Day 21 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

This time the challenge was to write in a different style to normal – as well as writing on the theme of the Summer Solstice. All feedback gratefully received.

Summer Solstice

From now on, the days would be getting darker.

Daylight was still strutting round as I drove my car through the large iron gates and rolled along the driveway. The building shrugged, as if it recognised me and felt sorry. Its doors stood open to let in the breeze; memories of the day’s heat still lingered.

Hurrying past the deserted Reception, I made my way to her room. Jenny was awake, propped up by pillows, a tiny speck in the sea of sheets and blankets.

She looked up as I entered. “Is it time?”

I nodded.

The nurse on duty in her room helped me lift her out of bed. Six months ago, my wife had been a strong, athletic woman who ran fifteen miles a week and visited the gym every other day; now she was a ragdoll in my arms, her paper thin skin stretched over pitifully protruding bones. To me, she had never looked so beautiful.

I placed her gently in the waiting wheelchair. The nurse handed me a blanket, her eyes expressing the sympathy I so often encountered these days. Carefully, I covered Jenny’s frail frame, not wanting her to be cold as we sat outside to share the summer solstice.

“Any time within the next few hours, Mr Jones.” The nurse spoke quietly, but it was unnecessary: we all knew Jenny was dying.

Once we’d had the official diagnosis, realised that it was too late for any effective treatment, we’d deliberately discussed the things that no one else wanted to talk about. Jenny wanted to spend her last months out in the country, where she could see trees and fields from her window and hear birdsong instead of traffic. The lake in the grounds was an added bonus: when she was stronger, we’d spent hours sitting by the water, soaking in the serene atmosphere. It was fitting that this would be the place where we would say goodbye. 

Slowly, I pushed her wheelchair to the bench that was impregnated with us. Our tears had soaked into the wood as we’d ranted and railed against doctors, against disease, against God. Tonight, though, there would be no talk of cancer or funerals, just the conversation of two people in love. As I placed her on the bench, her fingers stole around mine, a gesture so intimate that my breath caught in my throat.

Gradually, the day faded. The last vestiges of sunlight glimmered on the surface of the water, like memories. In the background, the faint sounds of summer insects were not enough to disturb us.

As the sun finally began its descent, I found I was strangely grateful: grateful for the gift of four years with this amazing woman; grateful that she had enriched my life; grateful to the hospice who had looked after her so well, who had allowed us to say goodbye surrounded by the nature Jenny loved.

My wife slipped away as gently as the sun disappearing behind the trees. I sat and held her for a while, reluctant to let go of the past. Then, as the cold began to seep into my veins, I placed her once more in her chair, ready to take her home.

From now on, my life would be getting darker.

Day 19 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

As a child, I was lucky enough to have a great-grandmother who told me plentiful stories about her life. This piece is loosely based on some of the stories I remember, but I’ve also used dramatic license to embellish these into a complete story.

  The Patient Lover 

Inspired by the life and death of my great-grandmother, Ivy Conway (1893-1991).

Death courted Ivy for the whole of her life.

Born in 1893, the fourth child out of the six her parents would somehow squeeze into their tiny two-up-two-down back-to-back cottage, she nearly didn’t make it. Her mother bit down hard on a stick, thinking that her other deliveries hadn’t been so difficult. As the scrawny mass of baby, blood and vernix slithered into the world, Emily started to haemorrhage; for the next hour or two, the baby was all but forgotten as she lay, wrapped in a clean towel, in a box in the corner of the room. Luckily, Ivy’s older sisters, Mabel and Evelyn, despite being only six and four, knew instinctively that this little scrap of humanity needed taking care of. When Ivy finally let out a thin wail, Mabel picked her up out of the wooden crate and held her tight, whilst Evelyn fetched a cup of milk from the pantry downstairs. For the next twenty-four hours, they dribbled milk off a spoon into the baby’s mouth, until Emily was stable and could finally feed her newborn child. Death shook his head and retreated until another day.

Despite this shaky start in life, Ivy grew and thrived, just like her siblings. Their father was a cobbler so there was little money but a lot of love. Two years later, Renee arrived, followed (after a more respectable three years’ gap) by Charlie. By now, the little house was bursting at the seams: Ma and Pa had the small bedroom and the children shared the larger one, dividing it into two with a blanket strung over a rope that went from one side of the room to another. The girls squabbled and fought for space in the bed they all shared, but it was a companionable relationship and they loved each other fiercely.

As, one by one, the elder siblings became old enough to work in the mill, Ivy found she could earn a ha’penny a week by carrying the lunch pail to the mill and back every day at noon. This was one of the perks of being the next eldest: when she started work herself, it would be Renee’s turn.

On her eleventh birthday, Ivy was treated to a whole egg for breakfast to mark the occasion of her first day at work. She would be going to school in the mornings this week and then doing the afternoon shift at the mill; and this would alternate with a week of mill first, school second. She grew to hate the morning shifts because she always had to go home and change her cotton-impregnated dress before going to school, and this meant she was often late and would be beaten by the schoolmaster.

Death was a frequent visitor to the mill. The cotton dust in the air had a way of working itself into people’s lungs. Many of the older workers died well before their time. Occasionally, he would steal a glance at Ivy, working busily; he always had a particular fondness for those who had eluded him earlier.

He was the uninvited guest at Ivy’s wedding to Alec, some years later. Perhaps it was his macabre sense of humour, but he couldn’t resist reminding her of his presence with the funeral hearse that almost collided with her carriage as she and her husband left the churchyard. The black plumed horses made a startling contrast to the coloured ribbons Ivy’s sisters had tied to the carriage axles; but Ivy was too starry-eyed with love to notice them.

As time progressed, Death found himself busier than ever. The onset of the Great War saw people dying in their thousands. Miraculously, Ivy remained unscathed – although there was a tricky moment when Alec lashed out in a drunken temper: she hit her head when she fell and was unconscious for several minutes. Fearing for their baby’s safety as much as for her own, Ivy fled her marriage and her husband (they were by now living in Scotland) and made the perilous journey back to Hyde and the safety of her family.

Death followed her to her old spot in the mill, watching attentively as she worked a gruelling sixteen-hour day, six days a week. He left her side for long enough to visit her older brother, Harold, as he lay in a hospital bed, his arm blown away by a bomb. Northern grit ran through the entire Conway family, though, and Harold left hospital some months later, living until his sixties despite his missing limb. Death sighed and returned to Ivy. Perhaps the Second World War would push her into his arms. But no, Ivy’s resilience kept her, her new husband, his children and her daughter alive and well. Even the air raids couldn’t touch them – in fact, the only bombshell that did any damage was when her son-in-law ran off with another woman the year before the war ended, so that he never saw his second daughter; but they soldiered on.

Through decades of disease and despair, Death kept a constant vigil at Ivy’s side, more faithful than either of her husbands. The car accident that killed her stepson left her with a slight limp but otherwise unharmed; the byssinosis that choked the lungs of so many of her former co-workers in the mill somehow passed her by. Time and time again, he issued an invitation for her to join him; on every occasion, she declined.

Renee died in her eighties, a casualty of carcinomatosis. The twenty cigarettes a day she’d smoked for sixty years eventually took their toll. Mabel was only seventy-six – but then she’d had thirteen children and the rapid succession of pregnancies and births, coupled with the anxiety of rearing so many at the same time, had aged her prematurely: her hair was grey by the time she was twenty-five. Charlie, who, as a child, had flirted with Death far more frequently than his sister, nevertheless lived to the ripe old age of eighty-one. Ivy often told her great-grandchildren the thrilling tale of how Charlie had stopped the runaway grocer’s horse-and-cart when he was only a teenager; but he was more likely to have ended his days at the hands of an irate husband, since his womanising ways in later life were legendary. Evelyn died in an old people’s home, well into her nineties. Almost totally blind after a botched cataract operation at eighty-four, she claimed that every time there was a power cut in the Home, she could “hear them carrying out the dead bodies.” As a girl, she’d been unbearably bossy towards Ivy and Renee; as an adult, she was equally unpleasant to her husband and daughter, alienating Alwyn to such an extent that she only visited the Home once or twice a year. Despite this, Ivy wept uncontrollably when Evelyn died: she was now the last remaining sibling and the loneliness was unbearable. “They’ve all left me,” she sobbed as she sat by the fire with her great-granddaughter. Emily (named for Ivy’s mother) held the tiny old lady as if she were a child, her fifteen-year-old wisdom realising it was better to let her cry.

Several times, there were false alarms. A bout of severe pleurisy almost finished Ivy off in 1982. Death sat by her bedside, waiting patiently. She was sufficiently ill for her daughter to make the three hundred miles’ trip from Sheppey to Summit, to be with her mother at the end. It was a wasted journey when Ivy rallied unexpectedly, causing Death to retreat once more and bide his time.

The following year, Ivy moved to Kent herself, claiming that she “couldn’t stand another northern winter”. Sharing an isolated house with her daughter and the dog, she was happy enough, walking round the garden each afternoon and watching ‘Songs of Praise’ every Sunday evening.

By the time she was ninety-five, Ivy started planning her hundredth birthday party. She had an ever-decreasing guest list – not just because all her old friends kept dying off, but mostly because whenever she fell out with someone, she crossed them off the list in a fit of childish petulance. “Well, he’s not coming to my party now!” she was often heard to say.

She never made it to her party. Death, who had waited so patiently for almost ten decades, finally managed to entice her into his arms just a few months before her ninety-eighth birthday. Ivy died as she had lived, with a song on her lips and her heart full of love. Death had finally claimed her – and, like all the best things in life, she had been worth waiting for.

Day 18 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Write something Gothic, they said. Great, I thought. Set it in modern times, they said. That could be a challenge, I thought. After all, what’s creepy about the 21st century?

And then I thought about what might freak someone out today and I penned the following. Welcome to

Grandma’s House

As a child, I was always terrified of Grandma’s house.

I had a nervous disposition as a little girl, thanks to the fairy-stories I read. The witches and ogres in the tales I devoured on a daily basis came back to haunt me by night. I would lie awake for hours, eyes closed, listening to the dark. I was sure I could hear them breathing, even if I couldn’t see their shadowy outlines.

            If I was scared in my own bedroom, Grandma’s house was even worse. Every room had a slightly sinister atmosphere, from the ominous ticking of the grandfather clock in the hallway, imitating a human heartbeat, to the creepy dolls in the spare bedroom, lined up like miniature corpses, watching me. I dreaded staying there overnight, my imagination working overtime to produce in me a state of frozen fear. I was sure that, once my eyes were closed, they would come to life, slithering off their shelves and approaching me, zombie-like, with outstretched arms.

I may have been scared of their house, but I loved my grandparents. White haired and twinkly-eyed, they embodied everything grandparents should be. Grandma always smelled of baking and bitter almonds; Grandad of Guiness. (The doctor said it was good for him.) I remember sitting with them both for hours, in the safety of my parents’ company, playing Gin Rummy whilst sucking on one of Grandma’s homemade treacle toffees. (She made them with orange juice and claimed they were good for sore throats.)

When Grandad retired, my visits increased – only, this time, without my parents as I found myself being sent there during the school holidays. At first, I quite enjoyed it. They were a happy couple: two old people who had genuinely enjoyed growing old together. Now in their twilight years, they were able to indulge more freely in the pastimes they’d not previously had time for. Grandad was a gardener and loved making things grow: the garden was a blaze of riotous colour, declaring his joyful passion for life. Grandma’s hobby, on the other hand, was the dead opposite – literally. She had spent years obsessed with taxidermy and her living room was now a testimony to this. Perfectly preserved animals sat on tables and filled cabinets: a pair of sporting badgers, glassy eyed, their mouths and bodies twisted unnaturally to suggest playfulness; a moulting eaglewith a mournful expression – I could go on. Their lifeless eyes unsettled me as much as their forced poses.  Faced with this menagerie of moth-eaten creatures, is it any wonder that I often ended up siting there as rigid as these anthropomorphic inhabitants, desperately awaiting five o’clock when my mother would arrive to take me home?

I was fifteen when we finally moved Grandma into a nursing home. She didn’t tell anyone when Grandad died – I’m sure it was from natural causes, but there was something unnatural about the way she arranged his stuffed, silent body in an armchair by the fire, looking for all the world as if he’d just dozed off. It was three weeks before anyone noticed the difference.

“Probably better if she’s got someone to keep an eye on her,” my mother said tactfully as she signed the paperwork.

To begin with, Grandma hated the home. “What am I doing with all these old people?” she’d ask fretfully, staring at the walls of her bedroom, tastefully distempered in a pale yellow. And, “It’s like a mausoleum in here – everyone just sits staring at the TV.”

She had a point: the residents’ lounge was a dismal affair, with uncomfortable looking chairs arranged in regimented rows, facing an outsized television set that seemed permanently switched on. Assorted old people dotted the seats, not one of them with even a fraction of my grandmother’s vitality.

“They just sit there knitting,” she told me scornfully on one of my visits. “That Mabel in the pink cardigan – she’s been knitting a pair of bedsocks for five weeks now and she still hasn’t got any further than the heel.”

“Can’t you play cards with some of them?” I suggested. I was sure that all elderly people loved Whist and Bridge.

She rolled her eyes despairingly. “Most of them can’t even remember what day of the week it is, let alone keep track of the cards in everyone’s hands. Frank and Harold sometimes ask me to play ‘Happy Families’, but the games go on for days because they keep forgetting who asked for what.”

A few months later, I visited again. My usual pattern of going to see Grandma every weekend had been disrupted by mock-exams and a short-lived romantic liaison. I felt guilty as I entered the Home, wondering if my poor grandmother had been slowly dying of boredom with no one to talk to. When I knocked on her bedroom door, however, she seemed strangely animated.

“You’re looking well,” I remarked, thinking there might be another budding romance in the family.

A mysterious smile hovered on her lips. “I’ve been keeping myself busy,” was all she would say.

We spent a happy afternoon in her room, looking at old photograph albums and reminiscing about Grandad. Just before I left, something struck me.

“Where are all your stuffed animals?” I asked, secretly relieved that they were gone.

She shrugged dismissively. “I don’t need them anymore.” Then, as I was putting on my jacket, she added, “I’ve had a lovely time decorating the living room.”

A feeling of foreboding slowly made its way through my veins. Surely she couldn’t have …

Quickening my pace, I hurried to the Residents’ Lounge to be faced with Grandma’s handiwork: a roomful of octogenarian corpses, displayed like dolls in a variety of positions. Mabel sat, as before, still knitting her bedsocks; Frank and Harold faced each other, each clutching a handful of cards. Every figure was perfectly posed and a trace of bitter almonds lingered on the air.

My childhood terrors of Grandma’s house paled into insignificance beside the horrors of her Home.

Day 17 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

This time the challenge is to write a story beginning with a famous first line from a novel. This is my offering, based on the first line of ‘Eureka Street’ by Robert McLiam Wilson.

My First Love

All stories are love stories – and this one is no exception.

I was nineteen, a naïve and idealistic undergraduate, when I fell for one of my English lecturers.  Dr Small wasn’t particularly good looking, but his voice, when he taught us about Romantic Poetry, was hypnotic, mesmerising. I used to close my eyes and let his smooth, mellow tones caress me into a state of almost-ecstasy – instead of making notes, which is what I should have been doing.

Martin Green was my tutor for the first term: he specialised in American literature and we read ‘Catch 22’ and ‘The Tenants’, neither of which I particularly enjoyed. At the time, I wanted grand outpourings of emotion – something akin to ‘Wuthering Heights’, which I’d done for A level, or ‘Jane Eyre’. I longed for a brooding, Byronic hero to cast smouldering glances at me, then sweep me off my feet. None of the protagonists in modern literature did anything for me at all.

Everything changed, though, when we went back after the Christmas holidays. We’d been assigned new tutors and Dr Small was mine. Supercilious to a degree, he was, nevertheless, amazingly erudite; and, like I’ve already said, his voice had me from the first moment I heard it. When he spoke, it was a soulful, smoky blues song and a soporific wine; it was plunging into a waterfall of tones and cadences, and being rocked to sleep in a cradle of sound. I listened intently to every word he said about Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats; when he read out loud in his mellifluous tones, I fantasised that he was speaking to me and me alone.

He was married – I think he might have had children too – but none of that mattered. In a way, his unavailability enhanced his attraction: like a trophy of courtly love, I placed him on a pedestal and worshipped from afar. It was the idea of being in love that mattered most; I see that now.

It’s not as if I’d never had a boyfriend before. I’d had a reasonably long-term relationship with a boy at school when I was sixteen and seventeen – you know the sort of thing: friendship gradually deepens into something more and then you start spending all your time together. We were surprisingly innocent though: the physical side never progressed any further than (what I thought of as) passionate kissing. When I later discovered he’d ‘come out’, I wondered if that was why he hadn’t wanted to take things further: had he been secretly aware of his repressed sexuality all along?

Despite the lack of sexual chemistry, it was a fairly successful courtship. I think we both enjoyed having someone to talk to who could give us the opposite perspective. I had close female friends, but there was a different dynamic in talking to a boy. Even when we stopped dating, we still spent a lot of time together, only without any kissing. At the time, he was an important part of my life.

Maybe that’s why I found myself looking for a replacement once I got to university: I wanted a male confidant, a soul mate who was happy to remain ‘just friends’ without either of us feeling any pressure to make it something more. Paul Simms was in my Hall of Residence – I’d spotted him hanging out in the bar several times before I recognised him in one of my English lectures and struck up a conversation with him afterwards. He was Combined Honours, like me; but whereas I was taking English and French, he had Music as the other component of his degree. We spent a fair few hours together in the Arts Faculty Coffee Lounge after that: drinking tea and eating custard creams and putting the world to rights. Eventually, I found myself telling him about my crush on Dr Small and how incapable I was of writing anything down in any of his lectures. He teased me constantly about it – even more so once Dr Small became my tutor – but it was an affectionate ribbing, nothing malicious.

As the second term drew to a close, I found myself faced with an essay to write for my idol. I desperately wanted to make a good job of it: I’d done well in my assignment for Martin Green, even though I didn’t particularly like the texts; surely writing about poetry was my chance to show Dr Small how much his teaching had meant to me?

For two weeks I travailed over text books, sweated over syntax, burned the midnight oil. This essay was my love letter to a man who’d barely noticed me in tutorials: it was my way of saying, ‘Look, here I am. I exist.’ Painstakingly, I researched every last detail of William Blake’s life, wanting to leave no stone unturned. I desperately wanted Dr Small to take me seriously. A week after the essays were handed in, he returned them with feedback. When he asked to see me in his room – just me: not any of the others – I felt delirious with happiness.

It says something about how delusional I was that I actually convinced myself that he was  going to tell me he liked my essay, maybe even suggest he felt something for me; instead, he tore my writing to shreds. “The title of the course is ‘The Idea of the Poet in the Romantic Period’ but your essay reads like the Ladybird book of William Blake!” His voice was as cold as his eyes as he continued mercilessly, “Maybe you should think about switching to a different degree course – something you might be better at.”

I stared at him in disbelief. I had loved him so passionately, so hopelessly, pouring out my heart in seventeen pages of literary analysis – how could he treat me so callously?

A storm was brewing as I walked back to Hall, the purple and grey sky looking as bruised as my heart. No longer starry-eyed with optimism and inexperience, I had learned the difference between love and infatuation – it’s an easy lesson when you discover your idol has feet of clay.

I couldn’t face dinner that evening. Paul came to call for me – at least, I assume the loud knocking on my door came from his fist – but I remained where I was, curled tight in a tiny, broken-hearted ball beneath my duvet. I couldn’t bear to see him or anyone else who would question my red eyes and tearful face.

It must have been about an hour later when a knocking sounded again – gentler this time, as if the person outside my door was genuinely worried about me. I crawled out of bed and let him in, sniffling miserably whilst I told him my tale of woe. I think I half-expected him to laugh; instead, he wrapped his arms around me and enfolded me in a hug that lasted aeons. “Let’s go to the bar,” he said at last. “You need cheering up.”

I said I couldn’t face the bar at the moment, so Paul disappeared for ten minutes and came back with a bottle of wine. It was only cheap stuff – slightly fizzy – but it did the trick. Within two glasses, I was feeling more relaxed; and as we emptied the bottle, he leaned forward and kissed me. “You know I’ve always had a thing about you, Sarah,” he breathed, the longing in his eyes speaking volumes.

I know what you think I’m going to say: that alcohol and vulnerability conspired to push me into his arms; that when our lips touched, it was with an explosion of desire that incorporated Bonfire Night, New Year’s Eve, July the Fourth and every other major fireworks display; that all the months of agony and heartache disappeared when I realised that my best friend was also The One … Sorry to disappoint you, but that’s not how it turned out.

We sat and stared at each other for what seemed like ages, the silence between us growing more uncomfortable by the second. His declaration had built a wall between our easy intimacy: things would never be the same again and we both knew it.

Eventually, he spoke. “I shouldn’t have said anything, should I?”

My silence was the only answer he needed.

“I suppose I’d better go, then.” The awkwardness we both felt was palpable.

“I suppose you should.”

We never spoke of that night again.

The following day, I took my rejected essay to Martin Green for a second opinion. If he agreed that it was terrible, then I’d rethink my course; but, in the end, his criticism was more kind than Dr Small’s.

“It’s not a total failure,” he told me, having read the first page. “I’d jettison the first paragraph and start from the bit where you talk about Blake’s reception as a poet. After that, it’s not too bad – not as good as last term’s essay, maybe; but it’s not dire.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance I could have you back as my tutor?” I asked hesitantly. “I think maybe there’s a bit of a personality clash between Dr Small and me.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he promised and, a week later, I was back where I’d started.

After a while, I began to forget Dr Small. His voice ceased to thrill or mesmerise me the way it had before; and now that I no longer hung on his every word, I realised that he wasn’t even a particularly good lecturer. He was adequate, but not that great.

That’s when I finally fell in love properly: not with a man, but with a subject.  I rapidly became aware that English Literature was my true love – my first and last.

When I did finally marry, years later, it was someone I met by chance at a friend’s party: he was a scientist, not an English graduate, but somehow we just clicked.

All stories are love stories; but they’re not always predictable.

Day 16 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

You could be forgiven for thinking that this is the Post Script to yesterday’s entry – after all, this is a story of only eight words, more like an afterthought than an actual creative composition.

However, telling a story with as few words as possible is a definite art form: several newspapers and magazines regularly run competitions where entrants have to write a story on a given theme, using only 50 words or fewer. As a teacher, I’ve given the same challenge to students in the past: it’s a good way to decide what’s really important in a story.

So, below is my eight words entry, followed by some of the examples of 50 words stories you can find online. Authors have been credited.

My short story entry

The Divorce: their life ended; her life began.

Examples of 50 words stories from other writers

The Scottish Book Trust has some fantastic entries from children and teenagers – here are a few prizewinning stories:

Theme: your story must include a piano

All-age category winner by Lisa Holland:
The boogie-woogie was driving her crazy. 
Every night, downstairs, her brother would practise those songs on the old piano.
Every night, upstairs, the music would keep her awake.
Until the day she crept downstairs in her pyjamas, and smashed the lid on his fingers.
Now his knuckles had the blues.

Theme: your story must include a bike ride

All-age category winner by Giancarlo Rinaldi:

“Look mum, one hand!” cried Luca, excitedly, the first time he cycled past the family home. Then, the second time around, he shouted with even greater delight: “Look mum, no hands!” But, on the third passing, it was the bicycle that spoke. “Look mum,” it said. “No Luca!”

Theme: your story must include time travel

Young Writers (12-18) category winning fictional story by Ashley Willis, age 16:

Travelling back in time to kiss your tiny palm clinging to life. I’m shredding you out of your skin of wires, machines and pushing you on a swing, healthy giggles erupting the sky. Your life isn’t marked on a stone rotting from rain and tears. In the past you breathe.

It would be interesting to see if any of these talented children become professional writers in the future.

Day 15 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

It must be the weekend because I’ve had time to sit and write at leisure instead of squeezing it into the few precious moments between work and sleep. After the recent briefs of writing an epistolary piece and than an ’80s style ‘Write Your Own Adventure’, it’s been good to return to ‘proper’ story writing today.

Three Sides To Every Story

You gaze at the man lying next to you – the perfect husband; the father of your children – and suddenly you realise that you don’t know him at all.

She wasn’t prying when she discovered the email. He’d left his laptop lying open again and she went to shut it, before the kids could touch something and delete an important work file – and that’s when she saw it.

It’s so hard not having you here all the time. When you come round, I think this is what life is supposed to be like, and then you hurry away at the end of the evening and I’m all alone. Get here as soon as you can tonight. Missing you already xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The knowledge was so unexpected that it caught her off-guard. Was that where he was every night he said he was ‘working late’? How long had it been going on for? Her fingers trembled as she scrolled up the screen to see how many other emails there were from this unknown woman and the sick feeling at the back of her throat intensified.

Last night meant so much …

I wish you could hold me forever …

Can you get away for a weekend? I really want to be able to wake up with you.

She’d thought that knowing would help her understand: instead, it just made her feel worse. He loved someone else, was spending evenings with her instead of with his family. Large, salty tears rolled down her face as she wept for what she’d lost.

*

Women! Why did they have to be so emotional?

You think you’ve got it all figured out by the time you hit thirty: you’re married; settled – then along comes someone who wants you so much that you can’t help straying. After all, it’s flattering to be the one being chased. It’s every man’s dream, isn’t it? To have an attractive woman practically throwing herself at you every time you see her?

Of course, the first time he’d met her, he’d had no idea what would happen. She was a new client and he’d been sent round to do her taxes. He didn’t normally make house calls, but she was paying a lot for the firm’s services – and that meant a substantial percentage for him.

It had seemed quite innocent at first. She’d offered him a drink when he arrived and, despite his better judgement, he’d accepted a glass of wine, telling himself that he’d be okay to drive by the time he’d finished checking her accounts.

Her fingers had touched his as she’d handed him the glass. Startled, he’d looked up, detected something in her eye that suggested she might be interested in more than business. Responding to an unspoken question, he’d followed her into the bedroom and towards the large, unmade bed whose rumpled covers hinted at what she had in mind.

Afterwards, as he dressed hurriedly, she watched him from the bed, her face flushed, her eyes sultry. “That was an unexpected treat!” she murmured.

He said nothing, guilt already choking him. What had he been thinking? He couldn’t let it happen again.

But he did.

*

How did you let yourself get into this mess? she wonders. Before him, it was all so simple. You never let your heart get involved.

She’d thought at first that he would be like the others: a brief interlude of pleasure to break up an otherwise monotonous day. When you worked from home, running your own business, it got pretty lonely. She could have hired an assistant – someone for companionship more than anything else; but she was too paranoid of having her ideas stolen. Freelance design was a poisoned chalice: if you weren’t careful, it would destroy you.

Now she realises that he’s just as dangerous. Her heart used to be intact: these days, it’s just a collection of fragments and each one has his name written on it. She’s a stick of rock, stamped all the way through with her love for a man she can never truly have. Why are you torturing yourself like this? she asks herself, hearing the answer in a whisper: ‘Because half a relationship is better than no relationship at all.’

*

Last night, he didn’t come home until almost midnight. By then, you’d read all the emails, waded through all the heartfelt emotion poured out on page after page. You’d torn at your heart by counting all the kisses, listing all the times she told him she loved him.

And now? Now it feels like there’s nothing left. This man is a stranger. You’re suddenly afraid.

*

I think she suspects something. Last night, she was asleep when I got in. It wasn’t that late – only eleven or just after. This morning, though … She’s lying there, watching me, pretending to be asleep. My eyes are closed, but I can feel the disapproval radiating from her. Maybe I should just confess – get it out of my system; clear the air.

But what if she kicks me out? Or, worse still, asks me to choose …

Choose! I can’t choose! How do you make a choice between two things you want equally? It’s like asking someone to choose between eating and sleeping, drinking and breathing.

No, better to say nothing, to let her think she’s imagining it. I can’t give either one of them up. I shouldn’t have to.

*

She wakes, as usual, in a bed empty of anyone other than herself. Every morning it’s the same: the night before always feels like a dream, an illusion. Greedily she clutches at any lingering moments that glitter like dewdrops on the spiderweb of memory, but the mirage melts in her fingers and she is left lonely and bereft.

When he isn’t here, the ache in her heart is so strong it feels like her soul is being ripped out of her body in a grotesque parody of giving birth. I’m pregnant with misery, she thinks sadly, knowing that he’ll never give her a child when he has a family of his own already.

She spotted them in the park once: he’d foolishly told her he was taking the children out for the afternoon on Sunday. He didn’t know she was there: she sat, stalker-like, swathed in scarf and woolly hat, peeping out at them from behind her copy of ‘The Telegraph’. Was that why these papers were so large? So people – spies, rejected lovers – could hide behind them whilst on stake-out?

She’d planned, at first, to wander up casually and say hello. A part of her was curious to see his children up close, to ascertain whether they looked more like him or Her.

She couldn’t do it. This was a part of his other life: she couldn’t intrude.

Bitterly, she wondered why it was that men could compartmentalise so easily: a box for work; a box for his wife and children; a box for his mistress. What was it Byron had said? Something about love being only a part of a man’s life but being “Woman’s whole existence”. And Byron should know! she thought grimly. Didn’t he have something like sixteen illegitimate children? He was definitely the ‘love ‘em and leave ‘em’ type.

Long after they’d left the park, she still sat there, her fingers freezing in the cold. But they weren’t as icy as her heart.

*

Looking forward to seeing you tonight. I can’t believe how much I miss you when you’re not here. My bed feels empty without you in it.

He stares at the email, his heart thumping. She knows.

“Do I need to show you the rest?” Her voice is tight; she’s holding onto self-control by her fingertips, as if it is a clifftop and she is clinging to the edge.

He doesn’t answer, so she continues to scroll through every damning scrap of evidence:

The first time I saw you, my heart swelled with the crescendo of violins. You are all I can think about, day or night. I love you. I love you. I love you. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

I’ve missed you so much these past few weeks. It’s been the longest fortnight ever. Come round as soon as you get back. Love you xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

All is not lost, though: he’d prepared for this eventuality, deleted his own emails so only her side of the conversation remains.

“She’s a client with a crush on me,” he says confidently. “It’s all one-sided, I promise. Look, all the emails are from her – I haven’t encouraged her.”

She’s less certain now, wanting to believe him – if only to save her marriage; dreading the consequences if she lets him get away with it.

He takes hold of her shoulders gently, twists her round to face him as deftly as he manipulates her with his words.

“Would I really be stupid enough to leave the emails on my laptop if I was having an affair?”

Now he says it, it all sounds so preposterous that she almost laughs. Almost. Not quite.

“What about the email with a thousand kisses?” she asks in a small voice.

He feigns surprise. “Really? I had no idea. I haven’t read any of her messages – she’s obviously deluded.”

“A thousand kisses,” she repeats. “I counted them all. That’s a bit over the top if it’s just one-sided.”

“There’s nothing going on – I promise.”

And his eyes are so sincere, his tone so heartfelt that she starts to wonder if he’s telling the truth.

*

We sit in still proximity as the evening draws to a close. The words you’ve told me are still echoing in my mind; half-empty wineglasses pressed to our lips.

“You always knew it would be over if She ever found out,” is what you say at last, and I nod dumbly, unable to protest.

I’ve already taken you to my bed – ‘break up sex’, that’s what they call it these days. Ironic, isn’t it, that an act of closeness should be the way to say goodbye.

By now, I know She’s seen the emails and that you’ve covered your back by lying. Technically, we could carry on as before – she’s not really any the wiser.

That’s not what you’ve decided, though: even the ghost of a suspicion is enough to make you terminate this contract and take your business elsewhere.

“I’ll pass you on to one of the other accountants.” You’re looking down as you say it; won’t let me catch your eye. “Will’s good – and he’s single. You never know: you might hit it off …”

Beneath the bravado, behind the façade, you hurt as much as I do – only you’ll never admit it.

Time ticks by slowly: each second an unbearable lifetime. The evening’s turned into tomorrow – and instead of making love, we’re waiting for you to go.

Day 12 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Musings on T S Eliot

The clock ticked by as the students sat in silence, writing as if their lives depended on it.

Rachel Wood, a teacher for thirty five years, surveyed the sea of faces in front of her, wondering if this time their writing would make sense. She had tried so hard to make poetry accessible, but ‘The Love song of J Alfred Prufrock’ was challenging at the best of times – and these pupils weren’t exactly the brightest in the school. In the end, she’d just told them that the poem was a whole jumble of thoughts and feelings going on inside someone’s head as he skipped from thinking about asking a woman out to being distracted by the cat-like qualities of fog. Dared she actually hope to believe that they’d learned something? That they’d actually written something meaningful?

Her eye fell on Asad, the pupil on whom she’d pinned all her hopes for the assessment. Last time, she’d been impressed by Rosie, writing frantically for the whole hour and putting her hand up three times for extra paper – until she’d collected in the scripts and realised that the girl had panicked and just written her name over and over again. How many more years could she stand this? she wondered, unaware that Rosie was thinking the same thing. How many more years before she could leave school and do something else? There was no point in English – she could speak it already. And why did Miss keep making them read poems? This Toilet guy was so boring! She wondered if they’d got the new trainers in yet. The blue ones. She didn’t like the black ones – they were too much like Sam’s. If she wasn’t careful, he’d ‘accidentally on purpose’ pick hers up instead of his own and wear them to school.

Perhaps she should have read them ‘The Waste Land’ instead? That was a far better example of stream of consciousness, with its train of thought flitting from one character to another, dropping in casual allusions to any number of literary works that the reader was expected to recognise. Was it true, what she’d once read – that Eliot deliberately removed half of the poem before he published it, to make it as confusing as possible for the reader?

It was too confusing! Sonia thought in despair. She’d revised ‘My Father Thought It’, not this rubbish. She got the idea of the boy rebelling against his dad, but this poem was stupid. What would her dad think if she got her nose pierced? Or her bellybutton? Did it hurt? Kate had said she’d had her bellybutton done and it went all scabby. She had to take the piercing out. Gross, that’s what it was – she remembered Kate showing her in PE. She might have had it done at a dodgy place, though. Did they need licences to give you piercings? What time was it now? She was starving. Hopefully it would be lasagne.

“Eliot captures the indecision of Prufrock as he struggles to make up his mind,” wrote Asad. He knew what the guy was on about: he’d been trying to make up his own mind for weeks now. Was he going to ask Rosie out; or should he stick to a ‘nice’ Asian girl and make his parents happy? The trouble was, none of the Asian girls he knew were very ‘nice’: they were loud and exuberant, talking too much in lessons and plastering their faces with makeup. Rosie was feisty too, but somehow, with her, it was different. She didn’t pretend, Rosie – what you saw was what you got. None of these strange, synthetic perfumes the others doused themselves with: Rosie smelled of sweat and chips and fresh air – natural scents. He was already more than a little in love with her; she didn’t know he existed.

“You have twenty minutes left.” Not that it would make any difference to some of them, Rachel thought dispassionately. They could write for hours and it would still be the same old rubbish. Take Ibrahim, for example: he was absent more often than he was present; and when he did attend, he sat in the corner, clutching his coat and rocking back and forth like a distressed penguin. She’d be lucky if any of his assessment made sense. Samira was another one – lovely girl, but not a brain cell in sight. She genuinely worried what these children would do once they left school.

“The speaker in the poem likes a lady but doesn’t know how to tell her,” Samira wrote laboriously. She sighed. It was daft, if you asked her. What was wrong with going up to someone and telling them you fancied them? She did that sort of thing all the time – had been out with four different boys so far this year, although her parents would kill her if they found out. Well, perhaps they wouldn’t kill her – but they might lock her in her room and not let her out again until it was time for her Nikah. “Also, he doesn’t do himself any favours by asking her out to really cheap places, like the sort of hotels where people go for a quickie.” What did people actually do when they went to hotels together? she speculated. She knew about kissing, of course, but most of the rest of it was a closed book. It wasn’t the sort of thing you talked to your parents about; and the stuff they’d done in science lessons on ‘Reproduction’ hadn’t really been very helpful either.

“Prufrock and Armitage both write about regret.” Sonia had suddenly remembered something Miss had said. “Prufrock regrets not asking the lady out and the teenager in ‘My Father Thought It’ regrets having his ear pierced. It makes him fall out with his dad.”

Rachel had plenty of regrets of her own – this job, for one. Bitterly, she thought of the friends who’d ended up in grammar schools – or even good secondaries. That was the problem with a lot of these academy chains – they were full of rubbish schools that the organisations were trying to ‘rescue’; but what happened a few years’ down the line when the schools were still failing? Who’d bother sticking around then? No, it was time she moved on. She’d had enough of this game of chess, constantly trying to anticipate SLT’s moves and then counter with a defence of her own.

“Ten minutes left. Make sure you’ve talked about the effect on the reader.”

Asad had been profoundly affected himself by the poems this term – not all of them, of course, but ‘Paradise Lost’ had moved him deeply – even more so when Abbas had blurted out, “I wish Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten that apple and then I’d still be in heaven now.” Of course, if Rosie said yes, Asad would be in heaven straightaway. For a moment, he allowed himself to dream of the awful daring of a moment’s surrender. He knew already what his family would say, though: ‘A white girl, Asad? We don’t think so.’ Like Adam and Eve, he would lose Paradise; like Satan, he would be condemned to hell.

“Pens down everybody.” Where had the time gone? “Hurry up, please. It’s time.” Like last orders, she thought, wryly, realising how much she needed a drink. Was it really only one twenty?

A clatter of pens being placed on the table; a rustle of paper as sheets were stacked neatly.

Her brain allowed one half-formed thought to pass: “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”

Day 10 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Snail Trail

There was definitely a snail in the orange juice.

*

Back in the early 1990s, I shared a house with four other twenty-somethings in Edgbaston in Birmingham. Not a student house, I hasten to add: Simon, my live-in landlord, had just graduated and – thanks to a very generous inheritance from a recently deceased relative – had bought a five bedroomed detached house on a respectable road. (Edward Road, notorious at the time for drug dealing and prostitution, was only a few minutes’ walk away, but we pretended not to know that.)

Anyway, there were five of us altogether: Simon; a guy called Mark, who was doing Psychology at Aston; Sue, who eventually became Simon’s girlfriend and, later still, married him; Kerry, a second year Medic; and me. It was all very civilised, with a rota for the housework and cooking, and house ‘film nights’ in front of the TV where we’d indulge in a ‘chocolate frenzy’ aka a huge, communal bowl of Maltesers, M&Ms, chocolate buttons and anything else that was bite-sized. Simon had a dining room, and we’d gather in there for our evening and weekend meals, and actually sit down to breakfast instead of eating it ‘on the hoof’.

I was in the kitchen one Friday morning, just the other side of the dining room, when I heard the shrieks and rushed in to investigate. There, in Sue’s glass of orange juice, was a snail – bobbing up and down and looking most uncomfortable.

“Eurgh!” I exclaimed without thinking. “Where did that come from?”

Sue rolled her eyes at me. “The orange juice! There was a snail in the bottle of orange juice!” (We normally bought cartons of Tesco’s value brand juice; but, last Saturday, someone had thought we deserved to try the good stuff and so we’d bought a bottle of ‘freshly squeezed’ juice which had cost an arm and a leg.)

“Are you sure?” I asked doubtfully. (It was expensive juice, after all.)

Sue looked aggrieved. “Well, where else could it have come from?” she demanded. “I’m going to ring Tesco now and complain.”

She grabbed the half-empty bottle off juice and stalked off. I gazed at the glass she’d left behind, wondering how on earth a large supermarket chain had allowed something like this to happen, then turned and went back into the kitchen to finish putting my own breakfast together. I’d been looking forward to sampling the posh orange juice before this happened, but now I decided I’d stick with coffee instead.

*

I was in a rush that morning – I had a nine o’clock English lecture; Anglo-Saxon actually – so I didn’t stop to wash up my own breakfast things, the way we normally did. Mark was just entering the kitchen as I left: he never started until eleven on Fridays. “Help me out and wash up my breakfast things?” I pleaded, not wanting to miss my bus. He nodded, knowing I’d return the favour another day.

*

By the time I got back from campus that afternoon (I’d finished at 3pm), the house was in uproar. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Mark washed up the glass with the snail in it!” Sue told me. She sounded as if she couldn’t believe that anyone would do such a stupid thing. “It was when I was ringing Tesco – he didn’t know about the snail and he just tipped the contents of the glass down the sink.”

“Oh no!” I was suitably interested to express concern. “Does it really matter, though?” I asked next.

“It does when you’ve told Tesco you’ll take the snail in to show them!” was her grim reply. “I’ve been out into the garden to try to find a replacement, but so far, no luck.”

“So are you not going to bother then?” I wanted to know. If you asked me, it seemed that hunting snails in the garden was taking things too far.

Sue snorted. “What, and miss getting some sort of compensation? Have you any idea how traumatic it was to find a snail in my juice? It’s a good job I spotted it before I drank any!”

She was still muttering an hour and a half later, when Simon came home, but by the time we’d all eaten and watched a film together, she seemed to be calming down.

*

Saturday. None of us had to get up early and we all made the most of the opportunity for a lie-in. I didn’t surface until half nine; and, when I did, I discovered there was no milk in the fridge.

“Has no one bothered to bring it in yet?” Kerry remarked in surprise. Back then, more people used milkmen than they did today: you only really bought cartons of milk in an emergency.

I was desperate for a cup of tea by this stage, so I padded to the front door in my nightshirt, thinking I could carry at least two. Grabbing a couple of the bottles that sat waiting patiently by the doorstep, I made my way back into the kitchen.

“Bring a bottle of milk in here,” someone called. “It’s just run out in the jug and I need to put more on my cornflakes.”

I rescued the stewed teabag from my mug, added milk, then carried the bottle through to the dining room. Mark and Kerry were seated at the table, a bowl of cornflakes in front of Kerry and a plate of toast beside Mark. As I handed over the milk, something detached itself from the bottom of the bottle and fell plop! into Kerry’s bowl.

“What the …” she began, looking startled.

The three of us stared at the snail, which was enjoying an unexpected bath.

That’s when I realised what must have happened the previous day: the snail in Sue’s juice must have hitched a lift on the milk bottle and detached itself as the milk was passed down the table. And she’d spent hours convinced that it was all Tesco’s fault.

“Sue …” Kerry said sweetly as our housemate entered the dining room, “look what I’ve just found.”

“My snail!” Sue looked totally mystified.

“No,” Mark corrected her, “Kerry’s snail. It’s in her cornflakes.”

“That’s even more compensation!” Sue breathed, pound signs all but flashing in her eyes.

“I don’t think so.” We gently told her about the milk bottles and how it looked as if Tesco was innocent after all, but she wasn’t listening.

“Give me your bowl, Kerry!” Sue ordered, her voice steely with determination. “I’m going to wash the milk and cornflakes off that snail and then we’re going to Tesco!”

Day 8 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Recently, a work colleague who’d just read my latest novella asked, “Is it true?” I suppose I should be flattered that she found my writing convincing; but for many of us, trying to explain that the stories we write are works of fiction is often an uphill struggle. Whilst we may be inspired by real life people or events, fiction is still fiction. So, for any of you wondering whether today’s offering is based on my own teenage years, the answer is ‘It’s pure imagination.’

First Dates and Football Socks

I was thirteen when I fell for the captain of the football team.

Mark, my brother, was football-obsessed – always had been. I, on the other hand, was a ‘typical’ girl, with only a vague notion of how the game worked and no knowledge at all of the offside rule.

All that changed, though, when I got my first crush. Dave Thomas was fifteen, the same age as my brother, but he looked like a totally different species. Mark was still at the gangly stage, you see – all arms and legs, not quite knowing how to make his limbs move in conjunction with each other; whereas Dave looked like a Greek hero: tall, tanned and toned. I know it’s a cliché, but my heart sort of snapped the first time I opened the door to him, when he came round to see if Mark wanted to fill in for someone else in Saturday’s friendly.

After that, he became a semi-permanent fixture at our house: he and Mark would disappear into the kitchen together and sit at the table for hours, talking strategy whilst drinking copious amounts of Coke and eating crisps. He never noticed me, of course: I was just a little girl, flat-chested and with skinny legs. I somehow felt that if the boys at school were told to choose girlfriends in the same way we chose our teams for netball and football in PE lessons, I’d still be the one left to the end, standing there miserably, hoping I’d get picked.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I was ugly or anything: just that when you’re thirteen and under-sized and clever, obviously the boys are going to prefer the girls with long hair and curves and make-up. It’s how their brains are wired: they never ever look at a girl and think ‘Phwoar! Look at the personality on that!”

I did, however, take a bit of advice from my best friend, Debra. Deb wasn’t much taller than I was, but she had bags of confidence. She loved clothes and her mum had actually given her a clothing allowance once we started in Year Nine. It wasn’t a lot, but it meant that she could update her wardrobe on a regular basis; whilst I was still having to put up with my own mother’s idea of ‘suitable’ clothes, which, to be frank, were quite atrocious.

In the end, I managed to talk Mum into buying me a top that Deb had seen on Amazon and thought would suit me. I couldn’t wait for it to arrive. When it did, though, I felt horribly disappointed: Deb had one like it (only in a different colour) and it fitted her perfectly; but mine just hung off me sadly, as if to draw attention to my non-existent chest.

What would I look like, I wondered, if I had a proper figure? By this time, I’d gone downstairs to the kitchen, to make a cup of tea, and one of Mum’s bras was sitting at the top of the basket full of clean laundry. My mind was made up: I would give myself a non-surgical boob-job, just to see whether it made a difference.

I’d have to stuff it with something, though. I rejected a couple of pairs of tights and picked up Mark’s football socks instead. That should do the trick.

It did. I gazed at my reflection in the mirror, delighted with what I saw. Perhaps I should wear the socks to school and see if anyone noticed the contrast?

Just then, the doorbell rang. It was only as I was opening the door that I realised I should have removed the socks first – or maybe not. A surprised Dave took one look at my visibly enhanced chest and invited it to the cinema the following weekend. (I think I was included in the invitation, although it was hard to tell when Dave’s eyes remained firmly glued to one spot.) As he and Mark disappeared into the kitchen together, I’m pretty sure I heard Dave mutter something like “Your little sister’s really grown up, hasn’t she?” and my heart sang.

It was only as I lay awake in bed that night, too delirious with happiness to sleep, that I realised the potential pitfalls ahead of me. Now that Dave had finally noticed me – or, at least, two particular bits of me  – I would have to keep up the deception; and that meant stuffing my bra every day for school, just in case Dave spotted me in the corridors or playground.

Luckily, once I was wearing my school jumper and blazer, it was hard to tell what shape I was. I’d been having nightmares about some of the boys in my own year group suddenly becoming aware of my changed bosom and teasing me about it. There was still the problem of PE lessons, though: the last thing I wanted was for anyone to notice what was under my shirt and start circulating the story about how I’d stuffed my bra to get a boyfriend. Eventually, I pleaded severe period pain as a reason to get out of PE that Thursday; I’m pretty sure the teacher knew I was lying, but there was nothing she could do about it.

Saturday finally arrived and, with it, disaster. Mark’s football socks were nowhere to be found. I finally tracked them down in the washing machine – five minutes after the load had started. Mum must have seen them on my bedroom floor and helpfully scooped them up with the rest of my laundry. The wash cycle took an hour and forty-five minutes, but I was supposed to meet Dave at the cinema in just under half an hour. What could I do?

I tried to recreate the effect with a couple of my own ankle socks, but it was a dismal failure. As time ticked on, I began to panic. Dave would be devastated if I wasn’t accompanied by the boobs he’d fallen for. I desperately googled the internet to see if it could offer any solutions to my predicament. It didn’t.

When I finally arrived at the cinema, Dave looked at me curiously. “What are you wearing that massive jumper for? It’s twenty-two degrees outside!”

I said nothing, hoping that the baggy garment would disguise my re-flattened chest.

“Hurry up,” he continued, checking his phone. “The others are inside already, buying popcorn.”

Others?

It was as we entered the cinema foyer that I realised our ‘date’ wasn’t as exclusive as I’d thought: I’d been visualising a romantic afternoon with the two of us sitting side by side in a darkened cinema, holding hands maybe, or even kissing (and, yes, I had been practising on my pillow), but Dave seemed under the impression that we were playing football, judging by the number of other people he’d invited along. I think I counted nine other boys, none of whom I knew, so we definitely had enough for a full team, if you included me.

I didn’t get half the names Dave mentioned as he started introducing me to his mates. After dark-haired Baz and chunky Robert, I sort of lost interest. I mean, if you think about it, it was like going out with ten different versions of my brother – and I saw enough of him at home to know that fifteen-year-old boys still have a lot of growing up to do.

Take the popcorn, for instance. Most people would assume you buy popcorn to eat while you watch the film – not this lot. Apparently, what popcorn’s really meant for is throwing at the people who’re sitting in front of you. And if any of it actually hits them, you score bonus points. It was like sitting with a group of six year olds – except I think six year olds would have been marginally better behaved.

I can’t remember now what the film was about because I spent most of the time hiding my face in mortification at the boys’ antics. There was only one who wasn’t joining in – either because he was a bit more grown up than the others or because he was really into whatever superhero was on the screen.

Finally, the film ended, and we all piled into McDonald’s, en masse, to order food. I was already regretting coming by this stage, and the food fight that ensued once Dave and his friends had got their orders just confirmed that feeling. With the exception of Gary, the boy who’d actually watched the film, everyone was flicking fries and splattering ketchup. It was really embarrassing.

After a few minutes, Gary turned to me. “Shall we just leave them to it?” he said.

I nodded, and we left the restaurant. It felt odd to be on my own with a boy I didn’t know, but it felt comforting too. Gary was only a few inches taller than me, a bit geeky looking, with glasses and curly hair. He had a gorgeous smile, though, and a wealth of funny stories which he shared as we sat in Costa, drinking lattes and enjoying a much more civilised time together. After a while, I felt sufficiently relaxed to remove my jumper, noticing, as I did so, that Gary’s eyes never left my face for the whole of the afternoon.

Of course, I knew there would be repercussions for me dumping Dave and going off with one of his friends; but, to be honest, I didn’t care. When Mark told me the following day that Dave was really pissed off with me for what I’d done, I felt a pang of guilt – but that was over very quickly.

“He still doesn’t understand what went wrong,” Mark said, sounding as if he didn’t get it either.

I sighed, remembering how easy everything had been with Gary: how we’d talked and laughed and sipped coffee; how he’d kissed me gently at the bus stop when the number 47 arrived to take me home. Superimposed onto that was the horror that had been the food fight at McDonald’s, the popcorn party in the cinema and the awkward moment where Dave’s hand had tried visiting my chest without a visa. If our date had been a football match, he would have earned not just a yellow card but a red one as well.

“Just tell him,” I said slowly, “that the substitute scored and he didn’t.”

Day 6 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

So, as the challenge progresses, I’m realising it’s not always easy to find the time to write something – hang on: isn’t that the point? The whole idea is to get people writing something every day, isn’t it? y problem is that I want to do myself justice and not just scribble any old rubbish – as I’m sure is the case with the rest of the people doing this.

Anyway, I managed to submit Challenge 6 on time – just; but it’s taken me a while to post it on here. All comments or feedback welcome.

The Letter

I gaze at the envelope in my hand, wondering if life would have been different if I hadn’t kept it a secret.

Back in the 1980s, when we were at university, Andy, Stef and I were inseparable: a sort of unholy triumvirate. I met Stef first: she was in the same Hall of Residence as me, so I suppose our friendship was inevitable: walking to campus and back every day gives you plenty of time to talk. By the time we’d stumbled through Freshers’ Week and found our feet in the English department, we felt as if we’d known each other for years – and that’s why I could never tell her how I felt about Andy.

Andy. He was one of only six boys doing English, the rest of the First Years preferring to opt for more ‘manly’ pursuits, like Engineering or Physics. Back then, girls weren’t pushed towards sciences, the way they are now. Out of the seventy of us on the course, anyone with testosterone was seen as a bit of a novelty. He was a lovely guy too: well-read, a good listener, and an incredibly dry sense of humour. We clicked straight away. All three of us.

And that’s where the problem lay. When you develop a bit of a crush on someone, you could really do with the chance to spend time with them on your own, to put out feelers and ascertain whether this thing between you is just friendship or whether it has the potential to be something more. I couldn’t do that: not with Stef always there, hanging around like Banquo’s ghost whenever I wanted to find out how Andy felt about me. Every time I suggested a drink after lectures, Stef was there too. When I told him about this restaurant everyone was raving about, ‘The American Food Factory’, and asked if he wanted to try out the lasagne sometime, that turned into a threesome as well. It seemed as if I was fated to have my best friend – the Gooseberry – at my side, no matter where I went.

It all changed in our Second Year, though. All three of us decided to audition for the Guild Music Society – they were putting on ‘Oklahoma!’ and we thought it would be fun to mess around in the Chorus together; only, it turned out I had a much better singing voice than they did, and I found myself understudying Ado Annie whilst they were relegated to Costumes (Stef) and Props (Andy).

That’s when the trouble started: although Costumes and Props were vital to the whole production, they didn’t have to attend every rehearsal, like I did; and, pretty soon, the two of them were sloping off on their own for meals and walks and trips to the cinema. I could have wept with frustration – except I didn’t want to ruin my voice.

It came as no surprise, then, when Stef burst into my room one morning – whilst I was still getting dressed, no less – all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and bursting with requited love. I tried hard not to let her know how I really felt: plastered a smile on my face, told her I was happy for them both; but deep down, it hurt like hell.

As one week slipped into another, I felt as if I were being slowly suffocated by their cloying togetherness. How could I stand up on stage in a few weeks’ time and join the rest of the cast singing “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’!” when I was carrying a perpetual raincloud around with me? And the worst of it was, they were oblivious to my feelings.

Then, as luck would have it, disaster struck. Stef and I had just come out of our Friday morning Anglo-Saxon lecture – sans Andy, who did Combined Honours and had a German Lit class whilst we were struggling through ‘Beowulf’ – when one of the secretaries from the Arts Faculty office came charging up to us with an urgent message. Stef’s mother had been involved in an accident and was currently in Intensive Care at her local hospital.

I saw Stef’s face blanch as she heard the news. “I’ll have to go home straight away,” she said slowly. “It’s what? Eleven o’clock now? I’ll try to catch the twelve fifteen from New Street.”

We walked back to Hall together, my mind rejecting all the unwanted platitudes I knew Stef wouldn’t want to hear. Despite the way she’d stolen Andy from me, I felt sorry for her right now; hoped her mum would be okay.

With my help, Stef was packed in a matter of minutes. “Do you want me to walk to the station with you?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I’ll get a taxi – it’ll be quicker.” Hall was deserted at that hour, so there was no problem ordering a cab via the pay phones in the foyer.

It was as we were waiting for the taxi to arrive that Stef suddenly remembered Andy. “Can you give him a note, Jill?” She was scribbling down her parents’ phone number on a scrap of paper. “I might be at the hospital until quite late, but tell him to keep ringing until he gets hold of me. I’ve no way of contacting him myself.”

It’s strange to think now how different things would have been had mobile phones been invented – or even email. As it was, Stef did the only thing she could: she trusted her best friend to pass on the necessary information to her boyfriend.

I stroke the pale blue envelope, remembering. Stef didn’t have an envelope, of course. She just handed me the note and asked me to deliver it.

Once she’d gone, I went back to my room and put the note in an envelope with Andy’s name on it. That was my insurance policy, you see: if Stef ever found out that I hadn’t delivered her message, I’d tell her I put the note in an envelope and posted it under Andy’s door. If she insisted that we went to his flat to check, I could easily drop it down the back of the fridge when no one was looking, and there was my alibi. She’d never know the truth.

But, as it turned out, there was no need for such subterfuge. I knew that Andy always met Stef for lunch at 1.15 in the Guild – there was a bargain price salad bar there and they used to make a couple of pounds last an hour – so I set off to meet him and give him my version of events.

He looked a little surprised to see me. “Hi Jill. Are you joining me and Stef for lunch?”

“Stef’s not coming,” I told him, making my voice sad and sympathetic. “I’m really sorry, Andy – she’s found someone else.”

His face fell, like I knew it would. “No,” he said at last. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know this is hard for you,” I said gently. “They’ve gone to London together, for a romantic weekend. She took a taxi to the station just before twelve.”

At least that last bit was true.

“No,” he said again, looking less certain this time. Then, “Did you know about this? Before today, I mean?”

By the time we’d decamped to the bar and then spent the best part of the afternoon drowning Andy’s sorrows, he’d heard the full story of how Stef had been seeing this other guy behind his back the whole time she’d been dating him. “I had no idea,” he kept on repeating, the words gradually slurring into each other as bewildered incomprehension was replaced with alcohol-induced acceptance. After that, it was simply a matter of walking him back to his own student flat, to ‘keep an eye on him’, and then suggesting that the best way to forget Stef would be to sleep with someone else. Men can be so naïve at times.

I rang Stef myself the following day – ostensibly to enquire after her mother; but then I managed to inject enough guilt and regret into my voice for her to ask what was wrong.

“I’m so sorry,” I kept repeating. “It just happened. Neither of us planned it – honest.”

Stef didn’t come back to Hall until a week later; and, when she did, things were never the same. She didn’t even bother speaking to Andy – she confided to me later that what had hurt most wasn’t the fact that he’d cheated on her but that he hadn’t even rung to ask how her mum was. The light had gone out of her eyes – and pretty soon, it had gone out of our friendship as well.

She and Andy are married now – not to each other, obviously. They never spoke again after my one-night stand with her boyfriend. I had to stop seeing him too: we were both too embarrassed after that single night to look each other in the eyes again. That was when I realised that it would have been better not to know, to hold Andy in my heart as an eternal what-might-have-been.

I gaze at the letter, thirty years after I decided not to deliver it, thinking how different life could have been.

Day 5 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

The Avenging Angel

I don’t usually see anyone I recognise on my morning commute, so I’m somewhat surprised to hear a once familiar voice calling my name as I wait on platform 1 at the unearthly hour of seven thirty am. “Gemma! How have you been?”

Lucy and I were almost inseparable at secondary school: we sat together in Maths and English for the best part of five years and sent most of our break- and lunch-times together. Then, when we parted ways to go to different sixth forms, we still kept in touch, texting and instant messaging at least several times a week. We even managed to keep the friendship going for the first year of university – me in Hull; her in Warwick – but as time passed and I found myself spending a year in Trieste (one of the perks of an Italian degree), we slowly drifted apart.

She’s grinning at me now as if we met up yesterday. “I can’t believe it!” she says. “It must be, what? Four years since we last saw each other?”

So we do the usual catching up routine: love life, career, where we live now – all that sort of thing. It turns out Lucy’s done well for herself: she’s working for the HSBC bank and has been promoted twice in the last six months – something to do with spotting a fraudulent cheque and saving the bank hundreds, if not thousands, as well as being really good with the customers – and she’s renting one of those pretentious new flats just behind the train station. She’s only just moved in, which is why I haven’t spotted her at the station before now.

The train arrives and we’re still gabbing away. She enquires about my parents; I ask after hers. “What about your grandparents?” I want to know, wondering, after I’ve said it, whether they’re still alive: they must both be in their seventies by now.

Lucy pulls a face. “Gran was arrested the other week. We’re really lucky it didn’t hit the headlines – or end up on social media.”

“What did she do?” I ask, fascinated – my mind already constructing scenarios of her being caught speeding on a mobility scooter or getting embroiled in some sort of granny-brothel.

Lucy sighs. “I suppose it’s funny, really – in a way. It was a bit embarrassing for us all at the time, though.”

By now, I’m desperate to find out what happened, so Lucy enlightens me. “It all started when she found out Prince Charles was visiting St Brigid’s,” she says slowly. “She used to be headmistress there, remember?”

I nod. I didn’t go to St Brigid’s myself – my family aren’t Catholic; but there were plenty of people at secondary school who’d done the full seven years there – eight, if you count the pre-school.

“Well, Granny’s never forgiven Charles for the divorce,” Lucy continues. Noticing that I look puzzled, she elaborates: “She blamed him for the break-up with Princess Di.”

I don’t like to point out that this seems to be a case of taking a grudge too far. After all, Diana died twenty-two years ago – I was three at the time, so obviously I didn’t have a view on the matter, being more interested in Pingu than conspiracy theories and adultery plots.

“Anyway,” Lucy continues, “because she used to be headmistress, she was invited to come along and meet Prince Charles with the teachers who’re currently there, and she was moaning about it at her bridge club, saying she ‘didn’t want anything to do with that dreadful man’, when one of her friends dared her to tell him what she thought of his behaviour.”

“You’re not serious!” I breathe, trying to imagine the scene she would have caused.

“Well, you know Granny …” Lucy shakes her head despairingly. “Once she gets an idea into her head, there’s no stopping her. So, she went home and made a big placard, thinking that she could wear it round her neck and then jump out and flash her sign at Prince Charles.”

“The Scarlet A!” I mutter, secretly rather impressed.

“And you know how terrible her handwriting is …” Lucy carries on.

I do indeed: Lucy’s shown me enough birthday cards from her grandparents over the years for me to remember the ridiculously illegible spikes that masquerade as penmanship. You’d expect someone educated, who’s been a teacher and headmistress, to have a beautiful, spidery copperplate; but Lucy’s gran’s writing is so bad that it resembles those hospital charts with all the peaks and troughs to represent heartrate, breathing, and so on.

“… So if she’d written it herself, it would have been fine,” Lucy explains, “only she asked my grandad to print it for her, and he’s got lovely writing …”

“And did she do it?” The mental image of an old lady leaping out at Prince Charles, telling him exactly what she thought of him, is priceless.

Lucy rolls her eyes. “She put on her ruby red mac – to hide the evidence – and off she went, There was a line of policemen outside the school gates – for security purposes – but Granny was an invited guest and an upstanding member of the community, so nobody thought to stop her.”

I can picture it now: Lucy’s granny, looking for all the world like a sweet, little, old lady; and Prince Charles having no idea what’s about to hit him.

“So she stood in line,” Lucy’s voice slows, as if the telling of it is too painful, “and waited with the rest of the teachers who were all lined up to shake his hand. And then …” Her voice falters. “And then … Granny flashed him!”

That’s when I realise that her voice is trembling with laughter, so I join in and we both snort and giggle at the idea of it all.

“At least she didn’t throw a milk-shake at him,” I gasp, thinking of the recent event with Nigel Farage. “Or her false teeth!”

“Would that count as treason, do you think?” Lucy asks, sounding suddenly serious. “I mean, do teeth count as a weapon? Even artificial ones?”

By now we’re both nearly crying with laughter and it’s a good few minutes before I realise I’ve missed my stop. I’ll just have to be a bit late this morning, though, because I have to find out how this story ends.

“So,” I say, composing myself as best I can, “what happened next?”

“She was cautioned,” Lucy says, with a straight face, “and escorted back home to Grandad. He had to promise the policeman to keep an eye on her in future.”

I’m still chuckling as I alight at the next stop and prepare to travel back to New Street.

Day 4 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

This writing addiction is taking a hold: awake at 5am, I’d written today’s piece (just flash fiction this time at 349 words plus title) before I got out of bed. Would this have been Britain’s future if we’d all voted ‘Remain’, I wonder? Or if we’d all voted ‘Leave’? One thing I’m certain of is that this writing challenge is certainly keeping me on my creative toes. I’m looking forward to seeing what Day 5’s Brief is …

Susie Sunshine

Susie Sunshine’s birth was a joyful experience for all concerned: unicorns pranced and scattered gold dust from their ivory horns as the future World’s First President of the Happiness Party slid down a rainbow and landed at her mother’s feet in a wicker basket decorated with pretty, pink bows. At least, that’s the version of events Susie’s telling in 2091.

The world in 2091 is very different to the one where Susie grew up. Back then, there were still such things as hunger and homelessness; today, there is plenty of food for everyone and each child lives in his or her own gingerbread house – mortgage free, of course. In the Dark Ages of Unhappiness, tears and torment existed, alongside mayhem and misery; but nowadays, thanks to Susie, everyone has compulsory wellbeing lessons from the age of five – which, coincidentally, is also the age people are when they are born. (Genetic engineering has got rid of all the negative elements of parenthood, such as sleepless night, teething and nappies.)

One of the things that has catapulted Susie into becoming World President of the Happiness Party is her determination to give every individual the happy childhood that she’s carefully constructed for herself in her memoirs. In Susie’s version of events, her drunken mother has metamorphasised into a benevolent angel, doling out lollipops and lullabies in equal measure, surrounding her with hugs and kisses, all but smothering her with love. It’s important for everyone’s wellbeing that she models the ideals and aspirations at the heart of her mission statement.

The history books of the future will look back on the Golden Age of 2091. They will wax lyrical about Susie’s positive innovations: the removal of death and decay, the absence of old age. They will laud the fact that she eradicated misery, outlawed pain. Thanks to Susie, 2091 is full of shiny, happy people, all of them aged between five and thirty, inhabiting a world of eternal sunshine and endless lollipops. Happiness is the only disease in this brave new world – and Susie’s done her best to make sure that everyone’s infected.

Day 2 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Yesterday’s brief was okay, but today’s … A writer friend (the same one who inspired me to sign up) posted her own piece of writing for Day 2 earlier today, with the cryptic comment “I wonder if anyone can guess what today’s brief is?”

To be honest, hers is a much better piece of writing than mine is. I think I took the brief quite literally when I penned mine. And, I do have the added benefit of having been an English teacher since 1992, so my own piece is reasonably authentic in terms of my having seen a number of stories of a similar quality over the years.

I won’t tell you at this point what the brief is – all I will say is that it’s the writer’s equivalent of going out with no make up on, in your onesie, on a really bad hair day. Having said that, it was fun to write.

Take it as you will …

The Best Story Ever

Once upon a time there was a big fat king and he lived in a castle no in a tent because the wicked witch put a spell on him and turned him into a hedgehog into a big smelly man with a beard and he had to live in a tent because a hundred years ago ten years ago the witch asked him to marry her but she was like really ugly and she had a big fat hairy wart on her chin so the king said you are like the ugliest person I have ever seen and first the witch cried got angry then she was going to turn him into a toad but she liked toads too much so she just turned him into a smelly man with a beard because beards are like really gross. And then there was this princess dude who was like really cool because she could skateboard and get really high scores on all the bestest video games and like really cool stuff like that but she didn’t like all the boys who kept following her around because they were like so needy and stuff. And she was really really cool but these guys were like so pathetic that they liked really lame stuff like Ben 10 and that’s what my brother liked when he was three and now he’s fifteen so that’s so obviously not cool, right? And then there was like a monster an ogre with big hands teeth and he was going to eat the princess but she chopped his head off with this really cool sword samurai sword that she found in the charity shop but it was really a magic sword and whoever finds it and buys it will be king of England or some crap like that anyway she bought the sword and chopped the ogre’s head off. Oh, and there were these criminals as well and they had been in prison for stealing cars and taking stuff that didn’t belong to them but they were really vampires because this vampire dude was one of the prison guards and he like bit them you know so they turned into vampires and I mean proper vampires not silly vampires like in the Twilight books where they’re vegetarian and they go all sparkly in sunlight and all that crap. So like they’re proper vampires and first they bite the princess and make her a princess vampire and then they bite the fat smelly king dude who lives in a tent and then they bite the witch. So like now we’ve got all these really cool vampires but you can only have one king chief vampire who gets to boss all the other vampires around so they have this like contest where they all have to prove they’re the best vampire and it’s like The X Factor but because they’re vampires they call it the Necks Factor – see  what I did there? – and they all have to do karaoke but it’s like a song they’ve written that proves they’re better than the other vampire dudes and it’s like Britain’s Got Talent too but if the judges don’t like you they um like they kill you and because they’re like all vampires, if they don’t like your act they stake you through the heart so you explode in a cloud of dust like on Buffy that was so cool when they staked vamps and they just turned to dust. And the contest is going really great and the king vampire gets staked straightaway because his singing’s like so terrible but then some of them like the princess and some of them like the witch and they can’t decide which one to stake so they say the princess and the witch have to wrestle in jelly and the winner gets to be head vampire but the loser can be like vice president or something and so they fight and all the male vampires are like go on you can kill her but then the witch vampire and the princess vampire go all feminist and decide to kill the vampire judges who are all men vampires and so they kill them and they eat the jelly and that’s as far as I’ve got so far what do you think?

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.