Short Story. The Butterfly Effect

In my Idea Store column in the current issue of Writers’ Forum, I’m talking about The Butterfly Effect, which is (in an over-simplified form) how something that seems small and inconsequential at the time can sometimes have huge and unforeseen consequences.

Here, as promised in the article is my short story, The Butterfly Effect, which I wrote on the same theme.

And if you want to find out what Robert Crouch’s unforeseen consequences were and you can’t get hold of a copy of Writers’ Forum, you can find the answer here on his website.  

Link here.  https://robertcrouch.co.uk/the-blog-that-changed-my-writing-life

The Butterfly Effect

Abbie stood on the bridge, watching a newly hatched butterfly dry its wings in the late spring sunshine. What was it her science teacher had said, all those years ago? How a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia could cause an earthquake in India? 

It hadn’t made sense at the time.  But it did now. What Mr Everett had been trying to say, she reckoned,  was how the smallest, seemingly insignificant action could have gigantic, unforeseen consequences.

She looked down at the mobile phone – the small, insignificant thing – that Matt had left on her kitchen table last night. 

‘What do you think of that, Bryn?’ she’d asked the dog who was never far from her side as she picked it up.  ‘Last night Matt’s telling me he’s got this important meeting which is why he can’t see me today.  Yet I come down this morning and find he’s left this behind , the one piece of kit he says he can’t do without. Just as well for him I’m not working today.  With luck, I’ll catch him before he leaves.’

It was one of the regrets Abbie had about her 18-month relationship with Matt that he and Bryn didn’t get on.  Matt thought Bryn was spoilt rotten, badly behaved and should stay in the utility room.  Bryn thought Matt was spoilt rotten, badly behaved and should stay away from Abbie.

Matt’s car was still outside his house when Abbie pulled up.  She  was about to get out of her car when Matt’s front door opened. She froze as she watched him turn to the leggy blonde by his side and give her a long lingering kiss.  

It was Carly.  Abbie’s so-called best friend. 

Abbie started the car, hoping they hadn’t seen her.  She wasn’t ready to confront them yet and needed to hang on to her control, at least until she’d got her head straight.  She drove back across the moor, where she stopped by North Point bridge, watched the butterfly make its first hesitant flight, then dropped Matt’s phone into the river.

As the weed encrusted water closed over it, she looked out across the flat moorland landscape she’d known and loved all her life and felt a desperate loneliness. Suppose she followed Matt’s phone into that thick green water?  Would anyone miss her? Apart from Bryn, of course.

As she peered down at the river, the butterfly, its maiden flight completed, landed back on the stone bridge beside her and gently flapped its wings. 

………………………..

Greg Marchant cursed as the narrow road took yet another right-angled turn.  He should have stayed on the main road and waited for the accident to be cleared.  What sort of idiot turns off along an unmarked country road in an area he doesn’t know?

The sort who’s running late for a job interview because of an earlier road closure and whose pretty good sense of direction has never let him down – until now.

The willow-fringed road, bounded on both sides by sheer drops into ditches big enough to engulf his car, got narrower the further along it he went, taking him ever deeper into the flat, featureless moorland.  

He was running out of time.  Best stop in a minute and phone to ask if the interview could be rescheduled. Or say sorry but he’d changed his mind.

When he’d applied, he’d had misgivings about burying himself in the countryside – and that was before seeing it for himself.  If you’re going to live in the country, it should at least be scenic, maybe a few rugged hills and wooded valleys.  Not mile after mile of featureless moorland.

He was looking for somewhere to turn around when he saw a small yellow car  parked alongside a stone bridge. A young woman with glorious copper coloured hair stood there, obviously deep in thought.

‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘Can you help me, please?  I think I’m lost.’

Greg thought she had the saddest – but loveliest – eyes he’d ever seen.  They were the colour of the cluster of violets that peeped up at him from the nearby bank.

‘Where are you heading for?’ she asked.

‘Neston Parva.  I was on the main road but there was an accident ahead and the road was closed, so I thought I’d take a short cut.’

The girl laughed, banishing the sadness, if only for a moment.  

‘I’ll say you’re lost.’ Her voice was as soft as Pan pipes.  ‘Did you turn off just after a pub with a big cedar tree in the garden?’

‘That’s it.  Did you get caught, too?’

She shook her head and Greg was fascinated by the way her hair colour changed from copper to deep auburn as it moved. 

‘The road wouldn’t have been closed by an accident,’ she said, ‘But by George Fairweather’s cows going in for milking.  They’ll be well gone now.  Best you turn round, take the first left, second right, then when you come to the fork by the burnt down barn….’ 

But Greg had lost concentration after the first – or was it the second? – turning.  All he could think of was the tiny dimple that appeared in her cheek when she smiled.

‘Sorry.’  He forced himself to concentrate.  ‘I’m ..not .. quite myself.  A bit nervous.  I’m on my way to a job interview only I’m late and…’

‘An interview in Neston Parva?’  the girl smiled again and this time, to Greg’s delight, revealed dimples on both sides of her face, ‘That’s where I live. I’m on my way there now, so why don’t you follow me?  What time’s your interview?’

‘Nine thirty.  But I don’t think I’ll make it.’

‘Course you will.  I know these lanes like the back of my hand. I’ve lived around here all my life.’

‘You have?’ Greg looked around him at the landscape that ten minutes earlier he’d dismissed as dull and bleak.  ‘Lucky you.  It’s beautiful.’

‘Isn’t it ever? I was just thinking the same myself.  I was going to leave, you know and move into the town but –’ She shrugged and Greg saw her eyes were sad again.  ‘Well, things didn’t work out.  Still,’ she gave him a wobbly smile, ‘This won’t get you to that interview, will it? Come on.’

‘That’s very kind. Thanks.’

‘That’s ok. I hope you get the job.’

As Greg waited for her little yellow car to pull out in front of him, he realised he wanted the job in Neston Parva more than he’d wanted anything for a long time and that the black cloud he’d been living under since his divorce was at last beginning to lift.

And as the two cars drove off, the butterfly flapped its wings and flew away.

………………………………

‘I’m coming,’ Abbie called as she hurried down the hall. ‘No need to knock the door down – Oh.  It’s you.’

Matt stood on her doorstep, his face as dark as the rainstorm that had suddenly turned day into night. 

‘Let me in, Abbie. I’m getting soaked.’

‘Too bad.’  Abbie went to close the door, but Matt put his foot out to stop her. 

‘I just want to talk to you,’ he said, ‘I’ve been trying to do so for the last three weeks.  Where have you been?  Why aren’t you answering your phone?’

‘If it was any of your business, which it’s not,  I’d tell you I’ve been staying with my sister, who’s just had her baby.  As you’d know if you’d ever listened to a word I said.’

‘Of course I do –’

‘And I didn’t answer my phone because I saw it was you calling and, as I’ve already said, I don’t want to speak to you or Carly ever again.’

‘That thing with Carly was nothing, honest.  Open the door, please.’

‘No.  Go away .’

‘I’m coming in,’ he snapped.  ‘And you’re damn well going to listen to me.’

Abbie pushed hard against the door but it was hopeless.  As Matt forced it open, she heard a low growl and before she could stop him, Bryn barrelled his way through the gap and leapt at Matt, catching him by the sleeve. 

There was a tearing noise and a volley of curses from Matt.

‘Look what he’s done.’  Matt was fanatical about his clothes.  ‘This jacket cost over £200 and that stupid, hairy waste of space has ruined it.’

Before Abbie realised his intention, Matt drew his foot back and landed Bryn a savage kick in the ribs.  The dog yelped then bolted for the open gate.

‘Bryn. No.’ Abbie’s scream was lost in a squeal of brakes and another yelp from Bryn, cut horribly short.  She rushed out.  A car was slewed across the road, the driver white and shaken.

‘I didn’t see him,’ he said.  ‘He came out of nowhere and with the road being so wet… I’m sorry.  So very, very sorry.’

Abbie looked down at the dog who’d shared her life these last five years.  He’d always been a harum-scarum dog, full of life and energy.  Now, he lay still in the road, his eyes closed, a small line of blood trickling from the corner of his  mouth.  He’d never chase rabbits, autumn leaves or plastic bags ever again.

‘Oh, baby.  Poor, poor baby.’  Abbie leaned across to gather his lifeless body into her arms . 

‘Don’t.’  The shout from behind shocked her into stillness.  ‘Don’t move him.’

Abbie looked up as a man she vaguely recognised pushed her gently aside and knelt down beside Bryn.

The next couple of hours passed in a haze.  All she could think of was that Bryn, her beloved, stupid, idiotic, disobedient Bryn whom she’d thought was dead, was being operated on for internal injuries and she could only wait –  and pray.

‘Bryn’s in good hands Abbie.’ Janey, the receptionist handed her yet another cup of tea. ‘The new vet’s very good.  Here, drink it this time and try not to worry.’

But Abbie didn’t drink the tea because at that moment, the vet came out.  She jumped anxiously to her feet, trying to read the expression on his face.

‘Bryn? Is he -?’

‘He’s going to be fine.  Stiff and sore for a few days, but he’ll make a full recovery, I promise.  He’s one lucky dog.’

It was only then that Abbie let go the tears she’d been holding in for so long go.  She’d have fallen had the vet not caught her and helped her to a chair.

‘I’m sorry,’ she hiccupped.  ‘B-bursting into tears when I should be thanking you for saving my dog’s life.’  She stopped as she realised why he’d seemed familiar.  ‘It’s you, isn’t it?  The man who got lost on the moor?’

‘It is indeed.  My name’s Greg and, as you can see, I got the job, thanks to you.’

‘I’m so glad you did.  If you hadn’t come along at the very moment Bryn rushed out into the road …’

Greg looked down at his hands.  ‘I wasn’t exactly just passing,’  he said.  ‘I arm-locked poor Janey into telling me where you lived and I’ve been walking up and down that road every day for the last few weeks.  I even managed to find that bridge again where I first saw you.’

‘But why?’ 

‘I wanted to thank you.  If it hadn’t been for you, I’d have turned around and withdrawn my application.’

‘And if you hadn’t got the job and been there when Bryn was knocked down, he’d have died.’

‘A bit like dominoes, then,’ Greg said.  ‘One thing leading to another.’

Or butterflies flapping their wings, Abbie thought as, for the first time she noticed that Greg had nice brown eyes, a warm friendly smile – and no wedding ring.

‘About Bryn,’ Greg said.  ‘It’s best he stays in overnight. You can collect him in the morning.  On one condition.’

‘Yes?’

‘That you promise not to spend this evening worrying about him.’

‘I can’t promise that,’ Abbie laughed.  ‘But I’ll try.’

‘Then how about having dinner with me – to take your mind off it? And give us the chance to say our respective thank yous again.  Janey tells me there’s a very good restaurant in the next village.’

Before she could say yes, he reached across and touched her hair lightly.  ‘Don’t move,’ he said softly.  ‘There’s a butterfly in your hair.  It must have come in here when it rained.’

He opened the window behind her.  Slowly, the butterfly stretched its wings, circled around their heads and then flew out through the open window.

The end                

Short Story. King of the Divvy Up

Over the years I have written many short stories that have featured members of my family and I have excused myself for taking such liberties by saying that I never used their real names.  

Or so I thought.

A while back I was looking for something write about in my Idea Store column in issue 246 (August 2022) of Writers’ Forum and began by writing about a story I’d written just for the fun of it which was never intended for publication.  And I was so sure of that, I’d even used  my sister and brothers real names in the story as much of it was based on real events.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I was searching for the story and came across the published version of it!  

So this is by way of an apology to my siblings for using this (mostly) true family story.  And for slightly changing the ending into something I wish had happened.  

Dad would definitely have approved. 

The Divvy Up

by

Paula Williams

We all sat down for the last time at Mum’s battered old dining table.  Me, my sister and my four brothers.  Without even thinking about it, we took our usual places, the same places we’d sat at all through our childhood.

The two youngest (my twin brothers, Chris and Steve) on Mum’s left, the two eldest (my sister, Mary and oldest brother, Dave) on the opposite side to Mum and Dad and the two middle ones (me and my brother, Mike) on Dad’s right.

Like most families these days, we were scattered all over the place as we’d grown up and left home and, because there were so many of us, now that we had children of our own, we didn’t get the chance to get together very often, due to sheer weight of numbers.

But we’d come together, this one last time, in the house we’d grown up in to celebrate Dad’s birthday.

Mum’s place at the table had been empty for eighteen years.  She’d died way too young at the of 66 and it still hurt that she hadn’t been around to see many of her nineteen grandchildren grow up.  But, over the years we’d sort of got used to her empty chair.

But this year, Dad’s chair was empty.  And that was hard to deal with.  To know, too, that this was the last time we’d sit around this old, familiar table in our usual places.  The contents of the house was to be divided up among us and the house we’d all grown up in sold.

Mary had brought a cake.  Dad’s favourite chocolate sponge cake with butter cream icing, made exactly the way Mum used to make it, right down to the chocolate buttons that garlanded the top. Mary had made Dad the same cake on every birthday since Mum died. It had become yet one more family ritual, strictly observed.

“Don’t forget,” I called out as Mary stood, knife poised over the cake, ready to slice it up. “You cut, I choose.”

It was one of those family rules to ensure scrupulous fairness.  

My sister made a noise that was half laugh, half cry.  That day we’d all done an awful lot of that as we’d gone through the sometimes painful, but sometimes hilarious process of sorting through the family stuff, uncovering long forgotten mementoes of our childhood. Once again the old house echoed with cries of ‘That’s mine’ and ‘No, it isn’t. It’s mine.  You broke yours, remember?’ 

The years rolled away as we descended into our usual family pastime – squabbling over what belonged to whom.

“It’s a good job nobody brought the fruit salad,” Dave said, as we watched Mary dividing the cake into scrupulously equal portions.  We all laughed, relieved that one more potentially tearful moment was safely averted.

Mum used to say one of the good things about being one of a large family was that it taught you to share. Which just goes to show how little she knew.

From my experience of being one of the middle ones in a family of six children,  what you learn most of all is to be eagle-eyed, sharp elbowed – and quick off the mark.  Oh, and being devious wasn’t a bad thing either.

Mum’s relaxed attitude to the concept of ‘equal shares for all’ came from her being an only child.  She had no idea of the importance of complete fairness when it came to sharing things out.  

Dad, however, was the king of the divvy up.  He would share everything out with meticulous, scrupulous fairness, his tongue caught between his teeth as he concentrated on dividing whatever it was into eight absolutely equal portions.  

As he did so, he would be watched with intense interest by six pairs of eyes, only Mum thinking the whole thing was silly and she couldn’t be doing with all that nonsense.  

Which was, I suppose, why she would insist on buying tinned fruit salad for our Sunday treat, served, of course, with evaporated milk.  I have wondered since (for she had a wicked sense of humour)  whether in fact she did it quite deliberately to challenge him, thinking the assortment of tinned peaches, pineapples, pears and cherries would defeat him.

But she’d reckoned without the king of the divvy up.

We would all watch, as focussed as terriers at a rabbit hole, while Dad doled out chunks of  peaches, pineapple and pears into the eight waiting dishes, where there would be a certain amount of trading over the pears, peaches and pineapple.

But nobody wanted to trade the cherries, which were everyone’s favourite.  So Dad would quietly and patiently fish out the cherries and if there were only two in the tin, cut each one into four, one quarter segment for each dish.  But if there were three cherries, again he cut two into four but the third into eight minute pieces, something that stood me in good stead in school maths lessons when I struggled with fractions.

But this last time, Mary was the one wielding the knife.  She cut the cake and, on this one occasion only, we unbent the usual family rule and allowed her to choose the first slice.

“OK,” said Dave, when the last of the cake had been eaten.  “We’d better get down to it, don’t you think?  I told Sandra I’d be back by seven.”

We all looked at each other.  No one wanted to be the first.

“Well, I think it should be the football pitch,” Chris, one of the twins, said eventually.  “Dad loved his football.  Remember how he and Mum used to go every Saturday, shouting for their team so loudly, they’d come home hoarse?  It brought them so much pleasure, I’m sure that’s where he’d want his ashes scattered.”

“I think the place that meant the most to him were the woods behind our house,” Mary said.  “It’s where he used to walk dear old Jason.  He always loved it there.”

“You reckon?” said Dave.  “I think his favourite spot was Lyme Regis.  Remember when he had his boat?  The hours he’d spend pottering around, fishing for mackerel, tinkering with the engine when it went wrong?  He loved Lyme.  It was his favourite place.”

“Or what about the farm?” Steve said. “He loved the view from the top of Hilly Field.”

“And the river where he used to sit and watch for the kingfisher?” I said – and before we knew it, there we all were, back again at the old family pastime. Squabbling.  Each one absolutely convinced that we knew Dad’s favourite spot in the whole world.  Each one convinced we knew where his last resting place should be.

“Remember that little verse he used to trot out when we started arguing?” Mike, the brother who looks most like him, asked.  “Something about Little birds in their nests agree?”

Oh ’tis a painful sight to see,” Dave said.

Children of one family,” Mary and I chirped up in perfect unison.

Fall out and disagree.” We all chipped in, laughing.

“Seriously though,” Mary said, still in that same laughing and crying voice. “What are we going to do about Dad’s ashes? We can’t leave them on the shelf in his workshop, even though that was also one of his favourite spots.”

“He had so many favourite spots, didn’t he?” I said.  “Doesn’t that make him one lucky guy?  To have six children, still squabbling over who has Dad.  After Mum died, he was never one of those sad lonely old people whom nobody wanted, was he?  His problem was, we all wanted him – and look at us, we’re still squabbling over him now. What are we like?”

“I’ve got an idea,” Mike said.

He told us his idea – and after yet more arguing and squabbling, finally we all  agreed what to do with Dad.

So, Mike took the urn, got six empty jam jars from Mum’s jam cupboard – and picked up a spoon.

“Just remember, Mike,” I said, half laughing, half crying. “Family rules.  You cut, I choose.”

Then, with infinite patience and scrupulous fairness, Mike leaned across and, his tongue caught between his teeth as he concentrated, began to divvy up Dad, the King of the Divvy Up,  into six equal portions, while five pairs of eyes watched intently. 

ends

Angels on Oil Drums – one of my favourite short stories

In my Ideas Store column in the current issue of Writers’ Forum, I am telling the story behind the first short story I ever sold and how it was inspired by my childhood.

I will post the full story behind the story here (and separate the fact from the fiction) after the magazine has been out for a while, but in the meantime, as promised in my column, here is the short story. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! It still makes me laugh and brings back such vivid memories.

ANGELS ON OIL DRUMS

The day King George VI died was a strange one. At school, Mrs Perry put a vase of snowdrops on a purple velvet cloth in front of the picture of His Majesty and told us to pray for Princess Elizabeth. But I thought this was a bit unkind to Princess Margaret so I prayed for her as well.

And at home, things were even stranger.  Mum wasn’t in the kitchen like she usually was when we got in from school.  Instead, she was in the garden. Crying  By the washing line.

She didn’t seem to notice that only half of the best green tablecloth was on the line.  The other half had knocked over two of  Dad’s brussel sprout plants and was trailing in the dirt. She stood, one hand on the line, the other in the blue gingham peg bag I’d made her in Home Crafts last term. It was as if she’d got half way through pegging out when she’d frozen, like we do in the playground when we’re playing Statues.  Only this was no game.

Her face was lifted towards the sky and  I thought at first she was watching the rooks squabbling in the tops of the beech trees behind our cottage – until I saw her puffy eyes, her red nose and the tears glistening on her cheeks.

‘Mum?’  I dragged the wet tablecloth off the brussel sprouts, knocking over another one as I did so, ‘Mrs Perry told us and I’m sad too.’

‘For goodness’ sake, Jenny, what do you want to go creeping up behind people like that for?’ She dropped the other end of the tablecloth as she turned her back on me and rummaged in her apron pocket for her hankie. ‘And what are you on about?  What did Mrs Perry tell you?’

‘About the King, of course.’ The tablecloth, which smelt of soap powder and brussel sprouts, was cold and slippery as I tried to brush off the worst of the dirt.  The brussel sprouts, I was glad to see (because I hate them) were beyond my help.  ‘Isn’t that why you’re crying?’

‘I’m not crying. I don’t know where you get your daft ideas from, really I don’t. Run along indoors and see what your brothers are up to before they wreck the place.  I’d no idea it was that time already. Don’t stand gawping at me, child.  I’ve got a cold, that’s all.’

She was bent over the big stone sink in the scullery, her sleeves pushed up to her elbows, rubbing away at the tablecloth when our dad came home. I was glad to see him.  I didn’t know what was wrong with Mum, but I knew she didn’t have a cold and, to be truthful, I didn’t think she was that upset about the King, either.

‘Are you all right now? Or -?’ But he got no further because as he started to speak, she turned the tap on so hard, water hit the tablecloth and sprayed out like a fountain. I was watching from behind the pantry door and knew she’d go mad, because she hated mess and the scullery floor was like the swimming baths.

Instead, she spoke in a fierce whisper. ‘It’s all very well for you to say “we’ll manage” and “what’s another mouth to feed?” but I can’t go through all that again, Fred. Not now, with the twins about to start school.’

‘It’ll be different this time.’ Dad said, ‘Our Jenny’s of an age now where she can help out –’

‘Indeed she will not.’  I forgot to breath.  What did Dad think he was doing?  I could tell, even without seeing her, she had her lips pressed together so hard there’d be little white lines in the corner of her mouth.  Didn’t he know when she was like that it was best not to argue?

‘She’s a sensible girl-‘ he began.

‘Jenny will have homework to do when she goes up to the Grammar School come September.  She’s a bright girl and Mrs Perry says she should do well.  There’s going to be more in her life than getting married and having babies.  I’ll make sure of that.’

And then, on this strange day, the strangest thing of all happened.  Our Dad, who never, ever raised his voice, especially not to Mum, shouted, ‘I’m sorry your life turned out so badly.’ Then he wrenched open the back door and stomped out.

The windows rattled as he slammed the door behind him and Cassie, our dog, who’d been asleep in front of the Rayburn woke with a start and hissed.  Poor Cassie hasn’t barked since the day she was tossed into a blackthorn hedge by a bad-tempered Friesian heifer.  The shock and shame of it had put an end to her career as a cow dog – and to her bark.

The best she could manage was a hissing croak, like someone trying to shout and whisper at the same time. Usually, we had to try hard not to laugh at her because Mum said dogs had feelings too and how would we like it if everybody laughed at us?  But that day, nobody laughed at Cassie

………………………………..

Although I hated to hear Mum and Dad row, I was thrilled to hear Mum call me a bright girl.  I’d no idea I was in her good books and decided that when she’d calmed down a bit, I’d ask if Rosemary Dinsdale could come to tea. More than anything in the world – except, of course, passing for the Grammar School –  I wanted to be Rosemary’s  best friend. Yesterday she’d fallen out with Sheila Grant, so this was my best chance ever. 

Rosemary was small, neat, and pretty and Mrs Perry must need new glasses. Why else would she have chosen Sheila for the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the School Concert?  As I told Rosemary, anyone could see she looked far more like a Sugar Plum Fairy than Sheila ever could.  And what did it matter if she got muddled and tripped over her own feet sometimes? Even Sugar Plum fairies did that now and then, I supposed.

Rosemary was everything I longed to be.  She was an only child, with silky blonde plaits that reached halfway down her back. She lived next to the church in a big house with lots of windows, a swing in the garden and a proper lawn.  Even the flowers grew in well-behaved rows and there wasn’t a brussel sprout or raspberry cane in sight.

I, however, had straight, mousey hair, cut in what Mum called a “sensible” style, with a fringe like a bookend. Our farm cottage had tiny windows, thick walls and no room to move, with me, Mum, Dad, my three brothers (that’s Peter and twins Antony and David) and, of course, Cassie, as tightly packed as Mum’s bottled gooseberries.

As for our garden, there was a square of grass the boys had turned into a football pitch, Dad’s vegetable patch, a hen house, some apple trees with a washing line strung between and a forest of out of control raspberry canes where the hens would hide when it was time for them to be shut in for the night.

But what I admired most about Rosemary was how every day, at break, she’d have two chocolate digestive biscuits wrapped in a snowy paper napkin. What, I wondered, must it be like to live somewhere where they had chocolate biscuits all the year round and not just at Christmas when Gran turned up with her tin of Peak Frean Family Assorted?

And as I was thinking of Christmas, that was when I got one of my Really Great Ideas.  I often had them, as my brothers knew to their cost. 

But this was The Best Yet.

…………………………………….

‘A St George’s Day Pageant.’  I told Peter as we walked home from school next day. ‘That’ll cheer Mum up. Remember how she enjoyed the Christmas one at school?’

‘Sounds daft to me.’ Peter swung open the farm gate that led to our cottage. ‘Who’s going to be in it?’

‘Well, me.. and you..’

Peter snorted.  But I ignored it.

‘- And the twins..’

Peter snorted again.  ‘They won’t –’

‘… And Rosemary Dinsdale.’  That was the best bit. Nobody else from school, and especially not Sheila Grant, would be asked.  I’d have Rosemary all to myself and when the Pageant was the huge success I knew it would be, Rosemary and I ‘d be best friends.  For ever.

‘Rosemary Dinsdale?’ Peter’s snort turned into a yelp of laughter, then a cry of pain as I thumped the top of his arm. With my knuckles. Hard.   ‘That hurt.’  He rubbed it and glared at me.  ‘I’m not going to be in your stupid Pageant. Nor will the twins.  It’ll be just you and that stuck up Rosemary Dinsdale.’

But of course it wasn’t.  Peter had forgotten how “persuasive” I could be.  He was no match for me, any more than Anthony and David were.  One of the few advantages of being the eldest in a family of four.

Rosemary, however, was gratifyingly enthusiastic.  Especially when I assured her it would be the easiest thing in the world to include a Sugar Plum Fairy in a Pageant about St George.  Everybody knows dragons and fairies go together.  

………………………………………

The Pageant was planned for the Saturday nearest St George’s Day. The final rehearsal had gone well and even the weather was kind.  It was a perfect Spring day, when the sun shone from an achingly blue sky and the air fizzed with the scent of May blossom and the sound of birdsong.

The transformation from back garden to theatre was amazing. We didn’t have enough kitchen chairs so Dad had laid out bales of hay which we’d covered with blankets.  Mr and Mrs Dinsdale were both working and couldn’t come but we still had a good audience. There was Mum, Dad, Gran –who’d only brought Rich Tea biscuits seeing as it wasn’t Christmas so I was praying Rosemary would forget I’d promised her the pink wafers- the Vicar, Mr and Mrs Robinson who own the farm and a thin, anxious man with a shiny suit who’d been hoping to sell Mum some yellow dusters and a floor mop.

For the stage, Mum had let us bring out the hall rug to cover the grass and we’d draped a pair of grey blankets across the washing line for the backdrop and I’d placed four of Mum’s big enamel jugs stuffed with crab apple and cherry blossoms along the front. But best of all -so good, the Vicar said they were “astonishing”- were the two angels with long golden hair and outstretched wings who smiled down on the audience.

The music began.  I’d based the pageant around  a stirring hymn about Saints resting from their labours (Allelulia!).  I made a fetching St George and Peter did his best as the dragon.  His cries when St George’s sword thwacked across his back were very realistic.  It was fast, colourful, action packed and going very well, until…

Until the angel on the left fell off his oil drum.  And the one on the right started to cry and said he wanted to get down, too.

I nearly cried too. I’d worked so hard to get those angels looking right.  I’d got Dad to bring across a couple of empty oil drums from the farm and stand them, on end, either side of the stage.  Then I’d scrounged a pair of old sheets and draped them over the twins and their drums.  I’d even unravelled lengths of the yellow twine that was used to bind hay bales and fashioned them into beautiful golden wigs.  

And I’d bribed them with my Toby Twirl Annual and the remaining half of my Easter Egg, both, fool that I was, given in advance. They’d eaten the chocolate and I couldn’t bear to think what they’d done to Toby Twirl.  Now they were about to ruin the entire Pageant by walking out.

I stopped the music. Rather, I stopped singing – Rosemary and Peter had given up several bars earlier – and brandished my sword at the remaining angel.

‘Antony, you stay right where you are. Mum, please make David come back.  He’ll do it if you tell him he’s got to.’ Then I turned to the rest of the audience and with a flourish St George himself would have been proud of announced: ‘Ladies and gentlemen.  The show goes on.’

But as I launched in to the next part of the hymn, about the dawning of yet more glorious days when Saints triumphant rise in bright arrays  (Alleluia!),  Antony’s cries to get down soared above everything.  David decided to make a run for it, shook off his sheet and binder twine wig and dashed across the stage as the Sugar Plum Fairy made her sensational entrance.  

She launched into her famous pirouette, when mid-turn, her foot got caught  in discarded angel trappings.  My warning cry came too late as she flailed about and grabbed the nearest thing to break her fall. Sadly, that was the backdrop.  There was a crack like a shotgun going off and Mum’s washing line lay on the floor, with Rosemary buried beneath a tangle of white sheeting, binder twine and grey blanket. 

Cassie suddenly remembered she was a cow dog and starting rounding everybody up, her croaks getting louder and louder until, she made a weird throat clearing honk and out came a full throated bark.  A miracle. Cassie had recovered her bark.  It rang out above Rosemary’s muffled screams and Antony’s sobs.

Everyone else, including me, was frozen in shocked silence.  Then Peter went across and helped Anthony down and I shut my eyes.  Mum was going to be furious.   

But when I opened them, she was laughing.  In fact, everyone was. And she didn’t seem to mind about her washing line.  Or that I’d left Antony screaming his head off on top of an oil drum. Or that David was hiding in the raspberry canes.  Or that Cassie, having remembered how to bark had now forgotten how to stop. Everyone was laughing – even Anthony now he was safely back on earth.

Everyone that is except for me.  And, of course, Rosemary Dinsdale.

Again, it was Peter who helped her up. I couldn’t move. Her wand was bent and the binder twine wig had caught on one of the spikes of her crown, so that it covered half her face and wound itself like bindweed around her silken plaits.

 ‘I hate you.’ she screamed at me.  ‘You and your stupid pageant.  Can’t you see they’re all laughing at you?’ Her small grey eyes narrowed with spite.  ‘At you – and your stupid dog, of course. Can’t you make it stop that awful noise? Wait until Sheila  hears about this – this rubbish. Everyone at school will laugh at you.  I’ll make sure of that.’

‘And I’ll tell them how you tripped over your own feet and brought everything crashing down.’  Peter said.  ‘How it was you they were laughing at, not Jenny.  Some fairy you turned out to be.  Fairy elephant, more like it.  Our Jenny’s worth a dozen of you, Rosemary Dinsdale.’

She turned on him, her crown jammed so far down on her head it pushed her ears out, her eyebrows down and made her look like a demented elf.  ‘How dare you talk to me like that,’ she hissed and reached out to grab him, ‘You little –’

‘Leave my brother alone,’ I waved my sword at her.  ‘And you can say whatever you like at school.  I don’t want to be friends with you anymore, anyway.’

I was surprised to find that I meant it and was going to add that Mrs Perry had been right and that she couldn’t dance for toffee, but I didn’t.  Because it was true. She couldn’t dance for toffee.  Or sing either.  In fact, she wasn’t much good at anything. Except looking pretty.  And, of course, the chocolate digestives, which she never shared anyway. 

I looked at Mum.  She was still smiling. Dad had his arm around her and they were looking at each other the way they used to.  Maybe, just maybe, things were going to be all right.

So the Pageant had worked after all.  It had cheered Mum up and Dad too by the look of it. Cassie had recovered her bark.  And of course, by Christmas, the new baby would have arrived.  

And that was when I had another Really Great Idea.  

A Christmas pageant, in the barn this time, so the twins could stand on the raised bits instead of wobbly oil drums.  And then, of course, there’d be a real live baby for the starring role. Maybe Sheila Grant, who everybody knows is a much better dancer than Rosemary Dinsdale, would like to be Mary. 

Oh yes, it was all going to be so beautiful.    

the end

The Day The Music Died – a short story and a painful memory

On this weekend just before Valentine’s Day, it’s quite appropriate that I should be writing about what Shakespeare described as ‘The Food of Love”.  I’m talking about music, of course.

Music has always played a very important part in my life.  I think I was born singing – although I fancy my mother probably had another word for the noise I made!

My father was always singing and to this day, I swear he made some of the songs up!  I can remember him and his sister around the piano in my grandparents’ house singing Silver Threads Among the Gold and “A Rose in a Garden of Weeds”. Then there was “I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch. That would always make me cry.  (Unintentional pun there – sorry!) But I have never been able to track down the words to Where’s my other flippin’ sock? That one’s down to you, Dad.

One of my earliest musical memories was one Saturday morning. I was about five and was doing my chores, part of which involved sweeping the broad concrete paths that divided our house from the one next door.

I was beyond thrilled when our next door neighbour called out to me from her kitchen window and gave me sixpence for ‘singing so nicely that it cheered her up.’  Dad, however, suggested she’d probably paid me the money to make me go away.  And he may well have been right.  I went back on several consecutive Saturdays, sang my heart out but never received another sixpence.

I longed to learn to play the piano.  We’d inherited the one that belonged to my grandmother and it took pride of place in our sitting room but was only used to display family photographs.  I would sit at it for ages, peering at the sheet music, learning the words but failing to make any sense of the notes.  But with six children to feed on a farm worker’s wages, there was never any money left over for luxuries like music lessons.

So when I started grammar school, I was thrilled to see Music on the timetable.  Was this, then, my big chance?  Alas, no. Looking back on it, I think the elderly music teacher looked back longingly to the days when she taught at a private school.  She certainly didn’t teach the majority of us anything about music, preferring to address herself only to those girls who had private music lessons, so most of what she talked about went way over my head.

However, there was one thing she did that I loved  She ran the school choir and I couldn’t wait to join. I tried and failed several auditions but eventually she must have grown tired of saying no to me and allowed me to join.

I can still remember some of the songs we used to sing, like The Ash Grove, Barbara Allen, many of these lovely old songs which are now in danger of sinking into obscurity.  I can still remember them now (don’t ask me where I put my car keys yesterday though!) One of these was an arrangement of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. I still know all the words to that – and often sang it to my boys when they were little. What was I thinking?  They must have hated it because it does have rather a disturbing ending!

When my children were young, we were lucky enough to move to a village near Wells and I joined the cathedral’s Oratorio Society.  And rediscovered my love of singing.  

But this time, I had better luck.  The conductor – and my fellow altos – were very patient and I learned so much, including how to read music.  The first piece I sang (or, I confess, mimed to for a lot of the time) was Bach’s St Matthews Passion and as soon as I heard it, it was like coming home.  Like I’d just found something I’d been looking for all my life.

I learned more about music that first season that at any other time in my life and I was totally hooked on choral music.  The thrill of being in a large group of singers, with an orchestra, in that lovely building never left me.  I stayed with the society for many years and enjoyed some memorable moments, one of which stands out and still gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.  

We were doing Britten’s War Requiem and it had involved some long and difficult rehearsals.  We always had a final afternoon rehearsal before the evening performance.  These would be with the (professional) soloists and orchestra and could be quite hard, intense work.

This particular afternoon, the tenor stood up to sing ‘Move Him Gently Into The Sun” but instead of singing it towards the nave of the cathedral, he turned and sang it to us, the chorus!  It was so moving and we were so touched by his gesture that there was hardly a dry eye among us and when it was our turn to sing, we were all choked up. At least it got all that emotion out of the way in time for the evening performance and maybe that was why he did it.  But it was a wonderful gift and a memory I treasure.

I enjoyed my time with the society so much that even when they introduced auditions I kept going and managed to scrape in.  Just like I had at school.

Then life intervened and things happened and I stopped going.  By the time I rejoined several years later, much had changed.  Gone was the kindly, gentle conductor who carried out the auditions in a small private room well away from the eyes and ears of other people.

Instead, I was warned that the auditions would be held after rehearsal, but we were never told which one.  So, one evening, at the end of rehearsal, he suddenly announced that those who were hoping to join should stay behind for the auditions.

It was a nightmare.  While everyone else was chatting, milling around and putting chairs away (this all took place in the main body of the cathedral) we lined up.  Those who were better prepared than me had brought their own music and we waited in turn.  This took me.right back to those school music lessons when everyone else seemed to know what they were doing and I hadn’t a clue.

By the time it was my turn, I was rigid with fear. I explained that I didn’t have any music (maybe I should have taken my chances with ‘Where’s my other flippin’ sock?!) so I’d sing what we’d been rehearsing that evening and I got about three bars into it and just gave up.  I walked away. And cried all the way home.

Many years later a choir was started in our village.  No auditions necessary.  So I joined and it was great fun.  But then I developed asthma which involved (and still does) a lot of coughing and so I gave up.

Until lockdown.  When the lovely lady who runs the choir started a virtual choir on zoom.  This was the sort of choir for me, I thought.  I can sing and no one can hear me.  So I joined and rediscovered my love of singing.  My sort of choir.  Although I had no intention of joining the real one when things got back to normal.

Then a few months ago, the village choir was allowed to meet for real – and, because I have some very ‘bossy’ friends, (in the nicest possible way) I went along.  We meet in the village hall, with all the door and windows open and everyone bundled into multiple layers of clothing so that we look like a choir of Michelin men.

And we’re singing songs by Katie Perry, the Beach Boys and lots of other people I’ve never heard of (I hadn’t heard of Katie Perry either but I’ve just googled her).  And it’s the best fun. 

So it might not be Bach.  It might not the splendid surroundings of Wells Cathedral.  But the thrill I felt that first time when we sang together, in harmony, was as great as ever.

And no auditions.

And, if, as I believe, that no experience, however painful, is wasted on a writer, below is a short story I wrote a few years ago which drew very heavily on that nightmare of an audition.  It still makes me hot with embarrassment just thinking about it!

The Day The Music Died

Maggie stood tall, straight-backed, her throat almost closed,  her eyes over-bright. Her only thought was to get away without having to speak to anyone. Without having to see the pity and embarrassment in their eyes.

Too late to wish she’d never come.  Too late to wish she’d never let Lindsay talk her into it.

“It’ll be good for you, Mum,” Lindsay had said. “You used to love choral singing – and look, it says here the Cathedral Choral Society is looking for new singers, especially tenors.”

“But they’re male voices,” Maggie said with a smile, knowing Lindsay didn’t share her love of classical music. “I’m an alto.  Or, rather, I was.  Who knows what I am now?  I haven’t sung for years.”

“Then why not give it a try?”

Maggie felt quite guilty about the way her dear, well meaning daughter, who had more than enough to do looking after a young baby, worried about her. Even now, more than a year after John’s sudden, shocking death from a massive heart attack, Lindsay kept finding things for Maggie to do, as if a succession of non-stop activities could somehow fill the un-fillable hole in Maggie’s life.

But this time, maybe Lindsay had got it right. Maggie used to belong to the Cathedral Choral Society years ago but had to give it up when the demands of her job and family had made it difficult to attend the weekly rehearsals. When she saw they were doing Bach’s Mass in B Minor this coming season her heart did something it hadn’t done for a long time.  It gave a little lift of joy.  Bach was one of her favourite composers and she knew she’d enjoy singing those wonderful soaring choruses again.

John used to shake his head at her, puzzled and laughing, as she tried to explain how she got almost as much pleasure from looking at Bach’s music, with its undulating lines of musical notation rippling across the pages, as she did from hearing or singing it.

Going into the cathedral for the first rehearsal of the new season was like meeting up again with an old, dear friend.  She’d forgotten what a thrill it was to walk through that magnificent building, darkened except for the lights in the rehearsal area.  She’d always loved the feeling of belonging, of having the place to herself (at least, her and the other hundred or so members of the Choral Society) now the tourists had gone home.

She loved, too,  the deep shadowy corners, the sonorous echoes, but above all the feeling of reaching back across the centuries as the music she was helping to make soared heavenward into the cathedral’s highest places, the different voice parts weaving in and around each other like ribbons around a maypole.  

It felt good, too, to take her place among the altos again Not that she knew any of them now.  And she certainly didn’t know Simon, the conductor, a young and ambitious man who was, according to the woman on her left, destined for ‘great things.’

As the rehearsal got under way, she realised he was a much more exacting task master than his predecessor.  James had been a soft spoken, gentle man who coaxed the music from his chorus.  Simon, on the other hand, demanded the highest standard right from the very first rehearsal.  But, to her surprise, Maggie found that as her confidence returned, she actually relished the challenge.

“You do realise there’s an audition, don’t you?” the society secretary had explained.  “Simon likes to do it after rehearsal.  Probably in a week or two.  Is that ok?”

“That’s fine.”  Maggie remembered all too clearly when auditions had been introduced, back in James’s time.  Everyone had got very agitated and worried about it, but in the end, it was all done very calmly and kindly.  A bit of sight reading and a  few easy scales to show you weren’t tone deaf which Maggie had managed with ease.

Simon, however, did things differently.  

On the third week, during the break for notices he announced he would be holding auditions after that evening’s rehearsals and would those this applied to please stay behind.

Her first instinct was to put on her coat, hurry out and not come back.  Particularly when she realised the auditions were not going to be like last time, when one by one they were called into a private room, with kindly James urging them to relax and telling them it was nothing to worry about.

Instead, they clustered around the piano in the middle of the rehearsal area, which was still bustling with people chatting in small groups, or busily putting the chairs away.  She stood in line with the other hopefuls, all of whom appeared much better prepared than she was. 

 She felt her first moment of panic when the first singer opened her mouth.  She had a beautiful soprano voice and gave a near perfect solo performance, her clear pure voice rising above the hubbub of one hundred plus people making their way home.

As, one by one, the line grew shorter, each voice was the same stunning standard as the first.  Maggie grew more and more uneasy, a sick feeling in her stomach, her hands clutching her music as if it were a life raft and she had just leapt off the Titanic.

She’d decided she was going to sing the Dona Nobis Pacem  chorus they’d been rehearsing that evening.  It was something she knew well and figured that at least she wouldn’t make a complete fool of herself by losing her place. 

There was no encouraging smile from Simon, seated at the piano.  Just a one bar introduction, during which Maggie forgot all she ever knew about breathing, still less about pitch.  What came out of her mouth was the kind of sound her dog made when someone stepped on his tail.

“I- I’m sorry,” she stammered.  “I – I’m a bit nervous.  I forgot to breathe.  Do you mind if we start again?”

He didn’t exactly sigh and look at his watch.  But she could tell from his body language it was a close run thing.

This time, Maggie forced herself to relax and focus on the music.  The beautiful, beautiful music that had made her cry the first time she heard it. The beautiful, beautiful music that deserved the very best of voices.

She was half way through the seventh bar when her throat, which had been getting tighter and tighter, finally closed over completely and she gave up.  Simon played on for a few more bars then, when it became apparent she wasn’t going to join him, stopped and looked at her.

“That’ll be a no, then?” Maggie said, trying to make it sound casual, like it was no big deal.  He nodded and she walked away, back through the still lingering groups of people.  She walked briskly, shoulders back, her head held high, not looking at anyone. Not wanting to see their pained expressions – or worse still, their pity.

…..

And that was the day the music died for Maggie.  She’d sung all her life, from as far back as she could remember.  She sang when she was happy and sometimes when she was sad.  She sang when she was driving and when she was out walking the dog. She sang when she was working and when she was playing.

Until the night of the audition when something inside her, that little kernel of joy that was everything music meant to her, shrivelled and died.  Like a frost stricken rose.

After that, she never sang again.  Not even Happy Birthday to Harry, her little one year old grandson who was born three months after his Grandad John died. Instead, she just mouthed the words as her daughter and son-in-law sang.

…..

“So I was wondering, Mum, if you’d mind looking after Harry tonight?” Lindsay asked a couple of weeks after the audition.  “Unless it’s your rehearsal night?”

“No.  I decided not to go after all,” Maggie said.  “I didn’t really enjoy it that much, you know.  My voice isn’t what it was.  And it’s – it’s not so good coming home to an empty house.  I’m still not used to that.”

“I understand,” Lindsay said quietly. “But what a shame.  I thought you loved it –”

“What time do you want me tonight?” Maggie cut in.  She wasn’t exactly thrilled about being asked to look after Harry.  Not that she wasn’t very fond of him.  He was a dear little chap, with a smile to melt your bones.

But, the truth was, she wasn’t very good with babies.  Never had been, when she came to think about it.  John was always the one who could calm Lindsay and her brother down when they were little.  He was one those people who was completely at ease with small children.  Not awkward and over anxious like she was.

He’d have made such a lovely granddad.  They’d have made lovely grandparents together.  But on her own, she wasn’t much good.  And young Harry was teething, which meant he was far from being his usual sunny self.

Add to that the fact that she’d never actually looked after him on her own before.  Rob’s mother, Jenny, was a much more hands on grandma than her and Maggie was quite happy to stand back and let her get on with it.  But Jenny was away visiting her other son that week.  So it looked as if, as far as Lindsay was concerned, it was Maggie or nothing.

Lindsay and Rob hadn’t been gone ten minutes when, to Maggie’s dismay, she heard the first fretful wailings coming through the baby monitor.  She left it for a few moments, hoping he’d go back to sleep.  No chance.

By the time she got to his room, his cries had all the volume and passion of the Hallelujah Chorus in full throttle.  His little face was scarlet, his cheeks glistened with tears.

She picked him up, jiggled him around a bit the way she’d seen Lindsay do, offered him a bottle, changed his nappy, even tried to interest him in his toys.  But it was no good.  Nothing she said or did had any effect.  The screaming got louder and shriller, and he was pushing at her with his little fists.

“Oh John, where are you when I need you?” she thought desperately.  “If you were here, you’d know what to do. But then, if you were, he wouldn’t be in this state in the first place.”

She felt like crying along with Harry – and it would have been a toss up whose wails would have been the loudest.

Then, a long forgotten memory tip-toed into her head.  She cradled the unhappy baby in her arms, took a deep calming breath and, very softly, very gently, began to sing.

And amazingly, Harry stopped crying, looked up at her and smiled.

So she took another deep breath and sang some more.  And she didn’t stop singing until Harry gave a little sigh and finally went back to sleep.

Puff the Magic Dragon wasn’t exactly Bach.  But it was a start.

Where do these talented Criminal Shorts authors get their ideas from?

Towards the end of 2020 I was delighted to be included in an anthology collated by one of my favourite Facebook groups and sold in aid of a very special charity.

UK Crime Book Club is a thriving, well run book club on Facebook with a great mix of authors and readers. (As I write this there are 18.7k members, of which over 500 are authors, including big names  and some not-so-big names – like mine.)  

The anthology, Criminal Shorts, is available in ebook and paperback format on Amazon (link here) and was the brainchild of authors Kath Middleton and Will Templeton.  Several times a year UKCBC produces seasonal short stories (eg Christmas, Halloween etc) written by UKCBC members and shared on the UKCBC Facebook page.

“The idea of compiling an anthology first occurred to me a while ago, when the ‘Seasonal Shorts‘ events became so popular,” Will Templeton explains.  “I discussed the notion with Kath Middleton, but between us we dismissed it as being too much hard work! 

“When the idea was raised again in the UKCBC admin group chat it became apparent there was a strong interest in it and we wouldn’t be able to duck out of it so easily. (Just kidding!). 

“The charity was chosen by the admins as one of our author members has a child at the Red Kite Academy, (www.redkitespecialacademy.co.uk) so we felt they would be an ideal recipient of the proceeds.

“The call for submissions brought us a staggering number of stories of a very high quality. This made whittling down the entries to a manageable amount very daunting, assessing originality and ingenuity to finish with a selection to impress the most discerning reader. We hope we have succeeded in creating a unique and exciting book.”

And they certainly succeeded.  The anthology is a superb collection of finely crafted stories and I enjoyed every one.

So I asked the 22 authors involved if any of them would be kind enough to share with the readers of my Ideas Store column (in the UK magazine Writers’ Forum ) where they got the ideas for their stories from and was delighted when thirteen of them responded.  So much so I had way too much material for one issue of my single page column and I had to spread them over three issues!

Also, because of issues of space, I was unable to supply the authors’ links or buy links and am happy to rectify this here. 

I don’t want to make this post too long so I am splitting up the 13 authors who contributed quotes in my column into two posts, with the second being published within the next few days.

………………

Kath Middleton.   Short story: Dark Fires

“I began with the idea of a girl being set up to take the blame for her twin brother’s fire-raising,” Kath explains. “As she was the subservient twin, it would be easy for him to fool her, and make her incriminate herself. As the story evolved, I started to consider the concept of gaslight, so the whole focus changed. Sometimes you don’t write the story you thought you would.”

From Kath’s Amazon author page

Kath Middleton began her writing with drabbles (100 words stories) and contributed a number to Jonathan Hill’s second drabble collection. It wasn’t long before she moved up a size to contribute short stories to anthologies. Shortly afterwards, she progressed to writing longer pieces and her first solo work, Ravenfold, was published to much acclaim. This was followed by the novella, Message in a Bottle. There are now several more publications from short stories to novels. 

Kath likes to put her characters in difficult situations and watch them work their way out. She believes in the indomitable nature of the human spirit (and chickens).

Kath is retired. She graduated in geology and has a certificate in archaeology. When she’s in a hole, she doesn’t stop digging.

website http://www.kathmiddletonbooks.com/

Amazon author page

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kath-Middleton/e/B00H1WWW2E%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share

………………..

Brian Caves.  Short story. Brooks

“The idea behind this was to try an do something different…and I remembered the Francis Ford Coppola film with Gene Hackman as a surveillance operative. It was called The Conversation – superb film,” he says.

“And that’s what started the idea of Brooks, a gun for hire, a cleaner; someone who sorts out someone else’s mess. I thought why not two men in a room having a conversation about sleazy goings on with a Government minister? Brooks would question the minister about his unpalatable habits and actions, each of which is revealed as the conversation progresses. Ultimately, the minister accepts that he has to resign.”

Brian has published two full length novels, short stories and novellas.  He is currently working on follow ups to A Long Way from Home and The Tin Man,  a new full length novel set in the US called Close To The Edge and a book of horror shorts.

The link to his Amazon page i

………………..

Tony Forder.  Short story: Mission Accomplished

“My story, Mission Accomplished, emerged out of pure panic,” he admits. “I had no story, so turned to my most read characters in an act of desperation. My first thought was: what if I send Jimmy Bliss to Ireland to see his mum and [something] happens? My second thought was: what if I send Penny Chandler with him? That was it. I started writing their journey from the airport and finished the entire story in a single sitting.”

It’s a cracking story and a testament to the strength of his characters when an author can just sit down and write an entire story straight off!

From Tony’s Amazon author page

Tony J Forder is the author of the bestselling DI Bliss crime thriller series. The first seven books, Bad to the Bone, The Scent of Guilt, If Fear Wins, The Reach of Shadows, The Death of Justice, Endless Silent Scream, and Slow Slicing, were joined in December 2020 by a prequel novella, Bliss Uncovered. The next book, The Autumn Tree, is scheduled for release on 24 May 2021.

Tony’s other series – two action-adventure novels featuring Mike Lynch – comprises both Scream Blue Murder, and Cold Winter Sun. These are currently unavailable, but will be back in 2021.

In addition, Tony has written two standalone novels: a dark, psychological crime thriller, Degrees of Darkness, and a suspense thriller set in California, called Fifteen Coffins, released in November 2020.

Link to Tony’s amazon author page

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tony-J-Forder/e/B01N4BPT65

His website is www.tonyjforder.com

………………..

Jan Edwards.  Short story.  Down to the Sea Again

“DCI William Wright is a character from my Bunch Courtney crime series,” she says. “Wright was following a lead in my current work in progress that went nowhere useful.  It is referenced in a very minor way in the book’s narrative, but I knew it was never going to fit, no matter how hard I tried.  Trouble was that tentacle of thought simply refused to lay down and be quiet and so ‘Down the Sea’ came into being.”

From Jan’s Amazon author page

Jan Edwards is a UK author with several novels and many short stories in horror, fantasy, mainstream and crime fiction, including Mammoth Book of Folk Horror as well as various volumes of the MX Books of New Sherlock Holmes Stories. Jan is an editor with the award-winning Alchemy Press (includes The Alchemy Press Books of Horror series. Jan was awarded the Arnold Bennett Book Prize for Winter Downs, the first in her ww2 crime series The Bunch Courtney Investigations.

Winner of the Arnold Bennett Book Prize; Karl Edward Wagner award; Winchester Slim Volume award (for Sussex Tales). Short listed for both the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction and Best Collection.

To read more about Jan go tohttps://janedwardsblog.wordpress.com/

Jan’s Amazon page link here

………………..

Susan Handley.    Short story.  Robbed

“My story, Robbed, came from thinking about how someone who has served a prison sentence might feel when they are released,” she explains.

“So many things will seem familiar, yet so many things will have changed. The story starts with Robbie, on his release day, coming out of prison, determined to reclaim his dues and settle a few old scores.”

From Susan’s Amazon page

Susan Handley grew up in England, in the Midlands and despite a love of literature, and crime fiction in particular, she never dreamt of being able to carve out a career as a published writer. But the desire to write never left her and after years of writing by night she has at last been able to share the results of her efforts.

Susan now lives in a small village in rural Kent with her husband and two cats. When she’s not indulging in her love of writing crime fiction she loves walking (the hillier the better), bike riding (the flatter the better) and tending her veggie patch.

Susan has published three novels. A Confusion of Crows is the first to feature DC Cat McKenzie, a one-time marine biologist turned detective. In the second in the series, Feather and Claw, Cat is holidaying on the sunny isle of Cyprus when the death of a fellow guest sees her put her holiday on hold and turn detective. In the third Cat McKenzie mystery, The Body Politic, Cat finds herself investigating the violent death of local councillor. As she uncovers the truth, Cat learns as much about herself as she does the dead man. 

Susan has also produced two short story collections: Crime Bites Volume 1 and Volume 2. Full of bite-size crime stories there’s bound to be something to suit all tastes.

The link is

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Susan-Handley/e/B078YRLWQP?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1623160417&sr=1-1

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Cecilia Peartree.  Short story: The Coastal Path

Cecilia found her inspiration from a series of walks she did with her sister-in-law on the Fife Coast Path.

“In the story I wanted to weave together the walk itself, the uncovering of a secret, and the main character developing as a result of her experiences,” she explains. “At first the walk was the most important thing, but in the end I feel the character development came to be the core of it.”

From Cecilia’s Amazon page

Cecilia Peartree is the pen name of a writer who lives in Edinburgh and has worked as a computer programmer and a database manager. 

She has been a compulsive writer since she first learned to write, and by the age of sixteen she had a whole cupboard full of unfinished stories. 

Cecilia writes the Pitkirtly series of quirky mystery novels set in an imaginary town on the coast of Fife, and the Quest mystery/adventure novels set in the early 1950s. Recently, almost without meaning to, she has also written a short series of Regency novels.

As befits a mystery writer, she is often surrounded by cats while working on her novels.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cecilia-Peartree/e/B005826ULI?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1623160729&sr=8-1

Website. . www.ceciliapeartree.com

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Lexie Conyngham.   Short story: Special Delivery

“I was intrigued by the idea of starting a book with someone walking into a situation he didn’t understand. It seemed a good place to start for a short story, too,” she says. “Apart from that the story was one of those ones that just seems to happen – though I can say that the room in the story that contains only a cistern handle and nothing else was something we found when viewing a house, once!”

From Lexie’s Amazon author page

Lexie Conyngham is a historian living in the shadow of the Highlands. Her Murray of Letho novels are born of a life amidst Scotland’s old cities, ancient universities and hidden-away aristocratic estates, but she has written since the day she found out that people were allowed to do such a thing. Beyond teaching and research, her days are spent with wool, wild allotments and a wee bit of whisky. 

The link to her page is https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lexie-Conyngham/e/B008XH0YQ2?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1623161090&sr=1-1

Read her blog at www.murrayofletho.blogspot.com for some nice veg and occasional insights into Scottish history and wildlife.

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Bill Todd. Short story: Lucky Break

Bill Todd has written seven successful crime thrillers featuring wounded ex-soldier turned private investigator Danny Lancaster.  “For the UKCBC anthology I thought I’d have a shot at a Danny short story which presents different writing challenges.”

A challenge to which the author rose magnificently as his short story, Lucky Break, made me want to read more about Danny Lancaster and I’m now really looking forward to reading the first in the series, The Wreck of the Margarita.  The ebook is currently free on Amazon.   (link here)

Bill’s author bio

I’ve spent my working life as a journalist. You meet a lot of people, see things, learn stuff. For a crimewriter, it’s a plot factory.

I’ve also done a lot of travelwriting. It’s not all cocktails under the palm trees but it is a fantastic job that’s taken me to more than 40 countries, from the white wastes of Arctic Finland to the deserts of Namibia.

People often ask my favourite place. In a world of globalisation, many destinations look the same but Iceland and Namibia are like stepping onto another planet. Go if you can.

I’ve also enjoyed a long love affair with Western Crete, the mountains, coastline, food and people. And I was delighted and surprised to receive the Ed Lacy Gibraltar travel award in 2007.

Another interest is my family tree. I’ve traced the ancestors back to William of Byfield, a farmer in 1600s Northamptonshire, just down the road from Shakespeare.

I love maps. They might seem old fashioned in the age of GPS but they tell stories, make promises. I have a ragbag collection of more than 3,000.

I’m also a fan of interesting cheeses, good beer and wilderness. They’re like Marmite, you’re an empty places person or you’re not.

I have written six crime thrillers and a book of short stories featuring Danny Lancaster, a wounded Afghanistan veteran turned private investigator.

Bill’s Amazon author page. 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bill-Todd/e/B008SA121U?ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vu00_tkin_p1_i0

Bill’s contact details

Bill Todd and Danny Lancaster aren’t hard to find. If you don’t bump into them out and about you can catch them here…

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5804102.Bill_Todd

Twitter: https://twitter.com/williamjtodd – @williamjtodd

Twitter: https://twitter.com/@DannyLancaster3 – @DannyLancaster3

Facebook: www.facebook.com/DannyLancasterInvestigates/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/billtodd_writer/ – @billtodd_writer

Website: www.billtodd.co.uk

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In my next blog I’ll be featuring the other six authors who gave me quotes for my column – and my grateful thanks go to them all.

And, just in case you haven’t done so yet, please check out Criminal Shorts at

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Criminal-Shorts-Crime-Book-Anthology-ebook/dp/B08LH879H4/ref=sr_1_1?

It’s available in paperback or ebook – and as I’ve said before, it’s a cracking read and a great charity.

A meander down Memory Lane and a short ghost story, The Blue Lady

I hope you’ll forgive me for indulging in a bit of nostalgia this week. (Correction: a lot of nostalgia) But in my column, Ideas Store, in the current issue of Writers’ Forum, I am writing about the house I grew up in and how it inspired my sister and I to make up stories (usually involving ghosts).   There wasn’t room on my page for the story itself so I’m setting it out below and including some more detail about the story behind the story and the farm where I spent most of my childhood.

The house was an old Manor House, parts of which dated back to the 16th century (picture below) and before you run away with the idea that I am one of the landed gentry, let me explain some of the house’s more recent history.  

It was on a 350 acre farm in South Somerset, set in a stunning location which I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate at the time, mostly because it was in the middle of nowhere and at the top of a very steep hill.  I had to push my bike up with an overflowing school satchel cutting in to my shoulders after a long school day which started with a 2 mile bike ride, a 10 mile bus ride and a 15 minute walk – and ended the other way around in the evening.  (At least in the mornings the bike ride was downhill)  But the bus journey gave me chance to catch up on my homework – and check out the boys from the Grammar School.  (I went to an all girls school)

The farm and manor house was bought by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) back in the 1950s.  The farm had the most up to date machinery money could buy (my dad was the farm mechanic and looked after it all) and the idea was to run a model farm to show the farmers how brilliant ICI fertiliser was and how they could improve their  own farms by using it.  It would probably have been cheaper to have taken out a few adverts in the Farmer and Stockbreeder, I would have thought – but what  do I know?

So, the house, which I now see is a grade 2 listed building, was split up into four parts, one being the farm offices and the other three into dwellings for the farm workers.  It was a beautiful house, with high ceilings, tall mullioned windows  and acres of space.  I am one of six children and we had moved from a very cramped cottage.  I can still remember the joy of moving into that house and have vivid memories of my younger brothers riding a sit-on wooden train that Dad had made for them that first Christmas round and round the huge kitchen/living room.  

I loved Henley (in spite of it being in the middle of nowhere) and was desperately sad when my parents finally moved out, even though by then I’d long since left home.  My parents were still living there when I got married and we had our wedding reception in the farm’s Conference Room.  And, as you can see below, one of our wedding pictures was photo-bombed by  the ICI roundel!

There were six other families on the farm, many with young children so although we were several miles from the nearest town  there was always someone to play with.  I was a very bossy little girl and soon had all the other children on the farm press ganged into appearing in my various plays and pageants.  One of these, a pageant written for St George’s Day involved a lot of galloping around singing “For all the saints who from their labours rest” and precious little story.  This event turned into a complete fiasco when one of my younger brothers refused to be an angel any more and quit his post on top of an oil drum in the middle of the performance. It was the inspiration behind one of the first short stories I ever sold.  It was to Woman’s Weekly and called Angels on Oil Drums.

But the short story I want to feature this week is The Blue Lady, which, like many of my stories had its origin at this time of my life.  My sister and I would make up ghost stories, based on the house and its long history, and frighten each other to death. The Blue Lady was our favourite and the only one we can still remember.  What is interesting about that story is that it has now found its way into the local folklore.  

So when many years later I wanted to write a ghost story I remembered our Blue Lady and incorporated her into the story which ended with what I thought was quite a neat twist.  

THE BLUE LADY

‘For goodness sake, come in and shut the door.’ Jane Armstrong scowled at the woman who hovered behind her in the doorway. ‘I don’t pay you to stand around gawping like a goldfish.’

Elizabeth Parry, a  timid grey woman in her mid-fifties, flinched but didn’t move. ‘I’m s-sorry. – ‘ she stammered as she backed away. ‘I  can’t stay here.’ 

‘What?’  Jane was astonished.  She wasn’t used to people standing up to her, least of all mouse-like Elizabeth.

‘I said I can’t stay here. Oh, Mrs Armstrong, something terrible’s happened here. Can’t you feel it?’

‘The only thing I feel is the urge to slap some sense into you.’ 

Elizabeth wrapped her arms around her thin body and shivered.  ‘It’s like – listen!  Can you hear it?’

‘All I hear is your idiotic babbling.’

‘Up there.’  Elizabeth pointed towards the upper landing.  ‘Oh, please, let’s get out while we can.’

This time even Jane heard the low, rasping noise, like something heavy being dragged across the floor.  She strode to the bottom of the stairs and called up: ‘Who’s there?  Show yourself at once.’

A door opened and a plump, red-faced woman with hair like steel wool leaned over the banisters.

‘My life, you startled me,’ she said.  ‘It’s Mrs Armstrong, the new owner, isn’t it? The agent said you wouldn’t be arriving until this evening. But not to worry.  I’m done here.’

She bustled down the stairs, her blue plastic bucket overflowing  with polishes and dusters

 ‘There’s your precious ghost, ‘ Jane sneered.  ‘A cleaner, moving a bit of furniture.  Am I right?’

The cleaner nodded then peered anxiously at Elizabeth’s pale face.  ‘Didn’t mean to startle you, my dear,’ she said. 

‘So now we’ve solved the mystery of your so-called ghost, Elizabeth, do you think you could do some work?  It is after all what I pay you for.’

But Elizabeth shook her head.

Jane  snorted. ‘Did you ever hear such nonsense, Mrs –er?’

‘Minty. Sarah Minty.’

‘Well, Sarah Minty, this madwoman here refuses to stay in this house,  Says it’s haunted, even though I’ve proved to her the ghost doesn’t exist. She’s losing her mind.’

‘If she is then so’s half the folk in this village.’ Sarah said. ‘She’s not the first to be afraid of Waytown Hall.  Several around here swear they’ve seen a ghost in this house  I’m one of the few who’ll set foot inside.’

‘You’re obviously far too sensible to believe in all that nonsense.’ Jane said.  

‘I believe in the spirits,’ Sarah said quietly.  ‘But I know this one means me no harm, though some think she was responsible for Major Harvey’s death.  He was the old gentleman who lived here before you.’

‘How did he die?’ Elizabeth  whispered, wide-eyed .

‘Fell down these very stairs.  Broke his neck, poor chap. Although I wonder if it wasn’t the spirits from a bottle that did for him rather than the Blue Lady.’

‘What did you call her?’ Jane  asked sharply.

‘The Blue Lady.  Nobody’s really sure who she is or why she walks but –’

‘No one .. except  … me.’ Jane said between wild gusts of laughter that left her gasping for breath. 

‘Mrs Armstrong, remember the doctor said over-excitement was bad for your heart,’ Elizabeth warned,  then turned to Sarah. ‘You’re wrong, Mrs Minty, about the ghost being a friendly one.  I feel intense hatred in this room.’

Sarah frowned. ‘Now you mention it there is something.  It wasn’t like it when I arrived but now… there’s a disturbance in the air,  as if – .’

‘When you two have finished scaring each other witless with your ghost stories, I’d like to tell you mine .’  Jane’s acid voice cut in. ‘It’s not scary – just very funny.  When I was a child, I lived in this house.  My mother died when I was a baby and so there was just me and my father, Charles Maidment.  I dare say you know the name?  There were generations of Maidments at Waytown Hall until my fool of a father sold it.’

Elizabeth gasped.  ‘You never said –’ 

‘It was none of your business,’ Jane snapped. ‘I’m only telling you now to end this nonsense.   I used to play with a girl called Margaret who was so gullible, she believed everything I told her. I’d frighten the life out of her with stories of headless monks and weeping children.  But the one that terrified her most was about the ghost who was supposed to haunt this house and how, if she touched you, you’d drop down dead.  Now do you see why I’m so sure your precious Blue Lady doesn’t exist?  I invented her!’

But still Elizabeth refused to stay.  When Sarah Minty left Waytown Hall,  Elizabeth, with one last anguished plea for Jane to come with them, went too.

‘Don’t come whining back to me when you find no one wants to employ someone of your age with no qualifications or reference,’ Jane yelled, slamming the door behind them.

‘Your temper’s as nasty as ever I see, Jane.’

Jane whirled round to stare up at a slender young woman who stood at the top of the stairs.  Her long, blue dress shimmered as she moved.

‘I knew you’d be back,’  The Blue Lady said.

‘Who are you?’

‘You know perfectly well who I am. I’ve been waiting for you. I had to frighten poor Major Harvey into falling down the stairs because I wanted the place unoccupied, ready for you.  Pity, though. He was a nice old chap.’

Jane shivered in spite of the central heating. ‘What do you want?’

‘To ask you why.’ The ghost closed her eyes as if, even after all these years, the memory still upset her.  ‘Why did you push me down the stairs? I loved you and thought we were a normal happy family.’

‘A normal happy family?’ Jane forgot her fear as the years slipped away. ‘I hated you. Daddy and I were happy until you came along.  He used to call me his Little Lady.  He didn’t need a wife and I certainly didn’t need a step-mother.’

‘Yet my death didn’t bring you what you wanted, did it?’  The Blue Lady began walking down the stairs towards Jane. ‘You and your father were never easy in each other’s company again.’

‘Of course we were,’ Jane said defiantly.  ‘Without you around to spoil things, we had a wonderful time.’

‘I know you’re lying because I’ve been watching you all these years.  Watching and waiting.’

 As the Blue Lady got closer, Jane felt a chill wrap around her like November fog.

‘You’ve been alone all your life, haven’t you? Nobody could stand being near you for long.  Your husband, even Elizabeth left in the end.  I made sure of that.  And as for your father -‘

‘I’m not listening -‘ Jane said but the quiet voice went on pitilessly.

‘After my death, Charles sold this house.  He couldn’t bear to be reminded of what had happened here because there was this tiny seed of doubt in his mind.  He saw you – did you know that? He saw you at the top of the stairs.’

‘I don’t believe you.’  

‘He thought your strange, too calm expression as you looked down on my body was the result of shock.  But over the years, every time you went into one of your uncontrollable rages, the doubts grew until he was finally forced to admit the truth.  That my death was no accident – and you were responsible.’

‘He couldn’t have –’

‘He died of a broken heart, you know, Jane.’

‘No!’ Jane screamed.  ‘That’s a lie. You were always lying to him.’

‘I never lie.  Unlike you.  You even made up the ghost story to frighten poor little Margaret.’

‘That was only a bit of  harmless fun.’

‘Your Blue Lady served my purpose well.  I even added my own little touch.  Can you smell violets? I was always very fond of them.  Don’t you think I’m a convincing Blue Lady?’ The gossamer material whispered against her legs as she gave a small twirl. ‘Your harmless fun appears to have backfired on you.’

She laid a hand on Jane’s wrist. ‘Come along now.’

The ghost’s touch had been icy but Jane’s wrist stung as if a red hot iron had been laid on it.  She remembered how she used to frighten Margaret by saying how if the ghost touched you … but it was only a story.  Wasn’t it?

As if she had no will of her own, Jane stumbled up the stairs, her heart beating erratically, frantically as she did so.  She remembered the heart pills in her handbag on the hall table, but instead of turning back to get them she kept climbing the stairs, her breath coming in short, painful gasps,  her eyes focussed on  the Blue Lady.

……..

Two days later, Elizabeth, worried about her employer, called the Police who found Jane’s body on the stairs.  It wasn’t until later that Elizabeth realised the sense of evil that had so frightened her earlier was no longer there. 

Now, there was nothing in the air but a faint lingering scent of violets.

My short story. The Kindness of Strangers (and where I got the idea from)

Before I was married I used to work in Bristol city centre and would catch the bus (it was, if I remember, the #18 for Clifton) to and from work.  And the buses were, at times, erratic.  No electronic thingy in the bus shelter showing when the next one was due.  You just waited and waited – and then three would come along all at once.

All that is a very long winded way of saying that I haven’t posted to my blog for several weeks and now I’m posting twice in one week.  I could tell you it’s because I’ve been poorly, but you don’t want to know that and I’ve waffled on quite enough.

So the reason for this, the second post of the week is the fact that issue 216 of Writers’ Forum is out this week and in my Ideas Store column, I said (among other things)….”and you can read the whole story on my blog.”  But, of course, it wasn’t there.

So apologies if you went to my blog hoping to find it.  But it’s here now.  (Although chances are, you have voted with your feet and decided not to bother, in which case I am talking to myself again.) 

IMG_9437
One of my earliest entries

In my column I was writing about notebooks and how I’ve kept one, on and off, for the last 15 years.  My first notebook was an old A4 hardback that I’d liberated from the day job but once I’d filled that, (it took my four years) I started using Moleskine notebooks because I was earning some money from my writing by then and could afford the luxury.

When I was writing short stories, I needed a steady influx of ideas to keep the stories coming.  (Wendy Clarke, who also started her writing career as a short story writer, touches on this in my interview with her). 

img_2311-2.jpeg
Very often, I would use a prompt, many of which came from Judy Reeves’ A Writers Book of Days.  I hope you can see from the illustration how well used my copy is.  One of these days I am going to add up all the stories that I’ve sold as a result of this book!

But the story I feature in this month’s Ideas Store, The Kindness of Strangers, does not come from a prompt but from my Fiction Square.  In Judy’s book, there is a prompt for every day of the year and I’d already used that day’s prompt in a previous year and had sold a story as a result of it.  So I didn’t want to use that again as I couldn’t get the original story out of my mind.  Instead, I used the Fiction Square from my column.

If you’re not familiar with the magazine, there is a 5 x 6 grid printed each month, showing 6 characters, traits, conflicts, locations and objects.  The idea is you roll a dice to find all the ingredients of your next story. On this particular day my dice rolls came up with:

Character 1. a sullen child

Character 2. an heroic climber

Conflict: Dispossessed

Location: charity shop

Object: a book.

IMG_1639I began writing in my notebook: Ok, I see a boy. Sullen, defensive.  He’s shoplifting.  Been dared to do so by so-called mates.  But, like everything else he tries, he’s not very good at it. He’s Billie-No-Mates.

Caught in the act by the climber, Rob.  (Something more valuable than a book) Rob is broken.  On crutches? Certainly doesn’t climb any more.  Why?  An accident.  What’s he doing in a charity shop?  Helping someone – his mother? No, he’s a customer. He’s a hero because he got a party of children to safety.  Doesn’t feel like it because one of them died. 

Since the accident, he’s been numb.  Blames himself even though the enquiry exonerated him. Praised him for his courage. He’s walked away from everyone who cares about him. Drifting from one dead end job to another. One dead end town to the next.  Sleeping rough. Shopping in charity shops for warm clothes. 

My notes went on for another two pages and at the end of it I had almost outlined  a complete story. I’d like to tell you it always worked like that but, sadly, that is not the case.  In fact, at one time I thought it had the makings of a serial.  Which it may well do one day.  Who knows?

So, as promised, here is the final version of that story, which was published in the UK magazine, My Weekly and has had subsequent overseas sales as well. 

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

As shoplifters went, the kid wasn’t even very good. Drawing attention to himself with each furtive glance. The idiot might as well be wearing a striped jumper, black mask and carrying a bag marked ‘swag’ over his shoulder.

Mac took a jumper off the hanger. It was a horrible mustard yellow, hand knitted thing, which was probably why it ended up in a charity shop. Not that he gave a toss what it looked like. The people he mixed with didn’t set too much store on sartorial elegance any more than he did. It was warm. It was cheap. Job done.

 He turned to take it to the till. The kid was still by the CDs. Probably just browsing after all. Whatever. None of his business.

The kid’s head suddenly shot up as three lads of about the same age as him came up to the window. One signalled him to hurry up. Mac watched as the boy slipped the CD into his pocket and hurried out to his giggling mates. He saw him show them what he’d got, heard the shrieks of derisive laughter. He saw, too, the kid’s head go down, shoulders hunched, as he shoved the CD back in his pocket.

Mac shrugged. No need to get involved. He’d be moving on tomorrow. To another dead end job in another dead end town. But at least this time accommodation of a sort went with the job. That would be good. The nights were getting too cold to spend many more on the streets and the pain in his leg was getting worse, the colder it got. Sleeping rough was not one of his better ideas.

The girl at the till looked ridiculously young to be alone in charge of a shop. No wonder the kids were stealing off her. Mind you, if she kept the more valuable items, like that little egg cup he was pretty sure was silver,  nearer the till, that would be a start. 

“I’m so glad someone’s bought this,” she smiled as she folded the jumper. “My gran knitted it for my brother and he refuses to wear it.”

“Lucky for him he can afford to be choosy,” Mac growled – and instantly regretted it. It came across as whingey, and self pitying and he was neither. 

“Oh Lord, I’m so sorry.” A flush stained the girl’s pale cheeks. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“You didn’t,” he said tersely. Why didn’t she just bag the thing and let him go? He didn’t come in here to get her life history. Didn’t want to know about knitting grannies. Certainly didn’t want to think about his own, who didn’t knit. But worried. Even though he was thirty two next birthday, she still worried about him. Probably a little less now he’d given up climbing.

“I don’t usually work in the shop,” the girl was saying. “I’m happier looking after the animals. But the rescue centre needs the money desperately and when we had the chance of this empty shop for a few months, we jumped at it. But I’m not very good at it, as you can probably tell. Take these biscuits, for example. There were eight of them but now there are only six and I know I haven’t sold any. Look, I’m going to have a cup of tea and a biscuit while they’re still here. Would you like one? I made them, so it’s ok.” 

“No thanks.” Mac grabbed the bag and headed for the door. What? Did she think he was a bloody charity case? Or, maybe she thought he was the one who’d been nicking her precious biscuits? He might look a down and out. He might shop in charity shops. But that didn’t mean –

He stopped. He was angry. Hell, yes, he was angry. It was the first time he’d felt anything, except an icy numbness, since The Accident. Correction. Since the day after, when Mrs Pearce had screamed at him, called him a murderer. Said she hoped the knowledge that he’d killed her daughter would haunt him for the rest of his life. Well, she wasn’t wrong there.

He’d coped by training himself to feel nothing. No pleasure. No joy at the sight of a sunrise, no warmth in the company of friends, nor even the comfort of a soft bed. It was, he reckoned, a price worth paying. To be where no one knew him. Or tried to make him feel better by saying the accident wasn’t his fault. That he’d done all he could. 

When he knew, just as Mrs Pearce did, that he hadn’t.

Why then, had he got so angry, because a young woman with a big soft eyes and a sweet smile had offered him kindness? Was it because she’d seen him as an object of pity? Someone who couldn’t even afford the price of a cup of tea and a biscuit? Who relied on the kindness of strangers?

Much better save her pity for the downtrodden donkeys and abandoned dogs.

As he reached the door, he was surprised to see the young shoplifter approaching and stood back to let him in. Then, on an impulse, he turned and followed him back into the shop. Outside, the others were urging the kid on. Obviously, the CD was not to their taste and they’d sent him back for bigger fry.

The kid reached into his pocket, took out the CD and put it back on the shelf. Mac watched as he edged up to the shelf where the silver egg cup was. Saw the furtive look as he picked it up, the relief when he saw the girl was busy on the other side of the shop.

Without realising he was going to do it, Mac walked across, put his hand over the boy’s stick thin wrist. Waited until the hand opened and the boy let the egg cup go. He looked up at Mac, his eyes wide with fear.

“Look, I’m sorry, mate,” Mac said loudly. “It’s no good asking me about volunteering. You should ask the lady over there. It’s her shop. I’m sure she can do with some extra help. Isn’t that right?” he said as the smiley girl came across to them. “Who knows? She may even offer you a cup of tea and a biscuit while she tells you all about the rescue centre.”

She looked surprised. Saw, too, the egg cup, upside down on the shelf. He could see she understood what had happened here. Would she call the Police? Up to her. It was stupid of him to have got involved anyway. It was just there was something about the kid. He’d seen it many times before. 

Back in the day, before The Accident, he’d worked with kids just like him. Not bad kids, most of them. They came to the Outdoor Pursuits Centre where he’d worked, full of bluster and bravado when they first got there. Scared witless at their first sight of a mountain close up. Trying desperately not to show it. Hell, but he used to get such a kick out of the ones who ‘got it’, the ones who scraped their knuckles, cramped their legs muscles, forced themselves so far out of their comfort zones they’d never be the same again. The ones who stood with him on the top of the mountain, their eyes full of awe, their faces full of wonder.

This boy wasn’t a bad kid. Just had some bad mates. Not that Mac gave a toss what happened to him, of course. 

“Here,” the girl gave the boy a beaming smile and handed him a leaflet. “It’s really good of you to enquire about volunteering. We run the rescue centre on a shoestring, you know, and need all the help we can get. Why don’t you read that and, if you’re still interested, come up to the centre, meet the animals and we’ll talk about it?”

The boy mumbled something barely audible and scuttled out of the shop.

“Thank you, Mac” the girl said quietly. “You handled that really well.”

He spun round, his mouth dry. “You know me?” he whispered, rubbing his hand through his straggling beard, his long lank hair.

“I do now. You are Rob McKinley, aren’t you? I wasn’t sure when you first came in. But my brother – the one who hasn’t the wit to recognise a good jumper when he sees one – he has a poster of you on his wall. Climbing’s his passion. You’re one of his heroes.”

Hero? He was no bloody hero. He was the guy who hadn’t been able to stop a young girl fooling around on a mountain. Hadn’t insisted she stayed with the group and not forge on ahead. Hadn’t been able to get down to her quick enough. Hadn’t been able to stop his own out of control tumble down the treacherous scree covered slope as he tried to reach her, his leg snapping like a twig during the fall. Hadn’t been able to move her, nor force her to hang on to life as they’d waited for the rescue party. 

Had cradled her lifeless body, long after she’d gone. 

“I was so sorry to hear about your accident,” the girl said softly. “Sorry, too, about the girl. It wasn’t −”

Mac’s hands were shaking as he wrenched open the shop door. Time to move on. Fast. Before she had chance to tell him that the accident wasn’t his fault, that he was – what had they said at the enquiry that had exonerated him? – a hero. 

So he did what all ‘heroes’ do when they come up against something they can’t handle. He ran – as fast as his wreck of a leg would carry him.

………..

“Thank you,” Mac said as the man dropped money into the bowl. He felt a cold nose touch the back of his hand and reached to fondle the dog’s head. Archie was never far from his side.

“Well, how are we doing?” Beth asked.

“The money’s rolling in,” Mac said. “It’s typical of Tom to turn his leaving do into a fund raising bash, isn’t it?”

“He’s a great kid, isn’t he? And he’s going to be a great vet, too.”

“He’s got a long, hard slog ahead, though. Getting into vet school’s one thing. Staying there’s another.”

“He’ll be fine, Mac. Don’t be such a pessimist.”

He pulled her towards him and kissed the top of her head. “You always see the best in everyone. And I love you for it.”

He loved her for a whole load of other things as well and there wasn’t a day went by that he wasn’t thankful for the way she’d run after him that day. Taken him back to the shop, made him sit and listen and eat those damn awful biscuits she’d made.

“Of course I see the best in people,” she said. “And you don’t, I suppose? That day in the shop, you could have had Tom arrested for shoplifting.”

“And so could you. You knew as well as I did he wasn’t in the shop to volunteer.”

“Yet look where volunteering’s taken him,” she said. “I knew, from the first moment he turned up at the rescue centre that he was as nuts about animals as I am.”

“Nuts being the right word.” Mac ducked quickly. Beth could pack a hefty punch, a result, she claimed, of standing up for herself against her bully of a brother.  The same guy who was now Mac’s best friend, climbing partner and soon to be best man at their wedding.

“Well, get on with it,” Beth said. “There’s a load of people heading this way who haven’t bought raffle tickets yet. You’re slipping.”

Mac smiled as he watched her hurry away to talk yet more people into sponsoring donkeys or adopting ducks. 

Beth could never resist a stray. She treated the frightened, the abused and abandoned with the same quiet patience she’d dealt with him. Gently, but firmly, she’d chased away his demons and dragged him back to life. 

A life which, amazingly, she wanted to share. Along with four donkeys, a foul mouthed parrot and goodness knows how many dogs, cats, chickens and ducks.

 THE END

A short story for Christmas – and a Dalmatian called Jemima

Sleeping Dalmatian by a Christmas tree
Too much partying, too much booze, Gives you spots and makes you snooze. Jemima Christmas 2011

Well I did it! I hit ‘send’ on my second Much Winchmoor novel on the due date, so as promised in my last blog post, I’m posting this short story by way of celebration. Also, it’s a thank you to all you lovely people who have followed my blog during my stumbling journey towards and beyond publication of my debut crime novel, Murder Served Cold.

It is not a Christmas story but one I enjoyed writing very much as it features a Dalmatian called Jemima – and here’s a photograph of the dog that inspired it. She was a sweet natured, gentle dog and was very much loved.

This story is dedicated to her and all the other dogs we have been privileged to share our lives with.

Mail Order Husband

“WANTED: A Husband.  Must be young and fit with good teeth and bone structure.”

I read out what I’d just written to Jemima, who was watching me, her lovely amber eyes focussed intently on my face.  “What do you think so far?” I asked. “Is there anything else you’d like  me to say?  Good sense of humour?  Enjoys long walks in the country?”

Jemima gave one of her special smiles, then went across to the door and looked back at me impatiently.

“OK, I’ll be there in a minute,” I said.  “But I’ve got to finish this ad first.  It is, after all, for your benefit, so don’t rush me, otherwise I’ll forget the most important bit.  ‘Must have spots’. Better not leave that out, had I?”

After all, spots are pretty important to a Dalmatian – and Jemima, my two year old Dalmatian was pretty important to me.  In fact, since Simon stomped out of my life, she was the single most important thing left in it.  

Maybe, this tiny niggling voice inside my head was saying, that was the case before Simon stomped out – and maybe that was why he stomped.

That and the dog hairs, of course. They used to drive him bananas.  If he was wearing light coloured clothes, the black hairs would show while the white ones stuck like a shower of tiny barbed magnets to his smart, something-in-the-City suits.

But now Simon had gone, there was nothing stopping me letting Jemima have a litter of puppies, hence my quest to find her a husband – or in her case, a one night stand.  In fact, for Simon, that was the final straw, or do I mean dog’s hair?  He didn’t quite say ‘it’s me or the puppies’, just the usual stuff about growing apart and how it was him, not me.

I finished writing the ad, popped it in an envelope ready to put in the post box when I took Jemima out for her walk.  There were some wonderful dog walks close to where I lived and in the two years I’d had Jemima, I’d got to know and like most of the other dogs and their owners in the area.  

All, that is, except one.  The dog was the most peculiar looking creature you could imagine, with weird, angular limbs that stuck out at awkward angles when he ran.  He had huge clumsy paws, hair that looked like a worn down yard broom and a bark that could have been used as a foghorn in the English Channel.  I have no idea what his owner looked like because he was invariably a couple of fields away, bellowing at the dog to come back.

Only of course, the dog never did.  If that dog had been human, he’d have had an asbo slapped on him ages ago.  He was a nightmare.

As I crossed the stile into the next field, there ahead of me, was Asbo Dog who took one look at me and Jemima and ran towards us, no doubt trying to warn us there was a giant oil tanker bearing down on our starboard side.

I did what I always did when I heard him.  I turned, went back over the stile and into another field, calling Jemima to follow me as I did so.

But she didn’t.  Instead, for the first time in her life, instead of coming when she was called, she took off across the field towards him, like Cathy and Heathcliff on the Yorkshire moors.

“Jemima.  Come back now.” I yelled, but it was no good.  The two of them streaked through the hedge and out of sight, leaving me to run as fast as I could after them.

“Was that your dog chasing mine?” a young man with wild hair and anxious brown eyes asked me.

“My dog chase yours?” I stopped to get my breath and realised I was talking to the owner of Asbo-Dog.  “Let me tell you, Mr -?”

“Nick.  My name’s Nick.”

“Well, Nick, your dog is the worst, the most out of control dog I’ve ever met. Have you never heard of training classes?”

Nick pushed his fingers through his hair, making it wilder than ever. “I tried – but he got expelled.  Untrainable, she said.”

“Nonsense.  You should have found another class.  No dog is untrainable, you know, just their owners.”

“And what would they teach me?” he said, his mouth twitching like he was trying to hide a smile.

“To get your dog to come when it’s called, for a start,” I said, realising too late I’d  walked into his trap.

“Like – what was it you called her?  Jemima?”

“Yeah, all right.” I couldn’t help laughing but it soon faded.  “Seriously though, we ought to find them.  I don’t know about yours, but mine’s got the road sense of a paper bag.  And if they should get as far as the main road –”

“Good point.  Mine usually sticks to the fields, but it looks like your Jemima has turned his head well and truly today.  Who knows what might be going on in that pea brain of his.  I’ll try calling him again.  Dolly!  Come here boy.”

“Dolly?”  We were half way across the second field by now but I stopped and turned to stare at him.  “You have a great bruiser of a dog who’s built like a tank, looks like a giant bottlebrush and has a bark like a fog horn – and you call him Dolly?”

Nick shrugged.  “I don’t know much about dogs but the name suits him when you get to know him.”

I stopped myself in time from saying I didn’t think I wanted to get to know Dolly and I certainly didn’t want any of his bad habits rubbing off on Jemima.

“He was a rescue dog,” Nick went on.  “My girlfriend bought him, said she couldn’t resist his cute face.  She knew even less about dogs than I do, but we could see he was a right old mixture of breeds, so we thought it would be very clever to call him Dolly.  For Dolly Mixtures?  We thought he was a she, you see.”

“Obviously,” I said.  “But even when they’re little puppies, it’s fairly easy to tell little boy dogs from little girls.”

“I did say we didn’t know much about dogs,” he said with a rueful grin.  “And by the time we discovered out mistake, the name had stuck.  Unfortunately, at about the same time, my girlfriend realised she’d made another kind of mistake and that she wasn’t really a dog person, or, when she stopped to think about it, a me person, so she walked out, leaving me and Dolly to rub along without her.”

By this time we’d covered most of the field and I was beginning to get seriously worried about Jemima.

“She’s never run off before,” I said, my throat feeling quite sore from calling for her.

“I’m afraid Dolly does it to me most days,” Nick said.  “I live in the cottage at the end of Henley Lane and by the time I get back, he’s there, waiting for me, a big silly grin on his face like he’s saying ‘what kept you?’  Hey, come on, they’ll be fine, you’ll see.”

But by the time we trudged back to his cottage, there was no great overgrown bottlebrush of a dog waiting on the doorstep with a big silly grin.  No sign of Jemima either.

I was seriously worried and ready to burst into tears.  “If anything’s happened to her, I’ll never forgive myself,” I said as I tried but failed to imagine life without my stupid, scatterbrain, intensely affectionate dog who would wrinkle her lips back in a smile – and steal the food off the table the second my back was turned.

“Look, why don’t you come in and have a coffee or something?” Nick asked.  “You look all in.”

“No, I must keep looking.” 

“Just a quick coffee – and I’ve got some very nice chocolate biscuits. Come on round the back.  It’s easier -“

He stopped so suddenly that I bumped into him on the narrow path that led around the side of his cottage.  To one side of the cottage was an old lean to that Nick obviously used as a log store.

And there, cosied up together like Brad and Angelina was Jemima and Dolly.  He was looking like the cat who got the cream while she looked like she’d not only got the cream but the champagne and chocolates as well.

I went to get her lead from my pocket when I felt something crackle. I pulled it out.  It was the envelope I’d forgotten to post.

“You’re all right,” Nick said.  “There’s a post box just outside the cottage.”

“I think it’s a bit late for that,” I said.

He shook his head.  “No, I don’t think it’s been collected yet.  Do you want me to -?”

I shook my head and laughed.  “I meant it’s probably too late as far as Jemima’s concerned.  This is an advert for a husband for her.  I was trying to find another Dalmatian, you see.  Only it looks very much like Jemima had her own ideas when it came to finding a mate.”

“Oh Lord, I am sorry,” Nick said.  “But don’t I remember hearing somewhere that there are injections dogs can have, sort of like the morning after pill?”

I looked at Jemima, still cosied up to Dolly.  And I looked at Dolly with his sweet trusting face and friendly eyes.  And do you know, he was quite a handsome looking dog, after all.  The sort that grew on you.  Very much like his owner, come to think of it.

“Oh I don’t know,” I said, “Goodness only knows what the puppies will be like.  We’ve probably invented a new breed.  We can call them –”

“Dolly-dallies.”

We both said it together, proving what I was coming to suspect.  That Nick and I had as much in common as our dogs. 

THE END

Now, all that remains is to wish you all a happy Christmas and a hope that 2019 brings you everything you wish for. xxx


Where do you get your ideas from?

IMG_1361

Angels on Oil Drums

As I started writing this week’s blog, the flag of St George was flying from the flagpole on the top of our village church for St George’s Day, England’s patron saint. 

I have good reason to celebrate St George’s Day because it was the inspiration behind the very first story I ever sold.  

 I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write.  As soon as I was old enough to hold a pencil, I was writing.  Plays, stories, comic books, poems and even a pageant or two. Throughout our childhood,  I bullied my three younger brothers  into appearing in various ‘plays’ I’d written which we’d then perform for all our neighbours – at least, the ones who weren’t quick enough to come up with a decent excuse.

My first publicly performed work was a bit of a cheat as it didn’t involve any original writing.  It was a pageant, enacted to the words of the hymn “For all the saints, who from their labours rest…” to celebrate St. George’s Day.  

The ‘stage’ was to be our front lawn, the backdrop Mum’s washing line with a couple of old grey blankets draped over it.  I’d filled two large jugs with armfuls of  pink and white blossom which stood at the front.  It looked perfect. Except for the oil drums.  One on either side of the ‘stage’. 

My mother drove a hard bargain and insisted that if she was going to allow her garden and washing line to be turned into a stage, then my two youngest brothers (three year old twins) had to be given parts in the pageant.  I was not keen.  But, in the end I capitulated and said they could have non-speaking parts as angels – as big a piece of miscasting as Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher.

But there was a slight problem (and I’m not talking Tom Cruise here).  The twins were quite small and so would not be seen. So I had the brilliant idea of standing them on upended oil drums, one either side of the stage. (Now why didn’t Tom Cruise think of that?)   

I then tied one of Mum’s sheets around their necks to cover both them and the oil drums and commanded them to hold their arms up as wings.  I also made them beautiful blonde wigs from unravelled binder twine which, they complained, itched.  (Did I say I was also the costume and set designer?  Not to mention writer, producer and chief press-gang officer).

I was St George, of course.  After all, it was my pageant.  And my other brother, Mike was the unfortunate dragon who spent most of the time being beaten around the stage by me wielding a wooden sword.

We were about half way through the first verse of “For all the saints...” when the left hand ‘angel’ started to fidget and fell off his oil drum.  The right hand ‘angel’, who probably had more sense than his brother, decided he was bailing out before he too fell off his oil drum and made a dash for freedom across the garden, trailing his sheet behind him and ending up hiding in the middle of the raspberry canes.  He was closely followed by the family dog who thought this was the best game ever.

I, like the trouper I was,  carried on singing.  And beating the dragon about.  Until he decided that he, too, had had enough.  So there I was, St George,  victorious and alone, singing away to myself and failing to notice that my mother had disappeared into the raspberry canes after my brother and the dog.  And the rest of the audience was falling about with laughter.

After all these years my brothers still claim they were traumatised by the event, which gets told and retold at every family gathering.  So when, about twelve years ago I was looking to break into the short fiction market and trying to follow the advice ‘write about what you know’, I wrote this short story based around my ill fated pageant.  

Angels on Oil Drums” was the first of many stories I sold to Woman’s Weekly and it still remains one of my favourites.  Not such a favourite with my brothers, though – although I did buy all three of them their very own copy of Woman’s Weekly which I’d like to tell you they have treasured to this day.  But I very much doubt it!

A few years ago now, my brother Mike (the ex-dragon) came to one of the pantomimes I’d written for our village theatre group  (link here to my thoughts on writing this year’s). He remarked what a relief  it was for him to come and see something I’d written that he hadn’t been bullied into appearing in.

My story, Angels on Oil Drums, will be in my first collection of short stories, entitled “Selling My Grandmother” which will be published later this year.  Watch this space!

Other News

I’m finishing the final edits of the final chapter of my serial, The Primrose Path, this week – and am at that stage where I think I’m never going to be able to cut it down to the required word length.  Although I always do, somehow.  As for tying in all those loose ends…

Duke, the Dalmatian has had a poorly paw and after a week on anti-inflammatories and antibiotics is now confined to lead only walking for another two weeks.  Trying to keep a Dalmatian quiet and rested is like trying to contain a Jack-in-the-box with a faulty lid. But if you’ve got to do an on-lead-only walk, then the beautiful Bishop’s Palace Gardens, in Wells, Somerset has got the be the place to do it.

DukeTulips.JPG

Daily Prompts. May 1st to 15th

I hope you’re enjoying the daily prompts. (For details of how to use them, follow this link)  I have now caught up with myself, so below are the prompts for the first fifteen days of May.

I always keep a note in my journal of where the ideas for each new story came from and I can see that of the fifteen, four made it as completed (and sold) stories.  So it does work!

  1. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May (Shakespeare)
  2. A time when you wanted to leave but couldn’t
  3. Being discovered in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  4. “I have spread my dreams beneath your feet/ Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” (WB Yeats)
  5. Suffering the consequences of doing something to excess.
  6. Write about a premonition
  7. Your first day at school, work.
  8. Look back in anger. (John Osborne’s play of this name opened in 1956)
  9. Fear of getting old.
  10. Things done in the heat of the moment.
  11. He/she is the sort of person who….
  12. Write about your earliest memory
  13. Living the dream
  14. Through the open window comes the sound of someone playing the piano.
  15. On this day in 1918 the first regular air mail service began. Write about receiving an unexpected letter.

Thanks for reading this far.  Each time I post, I promise myself that I’ll keep it short and snappy this time.  But I never do.  And that’s what I love about blogging.  After three days of trying to cut 5800 words down to 3300, writing this has been sheer bliss!