#Fridayflash Woman-Son


When the woman had the baby boy she lay him down to sleep. He held her finger in his fist

She roars him into being. He emerges from the earth in unbridled anger, consternation.

The moon hung in velvet.

The clock was a cheap one bought in a pound store. It tock ticked. Then it stopped.

They set time by the supping of the animal at the breast. He scampered into the forest of moments mewling.

Later they repose in a pond, a black hole. Moments float in opening Os, then go.

He lay on the length of her and kept his cheek against hers. So he kept breathing, cherub breaths whishing against skin.

The boy climbed into her ear and out of her mouth. He hung claw fingered from her breasts like one of Adam’s monkeys.

He toddled, piston armed

He held her patience, love, hope, sanity, confidence, energy, fear, relief in his fist

He strode, broad shouldered

He climbed the ladder of his being. He went above her, reached for things, handed them back down.

He lay along the length of her and put his cheek against hers. So she kept breathing, cooling breaths wheezing, skin in angst.

Later they repose in a pond, a black hole. Moments float in opening Os, then go.

They loosed time by concentration on puzzles. She wandered into the forest of memories mumbling.

It was a grandfather clock. Ponderous pendulum. It never stopped.

The sun spun in silk.

The blood of men spills into the earth, a field of white headstones endures

She held his fingers lastly in her fist. He laid his mother to rest.

Confessions of a guilty writing mum

  • I let my children sit in front of the telly during the holidays for great swathes of time (never did me any harm – in fact it taught me about narrative, character, humour). They concentrate on educational programmes like Horrible Histories (surrealism, history) and Greatest TV blunders (media awareness) and Come Dine with Me (wishful thinking about dinner/cookery skills).
  • I tidy up by shoving everything into cupboards and closing the door very firmly by leaning on it. The estate agent who sold our last house told me a funny anecdote about everything falling out of a cupboard when the prospective buyers were taking a look. I wonder why he chose that story for me?
  • In times of crisis my children look for me, not in the kitchen, but in the study.
  • I’ve forgotton the names of my children (joke!).
  • I do all the housework for the day in one hour, including making the dinner. Before my husband comes home I do a breakneck tidy of the kitchen in 5 mins so that it won’t look so bad when he arrives.
  • My two year old makes his own Weetabix (awwwww).
  • I burn some part of the dinner or lunch on 50% of occasions but I always get my twitter friends to remind me when I’m grilling peppers.
  • My oven hasn’t been cleaned in 3 years.
  • In the holidays we have ‘clothes’ days rather than ‘pajama days’
  • I fool the younger children by giving them the ‘priviledge’ of hoovering or filling the washing machine
  • My children have forgotton my name (I wish).

What are your guilty secrets?

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When does the story end?

Before proceeding with some musings on short story creation I would like to firstly mention an arena where I hope the story will never end. I refer here to the wonderful and brave Salt Publishing who this year celebrate ten years of innovative publishing, introducing new talent and being a particular champion of short story and poetry collections. You may be aware of their recession response Just One Book campaign. Despite the quality of their publications they need help and patronage to stay afloat and appeal for us all to purchase just one of their fine books.  My favourite recommendations would be

Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines

The White Road and Other Stories by Tania Hershman

but please browse their fine catalogue and choose your favourites.

So moving on to today’s topic, I’m concentrating here in particular on short stories and how we assess the natural length and scope of a story. K. M. Weiland has focussed on our difficulty in letting go of the process. Much of what she says rings true, particularly with regard to novels but for me, a short story is a more instinctual form.  A great short story has a just rightness, a completeness in itself, regardless of length. But what length? And where do you include backstory and subplots?

These questions have come to me in particular since engaging in the weekly #fridayflash process whereby a group of twitter writers create an up to 1000 word story each week. I have found it to be an absolute joy. The length is just enough to place a few people in a significant moment and for me, it is just short enough to imbue great concentrated emotion and meaning into that episode without the distraction of subplot or backstory. However as an avid reader of stories, I have seen how backstory, adjunct character development and several episodes can develop intrigue and depth in a story. And short stories of course can be anything from six word flashes to novella length.

Usually we start with the story that needs to be told and the story should thus determine the length. However having written the 1000 word stories I was aware that I could have perhaps pulled out threads, given more background, added another episode. But that would have changed the quality (as in the feeling) of the piece. (Although I have written many longer pieces and included extra elements as they seemed ‘right’). Just as poetry suggests, elicits, hints, the very short, short story form has to indicate but never spell out, to make layers out of words using form, juxtaposition, sound and connotation. It is perhaps a different animal from the longer story. But we work from historical distinctions. Flash fiction is emerging as a new entity but perhaps there is room for further differentiation. Personally I love the spare, instinctive, almost primeval feeling of the shorter pieces. So as with music and art, the form itself is an integral part of the experience. The question of story length might really be a question of which instrument we play best and in what context, does it suit us to be the saxophone or oboe player of the soul, is it a minuet or a magnus opera? It comes down to the ‘way we tell ’em’ and the endless, relatively unchartered possibilities of fiction.

Is is all about instinct, experience and preference for a particular form? Or are there hard rules you follow? What do you think?

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#Fridayflash Rope

Been on hols, so this is an old one. It’s inspired by the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Yes, I walked it, unlike Callum.

Bloody Hell, its freaking high up here – must be eighty feet. Don’t look down Callum. I said no to bungee jumping – swinging into oblivion with your legs being yanked off. But this is has to come close, yeah? A sixty foot rope bridge and a grouchy looking ocean underneath.

Got bloody roped into this Management Training. Hempenstall hired in a shower from the Docklands with their ‘Feel the Fear’ programme. If I had hold of them now they’d be feeling the fear alright.  I was going to pull a sickie – those headaches have me fairly ropey- but I knew I’d hang if I didn’t prove myself after the fiasco with the Daily Maid Advertising Campaign. They told Hempenstall ‘we’re not paying good money for old rope.’

You go one at a time, when you get the nod. Christ. I’m throwing mock punches here, like the boxers, to get the juices going. There goes Jessica, bouncing like an oompaloompa. ‘Fat Bottomed Girls you make the rockin’ world go round.’ She’s no size zero, but she’s gettin’ microscopic. It can’t be that far, can it? There’s a knot in my stomach. Pull yourself together man. For Hempenstall. Show some moral fibre, he said, some staying power. SuperCallum, the invincible. SuperCallum, fragile-egotistic, why is he always stocious?

No-one has ever fallen off the bridge, they told us. Not intentionally anyway. Ha Ha. God she’s over, they’re bloody giving me the nod. Come on Callum. Don’t look down. Oh freaking hell, feck the job, cos you know what? I’ve just copped. Once you get over, you’ve got to bloody well turn round and come back. Hang it.

Growing up to be a short story writer

As we grow within our writing experience we pass through different stages. You gain maturity, you just ‘know’ things you didn’t understand before. This presents a feasible analogy with life and its stages towards adulthood. Here I wanted to explore my progression as a short story writer. The examples given at each of the stages are personal ones, but I would be interested to see what fellow short story writers experiences have been.

Baby stage: Before I really began writing short stories I didn’t really know what they were. In fact I had a vague idea of what it was to be a writer at  all.  I probably hadn’t read very many. On the other hand I would have had the archetypal Problem-Conflict-Resolution structure imprinted on me from a household full of books and my love of reading. But I didn’t know if I really wanted to write short stories at all.

Childhood stage: When I started to write short stories I wrote them very naively. They were oversimplistic tales with the core elements but none of the subtlety. I would have used very traditional and clichéd characters, situations and language. I  over explained scenarios and overwrote dialogue. However some stories were popular. I won a school short story competition and had to read the story about the detrimental effects of small town gossip to some people from the small town. A story about aliens changing boys to look like their personality was also rated highly in the school mag. Sometimes morality tales are best kept simple! But this childish phase of writing does not just apply to my childhood efforts, many early adult stories have the same naivety. They follow convention and formula, the ‘twist in the tale’ caveat. Those that rose above cliche and were more developed were published.

Teenage: The teenage phase of writing is where you begin to think you really know it all. This is a narcissistic phase we can slip back to at any point where we fall in love with our own writing and have difficulty seeing its flaws. The fervour of authentic self expression can sometimes lead to cringeworthy melodrama. It feels real and worthwhile at the time, you may even enter your story for competitions because it ‘feels so right’ but months later you read it back and you need to cover your eyes with embarressment that you let it out there. All those overblown phrases, dramatic incidents with people standing on cliffs realising what life really means, convolutions of language just for the sake of showing off, not because they add to the story. You know what I mean, don’t you?

Young Adult This is the stage that denotes the pretty accomplished short story writer and even the pretty, accomplished short story writer. The quality of the work is good, the use of language more for the story’s sake that for its own. The importance of character development is understood…..except….many of the characters are too close to the author’s own view and personality. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. The best stories are fired by intense personal memory or experience. In the debate about ‘confessional art’ and ‘fiction’ we may acknowledge that the seeds of fabulous stories come from core elements of our own experience and everything is our way of looking at the world, our fascinations, the stuff of our subconscious and conscious experience. In this sense there is nothing that is absolute ‘fiction’. Writers can remain successfully in this phase for their writing life if their concerns and preoccupations mirror those of their readers. But we must be careful not to become self-obsessed, making all our characters ‘us’ in different guises. For well rounded writing and greater relevance and resonance we need to learn to see the world from slightly different eyes, even though of course we are always only surmising. A technical flaw that can still occur at this stage is that of ‘spelling things out’. We are so ardent about our subject matter that we want people to understand what our story is ‘about’. So ‘she felt’ or ‘he didn’t want to do that because’. The mark of a wonderful short story is that everything is somehow ‘implied’.

Adult: This phase of accomplishment takes on board the lessons garnered through the author’s short story writing life. This is only done through constant practice and refinement of skills. Characters are truly only ‘sketched’, there is a light touch that never over explains or over describes. As I continue to improve as a short story writer I constantly find myself writing something and then asking ‘does that line really have to be there?’ In fact the genius of some short stories is the ‘anti-story’ the story that is told between the lines, by suggestion, by everything ‘not said’. In fact as you gain maturity in life, as well as in writing, you understand that the ‘unsaid’ things are often the most important. So the short story’s strength and success lie in the ‘not saying’.

This is a journey we take in all kinds of fiction writing, not just short stories, though for me, the stages are easier to trace in this beautiful form. What are your experiences? What stage are you at or do you shuttle between the stages, depending on the project and subject matter? What are your thoughts?

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In this week’s flash there is a guest appearance of the café from Lethargy

‘I love you’ said the man at the book signing.

He was one of the last. The shop was closing. The staff were starting to turn off the lights. She was sitting in the glow of a table lamp with her latest novel in stacks around her. There had been a respectable turn out, her nerves had faded once she’d seen a queue of several.

‘I’ve read all your books’ he said. ‘I feel I know you.’

‘That’s nice’ she said. ‘Who will I write it for?’

‘For me’, he said. ‘For Tom.’

He loved her. He must mean her work. ‘I just love you, you’re brilliant,’ they’d gushed earlier.

He stood aside momentarily. He let the last two ladies with their plastic shopping bags hand over their books and ask for a personalised message.

She was distracted; she had to ask them twice what she should write. She was aware of the man at her shoulder, his presence in the dark, rubbing out the edges of her on that side, melding her with his shadow.

She wasn’t afraid. She stood up to get her things, the back of her neck felt vulnerable, virginal but the air was still warm from the press of people. The sensation she felt was from the inside, not from air.

He came forward, lit up. ‘The things you say’ he said. ‘I know what you mean.’

‘It’s fiction’ she said, looking at her bag as she rummaged for her keys.

‘Never do anything to alienate your readers’ her publisher had told her. ‘Be courteous, friendly and uncontroversial – try and hide your frown lines.’

‘It’s fict…’ she repeated, more softly, looking at him. But she saw in his eyes. He knew. She had always been better at atmosphere than plot but she thought it had been enough to distract them; the narrative was the shiny neon light guiding them to the playhouse. They weren’t meant to look too closely at the subtext, duck into the alleyway or the authentic cookhouse on route, or some red light backstage dressing room where she sat half-undressed in front of a mirror, all shallow breath and heaving breasts, rouge, heart on sleeve.  I solemnly decline to let you read between the lines.

She thought he would kiss her, he came so close but he thunked closed the book and made for the door. She chatted with the bookshop manager, thanked everyone and stepped into the street, black, damp, quiet.

Her car was parked just down the now empty city centre thoroughfare. As she walked water, under the tyres of a moving vehicle whished like shorebound waves.

He was sitting in the café window. She recognised the shape of him without truly seeing. The glare from the café flared in her face, like a blush. There was the quickening of her footbeat heartbeat footbeat. The light subsided, dropped. There was a gap between the buildings, all dark, wet on the inside, up the walls. The next building was shut up, gloomy. She saw her car alone on the street.

He was not the only one in the café. There was a couple holding hands, tightly, in anticipation of separation. The owner was staring into space. He had a moustache and a head of black, oily hair, flat on top. He looked like he’d just slid out from under a car. He was sweating, wiping his hands with a cloth. He wasn’t staring into space. He was looking at his own reflection in the café window, against the night. He was seeing what he had come to after all these years. He didn’t sigh.

She sat down across from him. Behind his head were plumes of smoke. A heavily jowled woman puffed and coughed in the corner. She had a chin mole. She was out of a fairytale. She was eating the gingerbread. She rummaged in a canvas bag and took out an apple, green on one side, red on the other. She plonked it on the table and continued to rummage. She looked at the owner. His lip quivered slightly.

The author looked at Tom. She wasn’t sure of the name yet. The oil cloth was greasy but someone had put forget-me-nots in glass vases on each of the tables. He began to tell her how he had come across her books, which one he had liked best but in the end she took his hand and they held on tight, in anticipation of separation. After a while they went out, he kept holding her hand up the steps to his flat.

He wanted to meet her, tomorrow, again and again. He said they had so much in common, so much to talk about. He said this while he traced a line from her fingertips, along her arm, across her shoulder and neck, up to her cheek over which he laid his warm palm. She rolled against him with familiarity. They lay along the length of each other, restful, as if they had always done. But they didn’t talk then. They played music instead which they made love to, then didn’t, just listened, the notes playing in and around their heads, all joy, and then he kissed her and it all began again.

Later his eyes tired from the fill of her and his eyelashes dipped.

She slipped from the bed while he dreamed of them walking in parks, watching movies, buying mince.

She was naked but warm and she saw the bookcases and cd racks with the books, not only hers but other authors she loved, music she was into. She looked into his wardrobe where he hung his clothes with the same sort of absentmindedness as her own. She took out a shirt and breathed him in, as if he was dead, as if she was saying goodbye.

She got dressed and went into the kitchen. There were two cups where they’d had tea and bourbon biscuits. They were facing each other on the otherwise empty table, just the tiniest residue of crumbs spilled during laughter.

Before she left she went to look at him, searing him into her memory. She already felt nostalgia, the first sharp flickers of pain. She felt in her pocket for her notebook and pen. Then she went outside into the same darkness, the same rain.

Poetry – Summer

Restless blood thumping
Sin spinning in the thick river
Hot flesh
Neck dips slip
sacred hollows
Smooth slices
honeyed shoulders
Teeth and lips sinking
plum juice
The dark interior
Pulse points, black veins
Liquid gold pouring
On the shallow surface

Skin buzzing with molecular nectar
Winter embers from ash
flare, flash
Incinerated self-slivers sail into the wide sky
The soul’s discarded dust, now seed of snow

#FridayFlash Close Encounters with Goldfish

For a person who was stone mad it was crazy that he never realised the volcanic crystal would kill the goldfish.

It’s far from the slopes of Mount Etna those goldfish were reared. There was a funeral of course. He put them in the rockery which he had fashioned in the shape of that iconic tor in Close Encounters. But there wasn’t yet a three-D model of the mother ship – that was still in the garage awaiting the addition of painstaking detail, colour matched paint, to-scale models of Richard Dreyfuss and the aliens.

But where did the goldfish come in? Roy had a son, as some men tend to do.  His name was Barry. Barry asked and Roy said no, and Gillian, Roy’s wife said why not and Roy said, okay then and forgot about it and Gillian and Barry went to the local pet centre and chose two fish with light sabre tails and Barry called them Obi Wan and Kenobi.

And Barry cared for those fish as 9 year olds don’t tend to do. They are usually too busy forgetting. Or playing Fishy Tales on the PC. But he was the sort of boy who took things seriously. He fed the fish daily, changed the water twice a week, he even talked to them. Obi Wan and Kenobi used to move to the side of the bowl at the sound of his voice and swish their light sabres at him. His granny said he was diligent. His Mum worried.

Roy was a connoisseur, an aficionado, an anorak, a man in slacks, a collector, a school inspector, a well bred table quiz head – no IPhones under the anorak. He took pleasure in detail. Sometimes he infuriated Gillian by adjusting the slant of her flower arrangements – the ones she brought home from her flower arranging course. Flower arranging wasn’t her thing at all but it was the only course left on a Wednesday night – the only night that Roy wasn’t bird watching, chess playing or down in the pub sweeping the boards with his knowledge of Spielburg films and associated literature.

And it was on Wednesday night when Gillian was out and Barry had dutifully gone to bed that Roy had found himself somehow, at a loss. He had been on his way to the cabinet for his stamp collection when he noticed that the fish tank looked a little empty and that the fish were bored. He’d seen how playful they were when Barry spoke to them but right now they were staring at him, heads dipped. Obi Wan looked positively grumpy. Kenobi was disparaging.

Roy collected stones. Whenever he went somewhere new he brought home a stone. He had pieces of Lanzorote, the Grand Canyon, Maderia, Majorca and Mount Etna, he’d even chipped off a piece of the Cliffs of Moher, even though he wasn’t supposed to.

There was always something special about the stones, a glint of quartz, a glassy surface, a fissure or a fossil. The crystal from Mount Etna was shone through with blue and contrasted with the dark basalt.

He thought it would look beautiful glinting in the water. He had a flash of merworlds, Neptune with his fork, slinky mermaids shimmying, jewel encrusted crustaceans. An underwater underworld where the boom beat from the outside world was a dull thud and the rest was pleasure. He took his time arranging the rest of the stones, colours that intensified once in the water, red with speckles, smooth green ovals, obsidian black. He was happy with his creation and the fish were delighted. They flicked their tales and slipped between the stones.

Only in the morning when he noticed that the crystal had dissolved and black volcanic flakes had polluted the water did he realise what he had done. The fish were belly up on the water. It was the last time he would ever forgo scientific analysis for beauty.

He quickly emptied the tank and refilled it with fresh water – but put the goldfish back floating on the top. He was one of the hard knocks and they might as well get the chickenpox brigade.

Before he left for school Barry hadn’t noticed so Roy pointed it out. Barry began to wail and wouldn’t eat his Weetabix. ‘These things happen, sometimes without rhyme or reason’ said Roy. Gillian choked on her muesli.

They had the funeral before the school bus came and Barry went up the steps with tears on his sleeve.

‘So how did it happen?’ asked Gillian

‘One of those things’ said Roy. He made an alien before he went to work and put it at the mouth of the mother ship. The Richard Dreyfuss character had already legged it inside. It was only weeks later that he noticed the wife and son, left of centre, their hands held to their faces in an expression of aghast.

They got no more fish. But memory is wonderful. It’s quite possible that Barry never quite understood why, later in life, rockeries gave him the shivers, why he never quite trusted his Dad. And most certainly Gillian never grasped why Barry never again ate his favourite tea time meal of fish fingers and sculptured mashed potatoes.