Category Archives: Fiction

A Constitutional Pause

The preparations had all been made. The last minute flutterings and flappings had been calmed. Their masters had retreated to the country to answer for their actions.

Sir Alec had cast his vote and had returned to the club for a rare evening with no-one asking him for favours, no-one knocking on his door, obsequious, seeking an audience. It was understood that this was Sir Alec’s Night Off.

He lit a cigar and leaned back, shrouded by the red leather of his wing chair by the fireplace, unlit on this seasonably warm spring day. Off duty, perhaps, but still holding court, Sir Alec received visitors as they passed by his throne, accepting congratulations on the smooth running of the election thus far; to ask him jokingly, since they knew he would never offer an opinion, who his master might be tomorrow morning.

He always gave the same retort,

“The politicians come, the politicians go. The Service will always be here to run the country.”

People chuckled approvingly and moved back to their small groups. Occasionally Burridge would stop by to refill his brandy balloon. One or two of his favoured inner cirlce would sit in the chair opposite and reminisce about previous election nights.

Ten o’clock rolled around and someone turned on a television that seemed not to know it could receive any signal but that of the BBC. The exit polls were making it clear that this was indeed going to be as close an election as the papers had been hinting for months. Within the hour, the first results were in from Sunderland, as usual. Sir Alec had been there, once, as  a junior civil servant, watching the frenzied activity as the town struggled to hold onto its record as primoris. He could picture them now, frantically flipping through the corners of ballots, licking a finger occasionally for traction; panic and pride on the faces of the returning officer and his team.

He sipped his brandy and glanced at the television that was incongruously bolted to the wood panelling high in the corner. There was Dimbleby, as ever. Statesman-like, himself.  A little like a civil servant, Sir Alec thought. We fence with them, of course, but really we are very similar. Bastions. Institutions that hold the culture of the country in our briefcases.

The clock chimed the hour, the quarter, the half, the three quarters. The mood in the room had grown somber. It was clear that the post-election day script was not going to be the familiar ushering out, ushering in, soothing, welcoming charming, and driving to the palace. This would be something, if not ‘new’ then at least ‘unfamiliar’, and Whitehall was not a place in love with ‘unfamiliar’. Phones were buzzing. People talked in hushed voice.

At five minutes to twelve, Sir Alec put down his glass and his cigar and pulled himself out of his barricaded chair. All eyes turned to him, an unspoken question in the air.

“Well,” Sir Alec said. “I think…”

The room grew, if possible, even quieter and Sir Alec would have been lying if he had pretended–in the retelling– that he had not savoured the moment a little and let it dangle a fraction longer than was strictly necessarily.

“I think,” he repeated. “That I had better have an early night.”

The Father

His feet hurt.
It had been a long day and a long evening too.
Philip touched the doorframe briefly, sighed, and bent to untie his sandals.
“Father! You’re back at last!”
Miraim’s head appeared in the inner doorway, then disappeared before she returned carrying a large vase of water.
“Here,” she said. “Wash.”
Philip smiled at his busy daughter, so like her mother and a welcome reminder of home, of their real life.
“And how was your supper after we women left you to your gossiping?” She asked, hands on hips.
Philip carefully dried his toes, one by one, on the rag she had brought him.
“Odd,” he said, at last.
“Oh?”
“You know my master is often cryptic,” he began.  Miriam bent her head quickly so that he would not see her expression and Philip laughed out loud.
“You are a good girl, Miriam, but you do not hide your feelings well! Still, my lord seemed … strange tonight.”
“Extra strange?”
“Miriam!”
“Sorry, Father. How ‘strange’?”
Philip sat, weaving the drying rag around first one hand then the other, considering his answer.
“Sometimes, I think, he is being deliberately difficult. Like, tonight. You know he is always going on about ‘the father’: “In my father’s house”, “doing my father’s work”? We all know he’s not talking about poor old Joseph. So I asked him, right at the table, if he will show us this father. “
Philip put down the rag at looked at his daughter.
“And he gave me that look. You know the one a lamb gives you when you’re sharpening the knife? I hate it when he does the look.”
“He said nothing?”
“Oh he did. He gave me the ‘look’ and then he said, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the father.’ See? Cryptic. Which leaves me no better off in terms of knowledge and looking like a fool in front of my brothers.  They, of course, all sit around nodding as if they have understood perfectly well.”
“Simon Peter?” Miriam guessed.
“Oh, Simon Peter!” Philip waved the cup at his daughter. “He always understands – except we all know perfectly well that he doesn’t. Didn’t stop him going on and on tonight about how devoted he is to the master. I think the wine went to his head, because he must have said it three or four times. And then he and James and John get invited to go to the garden and pray with him while questioning-old-Philip goes…here!”
Philip scowled around at the bare rented room that held nothing of value to him. Except of course that it did:  his most treasured possession, who was now looking at him with tears in her beautiful eyes. Philip wished he still had on his sandals so that he could kick himself and make it really hurt. Always, he told himself, always the wrong thing is lurking in your mouth, waiting for the perfectly wrong moment to leap out and shame you again.
With an effort, he brightened his face and his tone and continued.
“…Here! With my lovely daughter, the light of my life, and so why am I complaining?”
He reached over and pinched her cheek. Anointed by a forgiving smile, Philip sat back again and felt his heart swell with pride. At least he had done some things right in his life, he thought.
“The lord wasn’t very angry with you, was he?” Miriam asked.
“Oh no. Anyway, he was thinking of other things, I think.  Still, it was odd…”
Miriam, to prove she had forgiven her father, teased him,
“You said that, old man. Did you forget?”
He gave her a mock-stern frown then continued.
“More odd. At one point he started talking about eating flesh and drinking blood.”
“No!” Miriam gasped, her mouth frozen on the last sound it had made.
“He did.” Philip said. “I thought maybe he’d been out in the desert too long, but his eyes…they were not the eyes of a madman.”
He shook his head and added softly,
“This time it was like he had something really important to share and he actually wanted us to understand it, only the words – the world – couldn’t hold what he was trying to say.”
From the window the night-sounds of the waning festival slipped into the silence between father and daughter.
Philip stood and drained his cup.
“Thank you, my good and beautiful daughter, for looking after an old man. This visit to the city has lasted too long. I hope that soon something will change and that we may leave this place.”
Miriam stood too.
“Amen!” She prayed, as she began tidying and preparing for sleep.
A clattering at the door made her shriek and drop the cup she had taken fromPhilip. He eyes sought out her father’s and she saw fear there, too. The hammering at the door continued.
“Philip!” A voice cried from the night outside. “Philip! Are you in there? Open up! Let me in! Something has happened. A terrible thing has happened!”

The Fourth Egg

Bonnie heard the front door of the farmhouse slam shut, the murmur of voices, a pause, then Frank’s heavy tread on the stairs. She knew she should get up and wash her face, but she couldn’t move. Another sob shook her and she curled into a tighter ball on the bed.

“Bonnie?” Frank appeared in the doorway. “Everything OK?”

He took one look at her, curled on the bed, sobbing, and rushed to her side.

“Bonnie! What is it? You didn’t…? Is it the baby?”

Bonnie buried her face in the pillows and shook her head. One hand crept to her still-flat belly.

“Then what’re you doing, carrying on like this?”

Bonnie shook her head again, but began to pull herself upright. She gulped down two steadying breaths. Still, her voice wavered when she spoke.

“Maggie’s…Maggie’s eggs,” she began.

“Yeah,” Frank smiled, glad to talk about something he understood. “She showed me. Three rooster, huh? She’ll have to trade them.”

Maggie, their eldest at 5, was raising chicks for her first year in 4H. She and Babs, the toddler, had been waiting at the window all afternoon for daddy to come home, so they could tell him the eggs had hatched, nearly all of them.

“She was pretty excited,” Frank said. His eyes never left Bonnie’s face.

Bonnie, crying, was something he didn’t have words to deal with. In six years of married life there had been nothing to hint that it was possible for Bonnie to cry. Even in the darkest days, after the last baby, Bonnie had stayed strong. Stronger than him, truth be told. There were crops coming in now that he was astonished to reflect had been watered by his own tears for the tiny transparent creature he had buried behind the barn, protected– God knows why– by a big flat stone he had dug out of the fallow field.

Bonnie was sitting now, wiping her face with her ever-present handkerchief. She sat, poker-straight, and stared at her shoes, not at her husband.

“It’s so stupid,” she said. “I’m Secretary of the 4H Club, for crying out loud. I been raising and slaughtering animals since I was Maggie’s age!”

She shook her head again.

Frank opened his mouth to speak and then, unaccountably, closed it again. He waited. Bonnie stood up and moved to the mirror. She picked up her large, silver-backed hairbrush and began to smooth out the curls that had sprung up on her head while she lay on the bed; a lifelong battle. Her eyes in the reflection met Frank’s gaze for just a moment and then flicked back to her hair.

“It was the darned fourth egg,” she said. “It was peeping all morning and its big brothers all gathered around, poking at it and watching it the way they do.”

Bonnie set her brush down on the oak dresser.

“It was weak, but it punched through, all the way around in a circle. We were waiting for it to burst through.” She turned sharply towards the bed again, still not looking at Frank.

“And it just gave up.”

Bonnie started fluffing pillows as she talked, tugging blankets straight, shooing Frank off the bed with a one-two flap of the hand.

“It just stopped!” Tug.

“And it never came out!” Tuck.

“It just quit on us!” Punch.

Bonnie stroked the neatened blankets one more time.

“It caught me sideways,” she said, risking a quick glance at Frank.

“It don’t mean nothing,” he said from across the high, wooden bed.

“I know it,” she said.

“It don’t mean a goddamn thing!”

“I know it,” she repeated, softer now.

“I’ll get rid of it,” Frank said. He turned and left their room.

Bonnie’s hand touched her belly for  a moment before she snatched it away.

From the window at the top of the stairs she saw Frank, something cradled in his strong, farmer’s hands, stride across the yard and turn the corner to the space behind the big barn.

A Week of Stories From One (Stolen) Idea

Is your story refusing to sing? Are you sick of the sound of your own prose?

There are times when every (good) writer feels this way. It could be a moment of great despair, but it could also be an opportunity to try something new.

Continue reading

Ideas! Ideas! Finding Writing Ideas For You Short Story

I’m going to write A Story A Day in May. I bet you could too…

Some days finding ideas is easier than others.

On the days where the story ideas are flowing, stick a bucket under the spigot and catch them all. You’ll need them later.

(And when you come back to them, give them your full attention. “Cell-phone trouser call” might not mean much at first glance, but on a second glance you’ll remember the idea you had for a girlfriend whose boyfriend had an amusing habit of putting his bluetooth headset in his pocket and redialing her by accident. If you give it few moments of serious thought you’ll remember how you thought that might go bad and what tone of story it was going to be. If today’s the day for that story, go for it.)

Here are some prompts to get that idea spigot to open. Get ready with your notebook…

Your past

Think of incidents in your life that have stayed with you: the playground fight when you were 10; the day everyone gathered to watch you complete the Rubik’s cube; your wedding day; that time you embarrassed yourself so horribly that you blushed to think about for five years straight. Can you go back and put a fictional character in that situation? Can she go somewhere with it? Why is she there? Does it happen the same way or does she handle it the way you wish you had? play!

Your Family’s Past

What about all those stories that you heard, growing up? Yu heard them over and over again until you groaned. You might not know exactly what Poughkeepsie looked lik in 1956, but you know the emotional core of the story and you know one or two details that will give your short story authenticity(didn’t your mother always interrupt your dad’s story to rib him about his finely coiffed ‘DA’ hair? And didn’t your dad get her back by reminding her of the gold necklace she was so snooty about, but that turned her neck green?). Re-purpose these stories, with different people and a different setting if you need to. But stay true to the point of the story, to the point the teller was trying to make.

Your future

You know how interviewers ask you where you see yourself in five years? Well, why not turn that into a story? Maybe it’s not you. Maybe it’s a character you’ve had rattling around in your head. Maybe it’s a ‘real’ fictional character. Where is Moriarty five years after Holmes’s death? What about Harry Potter? (Now, these would count as ‘fan fiction’ and might represent a breach of trademark or copyright, but if you’re just writing them as a creativity exercise for yourself, you probably shouldn’t worry too much. But you might not want to try to publish these ones. [3. there’s a recent book by Melanie Benjamin called Alice I Have Been which imagines the life of the real girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland)

Obituaries

Obituaries of ordinary people contain wonderful character sketches: the whole family, the era they lived in, their interests, their careers. Sometimes you can imagine the person, their hopes and dreams, from the activities they pursued and the comments of those left behind. Online obituary listings often have ‘guest books’ where loved ones add more detail. OK, maybe you think I’m being ghoulish. I prefer to see this ideas as a tribute to the departed person.

Your world

Look around. What do you see that is out of place? What could it mean? Elizabeth Peters saw a trash bag lying lumpily at the side of the road and thought,

‘Oo, what if that was a dead body?’

Then she wrote a novel – a whole novel! – from that kernel of an idea.

What can you see

A man, talking quietly into a cell phone at the coffee shop? Why quietly? Might we say ‘furtively’? Why is he here and not at work or at home with his wife? Is he meeting his girlfriend? Oh look, a beautiful woman just walked in and sat with him. He smiles too much, is way too chatty for that to be his wife. Is he having an affair? What if his wife arrives? What if he is meeting with an event planner to plan a lavish 40th birthday party for the wife?

Is there a traffic cone on top of a statue in town? We all know students put it there, but who were they? How did they feel? Would they do it again?
There’s a kite stuck in a tree? How did it get there?

An old man sits on a bench, staring at his shoes. Who is he? What is he thinking? What has he seen in his life?


Ideas are everywhere. Keep your eyes open and your notebook handy.

How To Write A Story A Day

I’m going to write A Story A Day in May. Dare to join me?

I’m not sure yet (because I haven’t done it), but I think it’s going to be possible to write a story a day.

Here are some of the ways I’m planning to make time every day to tell stories:

Tell Stories To My Children

One of the main reasons I have little time to write is that I have children. It’s tough to sit down and writing a story when someone is likely to burst in and tell you that they *neeeeed* something right now, and another one trails behind him saying that he *neeeeeds* the same thing, or more likely something completely different.

But I have found that one of the best ways to ‘write’ stories is to tell them to my children. Whether at bedtime or during potty-training, or in the car, there’s nothing quite like having a live audience for keeping you going. If their attention starts to wander, you know you have to step up the action. If you pause for a moment, they demand to know what happened next.

Maybe if I can carry my phone around with me and record the stories I tell to the kids, that’ll help me out a few times.

In The Car

Again with the motherhood thing, I spend quite a lot of time driving around. Sometimes I’m alone, and sometimes they’re wa-ay in the back playing with toys. Again,  with my trusty phone nearby, I can tell at least part of a story on every journey. I think recording stories is going to be really helpful, even though I love to write (with a fountain pen and everything).

Word Count Challenges

I like limitations. I like to know I only have 1000 or 200 or 55 words into which I have to shoehorn a story. Some days I’m planning to set myself a short word count limit and trying to craft a short story within it.

timer

Time Limits

I always found that seat-of-the-pants writing during exams worked really well for me. With a time limit, I can’t afford to listen to the inner critic. So some days will be Time Limit days. Write a story within an hour, half an hour, by 3pm, whatever seems to work that day.

Genres & Styles

Some days I’ll assign myself a genre to work in. Write a film noir story, write in the style of Virginia Woolfe, write a monologue, write in the third person.

Rewrites

Like the genre/styles assignments I’m planning to write the same story several different ways. I”ve got another blog post coming with more details about that)

So, those are some of my ideas. How about you?