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

*All ticket holders for the Seren Stay-at-Home Series get an exclusive 30% discount code to use on the Seren website. Get your tickets 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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Short Story of the Month | ‘Hands’ by Rebecca Ruth Gould

Our new short story of the month is ‘Hands’ by Rebecca Ruth Gould.

 

‘What struck her most about him were his hands. They were long and lanky, like his body. Even more remarkable than their shape was the way he used them.’

 

Rebecca Ruth Gould’s work has appeared in NimrodKenyon ReviewTin HouseHudson ReviewWaxwingWasafiri, and Poetry Wales. She is the author of Writers and Rebels (Yale University Press, 2016) and translator of After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems of Hasan Sijzi of Delhi (Northwestern University Press, 2016) and The Death of Bagrat Zakharych and other Stories by Vazha-Pshavela (Paper & Ink, 2019). A Pushcart Prize nominee, she was a finalist for the Luminaire Award for Best Poetry in 2017. She lives in Bristol and teaches at the University of Birmingham.

 

Hands

 

This is an extract. Read the full story for free on the Seren website.

 

What struck her most about him were his hands. They were long and lanky, like his body. Even more remarkable than their shape was the way he used them. When they first met, he shook her hands boldly and directly, as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do and not a violation of the law in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Taken aback, she forgot to respond. Her hand hung limply in his palm, until he dislodged it.

Just the day prior, she had read about a poet who had been arrested after returning from abroad, for shaking a woman’s hand. She wanted to warn him: You shouldn’t do that. You might end up in jail for shaking my hands. But he must know what he was doing, she reasoned, and who was she to tell him how to behave in his own country?

His hands didn’t fit anywhere, not in his pockets, or at his sides. They dangled oddly from his arms, like an expert swimmer more at home in a lake than on dry land. The lines on his palms were long, stretching from his wrist to his index fingers. If a fortune-teller—like the one she had just consulted with in Hafez’s tomb in Shiraz—had been asked to read his palms she would have predicted for him a long life, a fulfilling marriage and many children. His hands were like an autonomous body. She imagined them keeping her warm at night, soothing the aches in her back, providing a resting ground for her lips, caressing her hips.

Before they said goodbye that magical night in Tehran, she asked him why he decided to shake her hand. Without answer he waxed lyrical, in a different direction. “I dream of working wonders with my hands,” he said, “I want to become a perfumist. I want to make magic potions and aphrodisiacs based on ancient Iranian traditions.” Although it was not an answer, it opens a new mysterious horizon onto his soul. She wanted to know more.

Continue reading ‘Hands’  for free here

Short Story of the Month | ‘The Purging’ by Drew Martyn

Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘The Purging’ by Drew Martyn.

 

‘One cloud and a couple of vapour trails lazed against a heat-paled blue sky and a warm afternoon slid slowly into evening; I was aware of none of it. I was seventeen and cool, she was sixteen and hot: that’s all you can see at that age.’

In the lazy days of summer, two teenagers are forced to grow up quickly as they are thrown into the real world by events beyond their control.

 

Drew and his family live in Wales where he enjoys writing, football, music and real ales. He’s had dark fiction published in a number of print anthologies including Horror Library volume 5 and Fortune: Lost and Found as well as online and in magazines including Isotropic Fiction and Dark Tales. In Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (May 2017) he toyed with sword and sorcery prose-poetry. In the past he’s also contributed articles and conducted interviews for a UK soccer website. If asked about inspiration, he’d witter on forever about Ray Bradbury, William Trevor and especially Georges Perec, so probably best not to…

 

The Purging

This is an extract. Read the full short story for free on the Seren website.

One cloud and a couple of vapour trails lazed against a heat-paled blue sky and a warm afternoon slid slowly into evening; I was aware of none of it. I was seventeen and cool, she was sixteen and hot: that’s all you can see at that age.

Her name was Alison. She had a body to turn heads and a face to turn hearts, and I swallowed hard and said something inane at the first smile she gave me. It was summer holidays, no school, time for fun. Time for growing up into the real world – and I had a lot of growing up to do and not much time to do it in.

She took me home to meet her family.

I’d heard a few things about them, mostly from Alison. That was ok: listen to her stories and her family were okay. But I heard rumours too. And then someone told someone else who told someone who told me… and those rumours I didn’t like one bit.

But, anyway, we were here, walking onto her estate. The people we passed looked surprisingly ok. Normal. They didn’t have two heads, or bite the heads off kittens or carry machetes or grenades. They didn’t snarl or even growl as we walked past. Most of them didn’t even frown.

It was a typical housing estate: a warren of streets, narrow alleys and short cuts, cars half-off half-on the pavement, some tidy front gardens, a few of them anyway, some just rubbish tips for the couldn’t care less brigade.

“My house is just up here,” Alison said as we turned a corner. I slowed the pace.

“It’s ok,” she reassured me, laughing. “Honest.”

We passed a few bedraggled houses, the ubiquitous mattress in one of the front gardens, a rusty pram in another. And then, for no apparent reason, the houses suddenly looked cleaner, more looked-after. It took me a few yards to realise it was because they didn’t have flaking paint on the doors and windows. And the cars were parked properly. And the lawns were mowed. Lawns? I realised these houses here had the first grass and flowers in front of them that I’d seen on the estate.

“Mine,” said Alison, opening a wrought iron gate. It squeaked a bit as we walked through. I suppose it had to give some sort of nod to the neighbourhood. Or a warning to those inside the house.

That thought both scared me and made me realise I was being a snob. Ew no; one didn’t tolerate unoiled hinges where I came from, certainly not.

I can be a prat sometimes, I reminded myself.

On the other hand this house even had coaching lamps, shiny and polished, each side of the front door. Nice. Bit over the top, common maybe, but nice.

I can be judgemental, too. Goes with being a prat.

Shit, she was opening the front door! I hung back but she grabbed my hand and pulled me along like some toy dog. A waft of soap and Brut hit me as we walked in. I was about to meet the family.

 

This is what I knew of them:

Da had a reputation that could scratch diamonds, and fists to match. This town was his town.

Ma loved her own. For everyone else there were razors and bullets, mostly wielded by her tongue. Mostly (apparently).

Big brother Paul took one look at me and said: “Get her pregnant and you marry her, or you’ll never see her again.” This wasn’t a threat, this was a vision.

I didn’t listen. I didn’t care. After all, I reasoned, what’s sight worth, when love itself is blind? Oh yeah, I’m a romantic. Bit of a poet, me.

In other words, an all round total prat.

 

Inside, her house gave no indication of being anything special. It looked sort of nice. Tidy, like. No dead bodies. No suitcases full of money. And definitely no guns.

“Hi Da,” said Alison.

Da stood in front of a large sideboard mirror shaving with a cutthroat razor, a bowl of soap suds in front of him, his white vest splashed grey with soapy water, his braces hanging to his knees.  A radio in an upstairs room spoke loudly of last year’s moon landing and something about The Beatles disbanding.

As soon as I appeared, Da turned into a statue, the razor blade slicing my reflection, only his eyes moving, following me.

“You Mike?”

“Yessir.”

Even if I wasn’t, I’d have had to say “Yessir” to that voice.

“Don’t call me ‘Sir’. Don’t call nobody ‘Sir’. When you’re with my girl, other people call you ‘Sir’. Understand?”

I almost said “Yessir.” Instead, I said “So they should.”

It was the right thing to say. He chuckled and carried on shaving.

“Thanks Daddy!” Alison said, grinning.

Mam called out “Alison” and Alison led me into the kitchen. Mam wiped her hands on a tea-towel and threw it onto the sink before turning around to face us.

She looked at me for a second, then “Why don’t you sit down, love?” in a way that said, quietly and gently, “Sit down or I’ll rip your throat out.”

So I sat down.

She looked me up and down. Like Alison, she had big blue eyes, but Mam’s were a mother’s eyes, an assessor’s eyes, looking for weapons and chinks in armour.

I looked at Alison.

Mam leaned forward. That meant “Stop looking at her. Look at me, good boy!”

She said “Still in school, love?”

I nearly lied, saying I had a job, maybe that would go down better. Mothers liked that sort of thing: mature young man and all that.

What came out was “Yes, I am.”

Mam’s eyes smiled then and she nodded. “It’s good you didn’t lie to me,” she whispered. I felt like she could see into my soul, and I blushed. Not cool.

Continue reading ‘The Purging’ for free here

Short Story of the Month | ‘Flowers’, Emma Timpany

Flowers Short Story Emma Timpany

It’s World Book Day today and we have a new story for you to enjoy – Emma Timpany’s ‘Flowers’ is our Short Story of the Month.

‘This is the place: four fields in the shape of a rough parallelogram…’

Searching for a space to plant the seeds of her flowers and, indirectly, her future, a woman forges a subtle bond with a man undergoing his own struggle.

Emma Timpany grew up in Dunedin, in the far south of New Zealand, and now lives in Cornwall. She has a lifelong love of short story form. Her first collection, The Lost of Syros, was published in 2015. Her short stories have won three awards, including the Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon Trust Award, and have been published in literary journals in England, New Zealand and Australia. She is co-editor of Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing and author of the novella Travelling in the Dark.

 

Flowers

This is the place: four fields in the shape of a rough parallelogram. On her left, one part of the closest field is enclosed behind wire mesh. A path runs through long, wet grass towards a gate in the fence. Ahead of her is an open-fronted barn with a caravan parked inside it, a chimney rising from its roof.
She cannot see anyone. She is about to leave when, looking again, she notices a figure kneeling inside the fencing.
She walks over but he does not seem to know she is there. He wears a suit, some kind of woollen weave, not tweed.
Hello.
Hello.
He is young, younger than her. He stands and wipes his hands on his clothes. His hair is flat and yellowish. Despite his smile, his face is the wrong kind of white. He has been ill. Is still ill, perhaps.
Rachel said you wanted someone to grow flowers.
Yes. He shakes his head as if confused. I only just woke up. I still have to sleep a lot. But I remember now.
She doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t know what she was expecting but it was not this.
Are you cold? he says. It’s cold today.
And bleak, she does not say, this place is bleak.
Let’s have some tea.
The barn smells of dirt and straw, the caravan of damp. His bed is a heap of sleeping bags and blankets; the cups are stained with a thick layer of tannin. Roll-up butts huddle, crushed together in a jar lid.
Sit down. Here. He moves a pile of books from a seat. Rachel said you were a florist.
Well, yes. Sort of. I never meant to be. It wasn’t what I wanted.
He lights the camp stove, rolls a cigarette.
My family were. Florists, I mean. My grandfather lost his job in the Great Depression. Five kids and nothing to eat. So my grandmother started growing flowers. She doesn’t know why she is telling him this. She doesn’t tell anyone this. She shakes her head.
I don’t have any biscuits.
It doesn’t matter.
I only have goat’s milk. Is that okay?
Yes. She has never drunk goat’s milk. That’s okay.

 

It is raining. In her mind the earth has a red tint but now she sees that, under the rain, the soil is deep brown, black, almost. He has laid out some beds within the wire mesh, six rectangles of soil. The fence is to keep out the rabbits which will otherwise eat everything.
Look. He points to a line of feathery green leaves. I planted them in December and they’re up already.
Are they a type that grows in winter?
No. I was late putting them in because I was in hospital. All this should have been done earlier, in the autumn. This soil must be good soil.
It looks like good soil but she will not know until she starts to work it. The rain is heavy now, too heavy for her to begin.
In the shelter of the barn, he shows her rows of tools. Most are old but some are new, their dull, silver light an oddity amongst the rest, the well-used and the worn.

 

The next time, there is no sign of him, though she scans the field for a crouched figure in suit. Inside the barn, still air that could mistakenly be called warm but is only the cessation of wind. Through the caravan window, she sees him curled up on his side, blankets heaped around him, holes in the bottom of his socks.
She climbs over the rabbit fence and puts a bin bag, filled with bags of bulbs and packets of seeds, down by the side of the bed of freshly dug earth he indicated, last time, that she could plant. Returns to the barn for tools along the path of beaten grass. Begins to mark out a row.
The rows of vegetables in the neighbouring beds are all perfectly straight. By contrast, the trench she has made wavers. She goes back to her row and tries to even it up, mentally making a list of the things she will need – bamboo poles, string.
The soil smells slightly of iron, of leaves. Small stones appear occasionally but it has a lightness to it. She opens a packet of bulbs – tulips – and looks at them in the dim light. It is three months past the optimum time to plant them. She bought them cheaply from a local discount store but they look in good condition, a bright brown, shiny sheath on the outside of the pure white bulb. Plant at twice the depth of bulb. She lays them out fifteen centimetres apart then covers them.
The beds are larger than she thought. She adds sawdust to the list in her head. The last seeds she plants are poppies. Light, tiny, they are indistinguishable from the soil as soon as she sows them.
You’ve been busy. He is wearing an old oilskin over his suit.
Yes.
What have you been planting?
Bulbs, she says. Seeds. She fumbles for the packets and hands them to him. Her jeans are soaked from where she has been kneeling.
These are nice. He holds the empty poppy packet.
They were free. I wouldn’t have bought them. Because the flowers only last a day or so. Still, I can use the seed heads.
That’s a shame. About the flowers.
It’s often the way. The most beautiful don’t last.
He is looking at her rows.
I should have made them straight. Next time I’ll bring some string.
I’ve got some. Poles and string. Didn’t you see them in the barn?
No.
Before he got ill, he tells her, he was a set designer. Now he works on the field. The quiet here, the growing things. It is his way of making himself better.
Look, peregrine.
She does not want to look but, raising her head, she follows his finger to where the bird flies through veils of rain.
We should go in. Shelter from this. Do you want tea?
No, thanks. I’m soaked. She is cold now, having been still for so long. The thought of sitting in the caravan is not a pleasant one. I’ll be back next week.
She knocks mud off the spade and fork and carries them back to the barn. He opens the caravan door; warmth from the camp stove drifts out. Condensation fogs the windows. He is smiling at her, and she wonders what he is going to say.
Could you bring some milk when you come next time? I can’t have dairy. Goat’s milk. Or soya.
Sure, she says.
Back at the car she takes off her gumboots, her soaking coat, and loads them in the boot. Strips off her jeans and wraps her lower half in a blanket. Drives home that way.

 

From the highest point, where she now stands, and the high point opposite her, the land creases down, as if it has been folded on the diagonal, into the corner farthest from her. Because he is working near the bottom of the crease, it is hard to make out what he is doing.
She has forgotten the milk.
It has already started to bother her that it is his soil, his earth, his rules. That she is merely scratching, borrowing a few centimetres of surface. And yet she cannot imagine belonging to this place, it being hers. It is not what she would choose for herself. It is too high, too exposed. The jumbled boulders of the carn seem, at times, a reflection of her confusion. And then there is the cold, a deep earth-and-stone cold, the kind that gets in your bones. She wonders again what is wrong with him, what was wrong with him.
The quiet, though, also has a way of its own. In the way her life is away from this place, it feels like nourishment. Every action she initiates proceeds, un-thwarted, until it is complete. No-one else to consider except for the too-thin man she sees out of the corner of her eye.
She is planting Liatris spicata. The bulbs are dark, knobbly, a light hair of old, dried roots on their bases. Their hairiness reminds her of sea potatoes, found on the nearby beaches at low-tide. When she looks up she notices two parallel rows of bamboo canes, joined at their apex, stand in one of the beds.  Supports for beans, perhaps, or peas. Everything he does out here, in the beds, is so neat. But it is not neat in the barn or in the caravan.
No rain today but it is cold. Smoky-yellow light crouches at the edges of the sky. Next, she plants a row of Camassia leicthinii, a cultivar of quamash. The bulbs are white and smooth, small green shoots already sprouting from their apical points. It is far too late to be planting them. She tries to think of May, when these bulbs will produce long, straight, green stems, and then star-shaped flowers, blue and cream.
She hears the soft sound of his boots on the grass.  As she turns, reluctant to stop her work, she briefly wonders what he thinks of her. Her neck aches, so she rubs it.
More bulbs.
Yes. Look at these. She lifts an Eremurus stenophyllus tuber from brown paper, holding towards him the flat disc with leggy roots, like the dried limbs of a once fleshy spider.
And they’ll stay in the soil? Or will you lift them?
No. They’ll stay. They form clumps. Bulbs like these, perennials, reproduce themselves asexually. Clone themselves, basically. So you get more flowers year on year.
This seems to surprise him. She has no idea what he knows or doesn’t know about flowers.

 

The next time there are lots of people at the field. It takes her a while to find him. People talk to her, seem interested in what she is doing. They tell her things about the man who owns the field, assuming she knows more than she does. Without her prompting, his secrets spill out on the grass. They all seem excited by the fact that their friend has this surfeit of space. Many of them live on boats, in vans and caravans squeezed into corners of fields, fringes of towns and villages.
She sees him in the distance, reassesses his age down a notch and then down again. How aged he is by illness, by the experience of illness. It makes him more like her; it is the bridge that links her on one side and his friends on the other.
She has found out, quite recently, that her brother has been lying to her. For years, he has stolen from her, from the joint assets left to them by their parents. He calls what he did an act of love. It is not love. There is a chance that she will lose her house, lose everything she has worked for.
The friends start dragging dead wood into a circle. Some-one sets light to it. Bottles appear and a keg of beer. She plants Nectaroscordum siculum, an onion-paper fine sheath over its bulbs, which will one day be a handful of purple and green striped bells dangling from a wiggly stem. By the time she finishes, darkness is come. She looks over to the circle of light. The flames give his face the colour it normally lacks. She catches a glimpse of how he must have looked and how he might, perhaps, look again one day.

 

In the weak sunlight, the green tips of the first bulbs she planted poke through the earth, cast tiny purple shadows on the soil, and she sees what he has described to her but she has never really believed. There is a view of the sea. Distant, complex with lines of trees and land in the foreground and further back a skewed triangle of mint green water, a violet horizon.
Tomorrow, February tips into March. In the soil she finds a lime green grub, curled and sleeping. More seeds have broken through the earth; tiny as watercress, they tremble as if exhausted by the division of their first leaf into two. In the hearts of the hyacinths, flower spikes push upwards.
She knocks on the caravan door. No reply. She opens it, pulls a pint of goat’s milk from her pocket, leaving it on the floor where she hopes he will see it.
The goat’s milk was fresh today 28/2. See you next week?
She is annoyed that she brought him milk and he isn’t here. But she is also pleased. Words have stopped, are trapped inside her. She does not want to talk. She wants to plant flowers, row and rows of flowers, and wait and watch and tend them as they grow.

 

Thank you for the milk.
I didn’t bring any today.
What are you planting?
Lavender. She has bought plug plants and potted them on, hardened them off in her courtyard garden; against the vastness of the field, they seem tiny. She plants them through a layer of weed matting, cutting crosses and slotting one plant into each gap.
How long will they last for?
They’ll grow and get bigger for about ten years or so. And then they’ll die off.
As the day ends, she hears the sound of cars, footsteps and voices echoing down the track, the clink of bottles. The friends build a fire with new, dry boughs. They distract him, keep him busy, talking. In the fading light, he shifts from old to young, young to old.
Her back aches. She tidies her things and looks at what she has achieved. There is little to see; the bulk of her labour lies beneath the surface of the soil.
The sky is a serious blue, which means darkness is not far away. Through the still air she hears the sharp crackle of flames and smells dry wood burning.

 

Today she plants the last of the bulbs, some alliums, the Triteleia laxa, and the sweet pea seeds, pre-scored. The poppies and the cornflowers are through. The love-lies-bleeding. The soil is warming. The irises have produced grey, strap-fine leaves. A violet ground beetle scuttles away under her hand. An idea, a question, a friend of a friend – all of these things have led her here. Now, the hyacinths are opening. As she cuts through their thick, sappy stems, washes the dirt off the leaves and lower flowers, the few open bells release a clean, sweet scent.
He has also been planning and planting. She has helped him to lift off turf and peel it back, in preparation for a second row of beds.
The weeds have started to grow; the perennial buttercup, its net-like roots spread horizontally, is particularly hard to shift. She tracks the white roots of dandelions, zigzags of light in the dark soil, their wounds leaking a milky sap.

 

He digs for a while and then he stops and coughs. Whatever is wrong with him is taking its time to give up its hold.
He has gone to drink water, hand resting on the tap until the coughing eases. His clothes still hang on him like the clothes on a scarecrow. When was he last well? When did he last live in a house? She considers this coldness, rising from the earth, his enemy. She thinks he does not do enough to protect himself against it. How can he become better if he is not warm?
How will he get better if he drinks from filthy mugs?
He has seen her looking at him and now he beckons her. She climbs over the fence, her shoulders tense.
He points to a new ridge of earth by the side of the barn. From here she can see thin sticks are planted in it.
Willows, he says.
They’ll grow big.
I know.
Why here?
Because this is where the house will go.
You’re building a house?
One day.
To live in?
Isn’t that why most people build houses?
I thought…But she doesn’t know what she had thought.
He begins talking about dwelling rights, planning permission. The house will be built out of straw bales, with wool as insulation.

 

She cuts the Camassia leicthinii ‘Alba’, secures five stems with a rubber band and drops them in a bucket. The alliums are ready, tall Gladiator and the squat lavender starburst of Allium christophii. Once they are all cut and bunched, she moves them into the shade. Dahlia tubers lie in the trench. She covers them with soil, then plants sedum around the edges of the bed, a type with purple-black leaves and, come September, small, hard, ruby flowers.
She is beginning to realise that he did not think she would plant anything permanent. He expected that she would grow flowers from seed and harvest them, an annual crop. There has been this miscommunication right from the beginning, probably the result of her reluctance to talk, his assumption that flowers were grown in the same way as vegetables.
She tells herself it does not matter. Everything she plants, with a couple of exceptions, can be dug up again and moved. Like people, flowers travel: transplanted with care, they usually manage to re-establish themselves, to put down new roots.
Twice in her life she has tried to run away from flowers, the first time from her family’s floristry business, the second time when, out of necessity, she worked as a florist in London. Yet here she is, back among them. They follow her, it seems. Or she, unwittingly, unwillingly, follows them. They present themselves to her as opportunities, the only options.
She knows their common and Latin names. Some have been her companions since earliest childhood, their names learnt alongside her own; they have always been amongst the most important inhabitants of her world. The flowers she grows, that line up wonkily behind her back like a beautiful army, are not as delicate as they look. They are survivors.
She is ready to go. She walks over to where he is working, beside the willow bank.
Goodbye, she says.
I’m going to get a digger in, to grade the earth flat for the house, he says. I’ll get them to scoop out a pond while they’re here.

 

I brought you some milk, she says.
Come and see the pond, he says.
A shallow basin has been scraped out below the flower beds, the excess soil tipped at the southerly edge, building it up into a bank; the effect is pleasing, as if the far lip of the pond were somehow floating above the lower parts of the field.
In her childhood garden, there was a stream, dividing the formal beds around the house from the secret spaces of a stand of native bush. A simple bridge, arch-backed, connected the two worlds. She remembers what it was to paddle in that stream, the little beach of pale gold gravel it left before it exited the property, edged by a rustling screen of bamboo.
So water, yes.
Nothing exists without water.

 

So many things are flowering: Liatris spicata, Eryngium planum, nigella, cornflowers, sweet peas. She comes early to cut the flowers, weeds a little, covers the soil in mulch to stop it losing moisture to the sun and is ready to leave by midday.
When she hears the caravan door open she looks up, expecting to see him, but a woman emerges and walks towards the standpipe to fill the kettle.
Hello.
Who are you? the woman says.
I’m the one who grows the flowers.
He comes out of the caravan, rubbing his hair.
When you’re finished, can you give Jo a lift back to town? he says. Are you finished?
Yes. Pretty much. Just tidying up.
We haven’t had breakfast yet, Jo says. We haven’t even had a cup of tea.
You can have breakfast when you get home.
Are you trying to get rid of me, Jo says, before I’ve had a cup of tea?
Of course not, he says. I’ll make you some tea. Would you like tea?
No, thanks, she says. I’m going soon. But I brought some milk.
As she carries the flowers to the edge of the track, Jo sits on one of the benches by the fire circle and talks to her. The things Jo says are funny in a pithy kind of way. She’s pretty, too.
He brings out two mugs of tea.
I’m off now.
Do you mind giving Jo a lift?
Not at all.
I think I’ll spend the day here, Jo says, stretching and looking around. It’s going to be a beautiful day.
Do what you like, he says. But you should know I’ve got work to do.
Don’t mind me. Jo lies back on the boards, folding her hands over her ribs, shutting her eyes. I’ll be just fine.

 

The pond water is pale bronze, the suspended particles of soil in it yet to settle. He is wading, thigh deep, forearms immersed, planting marginals below the surface. The scent of water is softly mineral, a note of freshness amongst the dry grass and the dust.
Flower buds form on the tiny lavender bushes; the leaves of the sedum are dark as wine. What is winter? Its memory lies in the earth, beneath the bark of the shrubs, the trees. It lies in leaves which tremble in the light. It lies in pollen, gold and grey, the bees collect and carry with them from flower to flower.
When she looks over to the pond again she sees him floating on his back, arms and legs splayed out, five-pointed as a fallen star.

 

Years later, on the day she comes to dig up the last of the flowers, he is not there. He has gone to work in Greece for a while, Jo tells her. On a sustainable building project.
Jo stands in the doorway of the house made of straw. I’ve got a flat in a proper house again, she says. I’m moving on, too.
The wool they’d used as insulation had been full of moth larvae. They’d had a massive infestation, as well as trouble with mice.
What sort of trouble with mice?
They were falling out of the ceiling onto my face, Jo says, while I was asleep.
What can be done?
Jo shrugs. Perhaps the moths have got into the straw. Perhaps the house will have to be torn down, and they’ll start again somehow. He’s gone away to have time to think things through.
Time to think. She had had it, in the hours that she spent here on her knees, eyes on the ground, hands in the good earth.
The willows he grew from sticks reach above her head. The lavenders have filled out from tiny plugs to dense, thick pads. They will remain, along with some other plants that are difficult to shift. Though she tries to lift them carefully, she is bound to miss some bulbs. After she is gone, they will put up their heads each spring, aiming for the light.
Will he think of them as a nuisance?
Or a gift?
Five years on she has managed to reclaim most of what was lost. Now she is moving to a new house with a garden big enough to hold all these flowers.
She walks over to the pond. On its green-grey surface, water lilies float, white and cream and copper-red,  stands of sedge and flag iris softening its edges, and she feels it, as she felt it when she was a child, flowers all around her: a sense of dissolution between here and now and whatever lies just out of reach.
Here.
All that has filtered down into the darkness has given life to flowers that open like a hand; in the centre of each a deepening of colour, which she can hear as if it were a sound.

Nothing exists without water.

She thinks of him and knows that he is well.

 

 

View the Short Story of the Month archive here

 

 

Short Story of the Month | ‘The Walk’, Jonathan Page

Jonathan Page The Walk short story

Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘The Walk’ by Jonathan Page.

After the anniversary of his lover’s death, a man walks purposefully along a familiar hillside path and ruminates on the relationship that has come to define his life.

Ten years have passed since he bid farewell to the woman, the artist, he loved so dearly – and as her life and the last of her works become public property, he finds himself resisting calls to give up what little he has left of her.

Jonathan Page lives in Bronllys, close to the Black Mountains. He works as a senior technical author and writes literary fiction in his spare time. Jonathan was the winner of the Earlyworks Press Short Story Competition 2015 and the Earlyworks Press Flash Fiction competition 2017. His story, ‘The Hill Farm’, took second prize in the ShortStory.net Competition 2016. His stories have appeared in five anthologies between 2016 and 2017. His current project is Century, a novel of closely connected stories that spans a hundred years in a Welsh border town.

 

The Walk

This is an extract. Read the full short story for free on the Seren website.

John walks a path in the sky. The world falls green away, severe and pleasing in its scale. The soft dissolved fields are as far away as the sky. Cairns stand at intervals on the ridge.

He is full of love for this place. A skylark sews the air over the long drop, like a message to him, like something he should carry home for translation. The light blooms in the long grass and rocks cascade down the steep sides of the hills in suspended glittering motion. The rocks look like coal dust pitched from the end of a spade.

Every time he comes up top it feels new to him. The lark singing in plain sight. The way a rock carries the light on its back. But what do you tell people when you come down again, what can you say. You talk about a rock and a bird and you drift over your pint into more solid matter about the state of your legs or the path or the weather. Your pictures go unseen by others, as they must, as is their nature.

Pictures. His pictures began here.

His longing for Rose overtakes him and he sits on the ground with his hands about his knees. His first paintings were muddy things. He ridged the paint like he planted potatoes and cut paths with his palette knife. There was nothing wrong with them, they sold, but they were wrong. They hid what he wanted seen.

That was when, seventy-six? Rose had been painting a long time. Her pictures were sparse, a few lines and she was done. She smiled at his piles of unvaried muddy panels. Then she took him up here to walk and draw, though there was no intention to change him. He had lived in Llanandred all his life and never come up.

After those first walks he made simpler paintings using reds and golds and blues, the colours and strong architecture of the high moor. They came from his experience of a place and he was no longer so ashamed to draw from it. He had been a teller in a Bank the year before and it was hard to believe he was any good. His father did not think pictures proper work. He thought he shirked. He thought it a phase. He thought it sex.

John closes his eyes and sees Rose’s hand  – the skin thin and soft over the bones in her hand – cover his. The tickle of the air is the hover of her hand over his, about to rest upon it. Maybe the old bastard was right about the sex.

He goes on all fours, his bottom in the air, to help himself get up again. Part of him wants to stay where he is, sheltered by the small cairn and warmed by the sun. His bones are getting old. For a moment the path ahead intimidates like stairs in early childhood.

Come on you lazy sod.

Critics and dealers were always coming to the chapel to see Rose. He saw something switch off in their eyes when they learned the paintings at the back were his. She was the One they came for, the famous Rose Hartwood. If they praised his work it was to please her. If they asked him what he did and what he thought and what he liked it was to please her. They were not unkind, not unperceptive. He was her lover and her assistant, an anteroom they must pass through.

He did not mind. He did not begrudge. Without Rose he would never have left the bank.  Without Rose he would not have found love. Her work besides was extraordinary. She reinvented her work constantly and whatever she did worked. Besides he was still young – youngish – and assumed there would be more for him. He took his hunger to succeed for satisfaction. He took the dead eyes of the critics as proof that his work was truthful.

Later he found himself a footnote in articles and books. The writers and academics milked him for stories of their life together. The age-gap titillated and repulsed and sex was always on their minds when they talked to him. He was a means to an end, an aspect of Rose’s psyche.

A Rose by any other name.

When did he stop painting? Eighty-four or eighty-five, whenever Ted Brentwood’s biography came out.  Rose hated that book. It was a fiction, lies. She hated what he had made of her, what he had made of both of them. Still it secured her legend. It got her commissions and kept her in the public eye. It was glamour of a kind, to be Rose’s lover.

He could not make paintings nobody saw. They were props for his walk-on role. When he looked at one of his paintings his saw a shut door.

John stands on a peninsula jutting out into the flat below. The cairn he uses to shield him from the wind is spiky with slants of greenish rock and the light burns low on the opposing hill. The sun pulls reddish browns and slate and three or more kinds of green out of its rounded forms. One minute the hills are as severe as a vast falling wave, the next all curves.

He sees another walker on the slope opposite, a miniature red upright on the zig-zag path. John raises his hand and he sees the red figure pause and raise its hand to him.

John is nobody without Rose. The figure – a man or woman he can’t tell from here – may be the last person he ever sees.

Continue reading ‘The Walk’ for free here.

 

 

 

Short Story of the Month | ‘Dolls’ Hospital’, Christopher Morley

Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘Dolls’ Hospital’ by Christopher Morley.

A young boy’s persistent curiosity sets him on an adventure to the mysterious Doll’s Hospital, in which he learns that not only dolls need mending.

Christopher Morley was born in Nottingham in 1946.

He is a retired primary school teacher, a fine artist and short story writer.

 

 

Dolls’ Hospital

This is an extract. Read the full short story for free on the Seren website.

The Dolls’ Hospital was at the top of Alfreton Road near to Canning Circus. I had been aware of it ever since we had taken to visiting friends at Bobber’s Mill. It was necessary to catch a trolley bus, and the stop was almost outside the Dolls’ Hospital. Waiting for the trolley bus gave me enough time to gaze at the window display. The Hospital was a shop front of one large window, a recessed entrance and a much smaller window. Boards obscured the interior of the premises but afforded shallow display areas. On display were mostly dolls and teddy bears. Some were bandaged or had an arm in a sling. One teddy with a leg in plaster was propped up on a crutch. Some dolls wore old fashioned nurses’ outfits and tended patients in shoe-box beds. The main fascination for me was the small group of lead soldiers that represented the Army Medical Service. A wounded redcoat was being carried by blue tunic stretcher bearers towards a Florence Nightingale figure waiting at the entrance to a white medical tent. I wondered if there were more soldiers to be seen inside, but the Hospital was never open when I was there. There was a notice on the drawn down door blind that said that the hours were 9:30am to 5pm, with a lunch break between 12:30 and 1:30. Also the Hospital was open only Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. We visited our family friends on Saturdays. Anyway I didn’t have an excuse to go inside because I had no dolls that needed treatment, and I would never dare just go in for a look.

~o~

Mrs Hilton said that it would be nice to hear some diary entries read out. I shrank down hoping I wasn’t chosen, not because I couldn’t write or because I was nervous of reading aloud. I never seemed to have anything suitable to write about. Playing at soldiers and going to the cinema with my parents seemed so commonplace. Julia Billington was eager to read her diary. It was a sad account of her pet Chow-Chow who chewed off an arm belonging to her favourite doll. I sat up. I resolved to speak with her on the way home.

I caught up with Julia and Lorraine. Lorraine glared at me when I broke the rules and spoke to Julia. Julia beamed and listened.

‘You can get your doll’s arm mended at the Doll’s Hospital.’

When I told her where it was her ready smile faded. She had no idea where Alfreton Road was, and her parents wouldn’t let her go far without a suitable escort.

‘I could take you next week, it’s the holiday.’

Lorraine’s eyes bored into me. Julia resumed her smile and agreed to meet me at the bus terminus opposite her house on Tuesday to catch the 9:40 into town.

~o~

I fretted about this adventure all weekend, but was reassured when I saw Julia waiting beside the Number 19 with a parcel under arm. We sat downstairs on the left so as to be ready to get off. She peeled back the brown paper enough to show where the missing arm should be.

‘I told my Mother I was going to play with Mickey Hazeldine. What did you say?’

‘Oh, I said I was going to look at new dolls in Beeston with Lorraine. I’m allowed to go to Beeston if I’m with a friend. Lorraine’s really gone to her cousin’s.’

‘Tickets, please.’

The conductor was looming with his ticket machine. It was the one that my Mother said was lairy. He certainly was full of himself.

‘Two halves to Canning Circus, please.’

He grinned as he wound out the tickets, ‘Family outing is it?’

‘Yes,’ replied Julia, ‘We are taking baby to the hospital. She’s got polio.’

The conductor backed off. Julia was quick. Being a redhead she had had plenty of practice batting off silly remarks.

We got off just after the Drill Hall where the Territorial Soldiers met. It was only a couple of minutes’ walk around Canning Circus to get onto Alfreton Road. As soon as we turned the corner we could see the sign for the Dolls’ Hospital standing out from the wall. It was just about ten o’clock. There was a light on in the Hospital, much to my relief. The door pinged when I pushed it open.

Continue reading ‘Dolls’ Hospital’ for free here.

 

 

 

Short Story of the Month | ‘The Visit’, Jaki McCarrick

The Visit Jaki McCarrick Short Story of the Month

May’s Short Story of the Month is ‘The Visit’ by Jaki McCarrick, an award-winning writer of plays, poetry and fiction.

the scatteringMcCarrick won the 2010 Papatango New Writing Prize for her play, Leopoldville, and her play Belfast Girls, developed at the National Theatre London, was shortlisted for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award. The Scattering, from which ‘The Visit’ is taken, was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize.

‘The Visit’ takes place against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s visit to the border town of Dundalk in Ireland – a visit that was very much a part of the Peace Process. 

 

The Visit

This is an extract. Read the full short story for free on the Seren website.

It had been a day of weather: snow and wind, sunshine and rain.
Water dripped from the overhanging hedges in the drive and
the path was thick with pine needles. Brendan made a mental
note to sweep them up once Pat had gone. He stopped before
the gates and pulled his trousers up by their creases to check
his shoes and thought that maybe he should’ve worn his boots.
He walked on. Pat would make him forget. Pat could make you
forget all kinds of silly woes. He glanced over at Coogan’s and
noticed the stars and stripes flag, still and wet on the pole.
After McCaughey’s he looked over at Joy Callan’s neat line of
laundry crowning her raised side lawn: a small satin-rimmed
blanket, black stockings, two blue ballroom gowns, a pair of
orange nylon pillowcases. As he approached her house he saw
her in the yard, bright and chic in pink slacks and a tight white
jumper. She was raking up leaves. He watched her part the
dresses then yank the wet leaves into a pile. It made him smile;
she might have hung the gowns out after she’d raked, but Joy
always seemed to do things differently from others. And anyway,
he was glad, because she made the task so mesmerising. He
recalled how after her husband had gone she had kept body and
soul together by moonlighting, rather originally he thought, as
a mushroom picker in Clones. Otherwise, as a relief teacher
she had taught both his children in the Friary, though she had
not been popular. He waved and wondered would she be at
the Square tomorrow. He made a mental note to call in one
of these evenings with the picture of Sean’s wedding in the
paper.
Walking on, his thoughts returned to Pat. He looked forward
to seeing him. There would be much talk of the ‘great
adventures’ as Brendan called them, the London times, the days
of the Black Lion where he had been manager for nearly a
decade and where Pat had been its most notorious barfly. He
was proud to think he’d organised some of London’s most
celebrated lock-ins, booked musicians from Dublin and Doolin
and Donegal, and had the likes of David Bailey and Donovan
in attendance. Soon he and Pat would be reminiscing about
those times, about the dog races at Hackney and White City,
the times they’d played poker in Holland Park with Jack Doyle.
He walked up the cobbled lane towards the station. He could
see clearly on the cold day the sprawl of the town towards the
hills. The trees by the church were draped in ropes of white
lights, and a flurry of flags hung from Carroll’s Apartments. He
was amazed to think that here, in this small dot on the face of
the globe, he and Pat would stand together tomorrow evening
and see the President of America.
The big station clock said ten to three. He had a few minutes
yet to gather his thoughts, stare over at the glass wall of the
brewery. He sat outside on the iron seat. The gulls hovered
above him, filling the air with their cries. The sweet wort’s more
pungent today, he thought, as his gaze fixed on the huge copper
kettle glistening through the glass. It had been his first job in
the brewery to wash the kettle out once the sweet wort had been
siphoned off. He would then prepare it for the following
morning’s shipment of hops and grain. He had spent the best
part of five years inside that copper drum, up to his ankles in
the remnants of fresh hops, proteins and sticky clumps of
caramelised sugar. It had given him time to think; to put into
perspective all that had happened in ’74.
There was a rumble on the tracks. He turned and saw the
sleek green body of the Enterprise stack up like a metallic snake
along platform two. He walked over and watched from the
ticket office. The doors of the carriages swung open. Women
with pull-up trolleys, young men in dishevelled suits, Mrs Little
and her daughter, Edel. As the crowds dispersed he saw a ghost,
the tall, hulking frame of Pat Coleman standing stock-still on
the busy platform. The springy hair was all white, the once firm
chest now visibly lax. Brendan watched his friend remove a
cigarette from behind his ear, ask a girl for a light, then take
three or four concentrated puffs before flicking the stub behind
him onto the tracks. Pat’s short-sleeved shirt seemed frowsy
and unironed; the thick brown arms with their blue tattoos
recalled to Brendan Pat’s nickname on the sites: Popeye. Popeye
Pat had had the strength of ten men, and once, in a drunken
rage, Brendan had seen him flatten as many.
He followed Pat’s gaze. Up to the pale, elusive sky of the
North; out to the striking sweep of the white-capped hills, the
green spire of the Protestant church peeping up against them.
He began to feel unfamiliar pangs of pride for the town, as if
through Pat’s languorous impression, he, too, was glimpsing
it for the first time. The town was his wife’s town, and he had
always found it hard to appreciate its people with their
wariness, their industrious, practical approach to things. His
wife had been right; he had put up a resistance. She had
accused him often of hiding away in the brewery kettle like a
genie. But the friendships he had formed here had been
without the closeness of his London bonds. The men he knew
from the town were nothing like that famous man on platform
two.

Continue reading ‘The Visit’ for free here.

 

Short Story of the Month | ‘Beginning Again’, Candy Neubert

Short Story Beginning Again Candy Neubert

Our Short Story of the Month for March is ‘Beginning Again’ by Candy Neubert.

Cornish Short Stories

The story will shortly be published in Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing (The History Press).

Candy Neubert lives in Cornwall but maintains strong ties with South Africa where she lived from 1990–1996. She has received numerous literary awards, including the Bridport Prize. She is the author of Foreign Bodies (Seren, 2009) and Big Low Tide (Seren, 2012).

 

Beginning Again

This is an extract. Read the full short story for free on our website.

 

She was coming straight up the beach towards him.
Through half-closed eyes, his head propped up against his rucksack, he watched her come. In silhouette at first, the kind of shape you just knew wasn’t English, couldn’t be English, but you couldn’t say why. Hair plastered back slick and wet off her face.
She came right up and stood over him, flicking water over his hot skin. Hey, he laughed. She lifted her towel, shaking it out like a sheet over a bed, lying down with a grunt.
He felt the cool coming from her, saw tiny droplets drying on her neck—Sonya, his mate, his life’s woman.
“Mm … now I’m hungry,” she said, not opening her eyes. He was, too. He sat up slowly, sun dizzy, and reached into the rucksack. Here it was, the container she always filled to the brim—he raised a corner of the lid and out came the smell of food, olives and onion and … just then he woke up, as the small figure of the boy crossed his line of vision, still quite far off, heading his way.

        The path went straight up from Porthcurno and he took it two steps at a time. Not really steps but boulders and cliff straight up from the car park, just the way to get going on a cool morning. They’d soon be warm and the mist would clear; it was only a sea mist. He positively sprang all the way, pretty fit for a business man, an office chap.

        When the path levelled out, he waited for Daniel. It was an inviting path, gorse on either side, beaten earth sprinkled with rabbit droppings, gulls laughing overhead. But he kept still and waited patiently. He was so effing patient. But Daniel wasn’t in sight.

        Finally.

        If shoulders could talk.

        If shoulders could talk, the rucksack on Daniel’s back would shrivel up and die. As if towels were heavy. Bulky, yes, but not heavy. He should try the picnic, if he wanted heavy.

        Also, Fuller had the surfboard, which was fair enough; his arms were longer. But Daniel was young and strong. They did sports training at school, didn’t they?

        The boy climbed the last bit and came to a halt five yards away, his eyes fixed on his shoes.

        Patience, mind. Fuller held his tongue and set off again. A fresh scent came from the pink flowers in the grass under the gorse, while the mist ripped back off the cliffs before his eyes—what luck, when it might have come in thick and spoiled everything.

        They did sports training and next year Mandarin, of all things. He asked Daniel about it yesterday, about the new school. The boy made a face, sticking his tongue over his front teeth. They’re all tossers, he said. He’d wanted to go to a school in Devon where they taught tractor driving.

        But they were going to have a day today, a great day. They were here, damn it. The sun was coming out and everything was sorted.

        A kestrel rose and hung in the air, over to the right. Fuller put his fingers in his mouth and whistled, and the boy raised his head.

        ‘What?’ he yelled.

        ‘Kestrel!’

        ‘Uh.’

        Now, five hundred yards ahead, a gate—it had to be the right place, the path veering off towards the cliff edge, dipping at the end, there! He stood, breathing hard. Sheer drop on one side and at his feet, far down, two perfect golden discs of sand divided by a bar of pale green water, just like the photo in the brochure. He’d found it. His chest was big and warm and happy. Daniel came up behind him.

        ‘There it is—great, eh? Looks like the Caribbean. And the sun’s out. Got all my cards in one shoe, boy.’

        ‘What?’

        ‘Y’know—got everything I want, all in one place.’

        ‘Whatever.’

        He was twelve.

        ‘Go careful now. Very careful. Watch it.’

        They did have to be careful; it was a real rabbit path, hard on the knees. Fuller couldn’t be sure that this sluggish figure was truly his son; maybe he’d dart ahead the way he always had. He put out a warning arm. Sheer drop. Careful.

        The body board was a nuisance. Glancing at the sand below, he saw people down there already. Damn. Not to worry, live and let live, hey.

        ‘I’ll let the board drop,’ he called. Please let it not break, he said to himself as it slithered from his hand, pivoted on one edge and shot out of sight. Fuller turned around to take the last slope of rock backwards.

        ‘Turn around,’ he called up.

        The boy would figure it out. Let him find out for himself, let him learn from something a bit tough.

        All the nooks and crannies and shady spots were taken. Fuller walked the whole beach and back to where the boy had stopped, his bag dumped on the sand. Every cleft and shadow already occupied. A middle-aged couple were sauntering from one of these nooks, and something about them had the boy transfixed. Fuller looked. Not a stitch. Starkers. Perfect mahogany tans all over, their buttocks going concave as they walked, the brown flesh in shallow folds. The man had a hat on.

        ‘Well, what is the world coming to?’

        ‘Where are we going?’ asked Daniel.

        ‘Here’s as good as anywhere, I guess.’

        Fuller began to unpack the stuff. He was sure he’d brought everything: shorts, food, sun lotion, you name it, he’d got it. He flipped a ball in the boy’s direction, and it rolled a way off.

        ‘Bring your water bottle?’

        Daniel looked at him.

        ‘You didn’t, did you? You forgot, didn’t you? Didn’t I say: bring your water bottle?’

        ‘Well I didn’t, did I?’

        ‘We’ll be short. Good job I brought mine, but we’ll be short.’

        ‘What you doing?’

        ‘Getting the towels out.’

        ‘That’s my bag.’

        ‘I’m getting the towels out of your bag, okay? Please Daniel, may I get the towels out?’

        No reply. The boy sat down, yanked his cap further over his eyes, and looked at the sea. Fuller pulled his own shirt off and wrapped a towel tight around his waist. Still warm and happy; that sea was calling.

        ‘Coming?’

        He and his son, racing down the sand.

        ‘Coming?’

Continue reading ‘Beginning Again’ for free here.

 

 

 

Short Story of the Month | ‘The Pheasant’, Glenda Palmer Vibert

The Pheasant Short Story of the Month

December’s Short Story of the Month, ‘The Pheasant’, is published in memory of the author, Glenda Palmer Vibert, and is based on a true account of one of her grandfather’s experiences as a poacher in Llanelli.

A man faces harsh justice for stealing a bird – but will the law prevail?

 

The Pheasant

This is an extract. Read the full short story for free on our website.

 

Elizabeth Francis made no concessions to the twentieth century. As far as she was concerned, Victoria was still very firmly planted on the throne of England. The calendar may say nineteen twenty, but that was ignored by Elizabeth. She was a tiny woman, small and finely boned, but having a strength that belied her apparent delicacy. Her dark, Indian-straight hair was hardly streaked with white, while her black eyes looked boldly on life.
The burly police constable hesitated, foot on step, nervously fingering his note book and pencil. Elizabeth Francis’ sharp tongue was well known in the small, fiercely Welsh industrial town. Many a would-be complaining customer had been shrivelled by Elizabeth as she stood, hands on hips, barely visible behind the mound of home grown vegetables on the market stall. This was the stance that met Constable Parry’s wilting gaze now.
“Who says that my Richard was poaching?”
“Well, er- that is…”
David Parry grew more nervous.
“Witnesses you must have, not some old gossip.”
‘Wil Toplis saw him, he did, with that old pheasant in his–”
Elizabeth Francis cut him short.
“Wil Toplis?” she spat sneeringly.  “He couldn’t see a cow in a field!”
David Parry backed away.  He had delivered his message, he had done his duty.
Elizabeth Francis went in and slammed the front door shut. She stood for a few seconds in the long dark passage of the house. The grandfather clock with its silly swan face ticked with a comfortable velvet tick. Poaching again, she thought. Why can’t that wife of his control him?
She made her way into the cramped kitchen with its glowering range and its high-backed settle, upon which a small, red-haired child was curled reading a comic.
“Come here child. Take a message to your idle father.”
The child stood before her grandmother. Their eyes met, the same dark, deep eyes, the grandmother’s hard, the child’s wide and questioning.
“Yes Mamgu?”
“Tell your father that I want to see him – and not when he feels like it, but now.”
“But he’ll be in work now.”
“Nonsense!  He’ll be in the West End; your father never wastes good drinking time by working.”
The child slammed the little gate of the house shut and set off down Sandy Road. “Always me,” she grumbled to herself, “always me running messages.” Her small hands were red from helping Mamgu with the washing and her arms ached from working the washing dolly.
A car swooshed past her going all of twenty miles an hour, mud splattering the hem of her too big dress.
The pub was crowded with noise and smoke as the child pushed her way past sweating, furnace-begrimed men, slaking the thirst of red hot ingots with the strong, thick ale brewed locally.
“Have you seen my father?” she asked no one in particular. A furnace blasted face looked down at her above a white sweat-cloth.
“Draw fana,” he said to her in Welsh, “over there bach.”
He pointed to a corner of the bar where a tall, red-haired man was holding court, talking in rapid Welsh to a spell-bound audience of three or four tin-plate workers in their metal-soled clogs. Dick Francis saw his youngest daughter and, mellowed by beer, lifted her in his arms and swung her above his head.
“Fy merch I,” he announced proudly, “my daughter.”
“No need to say that man. With that red hair she couldn’t be anyone else’s child.”
The men laughed and made a fuss of the girl, who was oblivious to their laughter and teasing.
“Mamgu wants you,” said the child breathlessly and a little afraid.
“Tell her I’ll come at stop-tap,” said Dick, placing the child on the bar counter.
“But she said now,” said the child urgently.
Something in her tone convinced him this was not a request from Elizabeth, but a command.
Dick swore softly to himself. What right had his mother to treat him like a child? After all, he was married now with four daughters of his own, and a wife that had much the same spitfire quality as his mother – far too much he sometimes thought.
Nevertheless, he bade farewell to his mates and walked unsteadily towards his maternal home, the child trotting at his side.
Mother and son faced each other in the little parlour.
“Well?” said Elizabeth, questioningly.
“Well what?” answered her son sullenly.
“You know very well what. I’ve just had a visit from David Parry – it’s poaching you’ve been again!”
“Who says I’ve been poaching?”
“Wil Toplis, you fool, he’s been after you for years, swore he’d see you behind bars and this is his chance.”
“Damn Mam, he’s always saying that but he’s not done it yet.”

Continue reading ‘The Pheasant’ for free here.