Friday Poem – ‘The Dance of Ararat’ by Eoghan Walls

Our first Friday Poem of 2021 is ‘The Dance of Ararat’ by Eoghan Walls from his collection Pigeon Songs which was shortlisted for the Pigott Poetry Prize 2020.

Pigeon Songs Eoghan Walls

Pigeon Songs follows on from Walls’ much-praised debut, The Salt Harvest. From the first poem, we have a sense of the poet’s themes and preoccupations: we have a richly metaphorical and densely allusive style, a pull towards formal metre and structures. There is also the occasional vigorous vulgarity, adding a touch of blue humour to the canvas, breaking up the formal rigour. Family is a potent presence in poems inspired by parents, grandparents, partners, children. They often emit a sort of energy, a fierce gravitational pull of emotion around the burning heart of a poem ultimately about love, or the sorrow of losing a loved-one.

Pigeon Songs is available on the Seren website: £9.99.

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See Eoghan read from Pigeon Songs and The Salt Harvest in this event from the Seren Stay-at-Home Series.

Extract from ‘The Owl House’ by Daniel Butler

If you’re still looking for a last minute gift, you can’t go wrong with Daniel Butler’s new book The Owl House. This pastoral exploration of mid-Wales is beautifully observed, full of evocative observations that can only have been lived to have been accrued. Here is a wintry extract from the chapter ‘Weather’.

Daniel Butler has lived in the Cambrian Mountains near Rhayader for twenty-five years, absorbing the world around him and charting its changes slow and rapid. His passion for the natural world was compounded when two wild birds, barn owls, nested at his farm. Through charting his relationship with the birds, he embarks on a pastoral exploration of his locale, rich as it is in wildlife of all kinds. His new book The Owl House is a rich and vivid portrait of one of the most remote and sparsely populated areas of Britain, broad in its horizons yet full of fascinating detail. The perfect gift for any lover of the natural world and mid-Wales.

Winter bird activity is not just about survival. I used to think the breeding season was a spring phenomenon, but for many creatures the concept seems to lurk as a constant background urge.

Even in the depths of winter there are signs of what’s to come. Mistle thrushes start to gang up towards the end of August in family groups which later join together to form small flocks. They give off their instantly recognisable football rattle calls as they bounce through the air above the fields, but by the end of the year these groups have disbanded. Instead of looking for the security of a flock to evade predators, the males are beginning to get a head start on next year’s breeding season. They do this by searching for a berry-laden food source. Indeed, the bird’s name comes from its fondness for mistletoe, that strange shrub, a living green sphere that hangs in bunches from the apparently lifeless limbs of oaks and apple trees. A glance at its fleshy white berries and strange green leaves and it isn’t difficult to see why the druids apparently venerated it as a sign of life in the depths of winter. The oak or crab apple host would be no more than a black skeleton, yet its passenger would appear the embodiment of life. Mistletoe is rare in Radnorshire, although it is common enough a few miles away in the acres of Herefordshire cider orchards.

My mistle thrushes are drawn mainly by the lure of another tree beloved by pagans and one which is, if anything, even more associated with Christmas. There is a particularly splendid and always well-endowed holly halfway down the lane. The berries grow slowly all autumn, green and hard and invisible among the glossy spiked leaves until they burst into view by turning red seemingly overnight.

By the time I go to collect a few decorative sprigs in early December, there will already be a resident mistle thrush. His favourite perch is near the crown to gain a good vantage point. He sits here like a miser crouched over his hoard, jealously watching for thieves or rivals which may try to steal his crown. At my approach he flies off giving his characteristic rattling calls of alarm towards the row of neighbouring pines. He perches there and with binoculars I can just make him out staring warily at me, filled with terrors that his jewelled kingdom might be raided in his absence.

He is not always in the holly, however, sometimes he is lurking among the ‘sallies’ (goat willows) that straggle along the banks of the nearby stream. This probably indicates the proximity of a sparrowhawk or goshawk, and he’s waiting for the danger to pass. Normally he’s a pugnacious fellow, fiercely defending his scarlet treasure from a host of increasingly hungry thieves. His greatest ire is reserved for sexual rivals, but he will defend his prize from smaller redwings and fieldfares, doves and even wood pigeons. He does this by intimidation rather than actual violence, flying at them only to veer off at the last second. At stake is not just a precious food supply at the leanest time of year, but the implications this has for the breeding season ahead. The fatter and fitter he is at winter’s end, the better his chances of attracting the best mate, for any bird that can finish the lean months in good condition is clearly a good breeding prospect. So he spends the winter fighting for food and sex.

By Christmas tawny owls are also beginning to stake out breeding territories, hooting out their instantly recognisable ‘toowhit, too-woo’ calls and at about the same point the garden robins become increasingly evident. The clichéd seasonal card image of a robin on a snow-covered spade handle as a representation of the season of goodwill and peace couldn’t be further from the truth. These are testosterone-pumped pugilists, determined to fight all rivals. At first they are driven by the need to protect their food supplies and territories and will pick fights with any other robin – even potential future mates. Once, after a heavy snow fall, I was looking at the crowds of finches, tits and nuthatches hanging on the feeders outside the kitchen window when my eye was caught by flying puffs of snow on the back lawn. Two robins were scrapping in the soft powder, bouncing into view as they pecked and kicked in fury, only to sink almost out of sight whenever they paused. No sooner had the last tiny crystals fallen back, however, than the furious tussle would resume.

The Owl House is available on the Seren website £12.99 or can be found in bookshops nationwide. Find your nearest independent bookshop using the Books Council of Wales or Bookseller Association shop finders.

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Short Story of the Month – ‘All Through the Night’ by Angela Graham

Our new short story of the month is ‘All Through the Night’ by Angela Graham from her debut short story collection A City Burning.

A man looks back to the night his marriage reached its tipping-point on a cliff-top in west Wales.

A city burns in a crisis − because the status quo has collapsed and change must come. Every value, relationship and belief is shaken and the future is uncertain.

In the twenty-six stories in A City Burning, set in Wales, Northern Ireland and Italy, children and adults face, in the flames of personal tragedy, moments of potential transformation. On the threshold of their futures each must make a choice: how to live in this new ‘now’. 

The story ‘All Through the Night’ was first published in the Irish journal Crannóg which nominated it for the prestigious Pushcart Prize in 2019. 

This is an excerpt, read the full story for FREE on the Seren website here.

All Through the Night

I look back now with a kind of dread, yet dread is about the future, about what’s going to happen, not what has already happened. So I dread…? The memory of pain.
          I never thought of myself as a man given to gestures. Imagination I do have, but I tend to keep it to myself.
          I remember the road: the little road under the starlight that summer. It was the year Mam and Dad sold the farm. I didn’t want it. They kept the farmhouse and the little bwthyn that had been the kernel of the homestead. You and I had used it for years already for holidays with the kids. They loved its thick walls and deep window-ledges.
          At Clogwyn Uchel, on the very edge of Wales, the roads are dark (some of them are tracks, really) and the stars sort of spread themselves out overhead, display themselves, with a careless glamour; or like something much more homely, like sugar spilt across a slate, but up there, up above. A sprinkling of sugar overhead. Very confusing if you thought about it too much. And higher into the sky – it’s hard to describe! – there’s a hazy cloud of them.  Growing up at Clogwyn Uchel and I never bothered to learn much about them. Anyway, the stars do what they do whether we notice them or not. They’re not waiting for our attention.
          On a clear night like that one they shed enough light to see your way and the chalky ground of the lane helps. It’s a glimmering path up to the bwthyn, reflecting light from far, far above. Sometimes it even seems to me as though a bit of the sky has dropped to earth because the little white stones are like a rough and tumble Milky Way between the hedges.
          You walked ahead of me, Mari. Blindly, I thought. Or like someone who’d been dazzled by something. Your feet took you.
          Your mind? Numbed.
          Probably. We all have to do so much guess-work about each other! What is she feeling?  What will she do next? What does she want?
          “Do you love him?” I called out. But you didn’t stop, or look back, or speak. I’m sure you heard me. You went on, into the little house.
          I couldn’t. I walked around it to where the sea suddenly presents itself. A shock! Always. Always that shiver at finding yourself on the edge of a cliff. Acres of water ahead in a dark mass. The endlessness of the sea. It doesn’t stop. It goes about its business, rushing and crushing, floating boats, flexing itself. That night it was shuddering.
          The stars. Some flung themselves down the sky. Mad bastards. Most looked on in a dignified way, blinking mildly at this recklessness.  And I thought of the song. Its beautiful tune.
          Holl amrantau’r sêr ddywedant
          Ar hyd y nos.

          Ar hyd y nos. All through the night.
          Nothing like the crappy English version.  Sickly-sweet, that.  And boring. “Soft the drowsy hours are creeping… visions of delight revealing… hill and vale in slumber steeping”. And the stars don’t get a look-in! Not a mention. You pointed that out to me. When you were learning Welsh. “How come…?” you asked. You were always asking that. “Why is the verb here? Why do I have to say…?” Whatever.
          And I’d say, “It just is, Mari. I don’t know why. Ask your teacher, cariad.  Gwyn knows all that stuff.”
          Yes, he did, didn’t he?

Finish reading ‘All Through the Night’ on the Seren website here.

A City Burning is available on the Seren website £9.99

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Friday Poem – Extract from ‘Let Me Tell You What I Saw’ by Adnan Al-Sayegh

This week’s Friday Poem is an extract from Let Me Tell You What I Saw by Adnan Al-Sayegh.

Let Me Tell You What I Saw is the first ever publication as a dual-language (English/Arabic) text of substantial extracts from Adnan Al-Sayegh’s ground-breaking epic poem, Uruk’s Anthem, one of the longest poems ever written in Arabic literature, which gives voice to the profound despair of the Iraqi experience. This superb translation by Jenny Lewis, Ruba Abughaida and others, brings the eloquent original Arabic epic to a new readership.

Let Me Tell You What I Saw is available on the Seren website: £12.99

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Join us on Tuesday 10th November from 6pm (GMT) for the virtual launch of Let Me Tell You What I Saw. Readings from the text in Arabic and English by Adnan Al-Sayegh and Jenny Lewis will be followed by a discussion on the translation process between Jenny and Ruba Abughaida. Register for FREE via Eventbrite https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/122240752381.

Ed Beech’s Recipe for Orkney Fish Pie

Ed Beech is one half of Beech Building Services. He’s also a keen cook. Today we’re sharing his recipe for Orkney Fish Pie, one of his favourites. Here’s everything you need to organise prep do done.

Orkney Fish Pie

What you need.

A jug of milk.

Some shallots.

Three average cloves.

Eight hand picked Orcadian scallops.

A fillet of fresh Orcadian caught white fish, preferably tusk.

A small bag of smoked Orcadian mussels.

A lump of butter about the size of a lemon.

A lemon.

Two saucepans.

Some flour (enough to cover the palm of your hand).

Half a dozen tatties of varying sizes.

Knives and spoons.

A bowl of grated Westray Wife cheese.

An oven.

Sea salt and coarsely ground pepper.

Wine.

Nutmeg.

Jazz.

An ovenproof dish.

A cat.

What you need to do.

Put the cat out. Pour the milk into a pan, add the chopped shallots, the cloves and some salt and pepper. Cook the fish in this mixture for a couple of minutes and then let it cool and infuse for half an hour. Drink some wine.

Boil the tatties, mash them with butter, fresh milk and a fistful of the cheese.

Remove the fish from the milk mixture and set aside. Melt the butter in a pan, slowly add the flour and then stir the strained infused milk into the mix until you’ve got a good looking sauce. Let the cat back in.

Pour some of the sauce into an ovenproof dish and add some chunks of fish, four scallops and some mussels. Add some more sauce, the rest of the fish, scallops and mussels, and pour in the last of the sauce. Put the cat out again.

Spread the mash over the top, cover with some more cheese and bake until it’s bubbling and smells right.

Serve with the lemon, a small heap of spinach, some Dave Brubeck and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Cloudy Bay from New Zealand for preference. Let the cat in again. Remember that you forgot to grate the nutmeg over the mash before you put it in the oven. Drink some more wine. Do the washing up.

Ed Beech is one half of Beech Building Services. He’s based in Bermondsey but no job’s too small, no distance too great. So when he’s asked to do some work on a house in Orkney, he loads the van with paint, tools and sandwiches, and takes off. He gets nervous around farm animals and large ships, and he’s never been so far north, but when he’s joined by Claire, his client’s city banker sister, he discovers that in Stromness, anything is possible.

The Stromness Dinner is available on the Seren website £9.99

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We’re hosting the virtual launch of The Stromness Dinner next week on Wednesday 4 November. Peter will be in discussion with Duncan McLean followed by a live audience Q&A so come with your questions ready. Register for FREE via Eventbrite https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/122383543473

Guest post: Sarah Philpott introduces us to ‘The Seasonal Vegan’

Today, we publish Sarah Philpott’s much-anticipated new book The Seasonal Vegan, and who better to introduce it than the author herself.

The Seasonal Vegan by Sarah Philpott is a kitchen diary of seasonal recipes with a delicious mixture of fine food writing and beautiful photography. This guide to eating with the seasons takes a realistic approach to shopping cheaply and sustainably and proves that the vegan lifestyle is anything but expensive. As well as tasting good, these dishes look beautiful thanks to the wonderful photography of Manon Houston.

 

Season’s Eatings

I can’t think of a more apt time to write about seasonal eating. With food security at risk more than ever thanks to the Covid outbreak and Brexit (it’s still happening, in case you’d forgotten), it might be time to think about what we’re eating and where it comes from.

I started writing The Seasonal Vegan over a year ago when things were very different. I always try to eat seasonally, mainly because it tastes better, and I wanted to create recipes inspired by the different seasons.

For a while now, campaigners, food writers and chefs have advocated seasonal eating because it can have a positive impact on the environment and local communities. Now, in these unprecedented times, access to imported foods might become more difficult, and so seasonal eating is more important than ever.

You can still buy pretty much anything you want at the supermarket all year round – and fruit and vegetables tend to be ignored by panic buyers – but there are some very good reasons to eat with the seasons.

Buying seasonal produce is generally better for the environment because it requires lower levels of heating, lighting, pesticides and fertilisers than at other times of the year. Eating fruit and vegetables that have been grown in the UK reduces the energy needed to transport them from other countries – 26 per cent of all carbon emissions come from food production – so eating British asparagus in May uses less food mileage than buying what’s flown in from South America – ­and, of course, it’s tastier.

Because food in season is usually in abundance and has less distance to travel, it’s also cheaper. It costs less for farmers and distribution companies to harvest and get to the supermarket or greengrocer, which means that a British tomato bought in peak harvest season in August will cost less than one bought in January. And it’s not only cheaper at the big supermarkets – if you can, shopping at your local greengrocer, or farm shop can be just as cost effective. And although farmer’s markets can be a little pricier, you’ll be supporting a local business and you really do get what you pay for in terms of freshness, taste and quality.

Now, I’m no gardener (the flat we live in doesn’t have a garden) and I’ve never grown my own vegetables – not yet, anyway – but I love nature and I notice the change in the air as the months go by. Wouldn’t it be dull if we ate the same all year round? Nothing beats a warm stew with squash or beetroot when it’s cold outside, and now, at the peak of summer, we can enjoy succulent strawberries, tomatoes, broad beans and peas.

Eating seasonally is sometimes seen as inaccessible or elitist, but it really doesn’t have to be – and it’s possible to cook and eat fruit and vegetables in a way that’s  easy, inexpensive and tasty. Studies show that only 31 per cent of adults in the UK eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day – with just 18 per cent of children doing the same – and that’s something we need to address.

The Seasonal Vegan isn’t about being perfect, puritanical or prescriptive about eating what’s in season, but it does celebrate a rainbow of fruits and vegetables and all their health benefits – and it might inspire you to eat and cook a bit differently.

 

Recipe: Cucumber Gazpacho

Photograph by Manon Houston

 

15 minutes, plus 2 hours in the fridge

Serves 4-6

 

Ingredients

2-3 cucumbers, cut into chunks

1 onion, peeled and diced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 slice of white bread, roughly torn

350ml hot vegetable stock

4 tsp rice vinegar

1-2 tsp tabasco sauce

1 tbsp sugar

Fresh basil

Flaked almonds

 

Method

1. Blend the cucumber, onion, garlic and bread using a food processor or a hand held blender. You should end up with a fairly smooth mixture. Tip into a large bowl and pour over the hot stock and the other ingredients and stir. Leave to cool, then when at room temperature, cover and refrigerate for at least two hours

2. Serve with toasted flaked almonds and torn basil leaves.

 

The Seasonal Vegan is available on the Seren website: £12.99

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Short Story of the Month – ‘Sugarcane for My Sweetheart’ by Maggie Harris

Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘Sugarcane for My Sweetheart’ by Maggie Harris which features in her short story collection Writing on Water.

Writing on Water Maggie HarrisMaggie Harris’ short story collection Writing on Water  is informed by the Caribbean, where she was born, and Britain where she has lived as an adult, and through them, the wider world. Issues of belonging and migration feature, but alongside these are growing interests in voice, narrative, gardening and botany, music and family. There are both UK and Caribbean voices in these tales, told by children, migrants, mothers, grandparents.

This is an excerpt, read the full story for FREE on the Seren website here.

Sugarcane for My Sweetheart

Maya is dreaming of kitchens. New kitchens. Not open to the air, wood-smoke kitchens; not kerosene stoves or coalpot kitchens. New kitchens. Kitchens of pine and oak and beech. Kitchens with solid wood doors and MDF shelves, kitchens with laminate and chrome, Mediterranean tiles, Victorian pulleys, cork and slate floors, quarry tiles.
In her dreams she enters those kitchens as she has taken to entering all those showrooms on lunchtime Sundays: with the slow excited steps of a traveller arriving. Eyes stray past customs, the loitering salesman, the swing doors past Immigration. Gleaming glass-fronted doors hold her gaze like shimmering tarmac. They draw her in like mirrors, framing the new arrival. Excitement is mixed with fear and longing, slowed by the shuffling progress of the queue.
Her kitchen measurements are clutched tight in her hands like a passport; over and over she checks them: the permit, the invitation letter, traveller’s cheques crisp and new in their plastic sleeve.
She has reason to feel afraid. On her return from the island the eyes of the officer had scalded Maya. They highlighted her like a spotlight, running her up and down as if they could see right through her. A chorus had risen from the queue like the tide, washing over her with a high Atlantic wave. In this dream her mother is by her side, her spirit hands even more frantic in death, fluttering a British passport that only Maya could see, tickets and boarding passes scattering on the desk like the plucked feathers of a broiling bird.
In her dream the showrooms stretch: long corridors of gleaming perfection. Miles and miles of shining flooring glide her on its conveyor belt, kitchen after kitchen smiling like models, preening their leaded light and bubble-glassed doors, their plaited cornices like wooden pigtails, their panels in Bermuda Blue, Nevada Blond, Pine Forest. Her dreams have kept up with fashion, solid pine and farmhouse oak that had once beamed their rustic Englishness, Middle England Agas nestling securely like the Cotswold Hills, no longer feature. Now chrome and beech and Shaker kitchens lure her, will her to run her fingers on their smooth fine grain, their granite and Corian worktops combining style and utilitarian twenty-first century designs.
The salesman disappears. Other dreamers have re-commissioned him; they sit in the conservatory-style office with their dream kitchen coming alive on a computer screen, Mr and Mrs Doggy nodding, car-window heads beaming. Their Cheshire smiles fill Maya’s vision and suddenly she is horizontal, being whisked along white corridors with ceilings of ceramic hobs, their halogen spotlights steaming her face like Granny’s Vicks. Perspiration is running down her cheeks, the small of her back. The steward has opened the aircraft door and Maya is descending. Heat washes over her like invisible rain. Tarmac ripples in the haze. The redcap boys run with their luggage trolleys. Water runs down her back. She is a dog in the shadows, turning over and over in the liquid heat, an insistent voice riding over the surf.
‘Maya! Maya!’
Denver is nuzzling his face into her neck. His hand rests on her hip. Her eyes flutter into a still-dark morning. She senses his body wakening. He is not yet, fully. In a minute he will be, and remember. He’ll turn away then, face his own wall, summon the energy to rise, get ready for work.
Beneath her the towel is damp and hard. Many washes in this limescaled water has wrung any softness out. She thinks of the towels in Uncle Danny’s bathroom, the white fleshy softness, her body cosseted, white tiles reflecting her face. There was no limescale back there. How she loved to hang the washing out then! Hook them on the line, watch them dance like kites in the wild wind, sing in a soft breeze. She had washed everything in sight, tea cloths, Uncle Danny’s clothes, her own. Just to smell them, feel them, watch them dry face up to the sun, unaccustomed in cold dank London.
The first thing they tell you when you return is to tek it easy, you back home now. So fill your eyes with the coconut trees, the endless beach, the boats turning out to sea. Lone fishermen pushed their bikes across the sand, their dogs nosing alongside. And the sky, the sky! That brilliant cobalt blue, stretching a panorama between memory and reality. Tourists didn’t make it this far. Here it was too rough to swim, the waves still angry at history, guarding the wrecks viciously. Their anger had moved from scuttles to schooners and jet skis, to slippery fishing boats with secret cargoes. And you try and take it easy. Borrow that inherent ambiance, live one day at a time. But soon you realise that what you’re doing is waiting. Waiting for time to stand still. Time has stood still for Maya in this particular place.
Waiting. Watching the shifting blues, the white haze, the fisherman becoming a dot. The clothes on the line have dried, her swimsuit a kitten at play, relishing this now-time, this brief sojourn before being folded into a drawer, nestling in the dark like a hyacinth bulb.

Finish reading ‘Sugarcane for My Sweetheart’ on the Seren website here.

Writing on Water is available on the Seren website: £8.99

Short Story Extract – ‘The Tribe’ by Jaki McCarrick

This extract is from Jaki McCarrick’s short story ‘The Tribe’ which is featured in her Edge Hill-shortlisted collection, The Scattering.

The main character’s rationale is unnerving and extreme – yet may hold some resonance with the situation we find ourselves in at the moment.

Jaki will be joining us for a special Q&A as part of the Seren Stay-at-Home Series tomorrow night at 6:30pm where she will be discussing her fiction and plays which include the award-winning Belfast Girls. Tickets are only £5 and are available here*.

 

A stranger from another time trespasses in an ancient landscape, where a primitive tribe live their modest lives. He has a dark yet necessary mission – but will he manage to complete it?

 

The Tribe

The American Dream has run out of gas.The car has stopped.
It no longer supplies the world with its images, its dreams, its
fantasies. It’s over. It supplies the world with its nightmares
now: the Kennedy assassination,Watergate,Vietnam. J.G. BALLARD

The images that came up on the screen were of a cold, forested environment. Beside me the lake was iced over and wide as a sea. There were trees all around frozen ponds and up and down mountainsides. I wondered if there was human life here at all. Nothing stirred outside, except for the unmistakable shape of an owl flying across the almost-full moon. I wrapped up in my boots and Gore-Tex and kept my gun close. Into a compartment of my backpack I placed another, more lethal gun and clasped the bag to my front. I secured my mask and hood then exited the POD (shorthand for the small machine that had brought me here, with its state-of-the-art Personal Odyssey Drive® system).
Outside, it was freezing. I’d never known cold like it. Not even on the coldest days in New York. In fact, it was not like any cold I’d ever experienced on the earth, anywhere (including the Northwest Territories where I had prepared for this trip).Yet it was so clean, so newly clean. I could distinctly smell pine, and the ice had a fragrant quality, close to mint. I knew that the tundra that covered the earth at this time had beneath it a multitude of flowers and plants, and it was as if the air now was full of the possibility of them. The season, of course, was spring.
​        I had begun to ascend the mountain when I saw what appeared to be a light. At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. (I wasn’t hungry but I was tired and had considered returning to the POD, though it would have been dawn before I got there.) I thought perhaps the moon reflected off the snow, but the light was orange. Within a few steps I saw that a fire burned just beyond a redwood copse. (The snow on the trees’ laden branches made the copse seem like some outlandish installation, like those I’d seen years before in galleries in the Village.) My first instinct was to rush towards it. It had to signify human life – no animal as far as we knew had learned how to make fire. But what kind of beings had made this one? And what would they make of me? If they were the beings we sought, that I had hoped to find here, then could they speak? (We had presumed, perhaps conservatively, that I might encounter at best a protolanguage, and not, at this point, actual lexical structure.) I suddenly became afraid of what I might find, though I could feel the gun against my thigh, and it felt warm, as all security is warm, and that I was so quick to think of the weapons I’d brought with me gave me quite a jolt.
​        I gathered myself and tried to remember my purpose here. I checked that the vial was where I had packed it. It was. Cold and deadly as the modernity that had made it.

*

I saw them sitting around the fire, their backs against a circle of high stones. Some of their young ran from caves and were followed by females who evidently disapproved of them out in the cold air. I could smell something roasting on the fire and saw within the flames a long slim-headed beast. Suddenly, the group rose to their feet.They began to make sounds out of the back of their throats which reverberated throughout the hills. The sounds seemed to pass from being to being in a perfect choreography of polyrhythms; it was quite like what I’d heard of Flamenco music. They were covered from head to toe in taupe, grey and dark-red furs, which looked to be the pelts of rabbits, some kind of arctic-like fox, and bears. The group sang its song to the fire, to the beast roasting on the spit, and to the moon and icy expanse – and though I could not understand a word (in so far as their song was composed of words), I felt, somehow, that this was a song of praise, perhaps, even, of welcoming the spring.
​        After a while, one of the older males loosened the beast from the two thin poles it hung from and set it down on a long flat slab. He cut furiously into it with a hand-axe made of what seemed in the moonlight to be quartz or river-flint. He made many piles of meat, and only when he gestured did the group gather around the slab to eat. They were talking. The sound was unmistakable: laughter, grunts, jesting, the aural characteristics of human engagement, all the sounds that one might hear in any modern crowd. These hominids were clearly enjoying their food. It was then I realised that other than the energy biscuits and apples in my backpack, I’d no further supplies until I returned to the POD. The POD itself had enough food for a few more days of my explorations here; the rest held in reserve for the journey home (if I would, indeed, return). I slowly unclasped the pack and squatted down beside it. I was so hungry I devoured two of the three biscuits and washed them down with a small bottle of chemical-tasting water.
​        Within a few minutes I could hear a commotion. I stood up and saw a fight break out between two males, between them, a young female clinging tightly to a rock.The smaller of the two males was eventually trounced by the other and stole off like a honey badger into the woods. The tall, rangier male brought the female towards two older females who laughed as they walked her back to the caves. Quickly, the peace returned. After the meal, the taller male quenched the fire and moved the stragglers along. There was something civilised and quite authoritative, I thought, about this creature hanging back to tidy up the remains of his tribe’s revels.
​        As I would need daylight in order to proceed with my task, I decided to remain where I was. Below me nothing stirred except three or four brindled dogs that looked like small wolves gathering in the centre of the valley to finish off the meat.There seemed also to be a constant rumbling sound, which I supposed was a distant ice storm (perhaps signifying some kind of metamorphic activity in the region). It was as I found an over-leaning bank of earth, under which I planned to sleep, that I heard the other sound. It was terrible and gurgling and instantly recognisable. I looked down and saw that the tall authoritative tribe-member stood in the empty valley below, a pole pierced through his chest, pinning him to the white earth. The others began to emerge from their caves and the sides of the valley. The young female and the group she had been with ran to him. They screamed and cried and pulled the pole from the tall male, at which he dropped to the ground. I heard a sound, if not an actual word, repeated again and again by one of the older females. ‘Orvey! Orvey! Orvey!’ she seemed to cry, as she continually tried to wake him. And I knew, somewhere in the depths of my being, that the sound – for how could I call it a word when I was yet to be convinced that this tribe was in possession of what could feasibly be called language? – meant: child.

*

This is an extract, read the full story on the Seren website

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Short Story of the Month – ‘Scream, Scream’ by Glenda Beagan

Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘Scream, Scream’ by Glenda Beagan which features in The Green Bridge: Stories from Wales.

The Green Bridge is an entertaining anthology of classic stories from twentieth century Wales. From Dylan Thomas to Ifan Pughe, the familiar to the revived, from the rural west of Caradoc Evans to the industrial south of Gwyn Thomas, the politics of Emyr Humphreys to the relationships of Dorothy Edwards, all Wales and all human life is here.

 

This is an excerpt, read the full story for FREE on the Seren website here.

Scream, Scream

It is quiet on the ward. There are only three bed patients. Nurse

Sandra looks at her watch. It is so still. There is the faint hum of a

mechanical mower on lawns far away, that is all. No birds are singing.

Mrs Jessop is snoring quietly. She’s had a bad night. It is on the

report.

Linda is about to make her move. Nurse Sandra senses it. She

smooths her apron, flicks through a magazine with studied

carelessness watching sideways through her hair as Linda shifts her

slow carcase off the bed. Even now as those bare arms emerge Nurse

Sandra has to steel herself. She looks up, clenched. Sioned, the

anorexic girl in the top bed is semaphoring wildly. Linda begins.

“Is my heart still beating?”

“Yes, Linda.” Nurse Sandra sighs, tries to smile. How well she

knows this never ending litany.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Can you hear it?”

“Not from here I can’t, no.”

“Come and listen.”

“Again, Linda?”

“Yes. I think it’s stopped.”

“No luv, silly. Course it hasn’t stopped. You wouldn’t be sitting

up talking to me if it had stopped, would you?”

“No.”

“There you are then.”

Now the familiar pause.

“Is my baby dead?”

This was the bit she dreaded. Day after day, hour after hour, the

same question. And still she dreaded it.

“It’s a long time ago now, Linda.”

“How long?”

“Two years.”

“I killed my baby didn’t I?”

“No, you didn’t kill your baby. You know you didn’t.”

“Heroin killed my baby.”

“Yes.”

“Not me.”

“No.”

“But I did really. I know I did.”

Nurse Sandra gulps. Linda never wants platitudes. Sometimes

she’ll accept them. Mostly she won’t.

Nurse Sandra still finds she winces inside at the sight of those

arms: the half healed scars she’d cleaned of pus months before are

still lurid among the tattoos, the roses, crowns and mermaids, the

names JIMMY and MOTHER, the waste, the pointlessness. Linda is

dying, her liver, which is all of twenty three years old, is ready to

pack up on her. She has respiratory problems. Her legs are hideously

ulcerated. She has come here to die because there is nowhere else for

her to go.

“Have you got a fag?”

“I don’t smoke, Linda.”

“Mrs Jessop smokes.”

“Mrs Jessop is asleep.”

“When she wakes up?”

“You can ask her when she wakes up.”

“Will she give me a fag?”

“She usually does, doesn’t she?”

“She always does.”

A giggle. The ghost of a giggle.

“She always gives me a fag to make me go away.”

Linda is not averse to exploiting the unnerving effect she has on

people, and Mrs Jessop is easily unnerved. So is Sioned. Linda

changes tack. She knows the answer before she asks the question but

she wants a reaction. She wants to see those dark eyes close, that pale

skull shake its negative.

“You don’t smoke, do you Sioned?”

Sioned is pretending not to be here. She does it well. She is now

so thin she hardly makes a ripple under the blankets. She is

disappearing. Tonic insulin seems not to have had the desired effect.

She is seventeen, always tiny, admittedly, but now she weighs just

four stone.

Mrs Jessop sputters into consciousness. Stretches, yawns, sits bolt

upright.

“Oh.”

“Good morning Mrs Jessop. For this relief much thanks.”

Nurse Sandra walks up to the bed.

“How are we this morning?”

Mrs Jessop can’t remember how she is. Bleary still from night

sedation, she blinks, owl-like, registers Linda’s looming presence and

makes an instinctive move for her handbag, proffering the packet.

Linda beams.

“Ta, Mrs Jessop. You’re alright, you are. You’ll be going home

soon.”

She slouches off to the top of the ward again.

“If you’re going to smoke you go to the sitting room, Linda.”

“Aw, just this once, Sandra.”

“Sitting room.”

“Can I go in the wheelchair, then?”

“You know I can’t push you. I can’t leave the ward.”

“There’s only Mrs Jessop and Sioned, Sandra. Nothing’s going to

happen while you push me that little way. It’s not far.”

“If you want to smoke you go to the sitting room and if you want

to go to the sitting room you have to walk.”

“You’re a tight bitch, Sandra.”

“Yeah, I’m a real hard case.”

“Can I have a light, Mrs Jessop?”

“Not on the ward, Linda.”

“I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to Mrs Jessop.”

There is an edge in Linda’s voice but she no longer has the energy

to put that edge into action. Nurse Sandra gives her a look. Now it’s

a battle of wills and Sandra will win because she has the will to win

and Linda has not. The girl’s efforts have already exhausted her. She

wants her cigarette but she does not want to haul herself down the

corridor to smoke it. In the end the cigarette wins. It always does.

She starts to move down the ward again, painfully slowly for Sandra’s

benefit, holding on to the beds.

“Can I borrow your lighter, Mrs Jessop?”

“Get a light from someone down there.”

“There won’t be anyone down there. They’ve gone to OT.”

“Get a light from Sister Annie, then.”

“Where?”

“In the office.”

“Is that where she is?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure? Is she on her own?”

“It’s not time for the doctors to make their round yet, Linda if

that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Is Dr Patel on today?”

“I don’t know.”

“She’s on holiday,” says Mrs Jessop.

“Is she? How do you know?”

“She told me.”

Linda looks sulky. She likes to think she has a special relationship

with Dr Patel, that she is her confidante. To compensate for not

having received this piece of information she makes an extravagant

balletic swoop towards Mrs Jessop, hands moulded into a parodic

impression of an Indian dancer’s.

“She’s promised me one of her old saris, Dr Patel has. She said I

could have one. She likes me.”

“You’ve been pestering her again, haven’t you?” Nurse Sandra

cuts in, wishing Linda would really get off the ward and go for her

smoke. Linda glowers.

“I like Dr Patel. She’s alright.”

In a moment of rare humour Mrs Jessop chuckles to herself.

“She’ll be going home soon.”

Nurse Sandra smiles. “She’s got a long way to go.”

Just then the scream.

A vehicle must have drawn up, but they didn’t hear it. The front

doors have opened and the scream has come in, has forced itself in,

breaking through their innocuous recitative. This is the aria, a full

blooded aria.

Continue reading ‘Scream, Scream’ on the Seren website here.

 

Short Story | ‘Transit of Moira’ – Maria Donovan

With the 50th anniversary of the moon landings taking place this week, we thought it pertinent that we share some moon-themed writing from our authors. ‘Transit of Moira’ comes from Maria Donovan’s collection of short stories Pumping Up Napoleon.

In Pumping Up Napoleon, Maria Donovan takes us on a bizarre, funny and often touching tour of death and laughter, love and space travel. Her light, humorous touch allows darker strands to surface repeatedly – dislocated, lonely lives, out of sync with their surroundings are set alongside human oddity and tenderness. These understated, well-crafted stories constantly surprise and engage, producing a fine, enjoyable and thought-provoking collection.

 

Transit of Moira

At ten-past-midnight by the Tokyo clock, Gavin started floating down the service corridor. Most of the passengers were Japanese and would be strapped to their bunks by now; the only people he expected to be awake were a contingent from the West Country of England, playing endless games of gin rummy in the recreation pod. It seemed like a safe time to go clean the glass in the Bubble Observatory.

He was therefore intensely annoyed to catch sight of a pair of beige open-toed sandals of the kind old ladies wear – the ones with the patterns of little holes punched in the leather – floating ahead of him, kicking a little up and down as if their owner thought she was swimming. Further up were light-brown nylons, the flapping edges of a petticoat and an orange-and-yellow flower-print dress – an ensemble Gavin mentally labelled ‘hideous’. She wasn’t supposed to be in here. This corridor was for crew only. She wasn’t even suitably dressed for zero gravity! Gavin didn’t say anything as he hauled past her, just turned and glared.

She was a silver-haired old lady with a determined but contented look on her face and all she did was nod and smile at him, which annoyed Gavin even more. When he got to the Bubble Observatory, well ahead of her, he thought about bolting the door behind him, but it was against regulations. Suppose she couldn’t manage to get back the way she’d come? He couldn’t really leave her floating there all night, like some over-fed, expiring goldfish.

Gavin rose to the top of the Bubble and began wiping the glass with his specially-impregnated rags; gone were the days when he could dream of space travel scented by leather seats and mood perfume. As usual, the glass was covered in finger marks and, as usual, Gavin wondered why people couldn’t just hold on to the handles that were put there for the purpose. How many more times would he have to wipe the breath and snot and sweat of the world’s most boring passengers off this glass before he could retire? He could count the days, but unfortunately there were still three-thousand-and-twenty-four to go (Gavin was younger than he looked). By then, as he well knew, if he spent all his time in weightlessness, his wasted body would be useless back on Earth. He’d be condemned to spend the rest of his years in space or on the Moon, breathing canned air. But what did it matter? Wherever he went, he was sure to end up surrounded by scuffed plastic.

Earth; people always said the same things about it: ‘It’s so beautiful; it’s so blue; it looks just like a marble’. When he looked down at it, he always reminded himself that, though it did look peaceful from up here, really it was as busy as hell and full of tortures. You knew that once you stepped off the ferry you’d be put in line, processed, stamped, herded, sent here and there, told where you could stop and where you couldn’t. He was glad to be up here, on the out-trip, going lunar.

‘I always said I’d see the Moon before I die.’ The voice at Gavin’s elbow startled him.

She bobbed gently, using, he noted at once, the appropriate handles. This ought to have soothed him, but the fact that she was smiling, evidently quite at peace with herself and the Universe, irritated Gavin so much he broke the company code and retorted: ‘It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, you know.’

‘No?’ she said. ‘It looks good from here.’

They were long past the Neutral Point and accelerating towards the Moon, though you couldn’t tell how fast the ship was going. Behind them the Earth had dwindled to a bright blue disk; the lunar sphere hung before them, pockmarked, shadowed and mysteriously empty, apart from the sprinkle of red and white lights on the Sea of Tranquillity. Stubbornly, Gavin persisted. ‘Neil Armstrong’s footprint,’ he said. ‘I ask you. How does anybody know for sure that’s Neil Armstrong’s footprint?’

‘Have you seen it?’ said the old lady. ‘I’m Moira, by the way.’

Gavin didn’t give his name and he even put his hand over his name badge, as if he were putting hand on heart. He said, ‘I’ve never seen it and I don’t want to. You might as well look at my footprint in the dust.’

‘You’re probably right,’ said Moira. ‘Or mine. Perhaps I’d like to see mine.’

‘The Moon is full of footprints. It’s not like you think it’s going to be.’

‘How do you know what I think?’ said Moira, her head on one side as if she really did have a mild interest in his answer.

‘You’ll see. It’s all canned music and souvenirs. You can’t just wander about. They make you see things whether you want to or not.’

‘Is that so bad?’ said Moira. ‘It is for some people,’ muttered Gavin sulkily. ‘Anyway, I got cleaning to do. And,’ he added as a clincher, ‘I’m not supposed to talk to you passengers.’

Without asking, she took a cloth from his pack and began making circular motions on the glass. ‘Look at that,’ said Moira. ‘My face among the stars.’ When she said it, Gavin looked at his own reflection, something he usually avoided doing as much as possible. He was wearing the expression of a man with a bitter taste in his mouth.

Moira didn’t speak again for some time. She rubbed at the glass with her borrowed cloth and looked at the lights in the dark. ‘Have you ever seen a shooting star?’ she said.

Gavin couldn’t resist scoffing: ‘Not up here,’ he said. ‘And not down there.’ He pointed at the Moon. ‘No atmosphere!’ In the weak lunar orbit things either disappeared off into space or kept going round and round, eventually falling onto the surface, where they stayed, because no one would go and pick them up.

He remembered his first trip, leaving home, when it had all seemed like a big adventure, as well as something to do until a better job came along. How he’d loved to see those bright streaks of burning rubbish flare and fizzle out as they tried to touch the Earth. But now, he knew it was just another kind of pollution. Soon the rest of the Solar System would be polluted too, and eventually the Galaxy and then the Universe…

A flash of diamond-bright sparks flew past the window, ice crystals catching the light of the sun. ‘Oh!’ exclaimed Moira. ‘How lovely!’

‘Urine,’ said Gavin. ‘It’s the voiding hour.’

‘Isn’t it marvellous,’ said Moira, shaking her head, ‘how even your own waste products can look wonderful in space?’

Gavin couldn’t bear it; he gritted his teeth and rubbed harder, as if he might rub out the stars, while Moira made dreamy circles with her cloth. ‘I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut,’ she said.

‘It’s nothing special,’ said Gavin. ‘These days everyone’s an astronaut.’

 

Moira was in the Observatory often after that, or bouncing off the walls of the service corridor, poking into spaces no passenger should know about. Though Gavin saw her, he always hid until she’d gone away. So he couldn’t tell the Captain anything much about her when she went missing.

They had docked in the orbit of the Moon by then, and the passengers had all disembarked. Moira’s absence wasn’t noticed until the whole contingent went through immigration and the numbers didn’t add up. A search was made of the area, all the restrooms were checked, and every cupboard in the transit shuttle was opened. There was no sign of Moira.

Gavin and the rest of the ferry crew were put on alert and ordered to check every locked and unlocked space on board the ship and every item of inventory for clues. Then Gavin was summoned to the Captain’s quarters. ‘You were seen talking to her in the Observatory,’ he said. ‘We have it on visual. What were you talking about?’

‘Nothing much,’ said Gavin.

‘What we’re after,’ said the Captain, ‘is some clue as to her state of mind. We’re not trying to apportion blame.’

Not yet, thought Gavin. Blame will surely follow.

‘How did she seem to you?’ said the Captain. Gavin tried to remember. She had smiled a lot – and she said she wanted to see the Moon before she died.

‘Captain!’ A voice in the air interrupted Gavin’s thoughts before he uttered them. ‘One of our space suits is missing.’

At first no one believed an old lady like that would know how to operate an airlock or even want to try. The space suit was fitted with a standard locator device, but it had been turned off. There was a whisper among the crew that murder had been done, and some of them looked sideways at Gavin. He didn’t mind: it would encourage them to leave him alone.

Then the visuals for that area were checked again and the whole crew saw Moira standing in the airlock and waving goodbye. She even blew a kiss as she stepped out backwards into space.

 

That night, with a full set of new passengers safely on board, the story was officially put to rest. It seemed Moira had no relatives on Earth to inform and so the Captain would be spared the difficulty of writing any letters of regret.

Half-past-one by the Tokyo clock. The ferry left the Moon’s orbit and Gavin went back to polishing the Bubble Observatory. It was quiet; just how he liked it. But the smell of the cleaning rags caught the back of his throat. Angrily, he rubbed harder.

Then his heart lurched as a star-shaped object crossed the face of the Moon. He knew at once what it must be: Moira in her white suit, spreading her arms and legs to the Sun.

Pressing his fingers to the glass, Gavin saw himself – a ghastly open-mouthed reflection superimposed on the face of the receding Moon – and it scared him. But what made him truly uneasy was the suspicion that, if he had been able to get up close, he would have seen that Moira was still smiling.

 

Pumping Up Napoleon is available on the Seren website: £6.99

 

Maria Donovan is a native of Dorset and has strong connections with Wales and Holland. Past career choices include training as a nurse in the Netherlands, busking with music and fire around Europe and nine years as a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glamorgan. Her fiction is often offbeat, exploring uneasy relationships, mind and body: ‛My Own CVA’ was a prizewinner in a competition run by The Lancet; and ‘My Cousin’s Breasts’ was shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. Her flash fiction story ‘Chess’ won the Dorset Award in the Bridport Prize 2015.

Maria’s debut novel The Chicken Soup Murder  was published in 2017 and was shortlisted for the Rubery Book Award, fiction category.

The Chicken Soup Murder is available on the Seren website: £9.99

 

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