As National Short Story Week hurtles to a close, you can read a new story of mine in issue 1 of The Cabinet of Heed. I’m in good company, with stories in there from Steve Campbell, the editor of Ellipsis Zine, and the freshly Pushcart-nominated Stephanie Hutton. My contribution is called Tom’s Bottom Drawer, and is a fantasy story that sprang from a long-ago conversation with a couple of writer friends about putting a novel away in a drawer and letting it ferment.
Despite loathing English literature as a school subject I have written an actual essay about a couple of Neil Gaiman’s short stories, with quotes and everything. The lovely people at Thresholds, the home of everything short story, have published it so you can read it on their website. It’s called A Kind of Magic, and I’ve been intermittently singing the relevant Queen song all week.
If you’ve been around for a while you know I love comic fantasy (and Douglas Adams, and indeed Neil Gaiman) so it’s not surprising that both stories are in that genre. I am still writing the stuff, it’s just that with such luminaries to compare myself to I rarely find my own work up to my required standard. I had a comic fantasy story published in Bards and Sages Quarterly a few (seven!) years ago, so you could buy a copy if you want to know what mine looks like when it hits the target.
If you’ve been around here a while you’ll have spotted that music is pretty important to me (yes, glam metal counts as music) and you may remember me getting excited about running across a project called The RS500, where each week they’re posting two pieces of fiction or non-fiction in response to Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 albums. Today my own contribution is up, a short story inspired by John Mayall’s Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton, which you can read by following this link. But not before you finish reading this post, obviously.
It’s quite a melancholy story which, as the editor said, kind of fits with the tone of the record so that’s ok. I listened to the album on repeat on Spotify while I was writing it, mainly because the LP was miles away in my dad’s record stash (and I wouldn’t dare touch it – look at how pristine it is! Zoom in and you can see one small crease). The aim was to infuse the story with some of the feeling of the album but I did keep getting lost in the music and downing tools for a while. I thought back to my early encounters with this LP as a child in the eighties, and then thought about the context of my dad buying the album twenty years previously (1966, though apparently he saw them perform in ’67 or ’68, which I guess was post-Clapton). If you want to look back on the era of peace and love with a sort of melancholy nostalgia, I can think of no better vantage point than the Thatcher years, and slap bang in the middle of the Falklands war seemed particularly suitable. Hence the story is set in 1982 (not explicitly stated but Falklands and Fun Boy Three references are there for the sharp-eyed).
I confess I did steal the non-anecdote (and family legend) of seeing Eric Clapton in a bar from my dad (“And?” “And he was probably buying a drink”). However, regulars here will also know that he did read to me a lot so there’s not much crossover with the main character. I should also thank him for taking a photo of the record sleeve and emailing it to me as though that was a perfectly normal thing for me to request.
So, now you know the background, and I bet you’re dying to read the only story you’ll encounter this week (probably) with the word ‘antimacassar’ in it, so for ease of clicking, here’s the link again. Enjoy.
I read a few pieces of flash fiction in the pub last night and they seemed to go down well. I don’t mean I had one too many shandies and jumped on a table with a sheaf of paper in my hand, this was an event I’d jointly organised on behalf of Ilkley Writers, with the Wharfedale Poets. Between us we’ve got a clutch of published writers (of novels, short stories, poetry and non-fiction), and the talent on show reflected that. A reasonable audience turned out on a Sunday night for us, and I think everyone enjoyed themselves. We had poetry from Tony Barringer, Jenny Dixon, Yvette Huddleston, Colin Speakman, Mike Farren, Dave Hesmondhalgh and Fiona Williams, with prose from Mandy Sutter (a Wharfedale Poet with a short story collection out soon), Emily Devane, Fleur Speakman, Rachel Hagan, Andrea Hardaker, and me. I re-used the fab performance book I made a couple of years ago, which is ok as long as I don’t turn over two pages and start reading a story from some previous event.
Afterwards, I ended up talking to a couple of the poets about the blurred boundary between flash fiction and less structured poetry. I’m not keen on labels, as a rule – I just write stuff and see what happens. Admittedly I have trouble finding where to submit some of it…
I have, however, submitted a story inspired by John Mayall’s Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton to The RS500, where they’re slowly releasing writing inspired by each of Rolling Stone’s top 500 albums, and it’s due out this week. I’ll put the link here when it’s available.
Back in June I caught the first half of the first one of Hilary Mantel’s Reith lectures on Radio 4. As one of Britain’s best known writers of historical fiction, naturally she was talking about what we can know about the past. She talked about phrases passing down the family and in a sense keeping someone alive and it made me think about the time-spans word of mouth can cover and how immediate it makes the past feel.
I remember my Nana (born 1918) telling me anecdotes her grandma (born 1870) had told her about her younger days, which made my Nana’s grandma (and her dad, born 1832) more real to me than many a second cousin who lived nearby but never crossed my radar.
I have been known to refer to someone as an ‘Aunt Sarah Ann’ because they started clearing the dinner table before everyone had finished eating. The original Aunt Sarah Ann who had this mildly irritating habit was born in 1860 and was my great-grandmother’s aunt. Both of them died in the 1950s but the phrase persists in its fourth generation. It is slightly unfortunate for poor old Sarah Ann that this is the one trait that’s been remembered by the family, other than her short stature.
Whenever I’m full of cold I think of the phrase ‘poorly sick with a shawl on’, which my Nana’s friend Alice told me was what her grandmother (born 1860s I think, a friend of Nana’s grandma) always said in similar circumstances. I heard stories of Alice’s grandmother from my Nana too and I’ve had her described to me, so again she feels quite real to me though I’ve never even seen a picture of her.
I spent a lot of time as a child talking to Nana and Alice (hence the dedication in The Little Book of Northern Women) and the stories I heard about growing up in the 1920s and 1930s were full of detail as they relived their memories for me. I can still picture vividly many of the things they described – it helps that I spent part of my childhood in the same village, I guess. There’s a story in The Little Book of Northern Women called The Silent Witness which grew out of Nana’s childhood in particular (not the violent bit, I hasten to add) and I’d love to think that when I’m old I might tell a child born more than 100 years after my Nana some phrase or anecdote that they’ll remember, to keep the connection going.
Here’s a short story I wrote as part of an Ilkley Writers exercise in April. We had to imagine we’d been invited to a plush log cabin in the Highlands for a luxurious and relaxing writers’ retreat. We’ve kicked our shoes off and the host’s confiscated our phones so we don’t get distracted, but there’s bars on all the windows, wolves starting to howl outside in the remaining snow, and when someone tries to fetch something from their car they find the door’s locked and our host confronts them with a shotgun. Why is she doing this, and how do we respond? Fun to write, so I hope it’s fun to read…
She’s standing there, snarling over her shotgun, cashmere sweater rucked up under her elbow where she’s resting the gun’s weight. I look from face to unknown face, we’ve all frozen in a loose arc around the doorway. Rob – the guy who made the mistake of trying to fetch his forgotten toothbrush – a few steps in front. A crack from the kitchen and we all flinch.
“Kettle’s boiled,” she says, smiling and cradling the shotgun in one arm. “Who wanted peppermint? I can’t remember.”
I’d only met Andrea once before, at a crime writing conference in York. She’d seemed friendly and open, maybe a bit too open now I came to think of it, and when her email landed in my inbox I was at a low enough ebb with my latest short story collection to take at face value her offer of accommodation. My dad’s old place, she said. Peace and quiet, she said. Undisturbed, she said. I said: Is tomorrow too soon?
In the kitchen area of this open-plan cabin like a hunting lodge from a National Lampoon film she’s spooning coffee with one hand and caressing the gun with the other. Not caressing, I realise after a moment, she’s playing it like it’s a disguised clarinet and any moment she’ll pull it to her mouth and wail out some jazz.
“My glasses,” another woman says. I didn’t catch her name. “They’re in the glove compartment.”
Andrea ignores her, the tiny crease beside her eyes the only sign she’s heard.
I take my mug of Earl Grey warily, poison warnings klaxoning at the back of my mind. Half an hour earlier I was looking forward to a week of writing, now I feel like I’ve been landed in the middle of a thriller. That’s it! She’s working on a novel, she writes crime, maybe she’s one of those crazy writers who approach the craft like a method actor. I grab for the gun, convinced now that it isn’t loaded and getting sick of this childish play-acting. She’s faster, and a spray of wood chips peppers the worktop.
“Oopsie,” she says. “Careful, people can get hurt with these things.”
I hear a sob and one woman pads upstairs in her pop socks to shut herself in her room. All the en-suite bedrooms lead off the gallery and I noticed mine didn’t have a lock. I assume none of the others do either.
“So, who wants to do a writing exercise?” Andrea asks, and we all murmur politely and space ourselves around the U-shaped arrangement of chairs and sofas.
“I’ve left my lucky pen in my coat pocket,” I say, heading for the stairs and glancing back to try and catch Rob’s eye. He’s staring at his feet but Rose, a playwright from Devon, gets the idea and stands up.
“Notebook,” she says and hurries up the stairs after me.
“If we make her waste the other cartridge she’s defenceless,” I whisper as we reach the door to my room.
“What do you want me to do, paint a target on my chest and dance on the coffee table?” she snaps, moving on to the next door.
I duck inside to get a random pen that I hope will prove luckier than usual.
“No but there must be-”
“Ready, ladies?” Andrea calls from downstairs.
An excruciating hour follows in which we pretend to relax as we write paragraphs where every word starts with the same letter, and describe a tree without using the words leaf, trunk or green. Rob lunges for a wine bottle from the crate at one point, I see him hefting it as though he’s wondering what to smash it against. Then Andrea’s smile, and the heavy mould line, make me realise she’s got the wine from an outside catering firm that uses plastic bottles for festivals and catered picnics. She’s cunning, I’ll give her that. Rob spots his mistake pretty soon too, and opens the bottle anyway. He doesn’t bother with a glass.
“I can’t sleep knowing she’s on the loose,” Marie murmurs. She’s been struggling to read back anything she’s written – she’s the one who left her glasses in the glove compartment – and she looks like she’d snap like a mousetrap if you brushed against her. I shuffle a couple of inches further away.
Rob and I lock eyes for a moment and I call our hostess over from the kitchen where Rose is helping her stack the dishwasher. Andrea’s only using one hand because of the gun.
“Is this painting of the view from here?” I ask.
Please come through the U-shape, don’t walk round it, don’t walk-
Rob uncrosses his ankles with a casual movement but he clearly meant to trip her because he’s on her back the second she hits the floor, leaning forward onto her gun arm to stop her moving it.
“Don’t just bloody stand there,” he shouts and Rose and I simultaneously lunge at the prone form beneath him. She’s struggling valiantly but since no reading of fine print is required, Marie joins in too and four against one is no contest.
“Now what?” Rose asks.
Andrea is spitting a machine-gun tirade of obscenities, none of us want to get close enough to her teeth to gag her. Rob is sitting on her buttocks to keep her down, holding her hands to stop her clawing blindly at his thigh. Both Rose and Marie have sacrificed their chiffon scarves to bind her wrists and ankles but we all know they won’t last long, the way she’s thrashing about.
“Hit her,” says Marie. “With the shotgun.”
We do our best to ignore the redoubled yelling from Andrea, and consider our options.
“Shove her outside,” says Rob.
“We need our shoes and car keys first, surely,” says Rose.
She gingerly holds the back of Andrea’s head so I can stick my fingers down the high neck of her jumper to see if she’s got a key on a chain. She has, and I unclasp it. Rose lets go and Andrea snarls: “You have no business in my study whatsoever.”
“Find the study and we’re in business,” says Rose, so we leave Rob and Marie on guard and go in search.
The study turns out to be what Andrea’s bedroom has instead of a bathroom, and our shoes are jumbled on the floor, a pile of keys and phones on the desk next to her laptop. I grab a skirt from the back of a chair and shove the assorted footwear on it intending to use it as a sack.
“Good God,” Rose says. “She wasn’t being kind at all.”
I turn to the corkboard she’s looking at and see a grainy reproduction of my own face from the local paper’s write-up of the conference in York. It describes me as a name to watch out for but doesn’t mention Andrea at all.
“This is from when Marie beat her to second prize in a women’s novel competition,” Rose points to another clipping. “And – ooh – Rob wrote this review of her first novel.” She twists her mouth. “I don’t think there was any need for him to say that.”
I hesitate but only for a second.
“What are you doing?”
Rose sounds shocked, as though I’ve overstepped the bounds of hospitality by unpinning newspaper cuttings. This from a woman who recently tied our hostess’s ankles together with a three-foot length of rose-print, shot through with metallic threads.
“She’d come after us,” I say. “This is no chance gathering of writers. We need to make it look like we were never here.”
“With all the tyre tracks outside?”
“OK, we need to make it look like some or all of us were here, but she never turned up and we left again. And there’s nothing special about any of us.”
Rose stands for a moment with her lips parted as though preparing for some sentence that won’t come, then she turns and holding the edge of her tunic against the desk, sweeps the keys and phones into its billowy material. I get a glimpse of elasticated trouser waist as she leaves the room.
It takes all four of us to put Rob’s plan into action, but we’re too squeamish to knock Andrea out, even Marie. The sobbing woman left with her estate car’s seatbelt alarm clanging rhythmically as soon as Rose took her shoes up to her.
“Curtain tie-backs, it doesn’t look like the sort of thing a hardened criminal would use does it?”
“They’d be improvising,” Rose says. “If they existed.”
We’ve got Andrea trussed up in gold braid, Marie and Rose wearing their scarves again. Everything from the dishwasher is washed and put away. I notice Rob’s transferred most of the wine bottles to his car boot.
“Are you sure she’s going to die?” Marie asks for the twentieth time. “We can’t have her talking to the police about this.”
“Have you heard the howls out there?”
“Chuck a chicken out with her,” Rob says, gesturing to the fridge, and Marie hurries over to fetch the uncooked meat. She’s already wearing her woolly gloves, partly against the cold we’re about to encounter, partly to make sure we’re not leaving fingerprints.
As we carry Andrea up the slope behind the cabin, still swearing and struggling and now trying to keep her face away from the plucked chicken resting on her chest, Rose runs through our story one more time:
“The four of us arrived, no idea that it had been cancelled. We stood around exchanging pleasantries until someone thought to try the door to the cabin. It was open, but although we shouted and looked in a few rooms there was no response and we left again as it started dropping dark. Marie and Rob went their separate ways, leaving us to find a hotel somewhere together since we were both heading down the west.”
In truth Rose is planning to drive Andrea’s car north into the next valley and I’ll follow her and bring her back to get her own car. In theory the wolves will be too busy with their chicken ‘n’ Andrea two-for-one by then to bother with us.
“Best of luck and I hope we never meet again,” says Rob, holding his hand out. The three of us shake it and then we’re driving off in convoy down the winding track to the road.
To make it look like a robbery we’ve each taken one of the few valuable items in the place: a small CD player from the kitchen, Andrea’s phone and printer. I’ve got her laptop in the back of my car. I’m supposed to ditch it somewhere unconnected but I think I might keep it. It’s newer than mine and if I wipe all her data who’s to say it was ever hers? I fancy a new laptop anyway, I can feel a novel coming on.
As promised last week, here’s a link to my story Summer of ’96 at The Fiction Pool. I wrote it in June for the Ilkley Writers summer-themed evening of readings, as I mentioned at the time. Everyone will get something different from it, such is the nature of these things, but partly it was about it being time to move on, about not fitting but not necessarily seeing that as wholly a bad thing. I left school in the summer of 1996, aged 17, but I assure you I didn’t go to the coast with my friends and the story is entirely fictional (though Benjy has an element of a lad I was good friends with at the time). Though the link might not be obvious the story burst forth from my repeated relistening to Born to Run when I was reading the Springsteen autobiography of the same name, and the length and rhythm of some of the sentences are directly a result of that. They were kind of hard to read out, particularly with hayfever, so I’m glad it’s in print now and you can all read it for yourselves instead.
Another thing you can read if you’re of a mind is an article in the SciArt magazine STEAM special, about Alice Courvoisier and I doing science-related storytelling in York last year (which you may have read about here at the time). STEAM stands for the usual STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) plus arts, and the special supplement is full of people from universities talking about interdisciplinary education. I had a minor moment of excitement at being on a contents list with someone from MIT (you may need a physics background to truly appreciate that).