story

Very specific commissions

Five Dials are holding another of their Very Specific Commission flash fiction competitions (deadline 5th May 2020), and as the name suggests they are prescriptive about setting, main character, and a line of dialogue to be included, which forces you to be extra-inventive I think. This time it’s about an infectious disease expert, but I took part a few years ago when it was about a climate scientist, and it was great fun. They even quoted part of my story in Five Dials issue 42.

The criteria for the one I entered was as follows:

about a scientist who smuggles out crucial climate change facts under the iron fist of a censorial government.

Scientist’s name must be Rowena.

Story must contain the line of dialogue: ‘Some things you just don’t see coming.’

Here’s what I wrote in response, it might spur some of you on to respond to the latest one…

Recipe for Rebellion

by JY Saville

Rowena tensed at a noise from the corridor. She swallowed, fanned her face with the minutes of the environmental science regulatory committee and willed the printer to work faster.

Five minutes later she was on her way out with a freshly-printed recipe for pea soup folded in her bag. Government employees weren’t supposed to print personal items at work, but that was the least of her problems. If anyone tried making the soup they’d find it inedible.

“Mark?”

She knocked on the locked door of the bookshop. Like the library, it was closed until the government had decided what citizens could safely read.

“You shouldn’t come to the front door,” Mark said as he opened it.

“I’m visiting a friend, I don’t want it to look like I’m sneaking.”

Mark held his hand out and Rowena passed him the print-out.

“Pea soup?”

“It’s humidity data,” she said. “It made me think of fog, pea-soupers.”

He tucked it inside a second-hand comic novel in a cardboard box, Rowena assumed it was the latest order from one of a network of climate scientists overseas. The government had banned publication of climate change data, officially dismissing it as nonsense but in reality knowing they had the only access to a crucial piece of the jigsaw. There were many government officials with links to companies that would benefit from being ahead of the game. They thought withholding the data would only damage their foreign rivals, not their own chances of survival.

“I should have got out before the travel ban,” she said.

“Some things you just don’t see coming.”

The door crashed open and two men pointed guns at them.

“Police!” one barked. “What are all these books doing here?”

“This used to be a bookshop,” said Mark. “It’s old stock, strictly for export.”

The government had no objections to corrupting other countries’ citizens.

“Liar, she’s here to read.”

Rowena moved closer to Mark and put her hand on his arm.

“I’m just here for sex, honestly.”

To her surprise, Mark fished a condom from his jeans pocket and held it up as proof. She looked at him and he shrugged.

The policemen looked uncertainly at each other, made a show of checking a few box-labels, and left.

Shakily, Rowena sat on a table.

“Could you fit me in one of your book shipments?” she said. “I can’t do this any more.”

A slightly tongue in cheek crime story for a midweek boost

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.

wolf_snow

 

The criminal career takes off

Or, I have a detective story available in the brand new e-zine from New Zealand, Comets and Criminals. I urge you to check out the issue, it has some good stories in, an interesting mix of thrilling genres from authors whose other work has already appeared in some quite impressive places. My contribution is The Dovedale Affair, in which a murder in a small Yorkshire town causes panic in the mother of a disturbed young man – what does he know about it, and how?

Only Human at Short, Fast, and Deadly

My latest extremely short story, Only Human, is now available at Short, Fast, and Deadly. While you’re over there, make sure you check out the rest of the issue too – they’re short pieces, after all.

Only Human is about never meeting your idols (even if it’s only via paper at a distance of centuries) – I gave up listening to interviews and reading biographies of anyone whose music I enjoy a while ago. Most of the time, it’s best not to know.

Self-promotion in a brief non-lethal fashion

A reminder, for those who may be interested, that issue 14 of Short, Fast, and Deadly is launched today (though with time-zone differences it might be a few hours yet) and contains a short story of mine – the theme was Sweeter than Sweet, Sweet, Sweden. The story is, as the magazine name suggests, short and is therefore a fast read, but deadly might be overdoing it – no horror and nothing likely to have detrimental effects on the reader. Unless you had a bad experience in Malmo once and don’t like to be reminded. Hope you enjoy it.

Life irritating art

Life seems to have elbowed writing to one side lately, which explains the long gaps between posts, and the fact that I have very little to report when I get here. I have been (very slowly) reading Anthony Trollope’s autobiography, filled in every chapter with pearls of wisdom (as well as his wonderful style and a few random anecdotes). I’m not going to recommend it to anyone who doesn’t already have a well-established soft spot for him, but when I have more time/motivation/organisation I may well start a series of Trollope’s Pearls of Wisdom posts where I share and discuss the views of one of my favourite authors (I bet you can’t wait).

In the meantime, you can read a very short story by my friend D (I have no particular reason for the use of the initial, but since it was an arbitrary rule I can arbitrarily adhere to it). It’s in a horror magazine, but in this instance I would say it’s more horror by implication, so don’t let that deter you if horror’s not really your thing.

Fish on Monday

More excitement, for me this time – Not Such a Cold Fish is now on Every Day Fiction and so far seems to be reasonably well-received, though not everyone knows what a fortune-telling fish is. Are they a very British thing? You get them in Christmas crackers along with plastic rings and a set of tiddly-winks, usually (I’m not keen on Christmas crackers, as you’ll have guessed if you’ve been following this blog at all, what with my general views on Christmas), and they provide about 15 seconds of amusement before everyone gets distracted by the groans surrounding the joke someone’s reading out.

Genuine payment for writing, not just in books! (Though payment in books is near perfection in my eyes, as OneMonkey will testify). I think I’ll have to go have another iced bun to calm down.

Chapter five in the gothic saga

On a weekend when I attended the Wendy House for the first time in a very long time, I give you chapter five of the eight-year-old saga of northern goths, Resurrection Joe. In case I haven’t said this before (I really can’t be bothered to check. It’s a Sunday afternoon, I’m surprised I have the energy and enthusiasm necessary to type this), the title is taken from a Cult song, just to keep the theme going. Enjoy.

Resurrection the third

Partly because it’s been about a month since the last one, and partly because I’m full of cold and feeling sorry for myself so I’m not in the mood to write a proper post, the third chapter of Resurrection Joe is now available. Think of it as an early Christmas present, if you like (but I don’t imagine you’ll have much success if you try taking it back to Marks and Spencer in January).

Love Removal Machine

A year or so ago I read an article in The Guardian about a promising young author named Gwendoline Riley. The brief description of her and her writing resonated with me, and I decided to investigate in the hope that I might be inspired or pick up some tips.

Since Sick Notes was the only one of her novels in my local library, that was the one I read, thoroughly and critically. I could see a superficial similarity of approach in Sick Notes and in my own first novel (unpublished, naturally), but I couldn’t find any common ground with the characters and I found I didn’t really care what happened to them. Not any criticism of Riley’s writing, just a comment on the different aspects of (for want of a better phrase) youth culture we’d used as settings; hers was an alien world to me, as is Raymond Chandler’s LA, but unlike Chandler, Riley didn’t present me with any enticing surroundings that I wanted to set up camp in.

For what it’s worth, and in case anyone else feels like comparing my first novel with any of Gwendoline Riley’s, I’ll put the first chapter here, probably serialising the rest of it later as I get round to it (a free novel – don’t all clamour at once). It’s about the same length as Sick Notes, as it happens, and I wrote it when I had too much time on my hands, back in the Winter/Spring of 2000/1. Thus far, only about half a dozen friends have read it, and very likely that’s the way it will stay (who has the time to read these days?). My style’s changed over the last seven or eight years, and I like to think I’ve improved with time and effort, but maybe I’m just deluding myself.

Ladies and gentlemen, Resurrection Joe, chapter 1…

Lazy Sunday Afternoon

This morning I was woken from my peaceful, if overlong, weekend slumbers by an excited phonecall from One Monkey’s dad. Being retired and having broadband, for the last two weeks he’s been checking 365tomorrows eagerly over his morning coffee, and this morning my story appeared. That woke me up about as quickly as a cold flannel to the back of the neck, and before I was even tea-and-croissanted the message had been passed along to my parents and siblings. Big Brother (the sibling as opposed to the shadowy authority figure. Although…) facetiously asked if I’d had a call from a publisher yet, though you could tell there was a bit of pride there by the way we quickly established that my writing is partly his fault: we used to act out Goon Shows from my dad’s books of the scripts, and BB (as we may as well call him, if only for the Goons’ 1985 reference) suggested I write one of my own. Thus was born the infamous (in our family, anyway) Goon script in which a mysterious deadly weapon turns out to be my dad’s sweaty socks; neither BB nor I can find the script now, which is probably a good thing as it’s undoubtedly not nearly as funny as we remember it.

He may not have single-handedly set me off down the path of the writer, but BB and his Goon Show encouragement certainly set me off a year or two later with the equally infamous Boss and Whoops; these bungling burglars created by my best friend T and I in an English lesson at the age of 11 or so, featured repeatedly in English and Drama for the next few years. We started out with a Goons-style radio script, we did stories, mimes, and eventually a full-blown and rather complicated play, rehearsals for which allowed us to stay indoors during school lunchbreaks for a term or two, though due to bad organisation, and one of the lead actresses getting sent away to boarding school to try and keep her out of trouble, the play itself was never performed. This may have been for the best; though T and I had been brought up on Hancock and the Goons, as well as a liberal helping of Monty Python, most of our contemporaries had a very different sense of humour, and I can’t imagine that it would have gone down too well.

Which brings me neatly back to today (clever, eh?) – my first wholly independent (i.e. not following on from a previous installment like the BBC7 episode) work of fiction in the public domain. Some people will think it’s rubbish, some may offer constructive criticism, and I hope that some will enjoy it. As with everything I write, I look back at it now and see a dozen changes I could make, glaring lines that cry out for improvement or removal, but I’ve cut it loose now and it has to stand as I left it. The initial excitement gives way to nervousness as I realise how vulnerable a writer becomes with every publication.