Anthology News

If you are someone who likes to write, then joining a writers’ group can be an invaluable experience since it gives you the opportunity to do a number of things:

firstly, it enables you to meet with other writers and gain advice on publishing, editing and all the other technical aspects of getting your work out into the world of readers;

secondly, it’s a safe space to receive constructive criticism on your work – some groups have the facility for writers to submit their work anonymously for feedback, which can be a lot less scary than everyone knowing it’s your story in the first place;

thirdly, it gives you an opportunity to see your work in print as most writers’ groups these days also publish members’ work – either on a website or in the form of a printed anthology. For people who may be struggling to complete the first novel they’ve been working on for years, this is a good way to introduce your writing to the general public in short story form.

I’ve been lucky enough to have had six short stories accepted by various anthologies over the past few months. (I’ve also had several rejected, but we won’t dwell on those.) The first one to be published is ‘City of Hope’, the second anthology from the Birmingham Writers’ Group, available from Amazon. (I’d add the link, but for some reason, I can only find the French and Spanish Amazon links and not the UK one.)

I’ve already bought my copy and it’s just as exciting and inspiring to see the stories of the people I’ve known since I joined the group in March this year as it is to see my own. A number of the writers have also published, or are set to publish, full length novels, so I would recommend buying this anthology and deciding which authors you’d like to read more of. If you’re having trouble locating the book, type in ‘City of Hope’ and David Croser (one of the editors) and you should be fine.

To summarise: if you’re someone who enjoys writing or would like to start writing, join a local writers’ group; and check out the Birmingham Writers’ Group anthologies (last year’s offering was called ‘City of Night’) on Amazon.

Happy reading!

The Fairest of Them All

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written a lot of short stories, most of them in response to various writing competitions or open calls for anthologies or magazines. However, most of these stipulate that the work must be unpublished, which includes posting it on a blog like this one, so I haven’t been able to share my work on this page. Reedsy.com is a website for writers which posts free writing prompts every Friday and encourages aspiring authors to produce a piece of writing between 1000 and 3000 words based on one of these prompts. They’ve just started publishing all the entries each week on their website, and I have to admit some of the entries are pretty good.

Of course, there will be weeks when none of the prompts inspire, but I had an idea straightaway for an entry based on their Week 2 set of prompts, so the link to the page is here – https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/contests/2/ – and my story is below. If you like my story, please go on the reedsy website and like it there too; if you don’t like it, why not leave a comment, suggesting ways in which it could be improved.

I’m not quite sure how to define this one: is it a Gothic fairy tale, or steampunk, or magic realism? Does it actually matter? The story is below:

The Fairest Of Them All

It was evening when I first saw her, but her beauty lit up the cottage like a blazing lantern. The seven of us were dirty and sweaty from toiling all day in the mine – tired too: it takes it out of you after a while – but our fatigue vanished when we beheld this lovely creature, curled up across several of our beds, dark hair fanned out over the pillow.

Jon was the first to say anything. “A fairy – in our ‘ouse!” he breathed. Poor soul – he was dropped when he was a baby and he’s been a bit simple ever since.

“Don’t ‘ee talk daft!” Gort chided, cuffing him round the head as he usually did. “Whoever ‘eard of a fairy goin’ ter sleep on a ‘uman bed?”

It must have been our voices that woke her, for the next moment, she sat bolt upright, looking for all the world like a frightened fawn. A pretty little thing she was – not much more than fifteen summers, I would say – and my heart was lost from the moment she turned those big brown eyes on me.

“Who are you?” She sounded scared, but she still had her manners because she added politely, “I’m so sorry to have intruded. I knocked, but there was no reply.”

“Don’t ‘ee fret.” That was Gort again. Because he’s the oldest, he always thinks he’s in charge. “You’m ‘aven’t done no ‘arm, from what I can see. But where ‘ave ‘ee come from? There ain’t another cottage for miles about.”

She lowered her gaze then, looking out at us all from under downcast lashes. Finally, “The Castle,” she whispered.

That was when I knew we couldn’t keep her. If she was from The Castle, they’d no doubt be out looking for her by now. I studied her clothes – ragged and dirty they were, and torn as if she’d run through brambles; but her face wasn’t that of a serving girl and her bearing was – well, regal somehow.

“Will they be lookin’ for ‘ee?” Marn broke in. I wondered if he was thinking of a reward.

Her face clouded. “They will if the Huntsman returns and tells them I escaped. He was supposed to kill me, but …” Her lip trembled and she buried her face in her hands. “He tried to do something worse, and that’s when I managed to escape – while he was unbuttoning his breeches –“ 

I think at that moment that everyone of us felt an anger so strong we would have torn that huntsman limb from limb if he’d stood before us. How could anyone hurt such an innocent child? I thought in wonder.

She looked up once more, her eyes brimming with tears. “Can I stay here? I’d feel safe with all of you looking after me.”

Not a brother among us could have denied her. She was bewitchingly beautiful, you see – all snow white skin and ruby red lips and coal black hair. She wasn’t much more than a child, but at that moment I wanted nothing more than to put my arms about her and hold her safe for the rest of her life. Love – if that’s what love is – but nothing sinful. My feelings for her were as chaste as the lily flowers that grew outside the window, and as pure as the mountain stream that flowed through our garden. My love was true – but alas! that’s more than could be said of my brethren.

*

It was but a day or two later when the first disaster occurred. Marn and Besil were working a seam together – we thought there might be diamonds buried deep within its veins – when Besil’s pick slipped and went clean through our brother’s skull. That was the story Besil told, but I was uneasy. I’d seen the way he looked at Marn that morning when the girl smiled at him: venom in his eyes that put me in mind of one of those snakes in the forest; and a part of me couldn’t help wondering if it really had been an accident. Besil was pale and shaken, as well he ought to be – but I detected something else in his face: a sort of slyness that had no right to be there.

And after that, it seemed like our family was cursed. Gort went to fetch water from the stream and never came back. We found him hours later, face downward in the water. Ruan thought he must have caught his foot on something and fallen, catching his head on a rock so that he died quickly and painlessly, but …

Poor Lily – that’s what I called her in my mind, on account of how pure and beautiful she was, although she never did tell us her given name – was inconsolable over both the deaths. The tears she shed – more precious than any of the diamonds we’d discovered over the years – showed her gentle heart. She could have been our sister, the way she wept.

That’s what made the next incident so terrible. After Gort’s drowning, Lily had begged us never to venture out on our own again – couldn’t bear to lose another one of us, she said. There were five of us left now, so Besil and Ruan went to fetch water whilst Hult and I gathered mushrooms, leaving Jon with Lily lest she feel afeared by herself. We had a basketful of mushrooms when we heard the shouting. Running in the direction of the noise, I saw Besil and Ruan in the stream, struggling with each other. “She be mine, I tell ‘ee!” Besil was hollering, and, “She don’t love ‘ee like she do me. I be going to marry ‘er, I tell ‘ee!” from Ruan.

And then the world stood still as I saw my own beloved brother, Ruan, grab a rock and hit Besil over the head so that he fell into the water and didn’t move again. Ruan looked up and saw us, and a queer look crossed his face. “She be mine!” he muttered, unwittingly repeating Besil’s words.

For a moment, I just stood there, staring in shock, unable to comprehend what had happened. What madness had driven Ruan to act in this way? Hult started to run towards the stream and I nearly went after him, not wanting Ruan to attack him too, but something held me back.

I saw Hult moving towards Ruan, as determined as a wolf stalking its prey. Then he was on him, grappling with him. I thought at first that he was trying to knock some sense into him: it was only as I approached that I realised my brothers were fighting to the death.

I began to run myself, calling out to both of them to stop this insanity. We were all brothers and Lily was as a sister to us, but they heeded me not. As I neared the stream, I saw that Hult had Ruan in his grip, twisting his head and neck with such force that something suddenly popped. Ruan’s head lolled back lifelessly, his dead eyes wide and staring. I felt the bile rise in my throat and tried to understand what could have driven gentle Hult to act in such a way.

He watched me now, wary like a bird caught in a trap. “Step away, Tom.” His voice escaped in a hoarse croak. “She be mine.”

I was silent then, remembering how Lily had kissed me goodbye as I left the cottage – not a sisterly kiss, but one that spoke of other things, igniting longing and desire within me so that the thoughts I now had of my sweet innocent Lily were anything but pure.

“No,” I told him. “She be mine.”

And then, like Ruan before me, I grabbed a rock and dashed my brother’s brains out.

*

How long I sat there, I do not know, only that the sky darkened and the stream ran red with blood. Eventually, I stood up and walked back to the cottage, a strange excitement buzzing in my ears. Tonight, I would take my angel to my bed and lie with her as if she were already my wife. My loins burned as I thought of her – my sweet little Lily, my love.

The cottage door stood slightly ajar. I pushed it open and peered inside. Lily sat by the hearth, sobbing as if her heart would break. I was at her side instantly, my lust dissipated by her distress.

“What be the matter, child?” I asked her gently.

She turned her tear-stained face to mine, and only now did I notice that her bodice was torn and her shoulder bare.

“Jon …” She struggled to get the words out. “I … I don’t think he wanted to hurt me. He asked for a kiss, and then …”

“Where be he now?” I surprised myself with the roughness of my voice.

“Asleep. He fell asleep after he’d taken what he wanted.”

Anger grew in me then. He had deflowered my Lily, my pure, innocent bride to be, and he would have to pay.

 Ignoring the girl’s pleas, I strode from the room, making my way towards the sleeping chamber at the back of the house. Jon lay asleep on his bed, looking as guileless as a new-born babe, but I knew what he had done. He slept on as I held a pillow over his face. I held it there until his chest ceased to rise and fall, all the while my heartbeat hammering with exultation. My brothers were gone, but I had something far more precious in this fairy creature who would fill our cottage with love and laughter and babies.

*

A noise at the back of me made me turn around. She stood there, trembling – so helpless and pitiful that I could no longer contain myself. Drawing her to me, I kissed her long and hard on the mouth. She looked up at me, eyes wide with uncertainty, and I thought of Jon and what he had done to her, and I made myself pull away from her lest she thought I would hurt her.

She was breathing heavily, her breast swelling against the torn blouse. Lust flamed within me again, and then I noticed the pure white stone that hung in the hollow of her neck and shame washed over me. How could I contemplate despoiling something so innocent?

Her fingers slipped into mine. “Let’s get away from this place,” she said simply. “It reeks of death.”

I followed her into the forest and it seemed fitting somehow that we would lie amongst the bracken and listen to the song of birds as we came together.

But before we had found a fit place to stop, my foot caught against something hidden under a pile of leaves and a disembodied voice crackled out of nowhere: “I repeat: the prisoner is dangerous. If seen, do not approach, but call for backup.”

My mind whirled. What fell magic was this? Hastily, I kicked away the leaves to discover the source of the invisible stranger. The body that lay there was stiff and cold, his face blue. Bits of him were already beginning to rot. I stared again, noting his strange black clothing with The Castle insignia, the metal box at his belt still spewing out meaningless words.

“It now seems that Jenkins was able to escape by using a homemade variation of a glamour-stone, by which he convinced officers on duty that they wanted to help him. He was accompanied by one of the Huntsmen on duty at the time, who is now regarded as an accomplice. If you see either of these men, I repeat: do not approach, but call for backup.”

The voice faded away. Lily looked at me and shrugged. “Oops,” she murmured.

I still did not understand as she came towards me, brandishing a blade that had appeared out of nowhere. “I thought you worked at The Castle,” I said stupidly. We never ventured as far as the village, but we knew The Castle was a bad place, full of cells containing crazy people. I wasn’t surprised she’d decided to run away, but I wanted to know why the Huntsman she’d claimed had attacked her was lying under the leaves.

She was approaching slowly, her eyes more luminous than ever. I stood transfixed, mesmerised by her haunting beauty; but as she reached towards me, for a second something flickered and the merest impression of something twisted and cruel contorted her face.

Startled, I stepped back, throwing up my hands to defend myself from the knife she was jabbing at me. My fingers caught in the stone at her throat, and as the chain snapped, the glamour around her melted away and I saw my precious Lily for what she really was: a misshapen, hunchback of a man with features sharp as those of a ferret.

I was still struggling to make sense of it all as the blade slit my throat …

Frenzy

http://www.ekphrastic.net/ekphrastic/archives/08-2019

I recently discovered the above website, which posts a bi-monthly competition to write something based on a chosen work of art. This was my first attempt: a creative response to the painting ‘Frenzy’ by the Polish artist Wladislaw Podkowinski, in which I imagined the backstory behind the painting. Researching the artist, I discovered that he had slashed the painting towards the end of its exhibition at a gallery in Warsaw, and that it was possibly inspired by a young woman named Ewa Kotarbińska – I then wrote my own account of what could have happened to inspire the painting and to prompt Podkowinski to mutilate his own work. The result of this was the short story ‘Frenzy’, published on the website on August 1st 2019. Feel free to have a look at the Ekphrastic Review, to see the painting and the many poems written by other people and inspired by ‘Frenzy of Exultations’.

Frenzy

From the moment he saw her, his heart was in a frenzy.

The young artist, Wladyslaw Podkowinski, had not intended to fall in love when he visited a summer palace in his native city of Warsaw in 1893. In actual fact, his mind was on other matters: although he’d worked as an illustrator for the Tygodnik Ilustrowany magazine from 1886, his vision had changed in 1889 when he’d visited Paris and come face to face with a selection of works by Monet and the other up and coming ‘impressionists’ who were making a name for themselves as a bunch of renegades who eschewed the rigid and restrictive confines of the Salon de Paris. As he’d viewed Van Gogh’s swirling masterpiece, ‘The Starry Night’, he’d known that he too wanted to pour all his emotion into a maelstrom of colour and texture. The idea filled his mind so that, for the next few years, he thought of little else but creating a painting like this.

Ewa Kotarbińska had such a profound affect on him that she almost displaced his desire to paint: almost, but not quite. Blessed with pleasing curves and long dark hair that was confined to a lady-like chignon, she was the most beautiful creature the twenty-seven-year old youth had ever seen. The more he gazed on her from afar, the more his longing for her swirled into his need to put brush to canvas. He had been entertaining dreams of earning his living with a paintbrush ever since his visit to Paris and now he finally had the inspiration he needed for the work that he hoped would become his masterpiece.

Too gauche to know how to express his feelings to Ewa herself, Podkowinski worshipped his goddess from a distance, producing so many preparatory sketches that he could have filled an exhibition with those alone. Meanwhile, Ewa was totally unaware of her young swain’s affections. At twenty-three, she was still zealously chaperoned by her widowed mother and aunt, who were anxious that she should make a good marriage. In fact, the decision to summer here at Wilanów had been made with the sole purpose of finding her a husband – ideally, an older man with the right connections and enough money to compensate for the lack of dowry.

Podkowinski was obviously not the kind of man Ewa’s mother had in mind: he had neither money nor the requisite background. What he did have, however, was talent. Growing up in Warsaw, he’d visited the Wilanów Palace on countless occasions before this one and had always admired the equestrian portrait of Count Stanislas Potocki by Jacques-Louis David; this became his inspiration for the painting he now visualised, with Ewa taking the role usually adopted by kings or generals, riding a horse, perfectly in tune with the powerful beast. It would be a symbolic representation of the way she had harnessed his heart and now drove him into a frenzy with her presence.

Gradually, the work began to take shape. After secretly watching Ewa for months and observing every detail of her face, Podkowinski had sufficient preliminary oil sketches and charcoal studies to be able to retire to the shared studio he was renting and throw himself wholeheartedly into creating his masterpiece. He rejected the traditional method of setting horse and rider against a realistic background, choosing instead to divide his canvas into light and dark to represent the duality of his love for Ewa. The horse should be rearing, he decided, to symbolise the wild, untameable nature of passion. He wasn’t sure at this stage whether the horse was himself or his frenzied desire, but it must be a black horse, he decided now: one that would blend in with the swirling, dark background; and the rider should be naked, to express raw need and passion. Initially, he painted Ewa as she was: a brunette with rippling locks; then, bowing to pressure from a fellow artist who was a staunch follower of the English artist Millais, he transformed her into a redhead, realising that the dark hair had been lost against the horse’s ebony coat.

Little by little, he added more detail. The frenetic nature of the horse was expressed through its open mouth – teeth bared and tongue hanging out – and its wild rolling eyes. Next, he added dilated nostrils and flecks of foam escaping from the horse’s mouth, reminiscent of the nights he’d recently spent with assorted prostitutes. He’d initially sought them out on the backstreets of Warsaw merely to use as life models, needing to capture the lines of the female form and celebrate naked feminine flesh. The girls in question had made it clear that they didn’t care what he did, as long as he paid them afterwards; but after spending hours gazing at their dimpled nudity, it would have seemed churlish not to take them to his bed to warm them up. As each body lay beneath him, he imagined he was making love to Ewa; and after a few glasses of wine, all the girls had her face anyway.  Then, he had been the rider; now he showed a different balance of power as Ewa clasped the horse’s neck with her eyes closed as if in ecstasy and her unbound hair flowed upwards to mingle with the horse’s mane. Would she understand the significance? he wondered. Would she realise that he was hinting at their own physical union, of bodies flowing together in mutual need and passion?

Rejecting the full colour palette, he worked in blacks, browns and greys for the darker, right hand side of the painting, swirling the horse’s hind legs and tail into the accompanying darkness that was Ewa’s ignorance of him. His one hope now was to invite her to see the finished painting once he mounted his exhibition; consequently, he illuminated the upper left corner, focussing the viewers’ attention on the clear figure of the woman, on her pale, naked flesh and contrasting fiery hair.

He painted feverishly, little realising that his tiredness and fatigue were symptoms of something far more serious than unrequited love. After two months of painting through the night, foregoing sleep and eating very little, Podkowinski collapsed in his studio with his masterpiece still unfinished. The lung disease he had ignored for years, despite doctors’ warnings, had finally caught up with him and he knew he had not long to live: a few years at most.

Refusing to give up on either his painting or his beloved, he completed ‘Frenzy of Exultations’ from his bed. It had already been promised to the Zachęta gallery in Warsaw for its exhibition which would be opening on 18 March 1894 and he knew he could not afford to miss the deadline.

He had been so caught up in capturing the height of erotic ecstasy he felt whenever he thought of Ewa that he had not paused to think of the public’s response. The combination of sexual fantasy and female dominance created an atmosphere of scandal and sensation, so that on the first day alone of the exhibition a thousand people came to stare at the painting. By the end of the month, it had been viewed by twelve thousand.

Aware that he had little time left, Podkowinski demanded the staggering price of 10,000 rubles for the painting. It had made the gallery 350 rubles in its first month, but that was not enough to warrant such a ludicrous sum: instead, he was offered 3,000 rubles, which he declined. Ewa was yet to attend the exhibition (she had been visiting relatives for six weeks) and he wanted to show her that he could support them both with his art. Since he had never formally met her or her mother, he issued a tasteful, dignified invitation for Madam Kotarbińska and her family to attend the exhibition before it closed at the end of April, adding that he thought Miss Ewa in particular would be pleasantly surprised by one of the paintings.

Ewa’s family had been absent from Warsaw when the scandal originally broke. Now back in the family residence, they were beginning to hear whispers of the decadent and sacrilegious painting that was still drawing shocked and scandalised crowds – even if only to condemn and criticise. The whole city was talking about it: it would be social suicide to choose not to go.

On the afternoon of the twenty-second of April 1894, thirty-five days after the exhibition’s opening, Ewa finally walked through the doors of the Zachęta gallery with her family and her fiancé. Podkowinski’s heart fluttered as he saw her enter: he had been dreaming of this moment ever since he began his masterpiece. Surely no woman could fail to be impressed by a man who had poured out his heart and soul in a painting that encapsulated her beauty?

Mesmerised by the vision of his goddess in front of him, he stood transfixed as she approached with her family, completely unaware that the man whose arm she held was not her father or her uncle but a rival for her affection. A formal introduction was made by the director of the gallery, who was ecstatic that Count Żółtowski had deigned to visit his exhibition with this local family.

“Mr Podkowinski, Sir,” her mother began in cultured tones, “it was an honour to receive your invitation. May I present my daughter, Ewa, and my sister, Madam Brzezinski.” She paused, enjoying the sensation of the next words. “And the Count Żółtowski, who is to marry my daughter.”

The Count clicked his heels together respectfully whilst Podkowinski stood aghast. No! his mind protested. Ewa could not marry this man who looked old enough to be her father! The Count was at least fifty and there was nothing at all romantic in his appearance. Besides, and now his fevered brain slowly began to think logically, once Ewa saw her portrait, she would realize Podkowinski’s feelings for her and know that her destiny was to be his and his alone.

Slowly, he led the way to the wall at the far end of the gallery where ‘Frenzy of Exultations’ was, as usual, surrounded by murmuring crowds. The Kotarbińska party gazed eagerly at the canvas, then Ewa let out a horrified cry. Meanwhile, the Count pressed his lips together tightly, his face suddenly as pale as his fiancée’s flesh tones in the painting before them. Madam Kotarbińska regarded the painter coldly.

“How dare you, Sir!” she said at last, the epithet dripping with disdain. “You have brought dishonour upon my entire family!”

Ewa was sobbing quietly now. The shock of seeing her own face superimposed upon a completely naked body was too much for her. She would never be able to live this down. Never.
Podkowinski was amazed at the collective reaction: he had expected praise and adulation, not disapprobation. Whilst he struggled to find the words that would somehow salvage the situation, Count Żółtowski turned on his heel and stalked away.

“You will be hearing from our family lawyers!” Madam Kotarbińska burst out as she watched her daughter’s future leave the gallery. Inwardly, she was seething. Although she knew that her daughter had most definitely never posed for any painter at all, let alone a depraved dauber such as this, the rest of Warsaw would assume that Ewa had modelled for the man – and perhaps worse. There would have to be some sort of official disclaimer – in the right newspapers, naturally – to make it clear to society as a whole that this painting was fraudulent; but she doubted that the Count would want to be associated with the scandal.

As Ewa continued to sob, Podkowinski offered an apology. “Your pardon, Madam. This was not meant to offend: I thought to flatter your daughter by capturing her beauty for posterity.”

Had Ewa’s father still been living, Madam Kotarbińska was certain that he would have challenged this degenerate womaniser to a duel. Still, there would be financial repercussions: she would see to that. Grabbing her distraught daughter and startled sister, she swept out of the gallery.

Podkowinski drank heavily that night. Unable to understand why Ewa had rejected him, he decided that if he couldn’t gaze on her naked form, then no one else should either. Early next morning, he placed a knife in his pocket and carried it to the exhibition, where he viciously slashed Ewa’s face and body, desecrating his masterpiece just as Ewa herself had destroyed his hope. It was the thirty-sixth day of the exhibition.

By the time the gallery director realised what he had done, it was too late: the same crowds who had eagerly flocked to see the titillating spectacle of a beautiful, naked woman astride a phallically symbolic horse, gasped in delighted horror at the ruined painting, interpreting the violent destruction as some form of sado-masochism. Meanwhile, in the corner of the room, a paralytic Podkowinski sat and laughed bitterly, cursing God for creating women. He died shortly afterwards, and there was speculation that it was suicide, instigated by his lover’s cruel rejection of him in favour of Count Żółtowski.

No matter how strenuously Madam Kotarbińska denied the rumours, a frenzy of scandal surrounded the painting for years to come.

Flash Fiction

I wrote the following short story based on the weekly writing prompt from Yeah, write! I only had 750 words to play around with, so it’s brief – but hopefully it conveys what it’s like to be a teenager experiencing her first crush.

He Loves Me Not

My obsession with Luke Jenkins was brief but intense. All the way through Grade School and Middle School, I hadn’t noticed him at all, although that’s partly because boys don’t really exist at those ages, apart from as annoying nuisances who steal your highlighters and fart loudly at inopportune moments in class. Once we started High School, though, it was a different matter entirely. All of a sudden, I began observing how cute he was when I sat behind him in Ms Spirell’s history class or caught sight of him across the lunch hall, shovelling jello into his mouth as if his life depended on it.

At recess, I sat on the grass with Kimberley and Meg, wondering if they’d noticed Luke’s transformation from a slug to a butterfly as well. (Yes, I know slugs don’t turn into butterflies, but there’s something particularly slug-like about pre-adolescent boys and the way they slither their way through school, leaving a slimy, snotty trail behind them.)

Meg looked surprised when I mentioned that Luke Jenkins had “improved over the summer”. “You mean looks-wise?” she asked, regarding me from beneath her long, mascara-ed lashes.

Luckily, Kimberley was on my side. “It’s his smile,” she said now, a dreamy, far-away look in her eye. “When he smiles at you, his whole face lights up, like no one else in the world exists except you.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. I wanted Luke to be the object of my affection, not hers.

I couldn’t get him out of my head, though. For the whole of the following week, I found myself pulling the petals off daisies whilst muttering, “He loves me, he loves me not” under my breath. The scattered petals that followed me could have symbolised wedding confetti – had Luke known I existed. He didn’t.

That’s when I realised I had to up my game. Inwardly, I cursed myself for blabbing my secret earlier to my friends. If I hadn’t mentioned Luke, perhaps neither of them would have shown an interest in him. As it was, not a day went by without Meg batting her eyelashes at him as she opened her locker – oh, so frustratingly close to his! – or Kimberley walking past him, flashing her legs in skirts that were surely far too short for school guidelines. I had neither eyelashes nor legs – well, not in those quantities anyway; to all intents and purposes, I was the Invisible Woman where Luke was concerned.

The miracle happened on Friday morning. Five daisies in a row had proclaimed that Luke loved me; I took that as a sign that I should let him know my true feelings at last. Now I’m older, I realise that what I felt was actually puppy love; but, back then, I was convinced it was the real thing: I’d been scrawling “Mrs Katy Jenkins” across every available inch of space in my notepad all week.

For once, he wasn’t caught up in a crowd of teenage boys, talking about football and YouTube. My Greek god wafted past me in a cloud of pheromone-laden deodorant that momentarily took my breath away.

“Hey, Luke!” I called after him.

He stopped in his tracks and turned round.

“It’s me, Katy,” I said when he seemed to be having difficulty in placing me. “I sit behind you in history.”

Comprehension dawned on his face. “Katy,” he repeated. “You hang out with Megan, don’t you?”

I nodded, ecstatic that he’d remembered me; but then his next words ripped a hole right through my heart.

“Do you know if she’s seeing anyone?” he continued, oblivious to my horror. “Only, I was thinking of asking her out sometime …”

His voice trailed off in embarrassment as a fat, salty tear rolled down my cheek.

He loves me not, my heart whispered. How could I have been so stupid, thinking he’d look twice at me when he’d been blinded by Meg’s lashes?

That morning, I took all my hopeless, unrequited love for Luke Jenkins and slowly and painfully pulled it apart, stuffing it at the back of my locker until a day when I felt brave enough to throw it away for good. My obsession lasted for exactly one hundred and sixty-seven hours and four minutes – but for every minute of that time, I was deliriously happy whenever a daisy told me that he loved me.

Day 30 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

I have just had my official email to confirm that I have completed the challenge: 30 stories in 30 days. Some I like better than others; some topics appealed more than others; and some were definitely more difficult to write than others – BUT I did it.

A big thank you to all the people who have read one or more of the stories and given me feedback. I am immensely grateful for your support.

Surf’s Up

The waves swell, carrying the surfers towards the shore.

*

Daryl has always been searching for the perfect wave. Growing up in Orange County, California, the beach was never far away. His parents or grandparents had taken him there nearly every day from the time he was a baby. Now a young man of nineteen, he stands in the sun – tall, toned and tanned: the typical surfer – gazing out at the horizon. Surfers and boards dot the skyline, coloured shorts and costumes standing out in stark relief against the endless blue of sky and sea. The smell of ozone invades his nostrils, but he welcomes the sensation: the ocean is his first love; he feels wedded to his board.

Beside him, his girlfriend of the past six months studies the surf with equal intensity. He’d never imagined falling for a beach bunny, but Jessica handles the waves almost as well as he does. They both love the exhilaration they feel when they are riding their boards to shore, at one with nature, in perfect harmony with the world around them.

Jess squeezes his hand now. “Surf’s up, dude. Let’s do this thing.”

They paddle their boards out as far as they can, then climb to their feet, swaying a little in the undulations of the water. There’s a massive breaker rolling towards them now. Daryl catches Jess’s eye and grins. “See you on the other side.”

The rushing water carries them back towards the beach, where they tumble off, laughing. “Do you feel as stoked as I do?” Jessica asks her boyfriend. Her eyes are shining; her hair hangs in damp rats’ tails over her shoulders.

Daryl reaches out a hand, strokes her salt-stained face. “It was radical, Babe.”

At this moment, he feels totally fulfilled. Life has never been better.

*

A few weeks later, Jess has a cold. She’s not up to surfing, but she accompanies him to the beach anyway. Early morning sun sheds shafts of light on the almost deserted sand; tiny crabs scuttle blissfully, enjoying the silence. Despite the season, there’s an unexpected wind whipping the waves. Jess feels a twinge of uncertainty as she notices the potentially hazardous conditions. She thinks of begging Daryl not to go, to wait until the wind’s died down, but surfing is his life; so instead, she kisses him for good luck, not realising that this will be the last time.

At first, Daryl is convinced that he has mastered this wave: ever the perfectionist, his pose is exactly what it should be and he’s calculated with mathematical precision where he needs to be. It’s only as the clamshell chomps down upon him, eating him in one ruthless bite, that he realises his mistake. Jess watches him disappear under the water, waits for him to resurface. He doesn’t. Panic overwhelms her as she scans the sea, but there is no sign of him at all. A sick feeling of dread paralyses her, rendering her unable to move until the waves gently wash his lifeless body to the shore.

Galvanised into action, she drags her dead boyfriend out of the water. Heart hammering wildly, she administers CPR, even though she knows it’s already too late. Tears stream down her face as she presses her warm lips to his cold ones. Eventually, she gives up and lies down next to him, holding him until the beach starts to fill with surfers and kindly strangers call the emergency services for her.

In weeks to come, she will read up on surfing accidents and discover how, on average, only ten people per year actually die – out of the twenty-three million or so around the world who partake in the sport. She’ll discover that the most likely cause of death is being hit by your board and knocked unconscious, so that you have no way of fighting the waves, no chance of survival. But even when she knows this, she will not lose her unshakable conviction that Daryl died doing what he loved best, that his last conscious thought must have been the thrill of feeling at one with nature. When people commiserate with her and express sorrow that “He was only nineteen”, she will remind herself that at least he had nineteen years – that’s longer than a rodent or a bullfrog, a badger or an antelope. She will think all this but say nothing.

*

A month later, the beach is packed for Daryl’s memorial service. His funeral was a sombre affair: his parents sobbed, surrounded by grieving relatives, as the coffin was lowered into the ground. Jess knows this second-hand: she was invited to go and pay her last respects, but she declined. Everyone thought it was because she was too traumatised after what had happened; but Jess knows that Daryl isn’t in the shell they buried: his spirit is still out on the waves, moving in peaceful harmony with the water.

The sun is setting as the surfing community paddle out to the location they’ve chosen, some wearing garlands, others with flowers held between their teeth. Jess thinks there is a certain symmetry in this: Daryl died in the morning, but they will remember him in the evening. It’s symbolic too: the sunset is a reminder that death is not the end: the glowing orange ball that now sinks behind the horizon will rise again, fresh and golden, with the dawn.

Together they tread water as they release their flowers; then, joining hands, they remember their friend. Someone prays out loud, thanking God for Daryl’s life, for his warm, open personality, for his appreciation of nature. Tears form in Jess’s eyes once more: she’s overcome with emotion, but it’s not sadness for Daryl or herself but gratitude that her boyfriend was so well-loved. “Daryl was always searching for the perfect wave,” she says, her voice steadier than she would have thought possible – “and then the perfect wave found him and took him home.”

*

The waves swell once more, carrying her memories of Daryl towards the distant horizon.

Day 29 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Back on Day 10, I wrote an anecdotal piece called ‘Snail Trail’ that recalled an incident from my student days. This piece tells the same story, but from the snail’s perspective. Welcome to

The Other Side of the Trail

It’s a simple life being a snail.

Not having much of a brain, I tend to live in a state of blissful ignorance. If I were a scientist and not a snail, I’d bamboozle you with facts and tell you that my brain is what is called “primitive” but nevertheless capable of associative learning. In layman’s terms – snail terms, that is – it means if I know that I followed another snail yesterday and he/she (we’re all hermaphrodites) led me to something tasty, then there’ll probably be something tasty again if I follow him/her today. Since I have an expected life span of anything between five and twenty-five years, that gives me plenty of time to perfect my knowledge of the best trails to follow to find food.

Anyway, a strange thing happened to me yesterday: there’s a big grey object close to the grass where we hang out and sleep, and there seems to be a lot of activity going on around this grey thing during the course of a day. Once it gets light in the morning, a large creature arrives in a noisy shell and then approaches the grey thing and leaves some sort of large white droppings on it. Simon (my snail pal) and I investigated the droppings some weeks ago – they’re very cold.

We noticed that a large mouth would open near the grey thing and more huge creatures would come out and carry the large white droppings away. The creatures would spend most of the day going in and out of the cavernous mouth – possibly, they were making expeditions to find food, the way we do, although they mostly returned without anything. Simon suggested at one point that they might eat snails, but I think he was trying to frighten me.

Where was I? Oh, yes, back to the story. Well, as you know, we snails don’t move particularly quickly – I think we have an average speed of about a centimetre a minute – so when I realised that Simon had started moving off to explore something, I was too far behind when the disaster happened to be able to do anything else but stare in shock. The worst of it was, he/she wasn’t even heading for food. Maybe he/she’d had a bad night, or perhaps he/she wasn’t fully awake, but he/she’d somehow retraced his/her slime trail back to the white droppings we’d investigated a few days earlier and was busy scaling the giant structure – I say ‘scaling’ but at the rate he/she was moving, he/she’d just about managed to hoist him/herself off the ground and onto the bottom of … whatever it was when the giant creature appeared at the mouth of the cave and picked up Simon on the side of the large, white dropping.  

Naturally, I was beside myself with grief. I was pretty sure that we’d never see him/her again. I spent a very unhappy couple of hours wondering who I would follow now to get to the best food supplies.

You can imagine my surprise when, some time later, there was an almighty woosh and Simon shot out of nowhere in a cascade of water, almost as if he/she was being spat out of something’s mouth. He/she looked slightly stunned, but soon recovered enough to tell the rest of us about his/her adventures.

“Well,” he/she began in a self-important voice – he/she always loved the limelight – “I’ve had such a time! First there was my unprecedented trip through the air – those droppings are very cold and hard, by the way, and then I suddenly found whatever it was I was clinging onto being tilted suddenly so that I quite lost my grip and found myself plunging headfirst into a peculiar orange pool. It was very cold and tasted terribly sweet.” He/she closed his/her eyes reflectively. I felt mildly jealous.

“What happened then?” Brian broke in eagerly. (He/she was another member of our group.)

Simon shuddered. “A huge creature picked me up in my pool,” he/she declaimed dramatically, “and lowered its enormous mouth until it was close enough to swallow me whole!”

We all gasped with horror. Every snail’s taught from an early age that the big, feathery creatures Out Here will eat us, given the chance, but now it seemed there were other predators to watch out for too.

“How did you escape?” I breathed, secretly thinking this was one of the most exciting stories I had ever heard.

Simon wrinkled his/her antennae, looking thoughtful. “I don’t really know,” he/she confessed at last. “The mouth was about to swallow me and then it started making loud, scary sounds. I think the monster carried my pool somewhere else, but I’m a bit hazy on that score – the loud noise stunned me for a while. When I finally opened my eye stalks, I was still in my pool, and then I felt myself being lifted up again and carried along – until, all of a sudden, I was flying through the air in a pond of water.”

I edged forward and sniffed him/her cautiously. “Why is your face sticky?” I wanted to know. We snails shoot mucus covered love-darts at each other as part of our mating rituals, but we don’t normally shoot them at each other’s faces!

“I think it’s the funny orange water I was swimming in,” Simon said slowly.

We made a bit of a fuss of him/her for the rest of the day, but I was already formulating a plan in my tiny mind.

This morning, I was up early. I knew I’d need to set off early if I was going to copy Simon’s antics and hitch a ride on the white droppings into the magical world he/she’d described.

At first, all went according to plan. I reached the big grey thing before the droppings appeared. When they did, I hurried to attach myself to the side of one. It wasn’t long before the cave opened as before and a large creature came out and picked up my dropping and another one.

Quivering with excitement, I could hardly wait for the descent into the orange pool – the sticky stuff on Simon’s face had smelt addictively sweet and I was longing to taste it properly. Imagine my horror, then, when I saw that I was plummeting into a large white lake with strange yellow-orange rocks in it.

The rocks were surprisingly soft and squishy. Cautiously, I nibbled away at a corner of one. It was quite pleasant.

I didn’t have long to enjoy my feast, though – my lake was being carried through the air by one of the monstrous creatures. Would I be eaten after all?

Large, fleshy things plucked me from the bowl. The next thing I knew, I was being held under some kind of waterfall. It was freezing.

Startled by the sudden drop in temperature, I wriggled and twisted, and found myself falling onto a hard, wet and shiny surface. Numerous holes opened up before me. The force of the water pushed me into one of the holes and … I fell.

I fell for what seemed like days, water carrying me along a dark, narrow structure. Was I in the belly of some beast?

Eventually, with a whoosh! I found myself tumbling down, down until I landed with a plop in a puddle of water, in a place that looked suspiciously like Out Here. I lay on my side for a while, dazed from my shenanigans and still feeling cheated that I hadn’t seen or experienced the orange pool. Then, as the sun began to warm my body, I recovered enough to look around me. Wasn’t that the green stuff I’d seen the other day when I followed Simon?

I slowly rolled over and began my creeping journey towards the tufty goodness. I’d missed out on the orange lake, but I had a whole array of greens to compensate for that.

Like I said before, it’s a simple life being a snail.

Day 28 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

I’m not going to say much about this, but can you work out what is missing in this puzzling conundrum?

Omission

Daylight. My mind stalls, my sanity in stagnation. Misinformation assaults my soul, but this unknown thing is still missing. From day to day, its loss haunts my hours continuously – with no sign of it at all, I cannot function.

Without pausing to think, I roll from my divan, start my day. Shaving follows washing; food follows ablutions: a rota of actions I am making not gradually but quickly, to avoid thinking, to avoid hurting. But it is still missing. Why?

Fantastical thoughts assault and assail my mind. My discomfort grows. Raw aching loss is all around, hanging in mid-air, as if to cry out for aid. Its harsh call drowns out any sound but that of total panic. It will not stop haunting my soul. Am I crazy? Or is my insanity just a shadowy phantom?

An air of … what? Was it only an illusion? A fantasy? My confusion grows. Whilst cogitating, I fix on facts: it is missing, but loss is only transitory: it is not truly hurt nor pain. A hint of longing; an aura of unavailability – that is what I know. Rubbish! Who am I fooling? I gawk at my own stupidity in thinking it would not still do harm although it is missing.

I climb a mountain in my mind, still pursuing my missing companion. How difficult this is! My hunt is continuing but my avidity is waning. Ignoring my soul’s call, struggling to drown it out again, I try to focus on work; but my passion for data and my ardour for statistics vanish quickly, rapidly, as hours turn into days turn into months – and it is still missing.

What can I say? What should I do? How is a loss so small – so insignificant – paradoxically so important? How will I hold fast against such odds? My soul faints from lack of clarity, but my body is thriving still. How ironic that a missing part can limit in such a way.

Its loss is also starting to worry my family and a nasty aura surrounds all our companionship, mars all our communication. Our lack of affinity grows. All of us want a solution: not knowing is paralysing. Unity of loss binds us with cords of horror.

My social status is nothing now. Class, rank, standing, position – all contain no worth. My mind whirls, spins, turns in dizzying arcs. My brain is aching, my body forcing it to go through its daily motions, hiding its pain as if too proud, too haughty to admit my own disability, my inability to find this missing thing.

What is it, this missing thing? It is not hand, nor arm, nor foot – nor any part common to man or animal or bird or fish. It is not food nor drink; sun nor rain; light nor shadow – but it is vital to all.

My train of thought slows, but my hunt is continuing. Will I find it? Who knows its location? Can philosophy in any way start solving a fraction of all my mind’s probing musings and phantasmagoria as I study a missing thing that avoids my finding it? Twisting and tangling, my thoughts turn to turmoil. My mission to find it is null and void.

Night falls. It is missing still.