero.


Dear full-figured woman, 32, long auburn hair, I too like sports. I used to play in the Sunday League, and was a keen member of the Neasden Swimming Club, but these days I have to make do with a weekly visit to the gym. Like you I enjoy foreign travel. I have been to Torremilenos and Ibitha. I admire and respect your taste in books, although I'm not much of a reader myself. I grab the free paper on the tube and read it on the way to work, and that's about it. I mean, with so much news and so many films on Freeview I'm surprised anybody buys newspapers or books any more. I work for Southern Roll which is a firm of merchant bankers (that's not rhyming slang by the way). I'm one of the IT support team. That means I try to fix any problems that come up with the computers and and get the system working again. As you can imagine, I'm a very busy man. I'm surprised you don't use the Internet to meet people. I use it a lot. Although maybe it's not a great place to find a deep meaningful relationship, but there are DMR websites. You can put up a photograph, which always grabs my attention. You should put a picture in your Metro advert. I'm a slim 39-year-old, 5 foot 11 inches, slightly receding hair, great teeth. I dress smart casual and I drive a BMW Z4 SE. You're probably wondering why a young sporty guy like me is still on the market. Well, it isn't that I can't get a girl, it's that I can't get THE RIGHT girl. I'm ready to settle down now. I'm looking for a fit chick who's on the same spiritual wavelength as me like you say in your ad, but also a good cook and house-proud and looks a little bit like Pamela Anderson. I mean, I've got a lot to offer so I have a right to expect the best. As for children I don't mind them but wouldn't want too many. I don't think I'm quite ready to be a father yet, maybe in a few years time. Please send me a recent photograph and your mobile number and we can meet up some weekend. I like night spots like the Koko and the Cargo. Or if you want to talk we could eat somewhere. I hope you aren't a veggie 'cause I like my steaks! Catch you later, Nigel Tuber. Dear Nigel, I relate SO MUCH to everything in your letter. I played netball when I was at school and although I never learned to swim properly I've always been able to float on my back, and can nearly go to sleep like that in warm water. I have been to Torremilenos and Ibitha and Malaga and Lanzarote and quite a few other places, but not recently. Books aren't all that important to me, and when you have a busy life the free papers like the Metro are a great way to keep up with London news. I watch the news on TV too and I love films. Titanic and Four Weddings and a Funeral are two of my favourites. You must be very clever to fix computers. We have one at work and it goes wrong just about every time I touch it. We could use your help! My job is mostly answering the phone. I used to be on the front desk but they have a different receptionist now and I work on the sixth floor. That's one reason I find it harder to meet people now. My boss Mr Sweeny is a card-carrying clinical depressive. He often just stands at the window and stares down at the traffic. I think it's a good thing that the window doesn't open because he would probably jump out. It isn't such a fun place to work really. I can't use the Internet because I haven't got a computer at home, and I could hardly visit personal sites like that at work! If I had a boyfriend to help me I could get a computer I suppose. I think a laptop would be best because there isn't much room here. I don't think I look very like Pamela Anderson, but my bust size is probably even bigger than hers. I know what you mean about finding the right person. It's very hard, isn't it? People can be so shallow and only interested in what you look like. It's a person's character and personality that matters, isn't it? I think I have a really great personality. I don't have any recent photographs but I could get one out of one of those machines at the Underground station. You look great in yours. It's hard to believe that you're 39, you only look about 29! Anyway, if we meet up you won't need a photograph of me, will you? I would like to meet you face to face to see what the chemistry is like, if it's all right with you. My mobile number is below my signature, and I'm free this weekend, either Friday, Saturday or Sunday. If we met on Friday night and got on we could make a whole weekend of it, couldn't we? I don't mean that in a sexual way of course. I don't really want children yet either. I think it's very mature not to rush into that kind of thing but to do it when you're absolutely sure that it's right for you. And I think you're quite right to expect a high standard in your life partner. I do as well and I have been waiting a long time for the right man. After all, we're both still young, aren't we? I can get to the West End by about 6.30 if you would like to meet after work on Friday. I'm not a veggie, in fact I can't think of anything that I don't eat. I keep my fridge well stocked because I often get hungry at odd times, or have a craving for something really strange like lemon meringue pie or Chinese spare ribs. I can tell that we have a lot in common and I know we are going to get on really well. If you want to meet me after work my nearest tube station is Chancery Lane on the Central Line. Then we would have the whole evening together. I'll fit in with whatever is convenient for you. See you soon! Lots of kisses, Muriel. Dear Nigel, I completely understand your reaching the conclusion that we are not spiritually on the same wavelength. Almost as soon as you looked at me I could tell that I wasn't right for you. Women can sense these things. Our auras simply didn't harmonise, did they? Nevertheless I like to look on the bright side. We had a pleasant chat at Starbucks and the cappuccino was lovely. I enjoyed hearing all about you. As you clearly guessed my life hasn't been all that interesting. I hope you find your Pamela Anderson look-alike domestic slave nymphomaniac (that's a big word but you can Google it). What I'm looking for is perhaps a little more subtle: a man with enough sensitivity to see beneath outward appearances and value a person for her personality and her soul. I'm not sure which of us has the better chance of success. Thank you for a very memorable fifty minutes and I hope your life goes well. A word of caring advice: I think you are unwise to lie about your height when answering advertisements. Also it really is time you got a new photograph, and you should perhaps consider the regular use of a mouthwash. With all good wishes, Muriel.
Archived comments for Correspondence
red-dragon on 09-06-2008
Correspondence
A very perceptive and enjoyable read - I like the way the story unfolds and plays on their insecurities. As you say, interesting, the different takes on this challenge. I will probably return to re-read this at lunchtime! Ann

Author's Reply:
I'll hope to hear from you again then. Glad you liked it. Thanks for dropping by.

e-griff on 09-06-2008
Correspondence
yes, funny!

Author's Reply:
Thanks Griff. You have a way with words.

delph_ambi on 09-06-2008
Correspondence
Love it! Funny and sad and true. Super piece of writing.

Author's Reply:
Thanks. Much appreciated.

MywordsandI on 09-06-2008
Correspondence
I always wondered if he is inspired figuratively by Queen Victoria or that chubby chick on Easternders, but I like his work, La carte, the letter you use in a very apt way. I like the shallowness in you content, and the reflective but differing views, nice humorous job, but all jesting aside, this shit really happens!

Sincerely, Kev


Author's Reply:
Thanks Kev. People have always admired me for the shallowness of my content. Glad you enjoyed it.

discopants on 09-06-2008
Correspondence
There's plenty of clues in Muriel's first response as to what Nigel might have expected- if only he could have read between the lines he could have saved that 50 minutes. Nice one.

Author's Reply:
Exactly so. Why was she taken off the front desk and sent to work for some clinical depressive on the sixth floor? Why has she not been abroad for a holiday recently? What's all this about the well-stocked fridge and the food cravings? Bust bigger than Pamela Anderson's? You and I would have twigged, wouldn't we? Still, I don't suppose he paid for her cappuccino, and it gave him fifty minutes to talk on his favourite subject, himself.

Many thanks for dropping by. Glad you liked the story.

Rupe on 10-06-2008
Correspondence
It's very funny in a grotesque, teeth-grinding way & has a ring of truth & certain brittle sadness beneath it.

My only reservation was that since both the characters come across as vacuous & idiotic, albeit sad and desperate, I wasn't quite as bothered by their plight as perhaps I might have been if there'd been some sign of endearing characteristics buried beneath the various levels of superficiality. Sometimes people hide their best & most endearing features from fear of not seeming cool and with it - and come across as an impersonal bag of pointless slogans as a result. I think that's implied here, but could perhaps be hinted at - without, of course, destroying the perfect brittleness & artificiality of the whole construct, which is key to the humour of it.

Rupe

Author's Reply:
You are completely right, this is straight comedy, not tragi-comedy where you would have that extra layer of 'bathos' or near-tragedy that, in the right hands, might bring a tear to your eye. Normally I do try for those extra layers but this is just a bit of fun. I'll do better the next time. Thanks for the very perceptive comment.

bluepootle on 10-06-2008
Correspondence
I enjoyed this. I liked the fact that you didn't write a second letter from him, but cut straight back to her reply. It gave it an acerbic feel, without having to concentrate on his excuses.

Author's Reply:
Well in fact there wasn't a second letter from him, they had had a face-to-face meeting and it was this that she was talking about in her second letter. The two of them had set themselves up for a big disappointment and that was what they got. This story would have fittted in well with my own challenge of a couple of weeks ago, the theme of self-delusion. Glad you enjoyed it & thanks for commenting.

artisus on 13-06-2008
Correspondence
sand and true and not funny. well written.

Author's Reply:
Sorry it took me so long to reply, Nic. For some reason the notification e-mail didn't come through this time.

What can I say? I think almost any humorous story becomes sad if you take it too seriously. It usually involves the ill fortune of somebody. But I'm glad you thought it was well written.

Thanks for dropping by and for commenting.

len on 23-07-2008
Correspondence
There's the problem with having a romance with someone you have never met...I remember when people used to accidentally meet and hit it off..I think shopping for romance long-distance has a lot of drawbacks, liker, you haven't MET the person...len

Author's Reply:

DocOrange on 26-07-2008
Correspondence
I really enjoyed this, I've had four people try and set me up on blind dates with friends of theirs this month, so can definetly relate to this, I said no to all of them, so your characters are braver than me, if not any more succesful. I think it was obvious that Muriel was not going to fare well from this, or indeed Nigel, but loved the way she started her final letter in a very understanding manner, then deteriorated into cheap shots. Realistic and very well written, with a funny ending.

And I have to agree with Len, unexpected relationships that just happen, although few and far between, are worth the wait, over (not neccesarily long-distance) but constructed relationships. (at least in my opinion).

Best regards,

Doc.


Author's Reply:


The Claddagh Brooch (posted on: 12-05-08)
This is my story submission for my own challenge; the theme of self-delusion. I found it a lot more difficult than I expected but eventually came up with something. I hope you like it.

It was inspired by the words of the Janis Ian song Some Peple's Lives.

Not many people get to live right in the middle of a big city. It's all going on down there, never stops. Sometimes at night I just sit here in the dark by the window and watch all the lights. The cars are like a disco light show on the street below, a kind of river of lights moving east to west because it's one way and then you've got all the other lights on the streets and the tall buildings stretching away to the horizon. It's like being in a space ship looking out the window and the lights are the stars, all around you. You don't see much of the real stars of course, the city lights drown them out. It's incredibly beautiful all the same. I would defy anybody to say that it isn't. I've been here since I retired, seventeen or eighteen years it's been now. I was in the electronics industry. It was before computers we used to make things like transistor radios and reel-to-reel tape recorders. Colour television had only started at the end of my time, most of them were still black-and-white. I was the foreman. My job was to keep everything running smoothly. Still is, really. The job I've got now isn't difficult, not heavy or anything like that. The office cleaners come in at night to do all the heavy stuff. I just make sure they do it right, and that homeless people don't sleep in the doorway, and drunks don't pee on the steps. Keep a general eye from nine thirty at night to eight in the morning, that's all I have to do. And with the cameras and the screens, it's pretty easy. I don't have to go down myself. If there's people prowling around or making a nuisance, I just lift the telephone. That's what the police are there for, no point in a man of my age putting himself at risk. In return for what I do, I get a place to live. This flat. Do you have any idea what it would cost to rent a flat in this area? No, neither have I. A king's ransom, that's for sure. But here I am, and there's nobody going to shift me. I do my job and the Company looks after me. I've never had a place of my own. Lived in rented rooms all my time in England. Well, I was on my own, didn't have a wife or a family or anything like that, so there didn't seem much point. Didn't have too many friends either, come to that. I suppose the foreman's not the person you'd pick as a mate, is he? So I suppose I just jogged along. Went down the pub if I wanted a bit of company, always left on my own, came home, watched a bit of television, went to bed. It wasn't much of a life, really, looking back. But I always told myself it would get better, things would look up in a few months or a few years. They never did though. Not really. I wasn't anybody's first choice you see. Any woman, I mean. There was a little girl named Kimmy on the No 6 Production Line that I had a serious crush on. I used to walk up to her and watch her for maybe an hour at a time, until she would say: 'Am I doing it wrong, Mr Kelly?' I used to ask her to call me by my first name but she never would. I never gathered the courage to say anything to her. Except to reassure her that she wasn't doing it wrong. But we ... exchanged glances, you know. Affectionate glances. She must have known I had feelings for her. Couldn't have not known. Everybody else knew. Then she married an ignorant little Scot who drove one of the fork lift trucks down in Despatch. That was doing it wrong. But it was my own fault, for never saying anything to her. Not that she would have wanted me, I suppose. Not at first anyway, before she got to know me. I was a lot older than her and no oil painting, even back then. But I was earning a lot more than a fork lift driver. And I would have treated her like a queen. I never told anybody, but the day she said she was leaving to get married was the exact day that I had planned to say something. I had bought this brooch for her a Claddagh brooch. It was real silver, two little hands inside a ring, reaching out and holding a heart between them. The ancient Celtic symbol of love and loyalty. I put it away in a drawer when I got home that day and it was there for years afterwards, coming with me every time I moved to new digs. I never found another use for it after that. I nearly did though. Just a couple of years before I retired, I got to know this divorced woman who helped out in the canteen at lunch time. She wasn't young or lively or pretty like Kimmy, but she had a kind face and she seemed to be interested in me drew me out a bit, asked me questions about my life, about coming over from Ireland when I was a teenager, that kind of thing. She started asking me to come over for dinner at the weekends, or to watch a film on the TV together, things like that. We didn't go out like you're supposed to, we just met up for the evening at her house, and I think it took me so long to make any kind of move, to treat her like a woman as she put it, that I missed my chance again. I shouldn't have talked about Kimmy either, that was a bad move. It just fizzled out in the end. I never heard what happened to her. But I used to dream about Kimmy for years afterwards. Even when I was retired and living here. I would dream that somebody had rung the secret bell high up on the front door, and I would go down in the lift to see who it was, and it would be Kimmy a bit older of course, but not that much, and she would say she'd left her fork lift driver and needed a shoulder to cry on. Then I would take her in my arms and hold her for a while, and then I would give her the Claddagh brooch in the box. Or maybe I would dream that I was sitting on a bus and I would realise that it was Kimmy beside me, and we'd start to talk about old times, and how we never gave it a chance... anyway, you can imagine the kind of thing. I always used to wake up if things got too intimate if we kissed or anything. I suppose there's too much of the scared little Roman Catholic schoolboy in me to want to take the dream any further. I think that's always been my trouble. One of them anyway. It's not impossible, you know. You often read in the newspapers about that kind of thing happening. The ones with the big headlines and the small pages. Childhood sweethearts from forty or fifty years back meet up by accident and re-kindle the old flame. And maybe now that she's seen a bit of life she might be better able to appreciate what a mature man has to offer. And if I gave her the brooch straight away, she'd maybe understand what I was feeling, the things I've always found it so difficult to talk about. That was what I used to think. I stopped having the dreams quite recently. Just a few months ago in fact. I came across the brooch again in its little box. I hadn't seen it for years. The box looked crushed, it must have suffered a bit of damage some time with all the house moves, so I opened it up to take a look. The brooch was bent and the heart had come away from the hands. It had slipped out of their grasp and got stuck in the corner. I put the remains of the brooch away again, in its crushed box, in the bottom drawer. I haven't had any more dreams since that.
Archived comments for The Claddagh Brooch
Bradene on 12-05-2008
The Claddagh Brooch
A sad little story David but much enjoyed and I could hear your soft Irish brogue throughout. Excellent. Val x

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the kind words Val. Greatly appreciated.
David.

pombal on 12-05-2008
The Claddagh Brooch
David - I enjoyed your story very much - and it's got my kind of ending - poor guy 🙂

Author's Reply:
Thanks for that. Much appreciated.
David.

e-griff on 12-05-2008
The Claddagh Brooch
he should have got a job at the hospital like ex-foreman Stan did, then he might have met Kimmy one day when he picked her up 🙂

This was nicely written and charming, but for me a bit too formulaic brooch/heart/his heart/Kimmy ... Nothing wrong with that, though.

Author's Reply:
Yes, I admit it's not a radically new or 'experimental' plot. I like low-key unhappy love stories. Thanks for dropping by.
David.

bluepootle on 12-05-2008
The Claddagh Brooch
Lovely story, nicely underplayed.

I'd string it the middle section a bit more. I wanted to know what he did with the brooch all that day - how it felt in his pocket, how he walked around with it - before he put it away. I wanted it to have a physical presence in the story. That's my only moan about it, though.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for that Aliya.
I can see what you mean about making the brooch more of a physical presence in the story, but I'm not sure it would work well in the format that I've chosen. The narrator is trying to play down his feelings, trying to tell us that this is just a casual account of his life, trying to say that it was just a little bit of foolishness that didn't amount to anything. But (hopefully) that isn't what comes across to the reader. To have him dwell on these details as you suggest would be to give the game away, I think. It would be over-writing, making things too explicit, but maybe I've gone so far in any case that the extra few steps wouldn't matter. I think on balance I'm happier with the slightly stiffer upper lip that I've given him here.
Thanks again for your comments.

Andrea on 12-05-2008
The Claddagh Brooch
Excellent, I love reading your stuff, it always moves. I've known you quite a few years now, and can absolutely hear your voice as I read. Marvellous stuff.

PS. I haven't got a Claddagh brooch, but I do have a Claddagh pendant and toe-ring 🙂

Author's Reply:
Thanks for those lovely comments. I'm delighted that you enjoyed it.
David.

delph_ambi on 13-05-2008
The Claddagh Brooch
Touching story and very well written, but there were a couple of hiccups for me. Near the beginning you say that he is retired, you say his job was to keep things running smoothly (past tense) and then you jump to present tense and say 'This isn't a difficult job...' which made me assume that as he's now retired (so therefore not working) you had now jumped into flashback with the change to present tense. My assumption was wrong, of course, but it took a few re-reads before I understood that he still had a job. I think you need to clarify this right at the start to avoid the confusion (which may well have just affected me, but you never know). The other thing was, "Well, I was on my own, didn't have a wife... Well, the foreman's not the person you'd pick as a mate, is he?" I'd get rid of one of the 'well's.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the kind remarks, and also the pointers towards possible problems. I've made a small change to the way the narrator's account shifts from his old job to his new one in retirement. I could see how the original form might be a bit confusing if you didn't latch on to the time line. Griff found it okay, but I could see the possible ambiguity. I hope this version is clearer. I have also removed one of the two 'well's. Thanks for your very useful feedback. Much appreciated.

e-griff on 13-05-2008
The Claddagh Brooch
just to add my vote on delph's comments. I didn't have a problem with the old job, new job in retirement, gets flat with it, etc. I just read it again and it is pretty clear to me at least. Not sure what you could do to make it clearer (if delph is representative of some readers) without spelling it out a bit obviously.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the extra feedback John. I've made a small adjustment to (hopefully) eliminate any danger of ambiguity. If something causes problems for one reader I reckon it will have caused problems for others as well and is worth trying to put right. I appreciate your trouble in getting back to me.

Harry on 16-05-2008
The Claddagh Brooch
The nowhere man. A lovely gentle little piece, infuriating too. As a reader I wonder why I'm looking in on the sordid life of this drab little man you named 'Kelly' and I wonder if he would have made a loving husband to any woman. Unlikely. Well done; if you'd like one suggestion -- It's hard to resist I know but when you're writing in first person there is the temptation to let the thoughts run on like a dripping faucet ... "But I always told myself it would get better, things would look up in a few months – or a few years. They never did though. Not really."

Author's Reply:
Thanks for dropping by, Harry, also for the feedback and the kind words.

I agree that Kelly would never have made much of a husband for any woman. Devoted at first, perhaps, but I think he would have fallen into a role learned decades before in rural Ireland that would include going out and getting drunk, shouting at his wife, hitting the children and expecting everything to be be done for him. I see him as someone who isn't capable of moving on in terms of personal development and has very unwise to leave the environment where he might have made it to at least some minimal extent and move to a land where he doesn't understand the cultural mores. He is isolated and full of regrets and feelings of resentment about his wasted life. Luckily he is also able to deceive himself and cling to ridiculous fantasies of a second chance with Kimmy.

I think your criticism is very subtle and absolutely spot on: why would anyone want to look at the sordid life of this drab little man? It isn't really a tragedy because (to quote F.R. Leavis) all tragedy is the tragedy of waste. Unrealised potential, things that might have been. But Kelly never did have very much potential. That, I think, makes it more of a tragi/comedy, or maybe a comedy plain and simple. Well spotted.

Regarding his rambling internal dialogue, that's something I quite like to be honest. I think it actually is the way our thoughts flow. He doesn't need to be a slick narrator of his own life. In fact that, I think, would be completely wrong and unconvincing if he was. I want him to be free to ramble.

Thanks again for dropping by and sharing your thoughts.

Rupe on 16-05-2008
The Claddagh Brooch
It's a very good piece of writing & I don't want to reiterate the perceptive comments you've already had. I'll just record my perceptions as a reader.

The first was 'get on with it!': the first para seemed very slow. I see now that that's the narrator's natural voice - nonetheless, I wondered whether he'd been granted too much poeticism at that point, since he's more factual from then on, as might befit his humble status.

The second was 'can a life go by so fast with so little in it?' In fact, that made me feel really sad - because perhaps the answer is yes. I suppose that is the essence of 'unrealised potential'. Nonetheless, I suppose what I'm getting at is the feeling of 'I coulda been a contender' - clearly this guy was never a contender, and so - so what? As a tragic hero, does he cut it?

All that said, there's nothing to this crit except possible other directions. I thought it was a great piece of work.

Rupe

Author's Reply:
Hello Rupe. Thanks very much for reading and commenting.

Yes, that's more or less what I said in answer to Harry, he doesn't cut it as a tragic hero, he's more of a pathetic figure, bordering on the comic.

At the beginning he's trying to glamourise his night watchman job by telling us how priveliged he is to be living right in the centre of a big city. You might be right though that the voice isn't quite right, I'll give it a bit of thought.

Thanks again for the feedback.

sirat on 18-05-2008
The Claddagh Brooch
Sincere thanks to whoever nominated this story for UKA anthologies. Much appreciated.

Author's Reply:

SugarMama34 on 20-05-2008
The Claddagh Brooch
Aww, David what a lovely story of a love lost. It's sad of course, but it's beautifully written and the reader can get inside the character's head and feel what he felt at the time and why and also see the reason why he stayed alone for so many years. Kimmy was his first and I guess his only love that he couldn't let go of, not even in his memories that he held so close - like the broach. I enjoyed this.

Lis'. xx

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much for the kind words Lisa. You see Kelly in a much more positive light than a lot of other people, I think. Glad you liked the story. Thanks for taking the time to let me know.

DocOrange on 26-07-2008
The Claddagh Brooch
I thought it was about time I started delving into the archives, rather than just reading the 'latest 50', and as we seem to have similar interests, your work seemed a good a place as any to start.

I didn't like this story, but for the right reasons, it was like looking into a crytsal ball and seeing one possible future, which wasn't so bad, in terms of the fact that he had his flat and his watchman position, but also alot of regret. This for me, was like meeting 'Scrooges' ghost of Christmas future, which is a valuable if not neccesarily enjoyable experience.

This tale basically says get off the bench, and start playing the game, which is no doubt good advice. A well written story of missed-oppertunities, enjoyed it (sort of).

Author's Reply:


The Last Drop (posted on: 07-04-08)
This is one I started some time ago and abandoned then on UKAway when I had a bit of free time I looked at it again and had a go at beating it into shape. It's a kind of story that I don't really write any more but I'm hoping it's okay of its type.

A young man in overalls emerged from the cottage with a bulging black bin liner in each hand and tossed them casually over the fence and into the skip. Watching him from the pavement stood a thin fair haired man of early middle age. His sombre coloured clothes and Trilby hat made him look much older. ''What're you doing there?'' he enquired. ''What does it look like I'm doing? Clearing out the rubbish.'' ''Where's Mrs Hall?'' ''The old lady passed away. Last Tuesday, I think.'' ''You mean she's dead?'' '''Fraid so mate. You a relative?'' ''No, no just a neighbour. An acquaintance. Winthrop is the name. What was it? How did she die?'' ''Don't really know, mate. I'm just here'' ''Yes, I know, to clear out the rubbish.'' ''Got to be done mate.'' He disappeared inside again and quickly emerged with another two bags. ''I wonder - would it be all right to come inside and look around?'' The workman hesitated. ''Nothing to do with me, Mr Winthrop. I don't have the authority to say yes or no. Up to you. If some of the relations come along and ask me what you're doing I'll say I know nothing about you. The good stuff's all been moved out anyway and the rubbish's all bagged-up. Nothing to see.'' ''That's okay. I just want to see the house itself. It's rather a pleasant cottage, isn't it? Presumably it'll be coming on the market now?'' ''Don't know, mate. Nothing to do with me.'' He followed the younger man into the house. ''Good heavens! What's that smell?'' ''Cat mess. Very common when you're clearing out old people's homes. They don't smell it themselves. It's a funny thing about smells you go into a place smelling of cat's mess and some of them are worse than this and after five minutes you can't smell it any more. Your nose adapts, some way or other. Same for any smell. Try it.'' ''Lucky that it does in your line of work, I mean.'' ''Oh, I could tell you some stories, mate. Indeed I could.'' He pushed past his visitor and chucked another two bags into the skip. ''Did you know the old lady well then?'' ''Not well, but for a long time. I grew up in one of the cottages further down the lane. She was old even then, when I was a boy. How old was she when she died?'' ''No idea mate. Only one I've met is the daughter. And she's no spring chicken, no disrespect.'' ''No, I imagine not.'' He couldn't resist the temptation to peer into the nearest bin-bag. ''What on earth are all those bottles?'' ''Search me, mate. I reckon she collected old fashioned glass bottles. Not worth anything, the boss says. Should go to the recycling people, really.'' Winthrop lifted one out and examined it. It resembled an ancient medicine bottle, made of slightly green-tinted thick glass with a stopper of the same material that fitted snugly in the ground neck. Inscribed on the glass itself in an ornate script were the words 'Good Fortune'. There was a clear liquid still filling about half the space inside. As he moved the bottle it flowed back and forth with a slow, oily motion. The workman seemed to read his thoughts. ''Gawd knows what's in them, mate.'' he offered. ''Maybe something she used to rub into her joints for arthritis. I ain't opening none of them anyway.'' Winthrop smiled. He dropped the bottle casually into his pocket. ''You know what they used to say about her, don't you?'' ''Let me guess. They used to say she was a witch, right?'' ''Right. How did you know?'' ''What else are they going to say about an old bird living on her own with a load of cats?'' ''Yes. You're quite right. Pretty obvious I suppose.'' He hesitated. ''It's sad, isn't it? All those years on her own, just the cats to keep her company, and now all the things she cared about thrown on the local tip. Not much to show for a lifetime, is it?'' ''Not even that,'' the workman explained. ''Special instructions. It's all got to be incinerated. Family were most insistent. That's what they do when they don't want people poking around the deceased's stuff.'' Winthrop took the hint. ''I'd best be getting on'' ''Yeah. I'll be locking up again in about ten minutes.''
ooOOoo
Winthrop appreciated the fresh floral smell of his own hallway as he closed the door behind him and hung up his hat and jacket. Then he remembered the bottle and retrieved it from his jacket pocket. He went to the kitchen table, where he sat down to examine his trophy more closely. His wife, somewhat overweight and still in her pink nightdress and matching woollen dressing-gown, peered around the door. ''Had your walk, dear? Making breakfast?'' ''Yes. In a minute. You know old Mrs Hall down the road?'' ''Mrs Hall? Not sure that I do.'' ''No, I don't suppose you would have noticed her. She didn't go out much. An old lady with white hair always wore black. About five cottages down.'' His wife looked blank. ''It seems she died.'' ''Oh. Was she very old?'' He nodded absently, turning the bottle over in his hand. ''Yes. Very old.'' ''What have you got there then?'' She came up to him, holding the flaps of her dressing-gown together with her hand. ''It's from her house. It says 'good fortune'. I don't know what it is.'' She took the bottle and peered in. ''Perfume. That's what it'll be.'' She tried to get the stopper off but it was too tight. Winthrop took it and managed to remove it with some difficulty. He sniffed the open neck but could detect nothing. He allowed a few drops to fall on the back of his hand and sniffed that too. ''Odourless as far as I can detect,'' he announced. His wife sniffed first the bottle and then his hand. ''Nothing,'' she confirmed. ''It's probably so old it's lost all its smell.'' ''Does perfume do that?'' He rubbed the spot where the oily liquid had been on the back of his hand. It was totally dry, almost as though his body had absorbed it. ''What about the breakfast, dear?'' His wife urged. He put the stopper back in the bottle and turned his attention to the fridge and the kitchen cupboards. As he started to lift out the eggs, bacon and cooking utensils the doorbell sounded, and his wife, still holding her gown together with her hands, went to open it. In a few moments she returned. ''It's for you, Dennis,'' she said, her features lit up with anticipation. ''Recorded delivery. From the lottery people.''
ooOOoo
''Would you take my wife's breakfast up to her room, please,'' Winthrop requested. ''Of course, sir,'' the eager young waiter at the poolside restaurant replied. Winthrop lay back in the lounger and glanced through the pages of a top shelf magazine that the same waiter had bought for him the previous day and stashed discreetly beneath the folding tabletop where Winthrop always rested after his morning walk, thus earning himself a generous monetary reward. Winthrop's new lifestyle left him plenty of free time for thinking about his marriage and his future. There was nothing actually wrong with Hazel, he told himself, but she wasn't the most exciting of partners, and some men his age, particularly those with his kind of money, had the good fortune to form relationships with very much younger and more desirable ladies. He rummaged in his shoulder-bag for Mrs Hall's green-tinted glass bottle. About one quarter full now, he noted. Very carefully, he removed the stopper and allowed three oily drops to fall onto the back of his hand before replacing it tightly. Almost as soon as it made contact with his skin the liquid was gone. Replacing the bottle in the shoulder-bag he sat back in his chair and waited. Within moments the waiter came running down the marble steps from the upper tier of guest rooms. ''Mr Winthrop! I think you'd better come right away! It's your wife'' A satisfied smirk spread over Winthrop's suntanned face. ''She isn't dead, by any chance?''
ooOOoo
Winthrop's new Eurasian wife Kia slept soundlessly with her head in the crook of his shoulder, her long straight black hair falling in a wave over his bony chest and arm. He pulled the sheet up to keep her back from getting cold. On the dressing table he could see her perfumes and cosmetics, and that single green-tinted bottle of his own, now almost empty. He realised that he had been a little profligate, yet what further good fortune could he possibly desire? He had more money than he could spend in two lifetimes, a breathtakingly beautiful young wife who evidently adored him, health, and plenty of energy for a man of his age. He knew that he was the envy of everyone he met. And yet there was something that niggled. Something he could never quite get to, like an itch beneath a plaster cast. Was it the remnants of his conscience, he wondered, or the simple boredom that comes with having nothing further to strive for? His new wife stirred. ''Good morning sweetheart,'' he greeted her. ''Did you sleep well?'' ''Of course. You know you're the most wonderful lover in the world.'' She kissed him lightly on the lips. ''I thought we might fly to Venice today. Would you like that?'' Her face lit up. ''Venice? Yes. Why not? I've never been there.'' ''You have a little lie-in. I'll get dressed. I'll get the hotel to arrange the tickets.'' She smiled and held his hand gently as he climbed out of bed. Winthrop always felt at his most energetic in the morning, and was quickly showered, dressed and down at Reception. He explained his requirements to the young woman behind the desk, who performed a search of some kind using her computer. ''I'm sorry, Mr Winthrop, she said, looking up, ''it doesn't seem to be your lucky day. All the flights to Venice are full. Will I try for later in the week?'' ''Full?'' Winthrop's face darkened. ''I'm afraid so. Would you like me to try for some other destination in Southern Italy?'' ''No, no, thank you. That's fine'' His voice tailed off and he hurried back to the elevator. It was on the sixth floor and took an age to get down to the lobby. A pair of brash American businessmen pushed past him as the door opened. Winthrop had to use his foot to keep it open and avoid being left in the lobby. They talked loudly of some obscure financial crisis as the elevator ascended to the top floor. A cold unease was taking hold of Winthrop as he hurried back down the corridor towards his penthouse suite. He was almost shaking when he pushed open the door to a view of Kia's elegant back. She was seated at the dressing table, wearing a pretty blue dress and trying to persuade an earring to go through her pierced ear lobe. She turned and gave him a smile which seemed somehow over-sweet. Then, Winthrop spotted his special bottle on the dressing table, lying on its side without a stopper and totally empty. Silently he strode over and picked it up, his hand trembling. ''I'm sorry about that, sweetie,'' Kia said, ''I mistook it for one of mine. There was very little in it anyway.'' She turned around and looked at the odd expression on his face. ''Are you all right? Are we going to Venice?'' ''No we are not going to goddamned Venice!'' he hollered, hurling the empty bottle past her shoulder to shatter the mirror with a near-explosive force. Kia screamed and leaped to her feet, dropping the earring. She darted past Winthrop, still in her bare feet, and disappeared through the open door. ''Oh my god,'' Winthrop whispered to nobody in particular, ''What have I done now?'' When Winthrop reached the door and looked down the corridor towards the elevator he saw Kia being comforted in the arms of a tall and handsome young man who wore the green hotel uniform. ''It's really lucky you were there,'' she was telling him, ''I'm sure he's gone mad. Please stay with me. I'm afraid to go back by myself.'' ''Are you all right, Mr Winthrop?'' the uniformed man asked him icily, Kia still clinging to him like a frightened child, her big brown eyes staring at her insane husband. ''Perfectly,'' Winthrop assured the two of them with equal coldness, ''and I should very much like you to return my wife''. ''The young lady is distressed,'' the uniformed minion told him defiantly, ''I shall be taking her to the infirmary.'' Winthrop knew perfectly well that there was no point in arguing. He returned defeated to the bedroom and slumped onto the bed. Within a few moments the bedside telephone started to ring. He lifted the handset. ''Yes?'' ''We need to talk to you in the manager's office, Mr Winthrop.'' ''Is it about my wife?'' ''No, sir. It's a small financial matter. Do you want to talk about it on the telephone?'' ''Go on.'' ''Well, it seems that the bank which issued your card has just ceased trading, Mr Winthrop. We wondered if you were able to make other arrangements.'' ''It's over, isn't it?'' ''I beg your pardon, sir?'' ''The whole thing is over. Mrs Hall's daughter was right. The incinerator was the right place for her stuff. Sorry, I'm just thinking aloud.'' ''I'm afraid you've lost me Mr Winthrop.'' ''Lost you. Yes. I've lost everyone. Everything. Never mind. I hope Kia has a happy life with that waiter or whatever he is. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm just going to jump off the balcony.'' He replaced the handset and crossed the room to the open French window, where he kept his word.
Archived comments for The Last Drop
Bradene on 08-04-2008
The Last Drop
I enjoyed reading this again David, I found it just as entertaining as I had in Cyprus. Val x

Author's Reply:
Thanks for dropping by, Val, and for the comment. I haven't read your Cyprus piece in its final form yet yet but will do so toute suite.

teifii on 08-04-2008
The Last Drop
Just had to see what Cyprus produced. It kept me quite hooked to the end.
Daff

Author's Reply:
Oh, this is only a small fragment of what Cyprus produced. It's given me two new monologue pieces to choose from for UKAlive. I hope we'll see you there again this year? Thanks for the comment: glad that this little piece kept your attention.

niece on 08-04-2008
The Last Drop
Enjoyed this, David...a very interesting read...

Regds,
niece

Author's Reply:
Thanks Niece. I don't think it's the one I'll be entering for the Bridport but if it entertains I'm happy. How are things over there? I'd love to see a photo album of you and your family and the place you live. And the local wildlife of course. Is it monkey territory? Thriving snake and lizard population? Anyway, thanks for dropping by and commenting.

niece on 10-04-2008
The Last Drop
HI David,
I live in Mumbai, so apart from large numbers of stray dogs, a few cats and cows that are sometimes left to wander the streets, there isn't much...that is not counting some of the human beings that behave worse than animals...

In my hometown in South India, we had plenty of snakes where my parents used to live, lizards too...but you don't find too many inside the house...But no monkeys in either of these places...tho' you find plenty of them on the Ghats...

I've seen a few snake charmers after settling down in Mumbai fourteen years back, but these days they've been banned...apparently the creatures were starved so they would drink the milk that was offered in worship...

Regds,
niece

Author's Reply:
Thanks for getting back to me, Niece. I visited India once, in the early 1990s, and Delhi had lots of street monkeys then. I don't remember any in Mumbai, only the cows really, I think. Jean is talking about a visit to Kerala, especially the Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve. Is that anywhere near where you come from? I think it's an interesting area socially as well. A place where women have a little more respect and influence, and there isn't such intense poverty. I didn't get anywhere near as far south as that on my 1990s tour, and to be honest most of my impressions of the cities on the tourist trail between Delhi and Mumbai were pretty negative – desperate poverty and an approach to foreigners that kept me very much at arm's length. I hope I get a better impression of India this time.

len on 10-04-2008
The Last Drop
This yarn puts me in mind of the TV show, "Twilight Zone." It has a familiar Rod Serling moral to the story. A very entertaining read....len

Author's Reply:
Thanks for that, Len. I remember 'Twilight Zone' very well, and 'Outer Limits', and the 'Weird Tales' series of films. There was a similar Japanese film series as well, but I don't remember what it was called. Modern morality tales, the greedy protagonist who dabbled in the supernatural for selfish ends always got his comeuppance, and so he should. Yes, I think you have correctly identified my influences there. Thanks for reading and commenting.

jay12 on 15-04-2008
The Last Drop
This is very good. It played in my mind like an episode of the Twilight Zone. I enjoyed this as always David.

Jay.

Author's Reply:
Hello James. Apologies for the long delay in replying. I don't think the notification message got through – I happened to see your comment when I came to answer another one.

Thanks for your encouraging words. Enjoying the story is all that matters.

Briarcal on 10-05-2008
The Last Drop
Nice story, Sirat. If I had been the old man, I'd have gone throught the whole skip to find what else had been thrown away: a bottle of revenge, or maybe a little jar of love?

I like the moral of the story, and your prose is flowing and very readable. Looking forward to reading more of your stuff




Author's Reply:
Many thanks for dropping by and for the kind words.

That's an interesting idea, maybe the rubbish removal man decides to keep the bin-bag full od bottles, thinking they might be worth something. Then he finds a whole series of magical fluids: some he sells on, some he tries to use himself. Bingo: a short story collection. Not The Raibow Man but The Bin-Bag Man. Even the title is magic, it makes yoiu think you've got a cold. Must think about all this...

If you want to read any more of my stuff I'll be very interested to hear your comments.

All good wishes. And your luck number is 42.


Cambridge (posted on: 21-03-08)
This is a low-key reflective piece about a kind of relationship that doesn't get talked about very much. Every human life should have a Cambridge in it.

I notice that I can feel my heart beating unusually fast. Partly, I know, it's anticipation of her arrival. Plain old schoolboy excitement. But partly also it's the anxiety that this might be the year that she doesn't come. Outside the thin nylon walls of my tent I can hear a buzz of light-hearted conversations mixed with a few distant singing voices, and musicians tuning up their instruments. Not the professionals who will be playing on the Festival stages of course, their campsite is elsewhere, but hundreds of amateurs carrying on a tradition that was already ancient when King David was learning to play his harp. There will be barbecues tonight, and throughout the four days of the Festival, and endless informal jamming sessions, and lovers will fall asleep to the same melodies that buskers played to the queues outside Shakespeare's Globe. I recognise the chords of When Johnny Comes Marching Home and something that might be The Banks of the Ohio. An American influence this year, I muse. Probably because Melanie and Don McLean are back. My mind drifts away to the year that Janis Ian dried up in front of five thousand people at the main stage, until the Yorkshire compre told her to 'Take your time lass, we're all friends here and there's none of us in a hurry'. I remember the year that Leonard Cohen had the whole audience in tears, and none of us knowing why we were crying. In fact that was the year Liana and I first got together. There was really nothing to cry about that year. Time passes. I rearrange the blanket and the two sheets on top of the double camping mattress and feel once again for twigs or stones underneath. I've upgraded my tent a lot since that first Cambridge. This one is a small comfortable room with fabric walls. Outside, probably in another tent, somebody starts to play Carolan's Dream on a Celtic harp. The musicians stop tuning up. There is a hush. Everyone is listening. The music comes to an end and when the final chord has died away a wave of spontaneous applause rises from the campsite. I am genuinely moved. A tune written more than three hundred years ago by the blind son of an Irish blacksmith, and it still has that power. As the applause fades away there is the nearby sound of a zip being drawn down, and Liana is standing in front of me. She is dressed, as ever, in the fashions of the era just before either of us was born: a long floral skirt and thin white blouse, a silver pentacle on a leather thong around her neck, a green Alice band holding back her shoulder-length auburn hair. Her smile is heart-stopping. "I was afraid you weren't coming," I whisper as I hold her very close and caress her back. "Silly boy," she replies. We stand and kiss, tenderly and without inhibition, and a great wave of contentment sweeps over me. My heart settles back to its normal pace. My hands slip beneath her blouse and I caress her warm bare flesh. Within minutes we are both naked on the camping mattress, Liana beneath me, eagerly pulling me down and inside her. We make love gently and affectionately, kissing and caressing all the time. I hold back until I hear Liana moan softly, and the tightening of her intimate muscles tells me that it is okay to let go. Our mutual orgasm is enormous. We don't care that the people in the nearby tents will hear our cries. I wonder if the musicians will applaud us too, but thankfully they don't. I lift myself from her body and lie by her side while she cuddles up to me and wraps her two legs around one of mine. We hug each other, kiss again, and wait to recover some energy. "I love the way you do that," she whispers. "I love doing it." "I don't think I've felt this good since last Cambridge." I start to reply "Me neither," then stop myself, because it isn't entirely true, and this is Cambridge, where everything we say has to be entirely true. I was the one who made the rule, I can't be the one to break it. Liana picks up my hesitation straight away but doesn't interpret it quite correctly. "Are things a bit better between you and Sylvia, then?" she asks. "A bit better? No, definitely not. Maybe a little bit worse or much the same, but definitely not better. We jog along. I've learned that that's what married life is: jogging along." "No exploding fireworks then?" "No, none of those." Outside somebody with a guitar is singing Elliott Smith's slow quiet song Between the Bars. "Listen." I urge Liana, "It's about us." She looks puzzled. "This last bit. Listen." The people you've been before That you don't want around anymore That push and shove and won't bend to your will I'll keep them still "That's exactly what we do for one another, isn't it? We keep the people we've been before, the ones we don't want around any more, still. We enable each other to be ourselves. I think Elliott Smith was a genius." She nods. "A genius. Yes. For all the good it did him." "I think a life that produced a song like that, or a tune like Carolan's Dream, was a life well-lived. I wish I could leave something that good behind me when I go." "You're getting morbid now. Anyway, don't change the subject. You've got things to tell me, haven't you? Has Sylvia been talking about having a baby again?" "God no! Perish the thought. She's just been... Sylvia, you know. All the same old stuff. It sounds so trivial when I say it, but it bugs me a lot. It isn't just that I don't love her anymore, I don't even like her anymore. It feels like her whole project in life is to undermine me and put me down. She pretends to people that it's a joke, but it isn't. It's intentionally hurtful." "What kind of thing does she do?" "Like I've told you before. She tries to humiliate me and destroy my self-confidence. Not in a big dramatic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? way, but in little ways. For instance if we meet someone and they start to give me their e-mail address she'll say: 'It's no good giving it to him, he'll only lose it'. Or somebody in the street will ask me for directions and she'll say: 'It's no good asking Danny. He won't know.' Things like that. Silly things. But all the time, non-stop, like she has to demonstrate her contempt at every possible opportunity. Sometimes I fight back a little bit, but mostly I don't say anything. Then she tells me I'm having one of my sulks." "Of course," Liana explains, "there's no satisfaction for her if you don't fight back. She's unhappy, Danny. Whatever it was she thought she would get out of the marriage, she isn't getting it. Neither are you, obviously. What did you think it would be like six years ago, was it? Seven?" "Seven. People talk about the seven year itch, don't they? That's a tough question. I suppose I was in love. Obsessed with her anyway. I don't think I looked very far ahead. I just wanted things to go on as they were then. Great nights out together. Great parties. Great holidays. Great sex. Isn't that what marriage is all about?" "No, Danny. I don't think it is. Do you still have great sex?" "Don't you mean, do we still have sex? Not very often. Sylvia uses it as a bartering chip to get me to do what she wants. We maintain this myth that I'm always panting for it and insanely grateful when she lets me have it. She says things like: 'You do the cooking and the washing up and I'll make it up to you in bed.' Sex is like a lollypop that you give to a child as a reward for good behaviour. But when it's time to collect my reward I usually don't feel like it. Then she gets upset about that. But once in a while, maybe once or twice a month, we do try to do something about our mutual frustration. There's a little bit of closeness afterwards, just a few moments; then the embarrassment sets in again." "It sounds pretty ghastly." "Oh, I don't know. We just... jog along. We keep things well below the surface. We're polite to one another most of the time. We don't have scenes in public. We don't throw the furniture around." I haven't been aware of sending out a signal but Liana picks it up. She looks me in the eye. "There's something you aren't telling me, isn't there?" I give her what I think must be a sheepish grin. "Have you been unfaithful to Sylvia? You have, haven't you?" I nod. "When?" "About ten minutes ago." "Oh, come on Danny. Don't be silly. You know what I mean. When was it? Who was it with?" I draw a deep breath and hold her a little closer. "Yes, there was somebody else a couple of months ago. I was sent out to the Department's field station in Peru to check on one of our research students. Her name is Clari. She's Danish. Very young, very sweet." "Pretty?" "Beautiful. Pretty wouldn't do her justice." Liana wriggles around so that she can face me more comfortably. "Oh, you are smitten, aren't you? Did she give you a good time then?" I am embarrassed but try to reply honestly. "Wonderful. She was... perfect." "Perfect? Oh, this is getting better. Come on then, tell all." Clari's smile flits across my mind's eye. "Well, it was a bit like you and me at that first Cambridge Folk Festival. She showed me her work, and took me out to the monkey colony, and then we had a meal in the canteen at the field station, and went to the bar in the village and got a little bit drunk. We sat a bit too close together... and we kissed... and then it sort of got out of control. You know the kind of thing." "Yes, I know the kind of thing." Liana giggles. "It sounds highly unprofessional." "You aren't kidding. She did get the best research report I've ever given, but she deserved it. Our personal relationship didn't enter into it." "Of course not." "After that we spent every single night together until I left. I really meant it when I said it was perfect. It was like... being in heaven." "And have you been in touch with her since?" "No." "That's terrible! You have to write to her as soon as you get home. Tell her it was one of the happiest weeks of your life. That you think about her all the time. That she's beautiful and perfect. Whatever." I laugh. "It didn't mean anything to her, Liana. She doesn't need to hear that kind of thing." "Of course it meant something to her. And she does need to hear that kind of thing. Trust me. Write to her the very first chance you get. Promise." "Okay. I promise. Maybe I'll tell her what I said in my research report. I said her work was of a standard that made me proud to be a member of this University. I've never said anything like that about a person's work before. And it's true. She's investigating conservation strategies for the yellow-tailed woolly monkey. It's one of the rarest and most critically endangered animals in the world. There are only about two hundred individuals left. She's been living alongside the colony for about fourteen months, and the mother monkeys have started giving her their babies to look after while they forage. That means the colony has granted her the status of an alpha female. It's the ultimate level of acceptance. It's only happened two or three times in the whole history of primate studies. And of course they're perfectly right. She would protect those baby monkeys with her life if it came to it that's no exaggeration. You've got to imagine the scene, Liana. This beautiful young Scandinavian blonde in shorts and a bikini top, with tiny monkeys climbing all over her, and the rainforest and a fifty metre waterfall misting up the trees behind her, and beyond that the foothills of the Andes rising up into the clouds. Who isn't going to fall in love with her?" "Well, I can see that you have. But why haven't you said anything to her? Why haven't you talked about your feelings? This might be the best chance you'll ever get to make the break. Start a new life." "With Clari?" "Why not? You and your alpha female and all those monkeys." I am silent for a few moments. I can hear a Bob Dylan standard starting up outside: Don't Think Twice, It's Alright. "Because I'm scared, I suppose. Chicken. I think it was just a few day's pleasant diversion for her. If I try to take it any further I'll probably make a fool of myself." "So, on the minus side you might get a small dent in your ego, and on the plus side you might get away from Sylvia forever to a life you would love, with a woman who's beautiful and perfect. Is that worth a gamble or not?" "You make it sound so simple." "Don't be a coward. Do it." "I've thought about it, obviously, had fantasies about it but that's all it is a fantasy. There's such a big age gap... and she has so many other options..." "Do it, Danny. Even if it doesn't last forever and I know most things don't it's too good a chance to throw away. If she says no, fine. You've tried and it didn't work. You'll get over it. But if you do nothing, you'll always wonder what she would have said, what she might have said. You know I'm right, don't you?" I look into her eyes. Of course I know she's right. "You're losing your backbone, Danny. Getting scared of life. You weren't like that before. Sylvia has done that to you. Get away from her, however you do it. She's destroying you." I pause and listen to the song. "I'll always have you, won't I?" I hear myself beg for reassurance. "Of course you will. You'll always have Cambridge and me, no matter what." For a moment neither of us speaks. Then Liana senses something again. "There's more, isn't there? There's something else bugging you." I shift around uncomfortably. "Come on, Danny. It's Cambridge. You have to tell." I push down my embarrassment. "Well, this is even sillier than the stuff with Sylvia. It was a cartoon after I got back in the student magazine. It really got to me. It let me see what I've turned into, I suppose. I've got a photocopy with me..." "Later. Just tell me about it. Describe it." "Well, it's me, looking really old and grumpy and defeated. The way my students must see me, I suppose. And there's another man with a big white beard and a smile it could be Darwin or God, I often get those two mixed up and he's shaking my hand and saying: 'Congratulations Dr. Hall, you get to write planet earth's suicide note'." "That's cruel." "Cruel because it's true. I came into this field thinking all we had to do was show people where their actions were leading. Humans are supposed to be rational creatures the supreme problem-solvers. All that environmental scientists had to do was collect the data, draw the graphs, explain the way to save ourselves. And it can be done, we don't need any new technology, we don't even have to give up Western standards of living. The answers are as plain as day. But nobody's listening. Nobody's doing a thing beyond the most ridiculous token gestures. We put up airport taxes while China opens two new filthy coal-fired power stations every week. That's exactly what I've been doing for the last twelve years. Writing a death-chronicle of the last few decades of the world's biosphere. The cartoon made me face up to it. Made me realise what all that campaigning zeal of mine has turned into. I thought I'd found a ray of hope in Clari, somebody actually doing something that might make a difference, however small. Somebody who still believed it's a worthwhile way to use your life. Then that cartoon brought me back to my senses." Liana's reply is surprising quick. "No, I disagree. Clari brought you back to your senses. The cartoon did the opposite. It made you give up again. Why don't you do it?" "Do what?" "Write planet earth's suicide note. Send it to them. It might even start a few people thinking. Do some good." I am amazed that the idea hadn't occurred to me. Before I can reply to Liana the article begins to write itself in my head: Dear Editor, thank you for your recent invitation to write planet earth's suicide note, which I have attached herewith... "That's bloody brilliant, Liana." I answer at last, "Why didn't I think of that. Turn it into an opportunity, throw it back in their faces. It's perfect. They've given me a platform to explain my work to twenty thousand students. If I could make it ironic and entertaining it might even get picked up by some of the newspapers too." "So everything isn't useless then?" I am at a loss for an answer. "And you will write to Clari properly, I mean and ask her if she needs a full-time assistant?" I smile. "You know, the Director of the Peru field station is moving on soon. I wouldn't have too much trouble getting the job. And it would get me out of the classroom, back into the real world, doing real science... " I relish the thought. "I wonder if I could get the University to pay my air fare from Peru to Cambridge every year?" "That's my Danny," she smiles. "You're really going to try it then?" "Cross my heart and hope to die." I give her a tight hug. For a moment we are silent. "This could be a really big year for both of us, couldn't it?" She nods. "Maybe this time next year we'll both be with new partners. Maybe I'll be in a new job. Maybe everything in our lives will be different." I pause for a moment again, turning these things over in my mind. "You know, most people would think this arrangement of ours is plumb crazy." "It's the sanest thing in my life. I couldn't go on without it. It's funny, isn't it, how it's developed? Do you remember what we used to talk about in the early years?" "Chairman Mao, Marx, Winstanley, Sartre, A.S. Neill, revolution, changing the world... then for a lot of years all we talked about was our own miserable little existence. Except for today. Today It's back to old times. Back to changing the world." "It shows that Clari's right for you. You were only with her a week and she's cancelled out all those years with Sylvia given you back a bit of your optimism." I kiss her tenderly. "No, you've done that for me, Liana. I wouldn't have been able to see my way through it by myself. Thank you." "That's why we're here, isn't it? Why we're both here. I think you're wrong about next year though. I think you'll probably be with Clari, if she has any sense, but I'll probably be on my own." "You're really going to leave him then?" "We still share a house but for all emotional purposes he's history. He knows I'm going now. I don't think he cares. We're further down the line than you and Sylvia." "Was it the cancer scare that made up your mind for you?" "I suppose so. His attitude was the last straw for me. I was scared out of my mind and he treated me like some kind of silly hysterical woman. I just didn't want him around after that. I didn't want him to touch me. I could hardly bear to be in the same room with him. It just brought things to a head, I suppose. We'd stopped liking one another long before that." "At least you're not married to him. That makes things a bit easier. When are you going?" "As soon as I can. I thought I had it all planned, at least in my head, but then I did something really stupid." I wait for her to continue. I sense embarrassment in her voice. "It's Cambridge." I remind her, "You have to tell all." "Well, you remember Garry? The man whose wife died?" "Of course. You said you used to cry on each other's shoulders." "Yes. He's very sweet. He's not like most men. Well, I thought we had a very special kind of understanding. I thought maybe he was the right person for me..." "Too conventional, from what you've told me." "But I'm conventional too. That's exactly what I am." "You're kidding yourself, Liana. Come on. He's boring. Admit it. What is it that you really see in him?" She hesitates. "Haven't you heard anything about biological clocks?" "You still want children? And you think he would be a great dad?" "Well, yes. I don't want to die without having children. And I do think he would be a great dad. But I think he would be a great husband too. A great partner. Anyway, now, I've spoiled it." "So you made some kind of move?" I can see that it's really difficult for her to tell me. "I haven't done anything like it since I was a teenager. We were in his house, quite late at night. I was unbelievably clumsy. I tried ... to seduce him. I put his hand on my breast and... kissed him." I cup her breast gently in my own hand and smile. "Works for me." "Well it didn't for him. He pushed me away. Said he just wanted me as a friend and we shouldn't spoil it. But I have spoiled it. Completely. I can't even look him in the eye now." I kiss her forehead. "Do you still want him?" I can tell from her expression that she does. "It's not possible any more." "Oh yes it is. Easy, maybe not. Possible, definitely. Now you've got to listen to me. Trust what I tell you. I know men. Even men like Garry. You've caught him off guard. Shocked him. All you need to do is take a step back. Slow down. Tell him pretty much what you've just told me. Tell him you'd had too much to drink, even if it's not true, and you acted on a crazy impulse. Tell him it isn't a quick shag you're after well, maybe put it a bit more delicately than that but that you think the two of you could have a future together. Tell him you want to take it slowly now. Really get to know one another. Talk about what the two of you want for the future. I know it won't be easy for you but if you do it right it'll definitely work." She pauses. "I'm not sure I can make myself that vulnerable in front of him again. What if he just doesn't fancy me? What if he rejects me again a second time?" "If I can do it with Clari you can do it with Garry." "It's an entirely different situation." "It'll work. It'll work because he'll be flattered. He'll feel important, and in control. You scared the shit out of him not many of us can cope with the likes of you." "You're really sure that's what I should do?" "No question." She kisses me fleetingly on the lips. "But you think it won't last, don't you?" I shrug. "Predicting the future isn't my thing. But I think maybe we both have to go through a few more changes before we sign in to the retirement home. How long does anything last? Anything but Cambridge, that is." "At least neither of us has children yet. That seems to make us a bit more free than most people our age, doesn't it? I wonder what it'll be like... when children come along." "We'll have to get babysitters. That's all." She seems unconvinced. "I'll still come," she promises. "I know you will." We lie still for a few moments. I kiss her beneath her ear. "My leg is getting wet," I whisper. "You caused the problem, you can deal with it." "You know what I'm thinking, Liana? It would be a damn sight simpler to run away with each other." "No, Danny. You mustn't say that. Or even think it. In a couple of years I would have turned into Sylvia and you would have turned into Jack. And worst of all we wouldn't have Cambridge any more." "I know. It was just a joke. Will we get dressed? The first performance on the main stage begins in about half an hour. The compre mightn't let them start if he doesn't see us in the front row."
Archived comments for Cambridge
margot on 21-03-2008
Cambridge
I feel I know them - Same Time Next Year?

Author's Reply:
I strongly suspect that such things aren't all that unusual, just not talked about much, for obvious reasons. many thanks for dropping by and leaving the comment.

pombal on 21-03-2008
Cambridge
I enjoyed this a lot sirat - a bit like broke back mountain but with boy/girl not boy/boy 🙂

Author's Reply:
I see what you mean. I hadn't made that connection. Glad you liked the story and thanks for dropping by.

len on 29-04-2008
Cambridge
What a sad commentary on marriage, huh?...It seems your two characters have settled for the hand they've been dealt and experince life on a flat emotional plane...len

Author's Reply:
You're entitled to your interpretation and I agree with you to some extent: it is a sad commentary on marriage and supposedly life-long relationships, but I don't think they experience life on a flat emotional plane. They are both capable of 'falling in love' and having intense relationships and feeling intense disappointment when things go wrong, but they aren't stuck in a rut and indeed both are about to move on to new phases in their emotional lives. What Cambridge supplies is something that they don't get from their primary relationships, total honesty, total support, completely disinterested advice and feedback. A bit like what UKAuthors offers writers. But because Cambridge is only a few days of the year it retains its freshness: Danny and Liana are in no danger of becoming (in spirit) an old married couple and beginning to focus on one another's bad points. It's a afety valve for them both.

Thanks for dropping by and commenting.


An Affair at Work (posted on: 28-01-08)
This is highly offensive and unsuitable for anyone under the age of 45. It's also my response to Jen Christabel 's challenge in the Prose Workshop forum.

"It's your wife to see you, Max!" "What, here? Now? I'm busy. I've got to hump Liana doggy-style while she gives Winston a blowjob. The cameras are rolling." He switched off the intercom and lowered his voice. "Sorry, hon, he's humping someone. He'll be finished in ten minutes. Maybe fifteen." Nona nodded. He hit the switch again. "Okay, she says she'll wait!" "I should damn well think so. Interruptions put me right off my stroke. You ready, Liana?" Selwyn ushered her quietly into the adjoining room, indicating with a finger across his mouth that they needed to be quiet until he shut the door. "How have you been, Nona? I haven't seen you for a while." "I'm okay, Selwyn. Thanks for asking." "Getting the work okay?" "Yes. The work's coming in fine. I'm partnered with Ben Dover and Rod Standing and a few black guys for a full length feature. Oh yes, and a dwarf and an Alsatian as well." "That's great. Your career's been coming on since you were with us then. We could use you on this one only you don't do anal, do you?" "Well... Now and again. If the money's right." "Would you like me to ask around?" "No, it's okay Selwyn. I've got a few lined-up. If it gets quiet I'll give you a call." "Sure, honey. You do that. Can I get you a coffee while you're waiting?" "Oh my God! Yes! Yes!" Liana's high-pitched cries filtered in, accompanied by the rhythmic thumping of Max's thighs against her buttocks. "Is it percolated?" "Filtered." "Okay then, I will." As Selwyn attended to the coffee Liana's fever-pitch orgasmic scream completely defeated the sound-proofing. "That's a bit quick, isn't it?" Nona queried. "Oh, she can do that three or four times in a session. She's good. Squirts too if you want her to." "Really?" Nona seemed impressed. "Talented then?" He handed her the coffee. "Oh yes. A gifted newcomer. Great career ahead I would say." Nona sipped her coffee. "Selwyn. Could I ask you something in confidence? As a friend?" "Of course, Nona. You and I go way back. You can trust me. You know that." She put down the coffee and lowered her voice. "I'm beginning to think..." She had to pause for another of Liana's screams. "I'm beginning to think that Max is seeing someone behind my back." Selwyn looked concerned. "Really? What gives you that idea?" "Last weekend. Both days, he came home really late, and he was in such a good mood. He told me he'd been fucking somebody but I don't believe him. He was as chirpy as a cricket. He's worn out after a sex session. I think there's something going on." She looked meaningfully into Selwyn's eyes. "Have you got any idea who it might be?" Selwyn looked uncomfortable. "Well..." he began hesitantly, "he seems to get on pretty well with Trixi Bush and Polly Poke. They smile at each other after sex... and then they smile at Max. I think he likes them both. Then there's that Russian, Galena Gangbang, she gives him a big snog every time he's inside her. It's very romantic to watch. And there's Marcia... you know, Marcia Moist from New Jersey... and that Chinese girl, Me Fu Keo, he's asked for her specially a few times... who else is there, now let me think... " "No, I don't think it's any of those. I think it's somebody new. Somebody who likes..." she lowered her voice to a dramatic whisper, "museums." "Museums!" Selwyn's eyes widened and his mouth fell open. "You know who it is, don't you? Look, I found these in his jacket pocket. And they're dated last Saturday - when he was supposed to be humping a few of your girls. It's a couple of tickets for the Imax Cinema in the Science Museum. 'Inside the Atom'. In 3D. He talked about quarks in his sleep last night, and mumbled something about the Higgs bosom. Is there somebody here named Higgs, with big breasts? It has to be another woman, doesn't it? You're my friend, you've got to tell me. Unless I know what's going on I won't be able to do anything about it. I could lose him. Please Selwyn... tell me what's going on." A final deafening scream from Liana was accompanied by an almost equally loud drawn-out moan from Max. It gave Selwyn time to consider what he should say. "You're right," he admitted very quietly, "there is somebody. Her name's Dsire Penrose. Her grandfather works in some University up the M11. She's a student herself, and she's into all that physics stuff. She's just working here to pay off her student loan. It could be her." Nona was very quiet. "I see. Is she here today?" "No... well, yes. But she's working. You can't see her just now." "What do you mean? Why not?" "I don't want any trouble, Nona. I don't want a scene. She'll be finished in a couple of hours. You can meet her outside the studio. I can tell her you want to see her if you like." "No. Don't do that. I'll wait for her outside. I'll introduce myself. How will I know which one she is?" "She has a brown birthmark under her left nipple." "I'm not going to be able to see that in the road, am I?" "Oh no. I suppose not. I think I have a picture of her somewhere here." "With clothes on?" "Well no, but you'll know her by her face. I'll get it." He looked her in the eye. "Nona, you aren't going to do anything... rash, are you?" "No, of course not. I just need to talk to her. Let her know that he's spoken for, that's all. That he's my man. I don't mind them working here together, maybe having a meal together even. But this..." words almost failed her, "... this nuclear physics, and museums, it's going too far. No woman could put up with that. You have to draw the line somewhere, Selwyn. I'm not a jealous person, but there are limits." "You're a wonderful person, Nona. If Max has any sense, he'll know what matters and what doesn't in life. He'll give up the physics and the museum visits. And any other thoughts of non-sexual relationships with women. You two are going to be all right. I know you are." She fell into his arms and kissed him passionately. "You're such an understanding man, Selwyn. I really needed someone to talk to. Let's have a fuck."
Archived comments for An Affair at Work
e-griff on 28-01-2008
An Affair at Work
this was a good and amusing juxtapostion of attitudes. nicley done. What more can I say?


Oh yes ... could have done without the silly names 🙂 (seriously, they seemed a wee bit self-indulgent and distracting when for me the key to your story was treating an unbelieveble situation perfectly seriously)

Author's Reply:
Have a look at some of the names actually used by porn stars. Ben Dover, for example, really exists.

Was I treating it perfectly seriously? I'm a bit shocked by that.

Anyway, thanks for the comment.

KDR on 28-01-2008
An Affair at Work
Hi David,

Nice take on the 'Affair at work' idea, also exposing some of the double standards people regularly employ (i.e. Nona not seeing that casual sex is no different, really, than Max having a relationship elsewhere).
Also liked the social commentary, re: the student working in the porn industry to pay off the loan.
As for names...well, most of them would be stage names, surely? 😉

Karl

Author's Reply:
Thanks, Karl. It was an idea that came to me in the bath (I should bath more often, as my friends are always telling me), hence a bit of good clean fun. Porn star names are great, aren't they? Thanks for the comment.

Sooz on 28-01-2008
An Affair at Work
Now I'm way too young to read this, a whole three months too young but I did anyway. Loved the idea of the norm reversal. It read well, nice and smooth, nothing to complain about except the fact that my coffee's gone cold.

Author's Reply:
Delighted that you liked it, Sooz. Many thanks for the comment.

delph_ambi on 28-01-2008
An Affair at Work
Clever writing. Enjoyed this one - and I thought the names were authentic and a nice touch.

Author's Reply:
Thanks Catherine. I'm very pleased that you liked it. Much appreciated.

jay12 on 28-01-2008
An Affair at Work
This is class. I love it! The upside down situation, very surreal and very, very amusing indeed. I'm gonna give this top marks!

Jay.

Author's Reply:
That's great James. Thanks very much for your enthusiasm. Much appreciated.

Rupe on 29-01-2008
An Affair at Work
No complaints here either - an amusing piece & the reversal of attitudes works particularly well.

I did have some reservations about the joke names. I take your point that porn stars do often have ridiculous names, but thought the Chinese one (Me Fu Keo) was perhaps going too far - in the sense that it was obviously a schoolboy pun rather than an attempt at a cheeky 'handle'.

Rupe

Author's Reply:
Thanks Rupe. I'm glad it worked for you.

Porn star names are an interesting subject. I may not have got the tone completely right, but my excuse is that this is comedy. Maybe we should run a competition for pornstar names on UKAuthors? Here are a few real ones I've Googled: Jewel De'Nyle, Lolita Young, Luci Thai, Baron Long, Beathaney Stacks, Monica Sweetheart, Jack D Lad, Tan Bender, Jennifer Luv, Honey Pumper, Adam Awl, Sarah Sweet, Alex Divine, Sabine Holliday, Angel Black, Kandi Deelight, Ward Cleaver, T Bone, Violet Fire, Will Dive, Sandy Blonde. Does a pattern emerge? I'm not sure. Keira Knightley is almost there, isn't she?

beard on 30-01-2008
An Affair at Work
I thought that was great. The names were interesting, I think you could have played with the idea of mistaken identity with that. Used 'normal names' to add some form of confusion/misunderstanding that would have worked well. The whole thing flowed quite well.

Nice.
Brd.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the comment Beard.

I'm not entirely clear on what you mean about mistaken identity – do you mean as another element within this story or as an idea for another port-star based story? To be honest I think this is not much more than a one-joke story and if it more or less works as it is I am inclined to leave it as it is rather than (as you say) add confusion/misunderstanding.

Please that you dropped by and your comments are much appreciated.


Pigeons and Patriots (posted on: 11-01-08)
This is another one adapted from the material of an unfinished novel about my Belfast days. All comments and critique very welcome.

Mrs. Rogers said that somebody came to the door yesterday asking about me. A man in his forties with an Irish accent. She couldn't tell what he looked like because it was dark. She was surprised when I told her I was leaving. She said: "Leaving? Already? You've only been here three months." Actually she was wrong, it's less than that. Three months would be close to my record. She asked me if there was something wrong, some reason why I wasn't happy here. I gave her the usual story. "Got to go where the job sends me," I said. If only there was a job. That little bit of money I invested all those years ago is nearly gone now. Considering present circumstances though, it looks like it's been enough to see me out. Who would have thought it? There wasn't much lying ahead for me. When all the money was gone I would have gone into some kind of hostel for down-and-outs, I suppose. Pretended to be mad so that I wouldn't have to provide a past. I would have survived. If I wanted to survive, that is. If I could find a reason to want to survive. I've never seriously considered ending my life. I don't know why, it's just a biological thing probably. No living creature wants to die. Injured animals in terrible pain still fight to stay alive. The only creatures that don't fight to stay alive are human beings when that last little flicker of hope has gone. I've done pretty well, don't you think, not to have reached that point yet? I congratulate myself. There must be some kind of tiny glimmer of hope somewhere inside me or I would have stepped in front of a train years ago. I wonder where it is, that little glimmer. Why it's in there. What it's directed towards. Mysteries. There are bits of ourselves that are so deeply buried we can never get to them. Don't you think so? I hadn't decided where to move to this time. I wondered about one of the big northern cities, or even Scotland. Then I thought, no, winter's almost here, better to move south like the birds. Do pigeons fly south for the winter? I very much doubt it. I've never heard of a flock of migrating pigeons. Mind you, homing pigeons fly hundreds of miles, don't they? But that's to get home. That's not migration. It isn't south for the winter. I don't suppose your average city pigeon wanders very far from the same rubbish dump in its whole life I mustn't think about pigeons so much, it upsets me. I saw a pigeon in Whitechapel Market a few weeks ago with one of its claws completely missing. It was hobbling around on a red stump like something out of a horror film. The other claw seemed to be normal. I wonder how it lost its claw. Pigeons. I must stop thinking about pigeons. Did you know that when Darwin sent the manuscript of The Origin of Species to the first publisher it came back with a note saying that it was too general, and he should write something about pigeons instead? Everybody is interested in pigeons, the note said. It isn't true though, is it? You aren't interested in pigeons. I can tell. Are you even listening to me, I wonder. I've been expecting you of course. I can't remember how long for. Thirty-five years, is it? Forty? I don't know. I don't count the years any more. What's the point? Did Mrs Rogers let you in? Not that it matters. You're very quiet, aren't you? Haven't you got anything to say to me? Don't you want to tell me what a bastard I am before you kill me? Don't you want to remind me of the terrible things I've done? No? You're right, actually. There's no need. I haven't thought about much else since I was twenty years old. Since the pigeons. I've never killed anybody with my own hands, you know. Never looked someone in the eye and pulled a trigger. Or even shot a sniper down off a roof with a rifle. I saw that happen once. It must have been 1970 or 71. The height of the Falls Road riots. There was somebody on the roof of the old corn warehouse just off the Falls. It was dark, a winter's evening, not long before Christmas. The road was full of people with guns and petrol bombs and lit torches, screaming blue murder about the sniper. He'd shot a few Catholics earlier in the day. They thought he was on that roof but they weren't sure, so they set fire to the building. They were right. It didn't take long for the smoke and the flames to get to him. He came out from wherever he was hiding and just stood there on the edge of the roof, about five stories up, with his rifle on his back, and looked down at the crowd. The flames were soaring up into the sky behind him. He didn't try to run or to jump or anything. There was a lot of excitement people shouting "There's the fucker!" that kind of thing then just one gunshot, from somewhere behind where I was standing. He staggered and swayed backwards and forwards for a couple of seconds. We all thought he would fall off into the crowd, probably get torn to pieces by them, whether he was alive or not. But he didn't fall forwards. He fell backwards instead, into the flames. I'm sure it was a deliberate choice. A great big cheer went up when he fell into the fire as if it was a football match and somebody had scored a goal. I can still hear them cheering. Wonderful entertainment, the death of an enemy. No, in terms of bravery or even of sophistication what I did in the Volunteers didn't amount to anything. A schoolboy could have done it, probably done it better if he was in the science stream. Except of course for its consequences. The consequences did amount to something. Did they tell you what my role was? I was an apprentice electrician, so they decided that I could make bombs with timers. I designed the system myself. The timer was just a little spare part for an electric oven. A thing like a wind-up alarm-clock, only instead of a bell there was a switch. You wound it up and set the clock and set the time you wanted it to go off. That was all there was to it. Let's say you set it for twelve o'clock. The switch would stay open until a second or two before twelve, then there would be a very faint click and it would close, and a bicycle-lamp battery would connect to the detonator. Then quite a lot of people would die, and some others would become crippled for life, and some more would have the skin ripped off their faces by flying glass you know the kind of thing. An efficient and simple piece of technology. The wind-up timers were very reliable. We bought them in small batches from regular electrical suppliers all over Ireland. We must have bought up hundreds, not just for actual bombs but for training purposes as well, and not a single one of them ever failed. They didn't cost very much either. An excellent product, for the price. Made in Taiwan, I remember. At first we used gelignite as the explosive heavy to carry around and not very powerful then we got proper plastic explosives. Lighter and much more powerful. It was a bit more expensive but you got your money's worth. That's all it was to me. A hobby, like putting model ships in bottles, only not as demanding as that. A minor technical diversion. It gave me satisfaction when they told me that one had worked. And they always worked. Simplicity was the key. Very little to go wrong. I could knock one up in half an hour, probably less. I must have made dozens of them before I saw what they did. What the actual consequences were of soldering wires onto little brass strips on bicycle-lamp batteries. I've been a very poor host. Can I make you some tea? I think I have a few biscuits. Or would you like to kill me now? No? Do you mind if I talk some more then? It's good to have somebody I can tell these things to after all the years of holding on to them. The first time I actually saw the consequences at first hand, not just sanitised pictures on TV, was the one at the covered market on Shore Street. They never told me when one of my little toys was going to be used. Everything was on a need-to-know basis, as you can imagine. I just happened on it, a couple of hours after the event. The two ends of Shore Street were blocked off with that yellow police tape, so you couldn't get very near to where it had gone off, but you could see plainly enough. The whole front of the market was demolished and the rubble was piled six or eight feet high in the road. There were cars and vans so twisted-up you couldn't tell what make they were or what colour they'd been a lot of them were burned-out and still smoking. It looked just like the city dump out at Millfield, except that there was a group of half a dozen policemen in black uniforms going around with cameras and black bags, photographing things and then putting them in the bags. And pigeons. Hundreds and hundreds of pigeons, just like at the city dump, swarming around and pecking at things in the rubble. So many pigeons you could hardly see the rubble underneath them. All in a feeding frenzy, as if they hadn't eaten in months. It took me a minute to work out what was going on. What it was that the policemen were putting in the bags, and what it was that the pigeons were trying to eat. I'm ashamed to tell you, but when I realised I threw up, right there at the barrier, with a whole load of people watching me. Then, damned if a few of the pigeons didn't come over and start pecking at my vomit. The police were collecting bits of bodies of course the smaller bits, I think they had already lifted the bigger bits and the pigeons were helping in this... tidiness initiative. The police were trying to shoo them away, but the birds weren't paying the slightest attention. As far as they were concerned it was manna from Heaven; open season on their old tormentors the human race. To be honest I don't know how much of it was in my head I don't think pigeons have any special liking for raw meat, and god knows what had been in the shops and the delivery vans that were torn apart but I did see at least some of them eat small gobbets of human flesh. It's not something that you can easily forget. I haven't been... what you might call at ease with pigeons ever since. Sometimes I have this nightmare that there are pigeons pecking out my eyes. Do you have dreams like that? Of course not, why should you? You know what happened after the pigeons. I wouldn't like to bore you with things that you already know. You're not going to say anything, are you? I suppose it's a bad idea to form a relationship with somebody that you're going to have to kill. What shall I tell you then? What would you like to hear? At the beginning it didn't seem like I was doing anything wrong. It didn't feel particularly noble or patriotic either. It just seemed like I was helping a few friends with a technical problem. Nobody questioned the cause we just went along with it all, like you would support your local football team. Everybody I went to school with was in the Volunteers, or helping them in one way or another. I was just one more. I was a Catholic Christian Brothers boy, I wasn't taught to question. I was taught that Northern Ireland was occupied by evil foreigners, and that all the power and wealth in the country was in the hands of the Protestants, and that Catholics were oppressed and downtrodden, and the Protestants deserved everything they got. Even the priests didn't sa