NaPoWriMo Day#3

Today’s prompt was to take a rhyming dictionary and find as many rhymes or near rhymes as I could to write my poem. Now, I don’t have a problem with poems that rhyme: some good poems rhyme and some don’t; but I really don’t like the idea of forcing in rhyming words for the sake of it. However, the reference to near rhymes made me think of Wilfred Owen, a young man who wrote some very powerful anti-war poetry in 1915 when he was recovering from shell shock after fighting in the trenches in World War 1. Owen plays around beautifully with language and his half-rhymes and near-rhymes lend a sense of uneasiness to his poetry whilst still enabling it to flow – something that reflects the unsettled state of Owen and many of his fellow soldiers at the time. Most people are probably familiar with ‘Dulce et decorum est’, and other poems to look out for are ‘Exposure’ (currently one of the poems for English Literature GCSE with the AQA board) and ‘Strange Meeting’ (which my English teacher read to the class when I was 14 and I’ve loved it ever since).

My aim was to channel Owen – which I certainly haven’t done in this poem, so will keep trying. However, you could say I was inspired by him to write a poem that reflects the general unease of the population during this time of isolation – I’m playing with language but I’m also trying to tap into some of the very real feelings and anxieties of people in government-imposed quarantine.

Isolation

Outside, the streets are silent.

The world holds its breath, waiting

to see if this violent

disease is just a siren –

should we expect something more malevolent?


Inside, there is no peace, no quiet:

children and animals continue to riot,

raising their voices in a discordant choir.

Burning up with cabin fever, I feel quite

Delirious. My throat is on fire.

A sudden spasm of fear

Twists my gut, bringing me near

To total breakdown. Does no one care?

I scroll down my phone. My social life is deserted:

Online chat leaves me disconcerted.

I wander through empty rooms in the desert

Of my existence – and loneliness hurts.

A momentary burst of noise

Sends me to the window, expecting boys

Or gangs caught up in a fight;

Instead, outside in the night,

Cheers and whistles echo support for the NHS in their plight.

For now, the streets are empty of violence.

The applause over, the whisper of silence

Hums like a thousand tiny violins.

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?

Like The Prose Day 30

I’ve done a quick word count, and my total number of words for the thirty stories I’ve written for Like The Prose this June is 58, 451 – that’s not including any other stories I’ve written as entries for competitions or in response to other people’s prompts.

Today, for the first time, I feel exhausted – which could be one reason why today’s piece is the shortest in the competition at only 384 words. It’s not the greatest piece of writing – the title and the last line are the only bits I’m truly happy with; but the germ of an idea is there and maybe, one day, I’ll go back to it and wrestle it into something I like better.

What’s really important is that I stuck with it, writing something every day, whether or not it was my preferred genre or something I knew. It’s taken me out of my comfort zone and it’s also taught me to look at different styles of writing and dare to experiment. For that, I am grateful.

Meet Me In The Gap Between The Words

You said you would take the blank, white canvas of my heart – and create. A song spilled from your pen, weaving words into a tapestry of vibrant colour, creating a world in which we were the only two. Margins of reality ran down the page of your imagination, ruled by the constrictions of everyday life, but you and I were doodles of defiance and we spattered our joy across the universe we had found together.

For a long time, your words danced across our lives in a whirling bacchanalia. We were caught up in the heady feeling of togetherness, the giddy laughter, the drunken sensation of being inebriated with love. You twirled me in and out of fairy tales and sent me hurtling into space. Every love song ever written was one you had penned for me and the rhyming couplet of us lengthened into a sonnet as you covered us both with a cloak of clichés, hiding us from the outside world. That was then. That was the beginning.

Do all lovers love like this so that every day is Christmas and New Year’s Eve, every exchange a Rachmaninoff Concerto, passion rising to a crescendo of stormy emotion?

 The pristine pages of our history yellow with age. Edges furl as our lives become well thumbed, sometimes ripped through carelessness. A tear stains my face; suspicion stains your heart. Words become distorted as they slide off the page and into reality. We hurl them like plates; twist them like knives. Who would have thought that love could be moulded and shaped into something sharp and destructive? Is your heart full of tears (to rhyme with fears), or tears (to rhyme with cares)?

I set fire to my angry words, the incandescence of my rejection flaming into a blaze of hurt. Its smoke spirals upwards. Now, only bitter ashes remain. All my words are dust.

In the aftermath of grieving, in mourning all the lost phrases and paragraphs and the gut-wrenching feeling of finding that – sometimes – words are meaningless after all, hope rises like a phoenix from the ashes of us.

And I will meet you in the gap between the words where the only thing that matters is the sound of my heartbeat next to yours.

Like The Prose Day 29

Some of you may remember that on Day 9, I wrote a piece in which fictional critics discussed a medieval poem known as ‘The Song of Pardal and Enara’, some of them quoting the poem in its original old English and some in modern translation. We were able to glean some of the story from the comments they made, but today’s piece returns to the two young lovers and retells the story from Pardal’s perspective as he languishes in a cell and reflects on his love for Enara and the unlikelihood of the two of them surviving.

Lovebirds – Pardal and Enara’s Story

            Her beautiful voice – as golden as the hair that ripples down her back – is the last thing he hears.

*

He comes to in a cramped, dingy cell, not much bigger than himself. If he stretches out, his arms hit the wall on both sides before fully extended. He’ll have to sleep curled round, like a dog or cat. His jaw aches. He touches it tenderly, realising that the guards must have hit him time and time again before they dragged him in here. Casting his mind back to the last minutes he remembers, he tries to focus on what has brought him here. How has his life been turned upside down in such a short space of time?

They had both grown up in the same village, sweethearts from the time they could toddle. He can still see her now, only five or six summers old, sitting in the meadow surrounded by daisies. She’d shown him how to thread the yellow and white flowers into a delicate chain and he’d placed it on her head, declaring her his queen. Back then, they hadn’t envisaged anything would ever separate them, but that was when the old king was still alive – before Petyr Ironfist came to the throne.

As his eyes gradually adjust to the gloom, he becomes aware of a small, barred window in one side of the cell. He shuffles towards it, hoping for fresh air. Pressing himself against the cold, metal bars, he takes deep breaths, trying to replace the mustiness of this confined space with something that reminds him of the outside world. And that’s when he hears her.

Her voice floats gently on the breeze, every note as pure and true as a lark. She’s a prisoner too, then: he doesn’t know whether to feel relief or sorrow.

Minutes pass before he’s able to conjure up the strength to communicate with her. “My love? Are you there?”

But his words are as cracked as his ribs and he can only croak his love for her.

“Pardal? Is that you?”

She uses the old nickname, calling him her sparrow, and he responds in kind.

“Enara – my swallow. Have they hurt you?”

He closes his eyes, attempting to see the last minutes in her presence: the two of them standing before the king: he, accused of treason; her only crime to refuse to marry a man she does not love. Her golden voice as she breathes the word ‘No’ is the last thing he hears before an iron fist slams into his face and he crumples to the floor.

Back in the present, he waits anxiously for her response. “His guards have not touched me.” Her voice trembles as she continues. “But he told me that every day I refuse him, he will torture you a little more.”

They could execute him a thousand times over and burn him alive, but that would not be as painful as the thought of living without her.

“Stay strong, my little one,” he tells her.

The king may have caged them both, but he cannot eradicate their love for each other.

*

As hours drag into days and days blur into one another, he finds his mind returning again and again to the happiness they’d known in their village. She was thirteen summers when he’d kissed her for the first time and her lips had been as sweet as cherries. Harvest time came and went, but still he did not have the courage to ask her father if he might court her properly. Instead, they stole away as often as they could, spending innocent hours together, his head in her lap whilst she threaded daisies into a crown for him. He was still a boy; but if he could become apprenticed to the village bard, he would have a trade to offer her father, a way of showing he could provide for a family. From time to time, he longed to kiss her again; but he was too mindful of her virtue to despoil her innocence before they were handfasted.

Now he wonders if he will ever kiss her again.

*

He finds it hard to sleep, his body contorted into uncomfortable shapes by the smallness of the cell, and wonders if she too faces the same difficulty. Her body is smaller than his: lighter, more delicate. When sleep eludes him totally, he imagines that she is lying next to him and that he can hear her breathing. He does not know how many days they have been without one another, only that he feels her loss as keenly as if he had lost a hand or a foot.

Time crawls on. Every day, he is beaten by at least one of the guards and he knows the king hopes his tortured cries will sway Enara to reconsider her refusal. Despite the ache in his gut, the burning pain in his side, he does not cry out: he must stay strong for her sake. But lack of food and sleep is taking its toll: he can feel his body wasting away from lack of sustenance: it will not be long now before the king has no rival for the songbird’s love. He sifts the memories of their last few days together – the precious hours spent walking hand in hand through fields of cornflowers and poppies; and then, sweetest of all, their wedding day when she’d pledged her love for him in front of the village only minutes before the king’s men arrived to carry her away. She is his bride, yet he has still not known her: if the guards had not arrived, he would have carried her to his bed and made her his forever; but it was not to be.

They still communicate – sometimes in speech; sometimes in song. At first, he sings the ballads he sang whilst courting her, and she joins in the refrain – “He lost the girl with the golden hair, with the eyes of blue and the skin so fair. He lost the girl with the golden hair to the king, to the king of the fairies.” – but the emotions are too raw and the words too close for comfort.

As his body debilitates, he begins to urge her to reconsider her vows to him. “Marry the king and save yourself,” he says; but she remains true to him, even though he hears the tears in her whispered refusal.

In his weakened state, his body loses all track of time: past and present merge into each other so that one minute he is a child again, running through meadows with his playmate, and he is then a man, running behind the soldiers as they gallop off with his bride. He is an apprentice bard, learning the notes of the lute as he accompanies his master and they sing of battles and honour; and he is a desperate husband, sneaking into the castle, trying to find his love before it is too late. His own wedding blurs into the one he prevented, the smiles on his friends’ faces replaced with the fury of the king as Pardal steps forward before the crowd of people and declares that Enara has already pledged herself to him.

He wonders from time to time why Petyr did not simply kill him there and then – a sword thrust from any one of the guards present would have dispatched him instantly; and then he thinks of Enara’s tear-stained face and knows that the king is punishing her by keeping her lover alive yet out of reach. They are merely flies to him: he is plucking their wings off slowly to prolong the agony.

*

By now, he is a shadow of his former self: his limbs are withered and his ribs bruised from constant kicking; his chest rattles with the effort of breathing. Nevertheless, he still calls to her from his barred window. “My swallow …”

“Were I truly a swallow, I would take flight and soar through these bars, to you, my sparrow.”

But her voice is so faint that it catches on the wind and disappears.

He begs her again to reconsider her refusal.

“Without seeing you, I know you are wasting away, my swallow.”

Her reply breaks his heart: “Were I a swallow, I’d have no cause to die.”

Her only sin was being too beautiful; his only crime was falling in love with her.

“My swallow; my wife.”

But this time, she does not answer.

Faint from hunger and exhaustion, he slumps to the floor, never taking his eyes off the bars at the window. Moments later, there is a flurry of wings as a swallow and a sparrow soar upwards, rejoicing in their freedom.

Like The Prose Day 28

Today’s challenge was more of an editing one than a writing one: I’ve taken my summer solstice story and halved the word count. You’ll have to decide for yourselves whether or not this shorter version is better.

Reduced Magic

            Twilight was falling as Cassandra Updike hurried home from the library. Usually, it would be much lighter than this on the day of the summer solstice, but the weather had been miserable all day, issuing in a dusk-like quality to the evening so that she almost missed the short cut through the wood. Her mind was so full of the revision notes she had been making that she stumbled into the clearing the locals called ‘the Fairy Ring’ quite by chance.

She frowned as she noticed the people who had gathered there. They looked like hippies with the women in long skirts made from some kind of diaphanous, gauzy material and the men wearing tights and tunics. Some of the girls were weaving circlets of flowers and placing them upon each other’s heads and several goblets were being passed around.

 “Excuse me,” she said politely as a tall youth with mocking eyes blocked her way, but he laughed and offered her the goblet in his hand.

“No thank you,” she said stiffly. “I don’t touch alcohol.”

“It’s not alcohol,” he told her: “it’s mead.”

He was pushing it to her lips and the others were waiting expectantly. Exasperated, she took a sip. It was like liquid pleasure going down her throat.

“What’s your name?” the youth asked, his hands putting a daisy chain around her neck.

“Cassie. Cassie Updike.” She never usually shortened her name.

“Well, Cassie Updike, I think you need to relax.” He gently removed the schoolbag from her shoulders and placed it on the ground behind them. “Come and join us for the evening – you’ll have fun.”

Against her better judgement, she let him lead her to the camp fire that was blazing merrily. “You really shouldn’t light a fire in the woods,” she said self-righteously. “If it got out of control…”

“Control’s important to you, isn’t it?” he asked, removing her glasses so that his image blurred in front of her. “Have some more mead,” he said. “It’ll make things clearer.”

She took another sip, telling herself that she really must be on her way soon, but it seemed that her eyes were adjusting to being without glasses because everything was now swimming into focus, the lines becoming sharper the more she drank.

“You haven’t told me who you are,” she said boldly to her new friend.

“Robin Goodfellow,” he said lazily, “but I’ve been called other names.”

“You don’t go to my school,” she said reflectively. “How old are you?”

“Old enough to know better,” he said, kissing her lightly and making her head spin.

“No, really,” she protested.

“I’m as old as the hills,” he teased, grabbing her hand and leading her deeper into the wood.

Abandoning all common-sense, she followed him to a leafy bank covered in flowers.

“Musk-roses,” he told her, pulling her down among the greenery. “And wild thyme and eglantine and…”

But she stopped his mouth with her own. Revision forgotten, she let the midsummer magic surround them both as dusk darkened into night and the sun sank behind the horizon.

*

She awoke with a start in the early hours of the morning. Robin’s arms tightened around her but she wriggled free and began to look for her clothes.

“Stay a little longer,” he mumbled, but she was irresolute.

“I can’t – I’ve got an exam.”

“Come with us,” he said,. “Where I’m from, there are no exams, no responsibilities.”

“I can come back tonight,” she promised, but he shook his head.

“This is the only night of the year you’ll find me here. If you go now, you’ll be waiting twelve more months.”

She paused, torn between wanting to stay and knowing that the exam was waiting. She had a place lined up at Oxford. She couldn’t give that up, no matter how soft his lips, how seductive his promises.

“I’ll see you next year, then,” she said, kissing him on the forehead and retracing her steps.

*

She didn’t go to Oxford, despite her excellent A level results. When the Michaelmas term started, she was three months pregnant, her dreams of an academic career over before they’d begun. The baby she gave birth to in March had Robin’s dark, laughing eyes and every time she looked at him, her heart tugged with love for them both. Her parents, of course, were furious– not least because she wouldn’t marry the father. But how could she marry a will o’ the wisp who had vanished as she looked back to say goodbye?

She would have kept their appointment on Midsummer’s Eve, but the baby was teething and fractious and she dared not ask her parents to watch him. She would see Robin next year, she decided; but by then, she had started her Open University degree and then a post grad to train as a librarian, and the combination of studying and motherhood meant that she was too exhausted to go out in the evenings. It was not until little Robin was five that she remembered her promise and wondered vaguely whether her lover had ever returned.

Robin was still five when the car hit him. He slipped away hours later and then she was on her own once more.

*

From that point onwards, Cassandra retreated into herself. When Covid-19 appeared, lockdown made little difference to her. Since she never went out anyway, staying home soon became an acceptable mode of life.

She was just about to go to bed one evening, when the date leaped out at her: June 20th. Why shouldn’t she go back to the wood now? If nothing else, it might lay some old memories to rest. As if in a dream, she made her way towards the clearing and saw Robin waiting for her.

“I was beginning to think you weren’t coming!” he said with a grin as he took her hand.

She stared at him in disbelief. He looked exactly as he had done the first time; whereas she…

“You don’t look a day older!” she said impulsively.

He smiled at her. “I’m not,” he said.

Time shimmered as they stood there, and it was if the years rolled away and she was seventeen once more, the whole of her future before her.

“If you could put the clock back,” his voice was serious now, “would you? Would you go straight home instead of lying down with me amongst the leaves and flowers and letting me love you?”

Past and present blurred in that instant so that it was 1982 and 2020 both at the same time. And when he led her to the grassy bank, it was a girlish figure who lay down beside him and she kissed him with all the intensity of the seventeen-year-old she had once been and still was.

*

“I need to leave,” she said as dawn began to glimmer across the sky.

“Don’t go,” he said softly, just as he had all those years before.

His arms tightened around her again and she snuggled into their warmth. Perhaps this was the decision she should have made a long time ago before she grew old and empty.

“Come with us,” he repeated; and this time, she nodded and said, “Yes.”

*

It was several days before Cassandra Updike’s body was found in the woods in the spot that locals called ‘the Fairy Ring’. Her limbs were cold and stiff as one might expect, but the beautiful smile on her face made her look years younger.

Like The Prose Day 27

It’s sometimes easy to forget how much we take for granted in terms of gender equality these days. Until the 1860s, women were not admitted to universities – and even then, they were initially not allowed to take examinations. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836 – 1917) is widely known as the first female doctor in Britain, beginning her medical career as a surgery nurse in 1860 and then employing a private tutor to help her with the Latin, Greek, anatomy and physiognomy needed to sit in on medical lectures at the hospital where she worked. After much opposition from male medical students who objected to a woman trying to become a doctor, she achieved her license to practise medicine in 1865 – however, this was almost fifty years after James Miranda Barry, born as a woman in 1789, qualified as a doctor by presenting as male and living his whole life as a man.

My story takes some of the facts about Barry and weaves them together with a lot of invention to show how a girl from Cork renounced her gender to take on a male role in what was still very much a patriarchal society.

Doctoring The Truth

Snip! Snip! Snip! The girl’s long, dark tresses fall to the floor. Her mother continues until Margaret’s hair is shorn as short as any boy’s. “Put your brother’s old clothes on now,” she says, handing over a shirt and breeches.

Margaret looks at her mother. They both know this is the only way for a woman to train as a doctor in 1809, but she’s twenty years old and not flat-chested enough to pass scrutiny as a man. “I’ll bandage your breasts,” her mother says hurriedly. By the time the two of them have finished, Margaret Ann Bulkley has been transformed into James Miranda Barry, an identity that will be kept for the rest of Barry’s life.

*

It is November 30th when James and his ‘aunt’ board the fishing vessel that will carry them from their native Cork across the sea to Scotland. James is aware of his good fortune: some of his late father’s liberally minded friends have written letters and persuaded acquaintances that this fifteen-year old boy deserves to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. All Barry has ever wanted is to be a doctor, and his uncle’s reputation as an Irish Romantic painter carries enough weight for him to be accepted into the Medical School as a literary and medical student. His short stature and slight figure produce speculation, despite the bandages – but it is not his gender that is in question but his age: the rumour is whispered that he must be a pre-pubescent boy, a child genius, and that he shouldn’t be allowed to sit his final examinations due to his youth. The Earl of Buchan fortuitously intervenes, enabling Barry to qualify as an MD in 1812, and after a year in London, as a pupil at the United Hospitals of St Thomas and St Guy, he successfully qualifies as a surgeon.

The army seems the next logical step. Barry is commissioned as a Hospital Assistant and is soon promoted to Assistant Surgeon to the Forces. His slender, womanish fingers are defter than most of his colleagues’ at making incisions and sewing up again afterwards; and he seems to have a stronger stomach than the other Assistants, taking guts and gore in his stride, never once blenching or feeling faint. At all times, he works with masculine detachment, refusing to let his emotions cloud his judgement.

So successful is he in his career path that he is soon posted to Cape Town with a letter of introduction from his former patron, Lord Buchan, to the Governor, Lieutenant-General Lord Charles Henry Somerset. Fortunately for Barry – but maybe not so much for the Governor’s family – Lord Charles’ daughter becomes ill with cholera soon after the young doctor’s arrival and Barry is sent for at once. He looks at Lord Charles and hesitates, not wanting to promise a cure he isn’t certain can be delivered; but it’s the sight of the girl’s mother, Lady Francesca, that finally sways him: she’s sufficiently like his mother to tug at his heartstrings and make him swear to bring her daughter back to full health.

The daughter’s miraculous recovery is, in fact, a result of common sense rather than divine intervention. James is intelligent enough to realise that poor sanitation and contaminated water supplies are responsible for much of the disease prevalent in the South African capital and immediately sets about advising the family to boil all their drinking water whilst he administers calomel and opium to the ten year old girl. Once she is declared out of danger, Barry is welcomed into the family, becoming a close friend of Lord Charles and a favourite of Lady Francesca. When Charles asks him to become his personal physician, he cannot refuse for he is already more than a little in love with this handsome man who is less than ten years older than Barry himself. Although he likes Lady Francesca, he cannot help the intense attraction he feels towards her husband; and the evenings the two men spend together, sequestered in Lord Charles’ study with a bottle of port (for Charles; Barry is teetotal) and some good cigars only add to his confusion.

One night, as the lamps are burning low, Charles asks Barry if he’s ever had a woman. “I’m not that way inclined, Sir,” Barry replies. Lord Charles’ eyebrows shoot up, but he says nothing. Such unnaturalness is reviled or at best ignored in 1817. Taking the biggest gamble of his life, Barry begins unbuttoning his shirt, determined to show his friend his true self. Once he has divested himself of his breeches, Lord Charles understands fully. They agree afterwards that Lady Francesca would only be upset were she to learn of the new relationship between her husband and his physician.

It is two years later when Lady Francesca comments that Barry is putting on weight, little dreaming that her husband has fathered an illegitimate child. Lord Charles, afraid of scandal, suggests that the pregnancy be terminated: the African women, he says have herbs that can induce a miscarriage. But James has sworn the Hippocratic oath, promising “not [to] give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion” and to “abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm”. His career and reputation are on the line, but he must adhere to the promises he has made.

Eventually, a compromise is reached. James will absent himself from the governor’s family for a while, ostensibly to visit a distant cousin who is recently widowed and in her sixth month with child. Lady Francesca is immediately sympathetic, offering to let the poor creature stay with them for her confinement; but James refuses, claiming that the lady is too ill to travel. He returns five months later, bringing with him a two months old baby: his cousin died, he says, and he is the only surviving relative the child now has. Lord Charles’ wife, charitable to a fault, immediately insists that the little girl become one of the family. “For you are my adopted brother,” she says, smiling fondly at James, “and so this little one shall be my adopted niece.” James and Charles swiftly resume their former intimacy, although this time, they are more careful – which as just as well since James has no other female kin who can be used to explain a baby’s appearance.

Little Margaret – named for Barry’s sister who, he says, died when he was twenty – is three when her adopted Uncle Charles appoints Barry as Colonial Medical Inspector. At first, James is angry with his lover, seeing the position as a bribe to ensure that their affair remain secret; but Charles assures him that the post is well deserved and, indeed, Barry’s accomplishments in the ten years he spends working in the Cape are staggering: in addition to his work improving sanitation and water systems, he improves conditions for enslaved people, prisoners and the mentally ill, and sets up a leper sanctuary, causing Lady Francesca to exclaim in admiration, “It is no wonder that we women are known as the weaker sex for anyone seems like a lazy and ineffectual individual when compared with the tireless devotion to duty of our dear Doctor Barry!”

In 1827, the thirty-eight-year old Barry is promoted to Surgeon of the Forces. He is still unable to believe that he has advanced this far in his army career without ever undergoing a medical examination, but officers are exempt from such administrative nonsense and this has certainly been an advantage for someone who entered the ranks as a Hospital Assistant, never expecting to advance so rapidly in such a short space of time.

He bids a fond farewell in 1828 to the Somersets, knowing that he is unlikely to find another adopted family in his new post in Mauritius. There is no question about Margaret accompanying him – how can a single man take care of a small child? – but he knows he is leaving her in good hands with her natural father and foster-aunt. Once in Mauritius, he quickly carves himself a niche as a favourite with the officers’ wives who all flirt with him shamelessly, allured by his gentle hands and soothing bedside manner.

For someone who is often cold and abrupt when issuing orders, Barry is surprisingly sensitive when it comes to coaxing hypochondriacal women back into health. “Come now, Mrs Fanshawe,” he tells one lady who claims to be suffering from extreme melancholia, “no one with eyes as pretty as yours can stay sad for long. Put on a pretty gown and receive some of your friends and you will be feeling back to normal in no time- particularly,” and here he lowers his voice roguishly, “when not one of them will look half as ravishing as you do in your lavender tea dress!”

“Doctor Barry!” the woman replies, simpering into her handkerchief, “you would make a very good woman!”

Barry’s heart pauses momentarily.

“But I would much rather see you become a very wicked man!” she continues coquettishly.

Barry relaxes once more. His secret has not been discovered after all.

“Madam,” he says gravely, “I am truly flattered – alas! I prefer the company of men.” He holds her gaze for an instant, allowing her to take in the meaning of his words.

If anything, this confession makes him even more popular with the army wives, for each one determines to succeed where all others have failed. Undeterred, Barry continues to charm them all whilst preserving his identity as a somewhat effeminate but excellent doctor.

He has been in Mauritius for a year when a letter arrives from Lady Francesca telling him that Lord Charles is very ill. Risking his career, Barry departs immediately for England where the Somersets have their family residence. He tells himself it is time he saw his daughter, but Charles occupies his mind fully, first on the journey back to Cape Town and then on the long voyage from Africa to Portsmouth. While the boat cuts through the water, he muses on his lover’s symptoms. He treated Lord Charles for syphilis years ago when the man developed blotchy red rashes on his soles and palms and started losing his hair. He’d thought at the time that the mercury injections he’d given had eradicated the pox, but what if Sir Charles has merely been experiencing a latent stage until now?  Has the syphilis returned; and, more worrying still, does that mean that he, Barry, is also at risk?

He is shocked to see how visibly Charles has aged when he finally reaches the family seat in Worcester. The once handsome face is now disfigured by weeping sores and skin and bones seem irreparably damaged. He examines Charles methodically while Francesca waits outside the room. It is as he thought: the advanced stages of Cupid’s disease are affecting Somerset’s internal organs and cardiovascular system, and even mercury injections will be of little use now.

It takes two years for Charles to die. Barry is aware that he could be court-martialled for leaving his post without permission, but he cannot abandon his grand passion. He and Francesca take it in turns to nurse the man they both love, she remaining as oblivious to Barry’s true feelings as she is to his gender. He has never explicitly said what ails her husband, but he thinks she has guessed; and he is amazed at her fortitude in continuing to care for a man who has been so constantly inconstant.

The funeral takes place one wintry morning, the weather aptly reflecting Barry’s frozen heart. He is a valued family friend, a so-called ‘adopted’ brother, but there is no suitable outlet for his grief and he feels like Hamlet, forced to watch in frustration as Laertes flings himself into Ophelia’s grave. He cannot mourn Charles as a lover so his tears must go unshed.

Leaving England soon after this, Barry finds himself posted first to Jamaica and then to Saint Helena. It seems he is fated to spend all of his career abroad when he is sent next to the Leeward Islands and Westward Islands of the West Indies. As he did so effectively in Cape Town, Barry focuses on improving what he can, tacking both medicine and management as well as the conditions of the troops. No one is surprised when he is promoted again – this time to Principal Medical Officer: when it comes to administration, he is a whirlwind, seeing immediately what needs to be done and organising everyone and everything effortlessly.

In 1845, more than thirty years after becoming an army medical officer, Barry contracts yellow fever and takes temporary sick leave, returning to England for the first time since Charles’s death. By now, his daughter is twenty-six and married to a country curate. It is a good match for a girl who is technically illegitimate and Barry feels grateful to Francesca for treating his so-called niece so well.

Once recovered and cleared for duty, Barry is sent to Malta. Now in his fifties, he shows no signs of slowing down, dealing with a cholera epidemic in 1850 and earning the grudging respect of most of the officials he has so far offended. Feeling he has nothing to lose since Somerset’s death, he now cultivates rudeness to the point of making it an art form, yet this does not prevent him from being promoted to the rank of Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals in Corfu. The post is a prestigious one, but Barry has set his heart on the Crimea and is disgruntled to have his wishes thwarted. He compensates by spending his leave there instead.

As the years pass, his interest in the Crimea grows as England becomes part of an alliance of several countries involved in a war there with Russia. Reports have filtered through to England about the horrific conditions for the wounded soldiers and Barry is desperate to help in some way but is refused. His frustration grows when he hears of a woman some thirty years his junior who has been sent there, under the authorisation of the Secretary at War, Sidney Herbert, with a staff of 38 women volunteer nurses that she has trained herself; and he wonders bitterly whether he too might have had the same opportunities as a woman in the field of medicine had he, like Florence Nightingale, been born to wealthier parents. When he finally meets the woman during a visit to Scutari Hospital in 1854, he cannot avoid becoming embroiled in an argument with her.

“Do you think,” he asks somewhat aggressively, “that you would have accomplished more had you been a man?”

Nightingale, who has taken exception to his heavy-handed approach and tactless manner, replies spiritedly that she has for some time believed that women can be equals to men.

“It must be easy to follow a career when your father gives you an income of £500 per annum,” Barry says acidly.

“No amount of money can compensate for the struggles women have to face in defying the social codes expected of them!” she exclaims in a passion. “Were you not a man, you would soon realise that!”

And, indeed, Barry is aware that he would not have been able to study for a medical degree as a woman – let alone qualify as a surgeon or join the army. Nevertheless, he cannot help feeling irritated that she has carved out a name for herself without having to put on a pair of breeches.

In later years, Nightingale will remember their meeting, calling Barry a blackguard and claiming that he “behaved like a brute”, and it will be Nightingale’s name in the history books and not Barry’s.

A last official posting to Canada sees Barry continuing to improve sanitary conditions. A strict vegetarian, he takes a keen interest in the common soldier’s diet as well as that of their families and does what he can to educate them about nutrition. As before in The Cape, he fights for better medical care for prisoners and lepers, inciting the wrath of officials and military officers when he campaigns on behalf of the poor and other underprivileged groups. Florence Nightingale may be improving nursing standards in a few hospitals in the Crimea, but he, Barry, will affect thousands more lives in the British Empire.

Pushing himself so hard begins to take its toll and the army forces him to retire in 1859 due to ill health and old age. Barry is seventy by this time, although his records claim he is sixty-five.  He lives quietly in London for another six years before finally succumbing to dysentery and dying on 25th July 1865.

It is only now that Barry’s secret is discovered. He has spent 56 years as a man, insisting on always undressing in a room on his own, but the charwoman who lays him out goes to the press with her scandalous story, condemning contemporary doctors for not knowing that the man she has been cleaning for was really a woman. All of a sudden, many people claim to have “known all along”; whereas the British Army, embarrassed by the woman’s story, seal all records of their former employee for the next one hundred years. So successful are they in suppressing the truth that over a hundred and fifty years after Barry’s death, his name and true identity remain virtually unknown.

Like The Prose Day 26

Today’s story asks the fundamental question “What makes us human?” If you had to decide whether or not someone was a robot or a human, and you could ask only one question to help you decide, what would it be?

I’ve taken my inspiration from modern day game shows/reality TV – and the answer to the above question may surprise you.

What Makes Us Human

“So, Laura – are you going to be able to tell whether you’re dating a human or an android?”

The TV presenter’s teeth are unnaturally perfect as he smilingly asks the question. He sits opposite Laura, the backdrop behind them both proclaiming ‘The Perfect Partner?’ in massive letters. A banner travels across the screen: ‘Sponsored by AI Unlimited.’ The audience waits expectantly.

Laura twiddles a brunette ringlet in her fingers, obviously trying to give the impression of thinking hard – although the whole audience knows this ‘reality show’ is scripted. “I guess so,” she says at last. Turning to face the camera, she laughs. “I mean, how hard can it be, right?”

Larry Loveheart – it’s his real name; he changed it by deed poll – winks at the audience. “Well, if AI Unlimited have done their job properly, then you should have your work cut out deciding which of the guys you’re going to meet in a few minutes is actually real!” The crowd applauds. “But first, let’s remind our audience what you’re looking for in the perfect boyfriend…”

He takes a sip of the clear liquid in the glass in front of him as the camera cuts to a pre-recorded segment: Laura is in her bedroom, opening her heart to the millions of viewers she hopes are watching her.

“I want a man who’s good-looking, and tall –”

“How tall are you?” a voice interrupts.

“Uh, five eight, I think. And he should be intelligent – you know, with a college degree – and be kind to animals and be respectful.”

“What do you mean by ‘respectful’?”

Laura appears to be thinking. “He should be honest,” she declares at last. “I don’t want a cheater. And he should treat me like a lady. I’m all for feminism, you know, but I still like it when a man buys me flowers or opens a door for me.”

There is some jeering from the audience at this last sentence. Larry Loveheart ignores it, turning to face the camera once more.

“Well, let’s see if either of the guys we’ve brought here tonight is going to live up to your expectations. Let’s meet Date Number 1!”

There is more applause as the back-screen splits in half to reveal an aesthetically perfect young man in his twenties. Classically handsome in a blond, Scandinavian type of way, he has several members of the audience literally on the edge of their seats with excitement. As the crowd cheers, he makes his way down the steps towards Laura and then kisses her on the cheek.

“Laura,” Larry Loveheart can tell that she likes this one, “Sven is twenty-six, he’s a marine biologist and you’ll be happy to know he’s six feet tall!”

“Can’t I just make my choice now?” Laura asks impishly, reading off the autocue.

The audience laughs, but Larry shakes his head.

“No, we’re going to let you meet Date Number 2, and that’s Marco from Italy!”

Once more, the back-screen splits open and the audience erupts again as a second man descends in Laura’s direction. Marco is equally tall and handsome, although this time in an olive-skinned, dark-haired-with-come-to-bed-eyes kind of way.

“Marco is twenty-seven,” proclaims Larry. “He’s also a male model –” (cue wolf whistles) “with a degree in literature and he owns an Irish wolfhound named Mitzi!”

Laura looks from one man to the other, obviously confused.

“So,” Larry remarks chattily, “any ideas at the moment which one of these guys is the real deal, Laura?” Without waiting for a response, he appeals to the audience. “What about all of you? Which one would you choose?”

He holds the pause just a fraction longer until the fade to commercial.

*

Audience figures for the pilot episode are phenomenal. Social media is flooded that week with people speculating about which of Laura’s dates is really human and which the AI imposter. There’s also a lot of interest in just how realistic the android might be. ‘Do you think,’ tweets one curious fan, ‘that their date’s over at the end of the evening – or does it go further than that?’ The press is equally prurient, hanging outside Laura’s flat to see if she’s on her own when she leaves for work the following morning and printing obviously posed photos of the nights out. She is snapped with Sven at the cinema and with Marco at a nightclub, and there are pictures of her with both men (although not at the same time, obviously) in some of the most exclusive restaurants, causing bookings to skyrocket.

Laura, meanwhile, feels increasingly more confused. When she is with Sven, she loves the way he listens intently to everything she says, leaning in close, fixing her with those hypnotic blue eyes. His lips when he kisses her are so soft and real that she thinks he must be human; but Marco’s lips are just as seductive and his attention equally flattering. One of them has to be a robot – but what if the TV company’s just messing with her head and they’re both of them real men after all?

*

The second episode sees her back in the studio, flanked on either side by her two dates. She has six weeks to make up her mind, but how can she bear to part with either of them? The audience is also indecisive with half of them rooting for Marco and half for Sven; while the general public has been voting with its wallet, placing staggering bets on one or the other until the bookies stop taking any more wagers.

“So,” Larry asks Laura as the camera pans from her to Sven to Marco and then back to her again, “have you decided yet?”

The autocue flashes her prompt. “Do you mean have I decided which guy I want to keep on dating, or which guy’s the robot?” she asks playfully.

The audience applauds and there are yells of “Sven!” and “Marco!” in equal number.

Larry settles comfortably into his chair. “Well, let’s look at some of your highlights so far…”

A montage of dates flashes across the screen. Laura and Marco walk hand in hand through a park, stopping to gaze at squirrels and delighting over one who boldly approaches them, sniffing at Marco’s shoes. They feed ducks; they buy ice cream. The camera pauses as Marco notices a blob of ice cream on Laura’s nose and gently kisses it away. The audience sighs, high on romance.

We then see footage of Sven taking Laura to the aquarium, wearing his marine biologist hat as he explains the different species of fish. The audience fidgets slightly, wanting something a little more physical. They enter a room with an enclosure full of rays and Sven shows her how to stroke the delicate, pancake-like creatures. His arm steals round her waist as she does so and the audience sighs once more as he hugs her to him before leaning over and kissing her on the lips.

*

Episode Three offers more of the same. The audience is becoming ridiculously invested in these characters to the extent that every newspaper every day carries photos and articles about the nation’s three favourite people. Meanwhile, someone puts forward the theory that perhaps Laura is the android; and the rumour is fuelled even further when the television network declines to comment.

In all this, Laura finds herself fluctuating on a daily basis. When she is with Sven, she thinks he’s The One: the perfect boyfriend she’s always dreamed of; but the following day, when she sees Marco, she finds herself preferring him. Her emotions are a ping pong ball, ricocheting around in an endless volley for the audience’s amusement.

*

By Episode Seven – the final one in the series – she’s spent six weeks with Sven and Marco and pre-orders for AI Unlimited’s ‘Perfect Partner’ droid have gone through the roof. She’s still no closer to making a decision: she likes both of them, even – dare we use the word? – thinks she may be in love. But tonight, she will have to decide and tell the world not only which man she thinks is a robot but which one she wants to pursue a relationship with.

The opening credits roll across the screen as the camera pans across the studio audience, some waving banners with ‘Select Sven!’ and others proclaiming ‘Marry Marco!’ in large colourful lettering. When it finally rests on Larry Loveheart, everyone leans forward expectantly. The network’s promised a big surprise for tonight’s finale and they can’t wait to find out what it is.

Ever the consummate professional, Larry rattles through his greeting with ease before turning to Laura and giving her an encouraging smile. “So,” he says, “it’s been six weeks since your adventure started and tonight you’re going to tell us which one of these wonderful men is a robot – if you guess right, you win a substantial cash prize and, more importantly, the opportunity to keep the Perfect Partner droid.” The audience claps and whistles. “As we all know, the Perfect Partner is the latest in a series of ultra-realistic androids from AI Unlimited, our sponsors for this show. Let’s just listen to what their CEO, Martin Jackson, has to say about this product.”

In the segment that follows, Jackson explains the rationale behind his company’s decision to ‘construct bespoke significant others’. “It’s all very simple,” he says, making direct eye contact with the camera. “You choose your specification and we programme the droid to act in accordance with everything you’ve asked for. We can include an anti-nagging function, for example, or a romance chip…” (Cue studio laughter.) “…for all those women who’re fed up with never receiving cards or flowers on anniversaries or birthdays. Basically, we’re giving you all the best bits of someone’s personality with none of the flaws. And we’re just as careful with the outer packaging too: thanks to a recent technological breakthrough, every droid we make has synthetic skin and body parts that feel and function just like the real thing. In addition, the lithium battery has been adapted to last for seventy years which should be more time than most people need!”

The camera returns to Larry, flashing his impossibly white teeth in a smile that doesn’t quite manage sincerity. “So, there you go: the Perfect Partner is exactly what it promises: someone who lives up to all the expectations you’ve given the company. Laura, let’s just remind ourselves what you said you were looking for.”

We’re back in Laura’s bedroom, watching her once more as she specifies a man who’s good-looking, tall, intelligent and respectful. As she repeats the word ‘honest’, the video clip freezes and Larry turns to Laura, his expression now almost predatory.

“Honesty’s very important to you, isn’t it, Laura?”

“Well, yes, but…”

“So how would you feel,” Larry continues relentlessly, “if I said that one of your dates may – and I have to emphasise that word may – have cheated on you this week?”

The audience gasps. Laura’s face turns white.

“You said last week that you found it hard to decide, Laura. Well, you have the opportunity now to ask both your dates a question that might help you make that decision.”

Laura turns first to Sven. “Sven, have you cheated on me?” she asks.

Sven looks hurt by the suggestion. “Sweetheart, why would I do that? You know I love you!”

The audience sighs with relief.

She now addresses Marco. “Marco, I’m going to ask you the same question: have you cheated on me?”

Marco’s face crumples as he gives his reply. “I’m sorry, Laura. I love you, I really do; but earlier this week, a girl approached me in a bar – you were seeing Sven that night – and…” His voice breaks. “Well, one thing led to another,” he finishes awkwardly. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t lie and pretend it never happened.”

The hurt in Laura’s eyes in unbearable as she hears this confession. Meanwhile, the audience starts to boo Marco.

“So, does that make your decision any easier?” Larry asks. “After all, you did say you wanted a boyfriend who was honest – someone who’s ‘not a cheater’.”

“I…” Laura’s floundering, but it seems like the surprise isn’t over yet.

“We’ll be back after the break,” Larry announces jovially, “with yet another twist before Laura chooses her Perfect Partner. Stay tuned!”

As the cameras pull back, Laura tearfully faces Marco. “How could you do this to me? I just don’t understand.”

*

The audience is buzzing by the time the final segment starts. But then Larry drops his bombshell.

“Laura, you’re understandably upset with Marco, but how would you feel if we told you we made him cheat on you?”

“What?” Laura looks confused.

“In fact, we told both your dates to cheat on you this week – as this footage proves!”

In a daze, Laura watches the film that now plays. Marco is sitting in a bar. A pretty girl approaches him and starts making advances. At first, Marco tries to ignore her, but eventually he allows her to sit down next to him and the two share a bottle of wine as they indulge in conversation. She’s obviously doing her best to seduce him, but he remains resolute – until the end of the evening when she gets up to leave, then turns and plants a kiss on his lips. The camera zooms in to Marco’s surprised expression, then to their lips approaching again. The second kiss lasts much longer and the audience is obviously expecting him to follow her outside, but instead, he waves her goodbye and she leaves on her own.

“That’s how you cheated on me?” Laura sounds amazed. “You didn’t sleep with her: you just kissed her?”

Marco nods, looking ashamed. The audience buzzes.

It’s now Sven’s turn. He’s sitting in the same bar, at the same table, when the same girl approaches. The scene plays out like the one with Marco – except when the girl kisses him at the end, Sven looks around furtively before following the girl outside. Cameras pick out the two of them climbing into a taxi together and disappearing off into the night.

There is a shocked silence. The audience cannot believe what it’s just seen.

Laura looks at Sven. “You lied to me!” she accuses.

He looks embarrassed. “I didn’t know they were filming.”

“But you lied,” she repeats.

“Only because I didn’t want to hurt you, Babe.”

The audience mutters angrily.

“So, Laura…” Larry takes charge once more. “Which one of your dates is the android?”

“Marco,” Laura says without hesitation.

“And you’ve come to that conclusion because…?”

“He was honest with me,” Laura declares. Her eyes glisten with tears. “He didn’t try to save himself like Sven did – he told me he’d done something wrong, even though he knew it might stop me choosing him as my boyfriend.”

“Well, Laura, you’re – absolutely right!”

The crowd goes wild.

“So,” Larry continues as the noise dies down, “who are you going to choose as your boyfriend? Will it be perfect Partner Marco who’ll never lie to you; or love rat Sven who cares more about himself than you?”

The crowd’s keyed up for her to say Marco’s name, but when she utters “Sven” there is a chorus of disbelief. Even Larry looks surprised.

“Do you mind telling us why Sven and not Marco?” he asks politely.

Laura sighs. “I think, maybe, I didn’t know what I wanted. I thought total honesty was important, but when it comes down to it, I was happier not knowing I’d been cheated on. You see, Sven’s lies didn’t just protect him: they protected me as well.” The audience’s outrage rumbles. “AI Unlimited gave me what I thought I wanted,” she continues, “but they’ve given me something I know I can’t live up to myself. That’s why I’m picking Sven, with his human flaws – I guess I’m just not perfect enough for a Perfect Partner.”

Like The Prose Day 25

Today’s piece is a little difference since I haven’t actually written any of it myself. Instead, I’ve experimented with a form of Dadaism called ‘cut up writing’ which seemed to lend itself quite well to writing from the perspective of a character whose mind is fragmented so that he is emotionally and mentally ‘in pieces’. I will leave you to decide for yourselves whether the object of his infatuation is real.

In Pieces

From the first day I saw her, I knew she was the one. She stared in my eyes and smiled. She was more beautiful than any woman I’d seen. Her lips were the colour of the roses that grew down the river, all bloody and wild.

How can I tell you that I love you but I can’t think of right words to say? When you are too in love to let it show. But if you never try, you’ll never know.

“Oh, my love, my darling! I’ve hungered, for your touch. My nights are oh so lonely – come and lay down your head.” (You’ll be mine tonight.)

Do you know what you have done? Do you know what you’ve begun?

When you love someone, it will ignite your bones. Between the tick and the tock, I know you. I feel my arms around you like a sea around a shore.

In silence and darkness, we held each other near that night. We prayed it would last forever.

*

Tender nights before they fly; golden days before they end. How can it last forever? I was all right for a while but it breaks your heart in two to know that she’s untrue. I’m caught up in a whirlwind and my ever-changing moods ignite my fear. No room for conversation.

How can I tell you that I love you but I can’t think of right words to say?

Cold stares and angry words fall in pieces from our faces.

“You’re not the man who gave me everything I’ve ever wanted – that was someone who could do no wrong. That was someone who you left behind a long time ago.”

I long to tell you that I’m always thinking of you but my words just blow away.

“We cannot live together.”

 We cannot live apart.

Between the tick and the tock, your features are changing. Every time I look at you, I can see the future and I’m sad that you’re throwing it all away.

There’s nothing I can say. I promise you I will learn from all my mistakes. Is there nothing that I can say to make you change your mind?

Throwing it all away. Someday you’ll be sorry.

Can’t you see what you are doing to me? Can’t you see what you have done?

I watch the world go round and round and see mine turning upside down.

How long before the pain ends? Tell me where living starts.

The past is knowledge – the present our mistake and the future we always leave too late.

*

 Her lips were the colour of the roses that grew down the river, all bloody and wild. But I’m caught up in a whirlwind: I’ve more pain than I can bear. Caught up in a whirlwind and my ever-changing moods ignite …  Every flame that ever moved you, touched your lips but never mine. Do you see we shall never be together again?

I kissed her goodbye; said, “All beauty must die.” With a careful hand, I tear your body to the ground, smother your cries. Her lips covered red, she feels the pain with surprise. Past. Present. Between the tick and the tock, the dust settles all around me.

Now see what you’ve gone and done.

My trembling subsided. Tears ran down my face. She was more bloody than any woman I’d seen. All bloody. Take a look at the beautiful river of blood.

Can’t you see what you have done?

Tears come streaming down your face when you lose something you cannot replace. The past is knowledge – the present our mistake … Now I’ve lost everything. All of my life.

*

It used to be a sweet sensation when we held each other between the tick and the tock in a world I used to know before. Now I’ve lost everything, I miss you more. I look and you’re not there. I would search everywhere just to hear your call.

*

The grey of evening fills the room. Daylight turns to moonlight. I reach across to touch her but I know that she’s not there. I almost believe that she is here in the glow of the night. Aching back, my breath coming fast, my feet getting lighter, I feel kind of dizzy. I need your love. And when the morning comes upon us, I’ll be holding you so close to me.

Author’s note: This piece is composed entirely of lyrics from the following songs: ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’, Nick Cave; ‘How Can I Tell You?’, Cat Stevens; ‘Fix You’, Coldplay; ‘Unchained Melody’, The Righteous Brothers; ‘Smallcreep’s Day’, Mike Rutherford; ‘Ruby Love’, Cat Stevens; ‘In the Glow of the Night’, Genesis; ‘It’s Over’, Roy Orbison; ‘Crying’, Roy Orbison; ‘Ever Changing Moods’, The Style Council; ‘Burning Buildings’, Elton John; ‘You’re Not The Man’, Sade; ‘Throwing It All Away’, Genesis; ‘Snowbound’, Genesis; ‘Afterglow’, Genesis; ‘The Last Domino’, Genesis.

Mostly complete lines have been used, but in some places, I’ve split several lyrics to form one sentence.

Like The Prose Day 24

24th June is National Writing Day in the UK and this year, First Story have set a nationwide challenge to write a 24 words story in 7 minutes, starting with the words ‘One day…’

I’ve decided to try several of these throughout the day, aiming for a different genre in each one. Each story starts with ‘One day’, but I have also added the genre in bold so I can keep a record of all the different styles I attempt. In the spirit of the day, I will aim for 24 genres.

  1. Celebrity Romance: One day was all it took for them both to fall in love – but their separation and divorce dragged out for several months.
  2. Environmental: One day, the sun rose in the west and set in the east – and that’s what global warming has done for the entire planet.
  3. Horror: One day, the dead rose from their graves, zombies stalked the streets and Jessica discovered that she had chipped one of her expensive nails.
  4. Action adventure: One day, a fearless adventurer travelled to the Antarctic to retrieve a long-lost artefact. After many hair-raising experiences, he died without reaching his goal.
  5. Fantasy: One day, Gandalf sent dwarves on a quest with Bilbo. They escaped trolls, found a ring, battled a dragon and were back by teatime.
  6. Sci-fi: One day in the future, a giant meteorite will hurtle towards the earth. People will panic but the big name movie stars will survive.
  7. YA: One day, a daisy told her that he loved her, so she waited for him to ask her to the Prom. The daisy lied.
  8. Up-lit: One day, the lonely man on the autistic spectrum realised he was perfect material for an uplifting tale about how anyone can find love.
  9. Rom-com: One day, she met a man she hated on sight; but after many mishaps, they fell in love, married and lived happily ever after.
  10. Classic literature: One day, Cathy’s father brought home an unkempt urchin. Cathy and Heathcliff loved each other passionately, but their tragic relationship was doomed to fail.
  11. Thriller: One day after the pandemic hit the world, a journalist with integrity began to uncover a conspiracy. Would he live to tell the tale?
  12. Western: One day, a stranger rode into Dodge City, swaggered into the saloon and ordered a tequila. “We’re all out of that,” said the barman.
  13. Fairy tale: One day, the three bears came home to find someone had eaten all their porridge. “I should have locked the door,” said Father Bear.
  14. Crime: One day, a body was found in the library, leaking blood all over the First Editions. Poirot and Marple were both baffled by this.
  15. Comedy: One day, an incompetent university lecturer attended his professor’s house party, insulted the guests and set fire to a bed. Not so lucky, Jim.
  16. Mythology: One day, Theseus entered the labyrinth and slew the fearsome minotaur. Ariadne wept at her brother’s loss and again when Theseus callously abandoned her.
  17. Classic children’s fiction: One day, Alice fell down a rabbit hole and found herself terrorised by talking animals, a psychotic Hatter and some rather dubious playing cards.
  18. Political satire: One day, the government told people to stay home and save lives; now we’re told to go to the pub and save the economy.
  19. The American novel: One day, George left Lennie on his own while he went out with the other hands. Who could’ve known Lennie would kill Curley’s wife?
  20. Russian literature: One day, Dimitri Vlostovsky heard that Marina was accused of killing her husband. Crime and punishment merged into one the more vodka he drank.
  21. Supernatural: One day more was all she needed to achieve her goal of escaping the otherworld and taking human form. Unfortunately, the Ghostbusters got her.
  22. Shakespearean: One day was all it took for Romeo to marry Juliet, kill her cousin and be banished by the prince. They both died later.
  23. Historical: One day, Cromwell, received some unfortunate news: the king wished to execute Anne Boleyn and marry another. Love always made him lose his head.
  24. Autobiographical: One day, I will write something that truly comes from the heart and not because I am merely following someone else’s random writing prompt.

Like The Prose Day 23

These days, emails and texts have replaced the art of letter writing, but what happens if the email address has a mistake such as a .com instead of a .co.uk? This story is based on a real experience when I found I was receiving emails for someone else with the same name as me – although real life started and ended with a polite message to the sender to let her know of her mistake. In this story, I imagine what life would be like for two people who meet via a wrongly sent email and whether such an occurrence would ever end in something more than friendship.

Sender Unknown

Francesca Greenstone rereads the email, feeling perplexed.

“Hi Fran,” it begins. “It was good to see you and the kids last weekend. I think Mum enjoyed having us together under one roof again, despite the noise. Any thoughts for a present for her birthday? J x”

What kids? she wonders. And, Who on earth is this person?

It’s obviously a case of mistaken identity: the only friends she has whose names begin with J are Justine and Julie from work, and they never get together at weekends. Besides, she thinks now, wrinkling her forehead as she tries to remember, she spent most of last weekend in bed with a migraine. Whoever this email was meant for, it definitely wasn’t her.

*

It takes another three emails – one thanking her for choosing the scarf which “Mum really loved” and the other two asking about holiday plans – before she can pluck up the courage to reply, apologetically, that “I think you’ve got the wrong person.”

Almost immediately, she receives another message. “So sorry. I must have mistyped my sister’s email address – she’s Fran Greenstone too, but .com and not .co.uk. Jon”

Greenstone isn’t a common name. A part of her wonders whether they might be related in some way, but she’s too reserved to ask. Besides, if his sister has children, she’s probably married and inherited the name ‘Greenstone’ as part of the deal.

*

She doesn’t hear again from Jon for weeks, is on the verge of emailing him to check he’s okay when another erroneously addressed message pops up on her screen. Her feeling of pleasure at noticing the signature is dispelled instantly as she peruses the contents. His wife has left him and he is struggling to cope.

Impulsively, she types a response. “It’s me again – the wrong Fran. I’m so sorry about your wife.”

She’s not expecting him to answer, but he sends a brief line, thanking her for her support and promising to try not to make the same mistake again. Does he mean marrying the wrong woman, or emailing the wrong person? she wonders, thinking about how lonely he must feel – how lonely she herself is – with no significant other to share life’s ups and downs.

*

Over the next few months, he emails her regularly, laying bare his heart as he talks about the break-up and how much he misses his wife. She too knows the pain of abandonment – was going to get married years ago but was left, not at the altar but at the reception, when she caught her hours-old husband kissing another woman. Wisely, she mentions none of this in her exchanges with Jon – this isn’t about her: it’s about him and getting him through the pain. From time to time, she allows herself to dream that their virtual relationship will blossom into something more; but she’s never even seen a photo of him, knows next to nothing about him apart from the pain he’s poured out recently. Instead, she is his shoulder to cry on, the sounding board for his questions, the safe harbour in his sea of confusion. If only, she thinks wistfully from time to time, someone loved me enough to miss me like that.

*

Gradually, as time passes, his venting becomes more infrequent and so do his emails. It’s almost as if fate conspired to push both of them together at a time when Jon needed it most but is now gently prising them apart again so that life can begin once more. If she feels a twinge of loss at his withdrawal, she says nothing: serendipity introduced them but didn’t promise a happy ending. Perhaps sometimes, she thinks, friendship has a predetermined shelf-life, and the date on her connection with Jon has already expired.

She still checks her inbox on a daily basis, but his name has been absent for months. From time to time, she tells herself that this is a good thing, that he’s moved on; nevertheless, she finds she misses those emails from a man she didn’t know.

*

Christmas comes, and with it an e-greeting from some website or another, depicting an animated snowman and other suitably festive clichés. The message reads simply, ‘Thanks for helping me out last summer, J x’

She dutifully sends a reply: some carol-singing mice who squeak ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’ when the attachment is opened. She’d much prefer a physical card, but they’ve never exchanged addresses or even phone numbers: they exist for each other only within the shadowy world of the internet.

*

For some years, their communication is intermittent at best – birthday wishes; the odd joke. He’s met someone else now, and so has she; but she still dreams of what might have been, rereading all of his old emails on the nights when Rick’s working late. It isn’t cheating, she tells herself: she and Jon never kissed, never even met. All the same, she can’t resist letting her mind wander into the realms of ‘What if …’ She still doesn’t know what Jon looks like, but she imagines someone tall and dark, perhaps with curly hair; visualises them meeting by chance in the city, on a train, in the park … She feels as if her soul would recognise his, as if something inexplicable would draw them together. Lying in bed, she tries not to picture his hands cupping her face as he kisses her tenderly; attempts to shut out the longing she feels to see him just once, to put her mind at rest.

*

It seems like a cruel twist of fate when the final misdirected missive for his sister turns up in her inbox, but at least the wedding photo shows her what Jon looks like, smiling at his new bride with all the optimism of fresh love. Her hand hovers over the ‘download’ icon, then she thinks better of it and presses ‘delete’ instead. Closing her laptop, she turns to the man sitting next to her and tries not to think of the emails that she will no longer receive.

Like The Prose Day 22

Today’s piece is another one that takes an historical figure and imagines what may have inspired his work. William Blake was a visionary artist, a poet and a radical thinker – if you want to have a look at some of his artwork, click here: https://www.google.com/search?q=william+blake+paintings&sxsrf=ALeKk02G0ZmV1QBZVHr8W4GXdilRfmKC7g:1592900331410&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiY8amTwJfqAhVaUhUIHcuHBE8Q_AUoAXoECCIQAw&biw=1366&bih=625

Angels Dancing

He saw angels dancing.

Will must have been around eight or ten when he first saw the angels. He and some other boys had been playing on the common when he looked up to see a tree filled with glorious, radiant creatures, their bright, angelic wings bespangling every branch like stars. For a moment, he could not move, captivated by the shining beauty he saw before him. Seconds later, the vision disappeared, but Will held the memory, hugging it tight as he fell asleep that night and carrying it around with him for months afterwards.

The next time he saw them, he was in his chamber, busily working on a sketch for his mother. He had already tried several times – albeit unsuccessfully – to capture the sense of awe he had felt at that first meeting; but the seraphim that flowed from his pencil looked clumsy and awkward on paper – almost, he thought, as if it did not want to be recorded for human eyes.

It was as he was thinking thus that his eye caught sight of a hazy shape in the corner of the room. Without turning his head to look at it properly, he knew it was the angel he had been attempting to draw from memory. Keeping his gaze firmly fixed on the paper in front of him, he said slowly, “I know you’re there – and you’re real. Will you stay for long enough to let me copy your likeness?”

He said afterwards that the angel hadn’t uttered audible words yet it had spoken to him as plainly as his mother when she told him to blow out his candle or his father when he talked to him about books. He somehow knew instinctively that this time the being would not vanish as abruptly as before, and so he began turning his head little by little until he was staring at a creature made from fire and stars and sunlight all at the same time.

“Write this down,” said the angel, and its voice was the sound of many waters and its eyes burned into his very soul: “The angels of the Lord shall walk this earth again and great and terrible will be the suffering of those who choose not to believe.”

But Will was too busy trying to sketch the flowing robes and mighty wings to pay much attention to the actual words being said, and so, with a sigh, the angel shimmered out of existence – or at least out of the plane of existence as we know it.

*

Will’s mother was quite taken with the angel pictures he presented to her over the next few years. By now, he had been enrolled in drawing classes at Pars’s drawing school in the Strand. He was still an avid reader, and many of his sketches reflected his love of the Psalms, in particular, the ones that described the Lord of Hosts seated in a chariot made of thunderclouds or hurling bolts of lightning across the sky. For Will, Norse mythology and Christianity seemed to combine and his paintings were mysterious and vibrant, depicting fearsome battles between angels and demons, light and dark, fire and ice.

He did not tell anyone about the vivid dreams he had in which the angel that he had seen in his room visited him again, night after night, telling him that he was to use his eyes and ears and write down the evils he saw.

*

He was fourteen when he became apprenticed to an engraver, leaving his family and going to live on Great Queen Street where James Basire ran his business. Often, whilst running errands for his master, Will would find his gaze being drawn towards the injustices he saw. The angel’s words echoed in his mind: “And thou shalt use thine eyes and thine ears and shalt make a record of the evil that men do.”

There was plenty to note down. For the first time in his life, he became aware of the plight of the poor as day after day he noticed the marks of weakness and woe written on men’s faces, and his heart railed against the Church that turned away beggars and refused to help those who were most in need. What was it our Lord had said to the Pharisees? He had compared them to whited sepulchures full of rotting bones and that now seemed an apt way to describe the hypocrisy of established religion. At night, he drew the suffering he saw; but his heart was set on capturing it all in a series of engravings that would show the Almighty’s displeasure with the vipers who professed to be His representatives on earth.

Gradually, he began to detect the true face of humanity. It was as if he were seeing with the angel’s eyes and not his own – had that heavenly messenger been sent not merely to open Will’s eyes and ears but to give him a voice as well? Fragments of judgement danced in his brain: King and Church alike must be held to account for the suffering they had imposed on their fellow men and it was up to him, William Blake, to sever the mind-forged manacles the people wore.

*

He was twenty-one by the time he left Basire. He was now a fully qualified engraver and he longed to use his talent to fulfil the angel’s directive. He would produce a pamphlet full of the scenes that had so touched his heart. Others needed to know how tiny children as young as three were apprenticed to chimney sweeps and often died before reaching their tenth birthdays: their faces might be blackened with soot, but their souls shone far whiter than those of the priests who refused to intercede for them. There were so many innocents suffering needlessly, but he would record their misery and the songs of woe that surrounded them.

By now, he was a student at the Royal Academy and, to his delight, he found that he had kindred spirits there: others who felt as strongly as he did that some kind of social reform was needed. This conviction was further strengthened when he was caught up in a mob whilst en route to his old master’s shop in Great Queen Street and found that he was part of a crowd storming Newgate Prison. He could have sworn he saw the angelic host at the front of the crowd, waving flaming swords and encouraging the angry men to set the captives free.

It was now that his friends cautioned temperance. Will had already attained a reputation at the Academy due to his strange paintings. It was not just the style – figures painted in bold brush strokes with muscles and sinews standing out in stark relief as if to call attention to the physical power they contained: it was the subject matter itself. Where his contemporaries painted scenes that were easily recognisable from life, Will’s canvases were full of supernatural beings, and judgement and terror dripped from every tableau. He protested that he merely painted what he saw, but Joshua Reynolds and the other tutors were not impressed. Will was not concerned with Reynold’s disapprobation: the painter might be the president of the Academy, but Michaelangelo’s work was far more interesting to a young man who saw angels.

Leaving aside his controversial paintings for the time being, Will found himself becoming more engaged with politics. Through the meetings of The Society for Constitutional Reformation, he was able to voice many of the views he had hitherto been forced to keep secret; he eventually grew bold enough to start expressing these ideas in other social settings where they attracted the interest of a young woman, the sister of his friend George Cumberland. Will began to court the raven-haired beauty, thinking that she would make a good wife for him; however, she found his talk of angels disturbing and when he proposed marriage some months later, she refused.

Dejected and despondent, Will struggled to see his angel for a while. What good was it to paint hidden mysteries when the simple pleasures of life were denied him? He became morose, often sitting and staring into space for hours at a time without producing anything on his canvas.

It was as he was leaving the Academy one day that he quite literally bumped into a stranger walking down the street. Catching sight of some engravings tucked under Will’s arm, the unknown gentleman asked if he was an artist. Upon hearing that he was, Mr Boucher introduced himself and asked Will to dine with himself and his family that evening. Will would have refused were it not for the angel standing behind Mr Boucher, nodding his head approvingly.

That evening, Will found himself pouring out his heart to the Bouchers and their daughter Catherine, recounting the story of his lost love. “Do you pity me?” he asked, addressing the remark directly to Catherine. The girl blushed. At nineteen, she was five years younger than Will; and whereas Mary Cumberland had been his intellectual equal, being well-versed in the satire of the day, Catherine was illiterate. Nevertheless, there was something about her warm, green eyes and soft curves that attracted him – “Freya in human form,” he thought distractedly – and from that moment on, he began to woo her in earnest.

*

If Mary had driven his angel away, Catherine welcomed him with open arms. “Is he here now?” she would ask as they strolled hand in hand through the London streets and, “What is he telling you to observe?”

The two were married later that year and Will immediately set about teaching his wife to read and write. Putting aside his ‘Songs of Innocence’ until a later time, he began to write poetry that was more traditional in nature, inspired by the Elizabethan poets he so admired. Once he had enough for a slim volume, he printed enough copies of ‘Poetical Sketches’ for his friends and other interested parties. If he could make a name for himself as a poet now, the public might be more likely to take an interest in his political ‘Songs’ once they were finished. The poems were riddled with mistakes which Will hastened to correct with handwritten notes and did not achieve the admiration he had hoped for. Was this a reflection of his human pride, he wondered, in writing from his own heart and not penning the words the angel was giving him?

It was then that he decided he must return to his mission. He began walking the streets again, this time noting everything the angel showed him. He would write two pamphlets, he decided: ‘Songs of Innocence’ would show the world as most people saw it, and ‘Songs of Experience’ would reveal the shocking truth of man’s selfish existence, chronicling the evils that were rife in London. At Catherine’s suggestion, he illustrated each poem with one of his experimental inverse engravings. Art and literature would combine for the glory of God!

*

Throughout the years that followed, Will was faithful to the angel’s prompting, teaching Catherine to engrave so she could help him in his work. He returned to his painting, producing wild and wonderful canvases depicting man’s foolish pride and God’s immense glory. When people asked him what inspired his imagination, he replied simply that he painted what he saw. And in his mind, there were always angels dancing.

Like The Prose Day 21

Some writers like to set their stories in actual places – several of my novels are Birmingham based, for example, and make reference to landmarks such as Cannon Hill Park or New Street Station; whereas other people prefer to create their own landscapes, inventing towns and villages and painting pictures of imaginary countryside. Today’s piece mentions a real place (the Tower of London) and a real person (Queen Victoria) but the rest is completely fictional. Writing in the style of a brochure for visitors, I welcome you to the story of The White Elephant Gift Shop and Tea Room.

The White Elephant (A Visitors’ Guide)

            Visitors to the Tower of London often ask about the unusual gift shop. The White Elephant dates back to Victorian times and was built to commemorate the death of Rani, the white elephant presented to Her Majesty in 1877 by Prince Bir Chandra Manikya as a symbol of his respect to the new Empress of India.

Legends concerning the beast’s origins are well known in the Tripura State: it is told that Brahma, the Creator, originally made all elephants white and that the pachyderm was the purest of all his creatures; but as time went by, the elephant became proud and haughty and looked down his nose at the smaller animals beneath him, and so Shiva, the Destroyer, was granted permission to torment the elephant with termites that burrowed into his skin, causing him to roll on the ground in agony. Then Brahma took pity upon his favourite and allowed the mighty beast’s movements to crush his attackers, but he had rolled in the dust for so long that his once white skin was now grey. And so it was that the elephant received the colour he wears today; but once in a blue moon, a white elephant is born and is celebrated for its wondrous colour, and these beasts are revered as symbols of purity and are worth a king’s ransom due to their rarity. And any man who owns a white elephant must not put it to work but must care for it, bathing it daily in milk to maintain the colour of its skin; and it will not eat hay and fruit like other elephants but must be fed with the finest honey and with Yangmei berries and Pu Wei grass (which is purple in colour).

History records that Her Majesty was at first delighted with the gift, thinking that it might enable her to reopen the Tower of London menagerie which had been forced to close in 1835, two years before she came to the throne. However, most of the surviving creatures had already been moved to Regents Park to the institution we now know as the London Zoo, and her plan was further thwarted when she was reminded that animals at the Tower had, in the past, attacked and even eaten visitors and keepers.

The Queen was now faced with a dilemma: she had a large and somewhat temperamental white elephant which she could not house at any of her residences (in case the beast panicked and began to rampage: a creature that size could do irreparable damage to any of the royal grounds and buildings) and yet she could not give it away since to do so would be viewed as an insult to Prince Bir Chandra Manikya and Tripura State – if not the whole of India. Since her role as Empress was a recently announced one, she did not wish to say or do anything that might be perceived as inflammatory, wishing instead to establish her reign as a wise and gracious leader.

The problem was further complicated when Rani the elephant became ill. The finest animal doctors were sent for, but whereas their knowledge of dogs and horses marked them out as veterinarians par excellence, they confessed themselves at a loss to know how to treat this rare and exotic herbivore. Eventually, the Queen’s own physician was sent for and he prescribed washing the creature with a lotion of his own creation which, he claimed, contained herbs native to India that would restore the elephant’s vitality. In addition, she should be given meat twice daily to build her strength. These instructions were followed to the letter, but unfortunately the creature died, being ill equipped to digest the beef steak that had been fed to her by well meaning but ignorant keepers.

In order to avoid a diplomatic incident, a story was concocted that the elephant had contracted a rare disease whilst in transit; and since British ships were at the time renowned for their superiority over those of the other nations, it was suggested that the elephant had not been adequately housed in the hold during her journey from India and that she had inadvertently been exposed to germs which, although harmless to humans, were fatal to pachyderms. Her Majesty generously did not demand compensation for the loss of her elephant but magnanimously declared that she would honour the creature’s memory with the erection of a pavilion to be known as The White Elephant in the grounds surrounding the Tower. The gift shop you see today is housed within the original pavilion and its stunning architecture attracts visitors from all over the world on a daily basis. (Editor’s note: Due to Covid 19, the gift shop will remain closed for the foreseeable future.)

Patrons of the gift shop will notice immediately that all the stock has been carefully chosen to reflect the White Elephant theme: purchases are unnecessarily expensive whilst at the same time being utterly useless. Past favourites include: a Left Handed Spoon, made from wood with a carved elephant on the top (retailing at £27.99); an elephant-shaped, silver-plated Photo Frame with intricate metalwork that obscures most of the picture placed inside (£45.99); a cuddly Toy Elephant made with extremely rare white beaver fur (not vegan-friendly, child-friendly or fire-resistant; does not comply to British Safety Standards; RRP £950.00); and an elephant shaped Notebook, bound in genuine white elephant hide with an ivory pencil (RRP £600). (Editor: These items may be purchased online at www.whiteelephant@thetower.com.) The gift shop has had some slight refurbishment in recent years due to unsolicited arson attacks by various animal rights organisations, but we remain confident that it will endure its status as one of the Tower’s main attractions and that the newly opened White Elephant Tearoom at the back of the gift shop will continue to do a roaring trade in Jumbo Sausage Rolls, Elephant’s Foot pastries and Indian tea.

If you would like to make a booking, please see our website for further details. Coach parties and children’s birthdays can only be accepted with six months’ notice. Terms and conditions apply. (Editor: Virtual tours are currently available, including our Children’s Party Pack which offers interactive handling of the online goods, using the VR goggles provided, a song for the birthday child by Rani, the white elephant (played by a well known actor), and a boxed birthday cake in the shape of an animal. (Due to high demand, we cannot guarantee that this animal will be an elephant, but previous customers have praised the anteater, armadillo and wombat cakes they received in the Party Pack.) Your child will also receive a special elephant shaped birthday card from Rani.) All major credit cards accepted.

© whiteelephant@thetower.com, 2020