Category Archives: Short stories

The External Interference Effect

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To me, the solstice marks a turning point. Ushering in a new dawn, it is an opportunity for change. New beginnings. So today seems a good time to share a piece that was written for my local writing group, the delightful http://tunbridgewellswriters.org.uk/ as part of our Christmas project. This year’s theme came courtesy of the opening line of Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather.

“Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.”

Whilst some may find such prompts restrictive, to me this particular line is full of possibilities, allowing a writer license to explore virtually any direction they choose. To me it is, indeed, all about the potential offered by new beginnings. Happy solstice xx

Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.

But it was an ending currently occupying Michael’s mind. In retrospect Caroline’s departure should not have been a wholly unexpected outcome but it was not a permutation he had predicted. It was precisely this insistence on applying inherent reasoning to all aspects of his life that had, in the end, been the crucial factor in the failure of this particular experiment.

He, she said, always insisted on attempting to quantify the unquantifiable. And when this was not possible he was unable to respond appropriately within acceptable parameters. (Her words.) Quite what acceptable parameters are he was at a loss to define, but was beginning to suspect that a) she demonstrably did not adhere to the same standard criterion of data interpretation as he; b) an empirical logic-based approach was incompatible with the actuality of a successfully functioning relationship.

‘I hate doing this to you right before Christmas,’ she’d said as she left.

Yet what possible significance could the timing of her departure be on the outcome of the situation? He had, incorrectly as it turned out, assumed this would not be a differentiating factor. And although clearly this was impossible to accurately measure, somehow, it was. Seasonal songs provoked unexpected responses in his cerebral cortex. Jostling crowds in the shopping centres were more than just the usual annoyance. Groups of friends celebrating in pubs and bars stirred unexpected emotions; evoked feelings even. It was unfamiliar, unexplainable. So, he had done the only sensible thing and walked away from the hustle and bustle to the top of the hill to more efficiently process this strange and irrational phenomenon.

The bench underneath him was cold but he welcomed the discomfort, finding it sharpened his thoughts as he sought clarity. The gaping yaw of the dark common lay below him, the bright lights of the town a little further away. Those of a romantic disposition, Caroline for example, would probably describe the scene as like something on a Christmas card. But Michael instead saw the lights and the darkness as a pattern to decipher. He was observer rather than participant, and all would make perfect sense with the enhanced perspective that distance offered. All he required was this blessed solitude.

‘Shit, it’s freezing up here. Still, at least there’s somewhere to sit. I can’t walk another bloody step in these heels.’

Michael turned to the stranger who had intruded so abruptly into his contemplation, ready to utter a sharp response, but the breath caught in his throat. She had long black hair, pale skin, cheeks rosy with cold. Her short sequinned dress and thin jacket were entirely inadequate protection against the elements. Puffing in the chilly air, she rummaged in a plastic carrier bag on the bench next to her. Michael watched in stunned fascination as she pulled out a multipack of brand new socks and snapped the plastic ties with her teeth. Peeling off a pair, she kicked off the impractical heels and wriggled her delicate feet into the thick socks. They had clearly been purchased for a man, being far too large for her, but she didn’t seem to care and instead sighed with apparent pleasure and relief.

‘Ah, that’s better. Not elegant, I admit, but a bloody sight more comfortable.’

For the first time she appeared to notice Michael’s strained expression.

‘Sorry. Am I interrupting something?’

He wanted to say yes, to ask her to go away, but no words came out.

‘Okay, quiet boy. I’ll take that as a no. Drink?’

She pulled out a bottle of whisky, unscrewed the lid and took a deep draught before proffering it towards him. He almost declined out of habit but something made him hesitate and he reached for the bottle. Trying not to think about germs or the fact his mouth was in the exact spot hers had been just a few seconds previously he took a nervous swig. It burned, fire and ice at once, unfamiliar yet not entirely unwelcome.

‘I’m like a trusty St Bernard, bringing medicinal alcohol to those suffering in the snow,’ she said.

‘Drinking alcohol dilates the blood vessels and can induce hypothermia in freezing conditions. The notion these dogs carried kegs of brandy is a complete fabrication, due entirely to the extensive artistic liberties taken by Landseer in one of his paintings.’

She stared at him, incredulous, then shrugged.

‘That’s me told. And I suppose it isn’t snowing yet. Won’t it be lovely if we have a white Christmas?’

‘We won’t. The air pressure is all wrong. It’s going to rain.’

‘O-kay. And I suppose you wouldn’t enjoy it if it did, anyway.’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘Well, I’ve only known you a brief while but I’m sensing you’re not the type to bunk off work to go sledging or make snow angels. It would be a pain in the arse rather than fun.’

‘I can do fun,’ he replied, wondering if this was at all true. Caroline hadn’t thought so. Maybe her surmise had been correct.

‘Have one of these,’ she said, rummaging again in her bag before handing him a small object like a grenade.

‘What is it?’

‘A seed bomb,’ she said, as if it were obvious. ‘I bought them for my sister but let’s throw them down onto the common.’

‘Why?’

‘So that hopefully in a few months lots of wildflowers will grow here.’

‘Don’t the council take care of the landscaping?’

‘This isn’t about careful landscaping, it’s about the creation of random beauty. And all this rain you’re predicting will get them off to a good start. Come on.’

She hurled her seed bomb down into the black abyss of the common below, then grabbed his arm. He flinched at the sensation, but it wasn’t entirely unpleasant as she drew his arm back and helped him throw.

‘There!’ she said, eyes blazing beautifully as she turned triumphantly towards him. ‘They’ll be so pretty.’

‘If they grow.’

‘They’ll grow.’

And it was a beginning, of sorts.

Rite of Passage

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Rite of Passage

A while back I set myself the challenge of writing a 6 word story every day. So, for 6 months, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’d like to thank everyone that liked, commented, shared and hopefully enjoyed them; it was an immense pleasure.

It has been very busy writing and performing-wise recently, with lots of poems and stories of varying length to get down on paper. This seems as apposite a time as any to post one I shared recently at the aptly-named Read Your Words.

Yesterday I began a new, much longer writing project. It is likely to have me chained to my desk for a few months, which I must say I am masochistically quite looking forward to. And I hope to share some of this new story with you soon. But until then…

This was it. All he had to do was hold his nerve and he’d be in. Just one small step and he’d be a fully- fledged member of the Carlton Street Crew. Not that he lived on Carlton Street. Close enough, though. And Danny was more interested in where his boys were going than where they came from. What they could bring to the table. Which was why Jake was doing this here; this now.

There were about a thousand places he’d rather be, but if he wanted to prove he had the stones, this was what it would take. His initiation. His chance to show Danny he was more than just a playground bully. That he had the brains and the bottle to be part of the big league.

The warehouse was on one of the quieter streets just behind the old railway tracks. He couldn’t remember trains ever running on them, and he’d lived round here all his life. Rusty rails, brittle, orange and flaking. Weeds stood tall and proud between the disused tracks. Prickling thistles, soft downy rosebay willow herb. Desolate beauty.

But the wonders of nature were pretty far from Jake’s mind right now. He had to get in, get the job done, and get out. The warehouse was just one of many that Danny used to store things in. Those odd little items that he needed keeping safe, but at the same time wanted no ties to if the boys in blue came to call. Plausible deniability. But there was something he needed now.

Despite the light early evening breeze Jake could feel sweat pouring off him, plastering his T-shirt to his bony back. He wore only a thin jacket, not thick enough to make any difference to his body temperature. It might have seemed a little out of place if this June had been much warmer, but pockets were essential. And gloves. He pulled his dark, unbranded cap low over his forehead and picked up the pace. Scuffed trainers, also unlabelled. No flash, no identifying marks. That was Danny, right there. Always thinking. Always using his smarts to keep his boys out of trouble. Jake kicked a couple of times at the dust, but he kept moving. He knew if he stopped now he might not start again. And then it really would be all over.

He’d expected security to be a bit better but as Danny had remarked, it was an empty warehouse. Anything of value had been pinched long ago. The dilapidated old building was sure to be condemned pretty soon. All it housed was the temporary home of whoever happened to be currently squatting there. Kids would come sometimes to drink, sniff canisters of hippy crack, or worse. Or for a dare. But there weren’t many kudos to be gained from breaking in as the lock was laughable and the door on its last hinges.

Jake took a quick look round to check he hadn’t attracted any attention, then pushed the door open. The screech as the hinges protested seemed deafening to him, but he had to assume it wasn’t. That his nerves were simply making him hyperaware. He tried to embrace it. This was a good thing, helped to keep you sharp.

Inside the warehouse was cool and smelled of damp. He wished he’d brought a thicker jacket. And certainly wished he’d thought to bring a torch. The darkness hung heavy round him, stifling all of his senses.

Calm. Steady. Easy. He tried to will his heart to slow down, his breath to cease gasping, his nerves to stop jangling. This was a simple job. He just had to hold on. Gradually his eyes adjusted a little to the gloom. Virtually all of the high windows had been smashed long ago but even they were few and far between, letting in only fragments of light. Still, if he were patient, he knew his eyes would settle. The room began to drift into focus. Jake could make out the shapes of the giant shelving units, huge metal racks that had long since been emptied. A few more seconds to orient himself, then it was time to crack on. He knew what he needed lay in the farthest corner. Typical.

Carefully he began to navigate his way through the maze of discarded pallets, mounds of rubbish and drifts of old newspaper. Once he had started, he found it easier than he had expected and when he looked back was surprised how far he had come. In just a few minutes he found the corner, found the rack, found the box. The lid was stiff, but not locked. Jake eased it open, nervous at the contents.

The package lay there, quiet, unassuming, just as Danny had said. Carefully he unfolded the dark cloth to check all was as it should be. It was. He picked it up, unable to resist the temptation. The weight in his hand was unfamiliar, unsettling, yet he could already sense how it would soon become so comfortable. Second nature. He gazed at it for just a few seconds more before wrapping the package back up. Fumbling slightly, he shoved it as deep into his jacket pocket as he dared, then closed the lid of the box.

It seemed to take just seconds to reach the exit, and within a moment he was back outside into the pleasant daylight of a summer evening. Welcome fresh air.

His instructions had been to head straight to the underpass. Here he would hand over the package and, he hoped, receive a hero’s praise. It was a good twenty minute walk, which usually he would welcome. But now with every step he was conscious of the weight he carried. Of what would happen if he were caught. Thankfully he made it to the underpass without incident, and waited for his contact to show.

The minutes ticked by. Danny’s man was late. Jake began to hop from foot to foot to keep warm, the evening definitely cooling now. Still no sign. Should he go? What if Danny thought he’d done a runner? Or, worse, what if this was a set-up? Jake reached deep into his pocket and felt the reassuring weight. Probing fingers unwrapped the fabric and he could feel the cool metal against his skin. Safe. Secure. He couldn’t resist pulling it out once more, feeling how easily it moulded itself to his hand. He posed, imagining how it would feel to use. How quick. How easy.

Just then a noise startled him. Someone was coming! But he could already see it wasn’t Danny’s man. Instead, a woman walking slowly but unstoppably towards him. A yellow sundress, shades and a pale cardigan warding off the summer evening chill. Her heels tapped on the concrete path, echoing loudly in the tunnel. Too late, he realised he was facing her, directly in her line of sight. Even in the gathering dusk, she would be able to see him, to see what he was doing. To identify him.

He was barely conscious of his arm rising, the gun aiming, his finger squeezing. A sudden flash, a thunderclap and she was down. Bitter scent filled his nostrils, smoke hanging heady in the air in front of him.

The pool of blood spread quickly, gleaming stickily in the gloom. It was too late to do anything for her. But he could do something for himself. He had to run. He had to go now. Danny would understand. He couldn’t have let her see. No witnesses, Danny had said.

Minutes passed and still he stood, frozen in shock as the siren song began to fill the air. Looking anywhere but at her face, at her ruined torso. As if she had tossed them aside, almost as an afterthought, he saw them. Her dark glasses. Not tapping heels echoing. But instead her white, metal-tipped cane.