Poor Rose


border collie 2

(1100 words)

“What time do you get off?” the girl had asked me. Surprised, I’d turned from flipping a burger. She was tall, slim, with blonde hair in a short pony tail.
“I’ve a break in twenty minutes. Why?”
“Can we chat? I need a favour.”
The next twenty minutes had crawled past. I could see the girl sitting in a corner, fiddling with her phone. What the hell did she want?
“Look, my name’s Martha, I come here sometimes, you’ve served me a couple of times,” she said when I was free to join her.
Now I came to think about it, she did seem somewhat familiar, but then we served a lot of people.
“You seem a nice guy and I need someone to do me a favour.”
“What?”
“My sister phoned me to say she’s mislaid her house keys. I’ve got a spare but I’m a nurse and I’m needed on the other side of town, I’ve really gotta go. Like, now.”
“Well, where’s your sister?”
“She works at Jacksons.” She gave a wry smile. “They make toilets. It’s half an hour in the opposite direction.”
“What, will she come here then? I don’t finish till eight.”
“No, she’s on shifts. She won’t finish till ten, then she has to wait for a bus. She won’t be home till half-past.”
Martha had told me to go to her sister’s flat, let myself in and wait for her. That she was a friendly girl, but quiet and lonely after her dog had died. For me to keep her company for a bit. She’d shown me a photo. Her sister was older than Martha and plumper, with glasses. But she had a kindly face, not unattractive, and curly black hair.
“What’s her name?” I’d asked.
“Rose.”
I’d weighed up the pros and cons, hoping I was doing the right thing. “Ah … OK then.”
“Thank you so much.” She came round and kissed me on the cheek, making me blush.
The light wasn’t working properly on the landing. Instead of the soulless white glare from the fluorescent strip, there was a faint orange glow, like a dying star. I took the key I’d been given and turned it in the lock. Inside, it was dark. There was a musty smell, an odour of unlived-in-ness. I stood and listened. I heard the faint sound of a car door slamming on the street, way down below, then nothing, total silence. Then I became aware of a low, deep hum and a faint bubbling sound. I turned back to the grey rectangle that was the open front door and felt around for a light switch. Blinking in the bright light, I found myself in a long hallway with several closed doors.
The first one I tried opened onto a small cloakroom. There were several coats and jackets on pegs. I ran my fingers over the black fur trim of a jacket. It felt soft and smelt of perfume.
The next one opened onto a large space. I could see a faint area of luminescence some distance away, the glow of the city through the curtains. I turned the light on and found myself in a large lounge where three sofas were arranged in a rough triangle about three feet apart. In a corner was the source of the humming and bubbling – a large tank full of water. I clicked a switch on a cable and the tank lit up. Tiny fish of silver and gold swirled around, whilst an angel fish hung motionless, blinking forlornly. Fronds of green plant life extended up to the surface and a replica of the colosseum stood on multicoloured gravel, alongside models of other ancient architectural wonders.
In a neat bedroom there was a double bed with a lemon-coloured bedspread featuring a design of small pink rosebuds. A little table stood in an alcove. On it were an upright wooden crucifix and a pair of plaster hands, held in a praying position and holding a small tea light. On either side were pink candles, about a quarter burnt down, and on the wall in front of the table, a large framed photograph of a dog, a border collie – brown and white – looking up with huge eyes. A small vase of smoked glass held a single red rose.
I became aware of old-fashioned music and realised I must have nodded off. Surprised at being in unfamiliar surroundings, it took me a moment to remember where I was. The news had finished and it was now an old black and white movie. I didn’t know they showed those any more. I recognised the pale, angular face of a famous old actor. The one who looked like Peter Cushing. What was his name? I couldn’t remember and got up and turned the TV off. I looked at the clock and got a shock. It was nearly midnight!
Where the hell was Rose? I looked around the apartment, just to make sure she wasn’t back. In the alcove in the bedroom I was surprised to find several rose petals on the little table. That was odd.
I found some notepaper and a pen and scribbled a message to leave outside the front door in case Rose came back in the meantime, then grabbed my coat and went out. I took the lift down to the lobby and walked out into the deserted street. There was a quiet, cold rain. I looked up and down, seeing the yellow lamplight reflected on the wet paving slabs. In the distance I could see flashing blue and red lights. I decided to walk in that direction.
As I approached, I could feel apprehension building in my gut. There were a number of police cars and an ambulance, and on the pavement, a small wet crowd. As I grew closer, the ambulance drove off and the crowd, seeming to lose interest, began to drift away.
“Excuse me. What happened?” I asked a large middle-aged woman in a raincoat and beret.
“There was an accident. The police were chasing a motorbike.” She gestured to a mangled wreck behind a police car, which I could now see. It was surrounded by chequered tape. “It crashed and hit a pedestrian.” In the street light her face looked like a slab of orange clay. “They said they were both killed.”
“Who was the pedestrian? D’you know?”
“No. They said it was a young woman. She had a photo of a dog. That’s all I know.” She turned away and her bulky silhouette shuffled off slowly into the rain.

To purchase the stories on To Cut a Short Story Short up to December 2018 in paperback, Kindle eBook, and audio-book form, and for news on new titles, please see Shop.

If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 500 word story group please contact me and I’ll send details.

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on the blog. There are over 250!

Nellie’s Law


 

red-neck-woman-with-shotgun.jpg

(1100 words)

Within six months of moving to the village of Little Muckton, Sandra and I were growing disenchanted, to put it mildly. The idyllic little village, set in a wooded valley, had seemed so wonderful when we’d chanced upon it that fateful day a year ago, driving along country roads at random and stumbling upon the Farmers Arms. We’d enjoyed their ‘home-cooked steak and ale pie’ served with a selection of ‘locally grown vegetables,’ all steamed to al dente perfection, and served by a huge beaming woman, Nellie, the landlady, in an incongruous apron featuring a pair of huge pink breasts. The beer had been pulled by Marmaduke Scraggs, the landlord, a tall fellow with long grey sideburns, red lips, greasy cheeks, and a sizeable beer belly.
The bar had been frequented by other travellers and holiday-makers, whilst The First Cut is the Deepest had croaked out from small loudspeakers, hidden amongst the jumble of warming pans, huge earthenware jugs, horse brasses and other dust-covered memorabilia of the brewing and farming industries.
“D’you know, I went into Mellors this morning,” said Sandra one night. “Susan was serving old Mrs. Mutton, didn’t even look in my direction. Then Trevor Simons came in, in his filthy overalls, and she served him next!”
“You should have said you were there first.”
“Well, I was taken aback … and embarrassed. He never spoke or looked at me and Susan didn’t apologise. In fact, she was quite abrupt with me. I asked for two pounds of their local sausages and she practically threw them at me!”
I sighed. “I don’t know what their problem is, I’ve never met such unfriendly, miserable buggers.”
Sandra came and put her arms around me, hugging me tight. She laid her head on my shoulders. “Mike, darling, let’s move away, somewhere nice. Somewhere where people give you the time of day, you know, chat … and smile even.”
I snorted at the irony. What had we done to become so unpopular? We both worked in nearby Maltby, a sizeable town where I taught astronomy at the college and Sandra, a qualified nurse, worked at a doctors’ practice. As an astronomer, I’d applied for planning permission to build a small observatory in our garden, but it’d been turned down. A number of villagers had got together to vehemently oppose the application, citing ludicrous ‘safety concerns’ – a couple of overhanging branches would have to be cut back from a neighbour’s tree – as well as saying it would block light to the geraniums of Mrs. Bagge, our taciturn neighbour, and a woman whose face would make a wrinkled prune envious. In fact, it would have done no such thing, her house being situated some distance away, and our gardens only meeting partway. The intervening space was occupied by a wedge of sparse, stunted oak trees, owned by the council, although we’d heard its ownership was currently being disputed in the courts by no less than Mrs. Bagge herself.
“Maybe Tony was right,” said Sandra, kissing my cheek and sighing.
Tony Stockton had been our one ally in the village. A retired detective and the butt of Sherlock Holmes jokes by the locals in the Farmers Arms. He’d tried to take it good-humouredly but, in the end, despite his kind nature, it must have got to him as he’d given up drinking there. “The thing is, Mike,” he’d said, “There’s method to their madness – they’ll put on an act if you’re visiting, but you’ve got to live here five years before they’ll even give you the time of day. Ten years before they’ll show any kind of friendship. Until then, they’d spit on your grave. They’re all inbred, they hate outsiders.”
At the time I’d thought Tony was exaggerating, but then his wife, Margaret, had a nervous breakdown, and the next thing we knew he was knocking on the door to say they were moving out the following day.
“I don’t know, darling, we’ve come this far,” I said.
Suddenly there came a frantic pounding on the door. We both stood, petrified. “Who the hell’s that?” exclaimed Sandra.
I went into the hallway. “Who … who’s there?” I called, trying to sound calm.
“It’s Marmaduke. Marmaduke Scraggs.”
I opened the door to find Marmaduke standing there with a lighted brand in his fist, orange-red light reflecting off his wide-eyed, greasy face. Behind him stood a semi-circle of villagers, likewise holding flaming torches. I recognised Adrian Storey in wellingtons and chicken-shit covered dungarees, Tracy Little, her ginger hair pulled back and her bug eyes burning red in the torchlight, and Brad Manners, in a suit two sizes too small for his bloated stomach, and grinning like he’d studied at the Jack Nicholson school of acting.
“What do you want?”
Marmaduke spat on the ground then came into the house, the flames from his torch licking the ceiling – to my consternation. “We want you out of our village. It ain’t the place for clever dick, stuck-up snobs like you!”
I’d never have considered myself as any kind of snob. “Now, wait a minute. First of all, we’re not going anywhere. Secondly, take that goddamn torch out of here before you set our house alight.”
Marmaduke gave a manic laugh and threw the torch at my feet, flames quickly licking over the carpet. There was the smell of burning. Sandra screamed, but had the presence of mind to rush forward, throwing a rug over the blaze. Just then there was a deafening bang, and Nellie appeared, wielding a double-barrelled shotgun and wearing the same saucy apron she’d first served us in, the huge pink breasts more incongruous than ever now. She pointed the gun at Marmaduke. “Leave them alone. Take your goons and get out of here now or I’ll blow your fucking head off.”
He took one look at her furious face and it was obvious he knew she wasn’t bluffing. Without a word, Marmaduke and his cohorts faded into the night.
So, should you ever be in the mood for a good meal and a decent pint, and in the vicinity of Little Muckton, make your way to the Farmers Arms … and then drive straight past it and continue on to the outskirts of Maltby. There you will find a pub where you can be sure of excellent home-cooked food, well-kept beer, and a genuinely warm welcome from Sandra and myself. And where, on selected clear nights, you can gaze at the heavens through a twelve-inch refracting telescope in the observatory of the Astronomer’s Arms!

 

To purchase the stories on To Cut a Short Story Short up to December 2018 in paperback, Kindle eBook, and audio-book form, and for news on new titles, please see Shop.

If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 500 word story group please contact me and I’ll send details.

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on the blog. There are over 250!

Stone the Crows!


crows_1

(800 words)


“‘Course, it might have been a false one, to throw us off the scent,” said the constable.
“Maybe. These bastards are clever … Hi, who’s that?” said the inspector.
A dark blue Range Rover had just pulled into the car park at Strubby House. A woman in a red coat and matching hat got out, waving. “Cooee.”
Thirty minutes earlier, the two policemen, accompanied by a police artist, had taken the path from Strubby House to the Dower House. The latter was a square Georgian pile with tall, narrow windows. Against the gloom of the sinking winter sun it looked like an enormous tomb.
The path, an uneven gravel walkway, strewn with wet leaves, was lined by heavily pollarded beech trees on either side. Their stunted, blackened branches reminded the inspector of photographs of Holocaust victims, dumped in mass graves.
A crow landed on a branch, somewhere just behind them, and began to caw loudly, to the inspector’s annoyance. He had an inexplicable hatred of crows.
The policemen reached the front door, the constable knocking on an ancient brass knocker. A footman, dressed in a maroon gown, opened the door. He gestured extravagantly. “Come in gentlemen, her ladyship is expecting you.”
They proceeded through to a large lounge filled with antique furniture, where a thin, bird-like woman, whose head was surrounded by a halo of wild, white hair, sat on a chaise-longue. “Would you gentlemen like tea?” she enquired.
“No, we’re on a tight schedule. Thank you,” said the inspector.
“That’ll be all, Pyecroft. Please be seated, gentlemen.”
The inspector wasted no time on formalities. “Your son, Lord Strubby, said you saw a green Fiesta close to the HSBC bank in Cloughtonby yesterday, and that you observed the driver, looking anxious, apparently waiting for someone, Is that correct?”
“Yes, inspector.”
“I can confirm that we believe it to have been the getaway vehicle.”
“I see.”
“As you may have heard, a bank employee was shot in the face and is currently on life support.”
“Oh dear.” She cocked her bird-like head to one side.
“He may pull through, although he’ll have no face left … to speak of, anyway,” added the constable, helpfully.
The inspector continued, gesturing to his other companion. “This gentleman, Mr. Thorpe, is a police artist. We’d like to get a rough sketch today, then a proper e-fit at the station tomorrow. Is that OK?”
The woman gave a quick nodding motion of the head, like a chicken pecking in the dirt.
The artist began. “Now, was he black or white?”
“Yellow.”
“Yellow?”
“Yes, Chinese I believe.”
Mr Thorpe chewed the end of a pencil. “I see. Did he have any distinguishing marks?”
“Well, yes, he did. He had a small tattoo of a dragon on his neck, just here.” She indicated a patch just below her right ear, visible through the wispy white mop. “Oh, and he had a scar on his left cheek ….” She drew a bony finger from the bridge of her pointed nose across her pale cheek, almost to her earlobe.
Twenty minutes later they left, the inspector well pleased with the sketch produced by Mr. Thorpe. It should just make the seven o’clock news.
They made their way back up the path in the half-light. The crow was still there, a squat black shape. To the inspector’s annoyance, on seeing them, it began to caw again.
Now, the woman in the red coat approached. “I do apologise, Inspector, I was held up at a meeting. I hope Pyecroft looked after you?”
The inspector looked bemused. “Sorry Madam, and who are you?”
“Oh, I’m Lady Strubby.”
“What? Who was the lady in the Dower House we just interviewed then?”
“Oh, dear. Er, that’s my sister, …. I’m afraid she’s, well, to put it bluntly … insane. I’m afraid Pyecroft will humour her.”
“But you can give us a description, then?” asked the inspector, employing all the restraint he could muster.
“No, I’m terribly sorry. I’m afraid there was a mix up. When my son said it was a green Fiesta you were looking for, I misheard him. I thought he said it was grey. That was the one I saw. Definitely grey.”
The crow alighted on a nearby tree and began to caw loudly again.
The inspector gritted his teeth. “Oh, that’ll be all then, thank you, your ladyship.”
“Very well, then. Good day.” Lady Strubby turned and made her way to the house, shortly disappearing behind a high box hedge.
“Shall we go, sir?” asked the constable.
“Yes, you two go on ahead. I’ll join you in a minute.”
As Mr. Thorpe and the constable proceeded to the car park, the inspector looked around furtively, then, glancing at the still-cawing crow, bent down to pick up a handful of gravel.

To purchase the stories on To Cut a Short Story Short up to December 2018 in paperback, Kindle eBook, and audio-book form, and for news on new titles, please see Shop.

If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 500 word story group please contact me and I’ll send details.

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on the blog. There are over 250!

Hey, Kid. Wanna Write a Story?


professional-writer-1024x678

(700 words)

Astute visitors to this blog will have noticed an invitation, placed on most posts and pages, to join a fortnightly story-writing group. Perhaps you’ve even thought, “I’d like to write stories but I don’t know if I can,” or “I don’t know whether I can be bothered to write a story every fortnight”? Read on!

Depending on the age of the post or page, the story length referred to could be anything from 200 to 500 words. That’s because, for the first year it was 200 words, for the second year it was 300 words etc. – up to the current limit of 500 words.

I’m not planning on increasing the limit above 500 words, although there will be opportunities to optionally write to a longer limit, typically 1000 words.

So, how does it work? you ask. First of all, you don’t have to submit a story every fortnight, many people have never submitted anything. That’s OK, but it kinda defeats the object of joining the group. For those who are keen and want to improve their writing you may send up to three stories each time.

The stories are submitted to me by e-mail to a deadline. They are then collated and the resultant collections e-mailed out every other Sunday to all on the mailing list. You can unsubscribe at any time, but everyone is automatically unsubscribed every year. You have to contact me, stating that you wish to continue. So, don’t worry that you will be sent unwanted stories every fortnight forever!

So, what kind of stories are required and what are the criteria? Firstly, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a story per se. It could be an article, a poem or an essay. But it must conform to the 500-word limit.

The requirement for the first story of the month is a ‘special assignment,’ which could be a choice of prompts, scenarios or a structure. For example, a prompt could be ‘Write about broken bones,’ ‘The stranger at the crossroads,’ ‘Write about a country you’ve never been to but would like to visit’ etc.

A scenario might be ‘Write a story set in a lift,’ ‘Write about explorers on Mars’ etc.

A structure could be ‘Write a dialogue for a family row at Christmas’ or ‘Write a first-person story using three scenes, all starting with the phrase ‘It was raining,’ for example.

Or the assignment could be something else entirely, depending on the moderator’s deviousness! Whatever, there would normally be a choice of at least three options.

The second story of the month is based on ‘designated words.’ In fact, that is how all previous groups were run. The idea of alternating with ‘special assignments’ only began with the 500-word limit. N.B. Occasionally there will be a third story of the month, based similarly on designated words, depending on where the Sundays fall.

Five words are selected at random. The first word must start the story, the remainder must be included (in any order).

Sometimes the words may inspire a story idea, sometimes they may be ‘slotted’ into an existing idea. The choice is yours!

Also, there is a voting system. All members of the group are invited to vote for their favourite story, whether they have submitted a story themselves or not. The result of the vote is announced when the next collection is sent out.

Finally, did I mention that this whole blog came about from joining a monthly 100-word story group?! I soon tired of that and started my own fortnightly 200-word story group. That grew into the current 500-word fortnightly story group and inspired most of the stories on this blog!

If you are interested in the creative and editing processes I use to write for the fortnightly story group, as well as creating stories for this blog (and my three books) please check this post out. I know my editing skills have improved dramatically since I started writing for the group!

Flash Fiction Matters

So, if you would like to improve your compositional skill by writing regularly on a variety of themes, as well as gaining more readers for your work, please drop me a line via the contact page. What have you got to lose?

All Apologies: A Writer’s A-Z

To purchase the stories on To Cut a Short Story Short up to December 2018 in paperback, Kindle eBook, and audio-book form, and for news on new titles, please see Shop.

If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 500 word story group please contact me and I’ll send details.

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on the blog. There are over 250!

 

 

 

 

 

The Price of Silver


Mildenhall-Great-Dish

(850 words)


Saunders & Swindell – said the sign. Well, the last bit wasn’t far off the mark, thought Geoffrey Green. Below the sign, three spheres hung from a bar – the international sign of the pawnbroker.
He gazed into the window. Several guitars hung on the right-hand side, likely the result of an aversion to practice, coupled with the need for beer money. Before him were rows of TVs and laptop computers, and to the left, in a heavily-barred section, row upon row of rings, broaches and pendants. Then there were several Victorinox penknives for travellers. He wondered if they still had a blade for removing stones from horses’ hooves
The prices were generally quite affordable, bargains even. Reflecting the prices paid, he mused.
On the top shelf were antiques and bric-a-brac, and in the centre, an oil painting of a young woman in a white summer dress, standing in a garden amongst a rainbow of blooms. The price tag said £500. Thank God it hadn’t been sold! He pushed the door open and went up to the counter.
A small, wiry man appeared. His face was blotchy, and his eyes small and bloodshot. A thin grey stubble covered his cheeks and chin, and beneath a pointed nose, crooked yellow teeth formed something that might have been a smile. “Can I help you, sir?”
He reminded Green of a hungry ferret. “Yes, I sold you a picture, the girl amongst the flowers, it’s in the window.”
“Ah, yes, I remember you, sir. Unfortunately, the option to buy it back expired yesterday.” The yellow teeth disappeared behind compressed thin lips.
“Yes, I know, I couldn’t get here yesterday.” He fought off the memory of alcohol poisoning.
“Well, I’ll tell you what, sir. I’ll knock ten percent off. You can buy it back for £450, how does that sound?”
“Thanks, that’d be good.”
“Cash only.”
“Ah … I haven’t got the cash, but I’ve got this ….” He pulled a heavy silver plate out of a holdall and placed it on the counter.
The ferret wore a badge that said Robert. He stared long and hard, then he picked the plate up, examining it closely, his narrow, disagreeable face inscrutable. Around the edge were embossed heads of notable Roman and Greek gods and dignitaries. He ran a nicotine-stained finger over a bust of Diogenes. “Just a minute, sir.” He disappeared with the plate.
Green stood, looking around at the goods on display, quite oblivious to them. Nervously, he looked at his watch. Twenty minutes to go. Twenty minutes to get the picture back before his uncle would return from holiday the following day to find it missing. Then all hell would break loose.
After a few minutes, the ferret returned with the silver plate and a magnifying glass. He seemed jaunty, self-important. “Where did you get this, sir?”
Green decided to tell the truth. “Actually, my brother and me were digging some foundations the other day. We found it buried a couple of feet down.”
“Er, was there anything else with it, sir?”
Green looked at his watch. Why wouldn’t this horrible little man simply make him an offer? “Look, does any of this matter? I want some cash so I can get my picture back!”
“Calm down, sir. Look, I’ll tell you a little story.” The ferret took a seat behind the counter and jabbed at his gum with a toothpick. Green could see blood on it.
“Well, it so happens that any gold or silver found buried in our fair land belongs, not to the finder, but to the Crown. It’s ‘treasure trove,’ it is, and must be declared immediately to the police. This is Roman, this is. Solid Roman silver! And it’s valuable, you could likely buy a hundred of your pictures with this!”
Green felt his stomach sinking to the ground. “Well, no one has to know, do they?”
“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong, sir. We pawnbrokers have principles, you know. This must go straight to the police. But the good news is that the finder will be paid its full value … in time.” He raised his eyebrows. “Plus that of any other pieces found with it.”
“Er, well, in that case, could I get the picture back against the promise of my … er, reward?” Green asked, hardly able to believe his luck.
The ferret smiled a yellow smile. “You didn’t hear me properly, sir, the finder gets the full value, and you told me it was you and your brother, but you can’t both have found it. It was one or the other!” He laughed. “Whoever it was is going to be a rich man … eventually. You can sort it out between you! Either way, if you want the picture, you need to pay now – cash only.”
“What? I’ll have it back then!” Green reached over and snatched the plate from the ferret’s hands.
The door opened behind him and the ferret’s face turned from a look of total astonishment to one of triumph.
Green felt a hand on his shoulder. “Going anywhere with that, sir?” asked the policeman.

To purchase the stories on To Cut a Short Story Short up to December 2018 in paperback, Kindle eBook, and audio-book form, and for news on new titles, please see Shop.

If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 500 word story group please contact me and I’ll send details.

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on the blog. There are over 250!

Salmon and Soul


stiffkey

(1200 words)


Tunsgate Green stood, thinking of Ruth back in the cottage, typing away at her wretched manuscript. Some romantic nonsense, mainly to make up for the total lack of it in their lives, he imagined. Once she’d been young, vivacious, sexy even. He snorted. Hard to imagine that now! Their love life currently resembled this salt marsh – dead flat.
He gazed over the dry beige marshland to the distant level horizon, the faintest deep blue ribbon set against the pale blue sky indicating the start of the North Sea, next stop the fjords and islands of western Norway, 400 miles away.
They’d come to Stiffkey, on the Norfolk coast, to try to rekindle something of their relationship, but with Ruth immersed in her fictional romantic world, and him stalking the lonely marshes and empty beaches, they rarely seemed to meet when one or the other wasn’t tired. She could be irritatingly churlish too, which didn’t help, and he probably wasn’t much better, he admitted.
He missed Shiva, his black labrador and companion of the last twelve years. She’d developed stomach cancer and had to be put to sleep six weeks earlier. Ruth had made sympathetic noises, but she didn’t really care. He’d been devastated. He realised he still was, as tears came to his eyes at the thought.
A gentle cool breeze ruffled the stubby coarse grass. It was warm and he felt sweaty, even though he’d not walked fast. Out there he knew appearances could be deceptive. Salt water lurked under the soil, always eager for a victim, perhaps an overzealous dog, or even a careless walker. At night, spirits of footpads and pirates were said to roam the endless flat landscape, damned to do so by virtue of their heinous deeds in life.
He walked back alongside a creek of bright blue water. The soil was exposed here, clay-brown, but dry from the heat of summer. There was no sign of modern life – no fences, telegraph poles, nothing. Just this ancient path, scuffed by centuries of wayfarers.
Coming into the village he encountered the Stiffkey Stores. A pale-red pitched roof surmounted walls made from small stones, some grey, some black, cemented together somehow. A faded blue awning, stained green with moss, overhung a dark curtainless window. In front of the store stood a trailer full of pots of colourful flowers. Someone had recently given it a lick of fresh grey paint.
He pushed the door open and a bell rang. To the left was an old brown wooden counter with an ancient till at the near end. Shelves on the far wall contained tins of soup, loaves of white bread, bags of sugar and the like. Against the wall to the right was a stand containing potatoes with soil on them, large, almost-fluorescent orange carrots, huge cauliflowers, and other vegetables and fruit.
“Hello.” A young woman behind the counter, dressed in an enormous thick bottle-green turtle neck pullover, smiled brightly. She had shoulder length blonde hair, and an attractive, tanned face, unadorned by make up. On the counter in front of her lay a salmon. Its scales held shades of purple and red. Freshly caught, he surmised.
“Hello,” he said, surprised. He’d met old Mr. Blush on his one previous visit to buy some stamps. “Did you catch that yourself?” he found himself asking.
“No, I created it!” She laughed a warm laugh, showing perfect white teeth. “What’s your name?”
“Oh, it’s, … don’t laugh. Tunsgate! Apparently I was conceived there. My mother never knew my father’s name. What’s yours?”
“She smiled, it’s Nancy, but you know me as Calluna … in the other place.”
He began to wonder if she was all right in the head. She seemed somehow familiar though, and exuded an aura of friendship. “What do you mean, you created this salmon?!”
She stood up and smoothed the green wool down over her breasts. She laughed her warm laugh again. “There are four of us, you – Arthemis, that’s what you’re called, me, Nathum and Senji. Our guide and teacher is Shato. He sometimes comes to us as an Irish leprechaun, other times as a beautiful young woman! Your ego-mind doesn’t remember, but inside, deep inside, your superconscious mind, the mind of your soul, remembers very well!”
Something in what she was saying rang a distant, faint bell. “I … er, I don’t know. It’s interesting what you’re saying but ….”
She came out from behind the counter and he noticed she had one pale blue eye, and one jade green eye. He felt a jolt of recognition. His imagination though, surely?
“We were on what we call Earth Two, a ‘practice world.’ Now we are at level three we can practise, with Shato’s help, channelling energy to make things. At first small pebbles and rocks, then plants, then … fish!” She laughed. “It took a long time. Many, many, many lifetimes!”
She approached and put her arms around him. Tunsgate closed his eyes, hugging her back. Yes, he knew her. Deep inside. He could feel the love of a soul mate emanating from her. Then she broke away. “I have to close the shop now.” She wrapped the salmon in greaseproof paper and put it in a brown paper bag. “Here, a present from Calluna!”
“What did you do?” asked Ruth. She was in the small kitchen, pouring boiling water into a large blue china teapot. He enjoyed the familiar, fragrant smell.
“Oh, just walked along the coastal path. I miss Shiva.”
“I know, darling, she was a lovely dog.” She came over and, to his astonishment, hugged him, kissing him on the cheek. He couldn’t remember the last time she’d done that.
He continued, “I called into the store. There was an amazing young woman there. Said she knew me from a previous life!” He felt embarrassed.
Ruth laughed. “I wonder who that was, there’s only old Mr. and Mrs. Blush run the store.”
“She was about twenty-five, blonde hair, attractive. She gave me this salmon!”
“Oh, that’d be from the salmon farm just down the coast. They’ve got a son. He works there. There’s no daughter though. Well ….”
“Well what?”
Ruth poured strong brown tea into two blue enamelled mugs and splashed in milk from a carton. “Well there was a daughter. Old Mrs. Blush told me the girl used to ride a horse along the coast. One day, about ten years ago, she went out and neither she nor the horse ever came back.”
“That’s terrible!”
“Yes, some said the horse was a water kelpie and had taken her back to the sea. More likely they went onto the marsh and just got swallowed up, poor girl. Her name was Nancy.”
He started. “Nancy. That was the name of the girl in the shop!”
Ruth looked up. Her lips were glossy and he noticed she’d applied some powder to her normally pale cheeks. “Old Mrs. Blush told me Nancy had an unusual characteristic … she had one blue eye …”
“… and one green,” he said.
Ruth looked into her mug. “Truth can be stranger than fiction … sometimes.”
“I suppose so.”

She smiled. “Look, let’s drink our tea, then ….” She nodded towards the bedroom door.

Please note: this story was originally published on 30th November 2017. To read the comments, please click HERE.

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My Name is Ian Z. McPhee


love hearts

(627 words)


It was incredible and completely unexpected; the sensations as our fingers touched was electric; my heart skipped a beat and I momentarily forgot to breathe. Her fingers intertwined with mine and she twitched her lips in that funny way she used to, before kissing me tenderly. I gazed into her dark round eyes and knew it was love – deep, sacred love.
We’d been together for six weeks now, not long, but long enough for me to start to get to know her personality: playful yet pensive, jubilant but shy, magnanimous yet fickle. It was wonderful to have a partner again, after having only male company for the best part of a year, and her silky hair and long limbs drew admiring glances from my friends and colleagues.
I’d scarcely known her before she moved in with me. She appeared out of nowhere one day with just a bagful of possessions: a mirror, toiletries and the like. She was so beautiful though, that I couldn’t turn her away. I’ll always remember that she had a bunch of bananas, which we’d laughed about as it’s my favourite fruit.
I didn’t have a job then so we would spend a lot of time together, sometimes kissing and cuddling like all young lovers, but on other occasions watching the television or simply looking out of the window, watching the world go by. On other occasions we passed time in quiet, solitary meditation, which we were both schooled in.
I suppose, looking back, that our life together was rather haphazard, existing day to day, making no plans for the future.
I only saw her angry once. A small boy in a red pullover and jeans stood banging at our window, for no apparent reason as far as I could see. His mother stood nearby with younger siblings, paying scant attention. “Stop it Henry!” she would shout from time to time. There was no sign of a father. My beloved went to the window and pounded on it, matching the boy fist for fist. That seemed to enrage him and he started banging harder and faster. She did likewise, emitting a strange animal-like sound, when suddenly the mother pulled him away and cuffed him hard around the ears. Instantly my love became calm and her normal self again, taking an apple from a bowl and smiling at me sheepishly.

Then, one sad, sad day, our relationship ended. A man in a green uniform with a peaked cap and shiny buttons entered our living area, uninvited. I recognised him as a fruit delivery man so held my tongue.
“Sorry Fred,” he said, although that wasn’t actually my name, “Bella’s got to get on a plane, she’s off to Berlin.” That wasn’t actually her name either. Then other men came in, with a cage on wheels. I protested strongly and loudly. You can’t put her in there! I saw her being given an injection. “Just something to calm her down Fred, nothing to worry about.” The cage door was opened and they manhandled her in.
“Let him say goodbye, bless him,” one of the men said. I went to the cage and looked into her dark round sleepy eyes. I put my hands through the bars and our fingers interlaced for the last time. “Goodbye,” I whispered in our own secret language.
They wheeled her out and I never saw her again. I had no photos, just memories of her to keep. Simple memories – eating fruit together, climbing on a big frame outside and swinging on ropes, watching the crowds watching us, searching each other’s coats for fleas ….
I didn’t know if or when I’d have another mate but in the meantime I decided to eat a banana.

Please note: this story was originally published on 12th September 2016. To read the comments, please click HERE.

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Full Fathom Five


cruise ship
(1300 words)

I stood at the railing, gazing out to the haze of the distant level horizon. The sea was calm, low deep-blue waves undulating slowly, barely hinting at their potential ferocity. Ahead and far below me was the bow of the cruiser, where people, ant-like, sat by an unusually empty pool. I sighed and thought of Janie. Bitch!  We’d had problems, sure, who doesn’t? But her leaving had come as a shock.
It was Valentine’s Day, of all days, and I’d ordered some Adrenaline roses, her favourites. Unexpectedly, a silver BMW had pulled up, and I’d recognised Andy, her gym trainer, his dyed-blond hair swept over in an attempt to look youthful. Obviously it had worked. Janie appeared. “Look Steve, I don’t want a scene. I’m leaving. Me and Andy … I’ll be in touch about my things.” She’d looked embarrassed and hurried out, clutching her sports holdall, before I’d had time to reply. I watched her get into the car and kiss him. They drove off without looking back. Just then the flower delivery van had turned up. I’d taken the roses and thrashed them to pieces in the back garden with tears streaming down my face.
“Full fathom five thy father lies, of his bones are coral made.”
Surprised, I looked around to see a young woman with medium length blonde hair and sunglasses. She wore a jade green dress with a modest neck line.
I couldn’t help myself. “Those are pearl that were his eyes, Nothing of him doth fade.’
“But doth suffer a sea-change,” we both said, in unison.
She laughed. “I don’t think there’s many on this ship who know Shakespeare!” Her voice was husky. “Why aren’t you on the island?”
“Oh, I fancied some time to myself.” I’d accompanied my mother on this cruise, naively not anticipating the non-stop queuing for lifts, queuing to embark and disembark, crowded pools full of rowdy children, and endless bars, cafes and restaurants thronged with people.
“I know what you mean. My name’s Jamie by the way.”
“Hi, mine’s Steve.” Jamie, Janie. Hmm.
She shook my hand, her palm was dry and warm and her long slim fingers wrapped around mine and squeezed. Her nails were short with a clear varnish and she wore a curious gold ring in the form of a coiled snake with two tiny purple stones for eyes.
We stood in companionable silence, gazing in awe at the endless sea. A warm breeze blew her blonde hair back showing high cheekbones and full lips, lightly made up. She was tall and slight and her skin was tanned. I felt self-conscious of my own pale flesh and paunch, trying to hold my stomach in below my white T-shirt.
“Are you with anyone?” she asked.
I told her about my mother – aged, irascible, partially deaf and between cataract operations. Mother had said she was looking for a sugar daddy. I’d asked Jamie if she knew of any blind 90-year olds on board.
She laughed as if I’d told the world’s funniest joke. “I’ll keep an eye out! Sorry Steve, I have to go. Look do you know ‘Arabella’s Sushi?”
I said I’d heard of it. It was a bar that moved between decks every day. A novel idea that appealed to me.
“Would you like to meet tonight? It’s on deck six today. Say 8 p.m.?” she said.
“Yes, that’d be lovely,” I replied, trying not to sound too desperate.
That evening I’d showered and spruced myself up. In a pastel orange shirt, cream linen slacks and, holding my stomach in I thought I didn’t look too bad.
I arrived early, feeling rather apprehensive, to find the bar wasn’t crowded, even though the throngs had returned from viewing Roman ruins – only a few tables were taken. I got talking to an attractive Filipino waitress. She was friendly, seemed happy to chat and told me they worked seven days a week whilst on cruise. For no reason I found myself asking if anyone had ever gone overboard. Her face changed. Yes. On the last cruise. A young woman, that’s all she knew. But it was bad luck to talk about it. I apologised and her friendly demeanour returned. Suddenly I realised it was twenty past eight. No sign of Jamie!
I’d waited until nine and then, despondent, had given up, returning to our suite to find mother with another ‘old bag’, although somewhat more presentable. Mother introduced me to her as Iris Brummage. Apparently she was a retired professor of mathematics. Mother, being a fawning snob, had latched onto her.
I went out onto our balcony and sat looking out to sea, disheartened. What the hell had happened to Jamie?
The days passed. Mother went off the boat most days with her new friend and I felt as if I was the only person on their own. Everywhere were couples or families with young children. I scanned the crowds for Jamie, even asked in every cafe and bar I went to, but no-one knew her. In one cafe however, a waitress had looked at me strangely. “On a cruise, people aren’t always who they say they are.”
One day, looking down from our fifth-deck balcony, I thought I saw Jamie’s blonde hair and jade green dress far below on the lower deck. I’d raced through corridors and down endless staircases, eventually coming out where I thought I’d seen her. I looked in vain, finally asking some sunbathers, who said they didn’t remember her. They regarded me curiously, seeing me sweaty and anxious.
In my time on the cruise I found the other holidaymakers generally friendly and easy to converse with. However I soon grew tired of the endless chat of what deck was I on, what was my cabin like and what shows had I seen? None! Then would come interminable stories of previous cruises. They were well-meaning but I wanted someone on my own wavelength. I longed to hear Jamie’s husky voice laughing and to see her sunny smile again.
It was towards the end of the cruise when I found myself wandering along a part of our deck I hadn’t visited before. Not hard, considering the size of the place. Floating city was about right, and I never did learn to find my way around. Hearing music, I passed into a large open space with a bar at either end and chairs dotted around, where a pianist, drummer and guitarist were playing jazz. To my surprise mother and Mrs. Brummage were there. Mrs. B waved and smiled. She wasn’t so bad I supposed. I ordered a lager at the bar nearest the band. The barman was another Filipino, middle-aged and sympathetic. I asked my usual question. Had he come across a young lady called Jamie, early thirties, tall, slim, blonde?
“No, sorry sir, so many people!” He gestured, opening his arms, laughing. Then, “Only Jamie I know is pianist here.”
I looked at the man on the piano, young and slim, currently drawing out mellifluous melodies with apparent ease.
“D’you know him well?” I asked.
“Not really. He and Alan, the drummer, well … they, are, er … together, if you know what I mean.” He smiled wryly.
Mother and Mrs. Brummage came over. Mother spoke. “We’re going to Hairspray. D’you want to come?”
I looked at the pianist again. His tanned face, handsome yet effeminate, looked around and through me, as if I were invisible. I felt a jolt of recognition. Then he looked down again, watching his slender fingers fly. I walked past the piano, feigning nonchalance, observing him askance, then froze, seeing a familiar snake-like gold ring. How fitting! I felt sick.

I returned to mother, “Yeah, let’s go. I can’t stand jazz.”

 

Please note: this story was originally published on 5th March 2017. To read the comments, please click HERE.

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The Diogenes Syndrome


hoarder2


(750 words)

Saunders – no one seemed to know his Christian name, or even if he had one – lived in our village, and was reasonably infamous. They said that when sober he was intelligent, well spoken, and witty. He came from a very wealthy family, a household name indeed. When drunk, however, he didn’t wash or shave, was without principles of any kind and would shout vile insults at innocent passersby, whether he knew them or not.
Unfortunately, he was nearly always drunk.
Well, I’d heard stories about him – hurling abuse in the local pub (before being banned), somehow storing a large boat in his back garden which squeezed through his neighbour’s gates with just millimetres to spare, keeping rubbish in sacks in the garden, and barging into his neighbour’s house, dressed only in underpants, when the neighbour was entertaining guests. I’d heard other stories, even more outrageous, but had no way of knowing how true they were. I rather hoped they weren’t. Despite all this, I’d never clapped eyes on the man, even though he lived but a stone’s throw from my house!
“Saunders lives in the left-hand cottage of the two semi-detached cottages, to the right of the archway houses,” my neighbour had said, referring to an archway between two tiny houses, both of which extended above the archway.
“There aren’t any semi-detached cottages!” I’d exclaimed.
He explained, to my utter amazement, that a small house was, in fact, two very small, semi-detached residences, although not discernible from the front, as they were largely obscured by high, unkempt hedges. The right-hand cottage had a drive, a gate, and a rear extension, whereas Saunders’ half had no discernible place of ingress. Hence my bewilderment.
Well, it so happened that the house on the right of the archway was inhabited by a blind lady, Mary, and I’d promised to drop an audiobook on CD round for her. Knowing that she didn’t like to answer the door, I simply posted them through her letter box, assuming she would open the envelope, put a CD on and realise what it was and who it was from. But as I heard the CDs hit the floor I turned to my left and stared, then stared some more. Mary seemed to have no garden at all and the lady on the opposite side of the arch had a neat little patio garden with a gravel area and shrubs in pots.
But the garden that extended in front of my eyes, as far as I could see, I now realised belonged to Saunders’ tiny semi-detached cottage!
I took a few steps through the archway and past the patio garden. I could now see the back of Saunders’ house. The door was open and I didn’t have to go any nearer to realise it opened onto an extremely uninviting kitchen. I could see piles of washing up and a bucket of scraps propping open the door, where flies were busy buzzing around, laying eggs no doubt, for their broods of squirming white maggots.
Emboldened, I walked further. This man had the Diogenes Syndrome – a compulsion to hoard rubbish, no concern about personal appearance, and an anti-social attitude – in spades!
The garden was perhaps two hundred feet long, stretching down to the back of a neat lawn belonging to a brand new six-bedroom house in a swanky cul-de-sac. Every square foot of it seemed to be covered in bags and yet more bags of rubbish, old plastic piping, broken garden chairs, metal poles, old car tyres, bits of car engine, exhaust pipes, a rainbow in a pool of oil. A sea of the most incredible junk, hidden, unsuspected, in our otherwise picturesque village.
I noticed some buildings amongst the rubbish. I had an urge to look inside them, but Saunders’ wrath wasn’t something I wanted to entertain. Not hard to imagine what they contained though!
As I headed back through the archway, a middle-aged man with jowl-length grey hair, a large grey moustache and matching stubble was coming the other way. He was swinging a Tesco bag. Judging from the clinking and shape of the contents they were of the drinkable and intoxicating kind. As we passed, he stopped and stared at me. “Good morning, do I know you?” he asked in a posh, BBC-announcer-type voice.
Reeling from the whisky on his breath, I kept walking. “No!” I called, without looking back. There was no response. Saunders was already on his second bottle of the day.

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Opportunity Knocked


Woman-in-summer-straw-hat-sends-air-kiss-over-pink
(800 words)

It was hot, the hottest day Benjamin Bannister could remember. He wiped his brow yet again with a dirty rag, wet through from previous wipings. The sun streamed through the cab windscreen and the air blowing in through the open windows was oven hot. It wasn’t helped by the fact he’d been shunting goods along the dock all morning without a break and the engine had been running non-stop. He felt sweat crawling down his back as he began yet another run down to the loading dock. Christ, how big were the holds on this goddamn ship, The Orion? He crossed himself. Jesus, let this be the last run before lunch!
Suddenly, he slammed the brakes on. There, lying on the track about a hundred metres away was what appeared to be a young woman, wearing a white dress and hat. The shunter ground to a halt and he jumped out. A blast of roasting summer air hit him in the face. Man, was it hot!
He approached the woman. Her eyes were open. He thought she was the prettiest thing he’d ever seen. Early twenties, huge blue eyes, high cheekbones and full lips.
She gave a weak smile, showing pearly white teeth. Her dazed vision took in a hulk of a man, wearing shorts and a fluorescent yellow jacket, beads of sweat glistening on a bare, muscled chest. His face wasn’t young, but kind-looking. “Hi,” she murmured.
“Hi, I’m Benjamin, you can call me Ben. Let me help you. This heat’s somethin’ else ain’t it?” He bent down and picked her up under the knees and behind her neck, recoiling from the burning concrete beneath her. He could smell a faint floral perfume on the hot air. To a man who spent his days driving a shunter and lifting heavy boxes, she felt like a leaf. A young, vibrant, yearning leaf. He carried her across the dockside to a restroom, stumbling on a coil of rope lying there for no reason but to trip him up.
Inside it was cool. Thank God! The air-con at the limit and a ceiling fan whirling around like a chopper on a deadly mission in ‘Nam.
“Hiya, Ben, who’ve you got there?” said Koby, a workmate, a man in his thirties and blacker than the ace of Spades. He looked concerned. “She OK?”
“She’ll be fine. Guess she fainted cos of this damned heat, though she shouldn’t have been where she was. Guess she was taking a shortcut.”
“Hang on, I know this gal. It’s Ellie-Rose Medina! The gal from Gangland Grafters on TV!”
The girl smiled weakly. “Do you have some water please?”
Benjamin deposited the young woman in an armchair, transfixed by the sight of the moist outline through her lemon-coloured panties, before she crossed her legs, whether aware of his gaze or not, he couldn’t tell.
He felt his body reacting. Get a grip for Christ’s sake! It was this goddamn incessant heat, he told himself, going to the tap and pouring a glass. “Will you be OK; do you want me to call a doctor?”
She gave a weak laugh, “I’ll be OK, I was just trying to avoid the autograph hunters and fans, I wasn’t in the mood. That doesn’t sound too good, I guess.”
Koby laughed, “It ain’t somethin’ me and Ben have a problem with! But I guess I can understan’”
They sat and chatted as Ellie-Rose recovered, telling them stories of filming Gangland Grafters and the creeps who tried to molest her on a daily basis.
Suddenly, the door crashed open, letting in a blast of baking hot air, and there stood Marvin Haltermeir, the loading-master. He was chomping on a cigar like he wanted to eat it and his eyes were almost popping out of his head. They took in the sight of a pretty, young, giggling woman and the two dock-hands, semi-naked in their shorts and open vests. “What the flying fuck are you two morons playing at? The Orion’s sailing in thirty minutes and that last load’s sitting at the back of your fucking shunter!”
Benjamin answered. “I’m sorry, sir, this young woman had fainted and ….”
“Listen I don’t give a fuck about her – sorry ma’am, no offence. You’d better beat the record for this last load, Bannister, or you can pick up your papers!” He exited, slamming the door behind him.
Ellie-Rose smiled. “He seems a bit upset. Well, you can bust a gut for him or I can get you a job as an extra on Gangland Grafters. Your call.” She winked at Benjamin.
Without a word, Koby hurried from the room, heading for the abandoned shunter, leaving the two of them alone together.

To purchase the stories on To Cut a Short Story Short up to December 2018 in paperback, Kindle eBook, and audio-book form, and for news on new titles, please see Shop.

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