Red Snow

north-korea-colorful-order-nic-ojae-00

(500 words)

It is snowing at the checkpoint and John and Abbie are outside, gazing over the border to the Taebaek mountains, and freedom.
“You come, please,” says the guard, his green tunic emblazoned with enigmatic decorations and his oversized green cap looking surprisingly uncomic.
I look through the window to see Abbie throw a snowball at her dad. They are both laughing. “But we’re going soon, the bus’ll be here.”
“You come.”
North Korean guards aren’t people you ignore. He leads me into a small, austere office. Pictures of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un hang on the wall above a desk. Their official cleaning cloth lies folded neatly on top of a filing cabinet nearby. I remember hearing about a woman who lost her cloth and used a different type. A random inspection resulted in three harsh months in a Gulag. Could that be true, I wonder?
The man at the desk looks up. His tunic has twice as many emblems and decorations as the guard. A colonel, apparently. The guard was young, not unfriendly. This man’s face is older, gaunt. It looks like he doesn’t smile often, if at all. “Mrs. Hernandez. There’s an irregularity with your visa.”
“What, no, we’ve been through this. It’s all been sorted!”
The man pushes his chair back and sits with his hands clasped together and his chin resting on them. “Mrs. Hernandez. There’s something we need you to do. Then … no problem with the visa.”
It is snowing and we’re getting on the plane. The white flakes are settling on Abbie’s golden hair as we cross the gangway. A young, pretty, oriental woman with a smart blue jacket and matching cap, wearing a very short skirt, smiles a greeting. I stare at her in a daze. I feel I’m about to crumble. Stay strong, just till the plane’s in the air. Then I can go to the toilet and dissolve.
I’d been taken to a room. Three women were sitting on a bench. Their faces were frightened but resigned, their eyes huge with pleading.
“You pick one,” said the colonel.
“Why me?”
He shrugged. “Orders.”

I made the impossible choice, the oldest one, but still only middle-aged. I caught her eyes for a split second but it was enough. We went outside to a snow-covered yard, the flakes coming down harder now. My hands were shaking. The colonel handed me a heavy pistol with a squat silencer. He showed me the safety catch, put the gun against his head in demonstration, and motioned the woman to kneel.

It is snowing at Las Angeles airport. Is it snowing everywhere in the world, I wonder? Everyone is there to greet us. John’s mum and dad, Abbie’s friends, my sister Madeleine – ‘Mads,’ and a newspaper reporter from our home town.

I smile, wave, and reply to questions on autopilot. In my mind there’s one image. Beautiful huge white snowflakes swirling and settling on the ground by the woman’s head – instantly turning red.

 

—-

To purchase the stories (up to June 2017) in paperback, Kindle eBook, and audiobook form, please see Shop.

If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 400 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 200! 

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The Visitation

Sabino+Canyon+National+Forest,+Tucson+Arizona,+NuventureTravels.com,+Saguaro+Cactus,+Desert

(900 words)

“Head for the hills, ‘cos I’m looking for thrills …,” sang Hamish, his Scottish burr prolonging ‘thrills.’
“I could use some of those,” laughed Julia, a short, stocky woman in her sixties.
I hoped she didn’t have me in mind.
The sun was sinking, lengthening the shadows of saguaro cacti, towering here and there along our way. Ahead, in the distance, across miles of flat, arid, semi-desert scrubland, lay a low range of hills, our destination.
Normally we’d have had a bumpy journey in an SUV but the prof’s plan had us dropped off on this side of the centre, giving us a chance to ‘acclimatise’ before our two week residence, by plodding through the hot desert for hours. Every few minutes he’d take out a notebook and write mysterious observations, sometimes pulling out a tape measure and gauging the length of a cactus arm or the height of an inconspicuous shrivelled brown plant.
It was still warm, the motionless dry air oppressive, and I was hot and sweaty. Damn Hamish! I shifted my backpack into a more comfortable position – this gear weighed a ton – and assessed the party. There was Professor Hamish McPherson, our erstwhile leader, then Julia Surey, a paramedic – no stranger to carrying defibrillators up flights of stairs, judging by her biceps. Then Valencia Lopez, a slight, brown, forty-something scientist from Paraguay, John ‘Garry’ Garau and myself, Sam Piccarreta, both in our thirties and qualified animal psychologists.
“I saw something move!” exclaimed Valencia, pointing across the endless flat dry scrub that stretched to the distant horizon.
“Could be a coyote,” said Hamish.
She took out some binoculars, scanning the desert. “It looked bigger, more upright.”
After a minute Hamish spoke. “Come on, we should get to the centre before dark.” As always he spoke quietly, insistently. A kind, easy-going man who preferred to lead by example, he nevertheless had an unstoppable drive when it came to getting what he, or the team, wanted or needed.
I looked at Val, wondering. I’d never heard her mention a husband, or a partner of any kind come to think of it. She wasn’t bad looking. I watched the sway of her narrow hips as we started again, imagining running my hands over her naked thighs. Come on Sam, snap out of it! The desert was getting to me and I’d only been here five minutes!
It was almost dusk when we reached the high wire fence surrounding the centre, a network of squat concrete buildings, set against a deepening turquoise sky. Soon stars would begin to peek through the dwindling light, preparing for their lonely, cold sojourn. A large sign stated Big Cat Conservation Trust. Hamish rang a bell, a gate opened and a man appeared.
Hamish greeted him without introduction. “How are the animals tonight?”
“They seem restless, very restless. It’s strange. I’ve never seen them quite like this.”
“Huh, that’s odd.”
We peered down into a sunken enclosure where a pair of Lynx lived. They were both patrolling the walls, agitatedly, but in opposite directions, rubbing their faces together briefly on each pass.
There were forty big cats here – lynx, cougars, bobcats, ocelots and jaguars, mainly in high-walled outside pens, furnished with platforms and shelters. Some had lived here since the centre was built seven years ago, but mainly they were released back into the wild after a year or two.
An enormous crack of thunder startled me awake in my small room. That was unusual. Then another, almost overhead, making my heart pound. Outside, the cats were yowling. Then a sound we didn’t often hear – heavy pouring rain crashing down on the roof and outside, turning the dust into mud. I could smell the scent of it through the air conditioning, and knew it’d wash the world outside clean. The plants would be grateful I thought. No, that’s silly, plants can’t think. Not as we know it, anyway. I drifted back to sleep to the rhythm of the rain.
The next thing I knew was a frantic pounding on my door. My clock said 06.42. What the hell?
“Sam, Sam, something awful’s happened!” It was Valencia. Her face was streaked with tears and she could hardly speak. The others were gathered on the veranda. The sun was up and the heat of the day was already building.
She led me down some steps and hit a number pad. The door into the jaguar enclosure opened. There they were, or what was left of them. Maia and Gaia. Their eyes were missing and their bodies had been stripped of flesh in places. Neatly incised down to the bone. “They’ve had their blood taken.”
“What?!” I could see the remaining flesh was whitish. “Are there any others?”
“They’re all like this, except for the ocelots”
They were kept indoors at present. “Oh my God!”
Back on the veranda, the professor spoke. “I’ve radioed it in. The police will come out later this morning.”
“I don’t understand.” Valencia was crying. “Who would do this?”
“Whoever, or … whatever, did this, they weren’t from … around here,” said Hamish.
“What’ll happen?” I asked.
Hamish smiled wryly, “They’ll say it’s natural causes … or cults.”
I gazed out across the desert and gasped at a purple bloom. As if the life taken from the cats had been transferred into the normally drab and desolate vegetation, a sea of flowers was springing into existence.

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If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 400 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 190! 

Monasticity

monkbeercol

(1000 words)

Monastic-style beers were her favourite. Heavy, sweet, and above all, high alcohol! She peered through the small opaque panes of Oliver’s Beer and Books. No sign of anyone in the small cafe behind the faded yellow door. She pushed it open and a bell rang.
Inside was a counter, and behind, shelves upon which stood perhaps twenty dusty brown bottles. Bold fonts on cream and blue labels displayed odd foreign names – Zundert, Achel, Gregorius, Westmalle, all ones that she was now familiar with. Perhaps too familiar? A coffee machine, all shiny bright steel and red levers, stood at one end of the counter. The enticing odour of coffee was noticeable by its absence.
A tall thin man in a green apron appeared. Oliver perhaps? He had short grey hair, with matching beard and moustache. He wore thin-rimmed silver spectacles. He looked like a university lecturer, or what she imagined one to look like. She sighed. She’d had to leave school at sixteen.
“Hello, Mrs. Fuhring, the usual?”
She averted her eyes and nodded, saying nothing.
The man busied himself behind the counter, taking a round, unlabelled brown bottle from a fridge.
She wondered why Oliver, if it were he, didn’t dust the bottles on the shelves. It would only take five minutes! And where exactly did he go when he wasn’t serving?
He opened the bottle and brought it over with a matching glass, a large shallow goblet with Monasticity printed on it in gothic red script.
She poured out a cloudy orange liquid, admiring the miraculous white fluffy head, and inhaling yeasty orange aromas. She waited for the man to leave, pretending to look at her phone. As if anyone would call or message her! She thought of her husband, Eric. He’d said he was going to get a new blade for the lawnmower, but from the shine in his eyes and the smell of aftershave she knew where he was really going. She’d caught him bang to rights recently, a packet of condoms in his jacket pocket. He’d said he’d ‘found’ them on the pavement and was ‘going to give them to a friend.’ As if!
Presently he’d be with his teenaged ‘lover,’ Christine. Knowing him, right now they’d probably be having a ‘sixty nine.’ Yuk, the thought made her feel sick.
Once alone, she closed her eyes and took a large mouthful of beer, feeling the foamy head tickle her nose. She swirled it around her mouth and tongue with her pink-lipsticked lips slightly open. What could she taste? Honey, raisins, banana, leather perhaps? and the bite of pure alcohol. Wonderful! Her head swam and she felt better.
Mrs. Fuhring ran her fingers over a piece of coloured paper stuck to the front of a large, olive-green, hardback book, old but in very good condition. Looking closely she saw it was a painting. Lighted cabins at the front of a sailing ship against stylised, unrealistic grey-blue waves. On the deck were a group of what looked like elves, and looking down from the upper cabin, three young figures, one of whom sported a pair of wings. Fairies she presumed.
She traced her nails over the gilded title above the ‘pictorial onlay,’ as she knew it to be properly called. The Children’s Golden Treasure Book. And beneath, the onlay, the words, ‘Brimful of Joyous Entertainment.’ Hah, if only she could feel joyous!
Inside, on the thick cream paper were stories of schoolchildren, witches, fairies, goblins, elves, and there were numerous illustrations of all kinds. From rough pencil sketches, through more sophisticated engravings, to colour plates. An enchanted world, now vanished, replaced by Xboxes, and PlayStations, she reflected with disdain.
She admired the endpapers, brightly coloured figures from the tales no doubt. Hideous witches confronted a handsome prince in a green cloak, a knight rode on a white charger, and a yellow sailing ship displayed a flag, The Golden Vanitee.
Mrs. Fuhring had passed through narrow corridors lined with old Penguins, more modern paperbacks, and cloth-covered volumes from the past, ‘when books were books,’ as she thought. Then down a spiral staircase into her ‘special place,’ a circular room filled with nothing but books and two armchairs, covered in worn red-brown leather.
She looked at the price, £12. She didn’t really want to spend so much, maybe she could offer £10? The thought of doing so made her stomach queasy, she wasn’t one for bartering.
She plucked out a short thick black hardback – The Answer Book. Interesting! She read the back cover. ‘Concentrate on your problem for sixty seconds, with your right hand palm on the front cover, then open at a random page and the solution will be given.’ She had a quick peek and saw that every other page had a short sentence on it.
All right! She did as instructed, closing her eyes and thinking of Eric, his thinning hair and beer belly, and how thirty years of marriage had worn them both down. Then of silly, plain-looking Christine, sitting, bored, at her menial library job. She was nevertheless well proportioned, and, no doubt Eric took pleasure in her eager, young body Mrs. Fuhring admitted. Mind you, Christine hadn’t had to bear three kids!

A minute must be up, surely! She opened the book and stood shocked. The ‘answer’ was ‘Laugh about it.’ Well it was hardly a laughing matter, your husband ‘playing away’ with a young ‘floozie’! Suddenly, she envisioned Eric’s spotty fat bottom riding up and down on top of Christine’s sweaty white body. She smiled. Surely Christine couldn’t really enjoy it. She was just after the perks – meals, concerts, hotel rooms. She felt a bit better. Well, two could play at that game. There was a young lad at Tesco’s who was always friendly towards her. In fact more than friendly on occasion. Probably sex starved. Well maybe she might just put him out of his misery! She looked at her watch. Just time for another bottle of Monasticity first!

To purchase the stories (up to June 2017) in paperback, Kindle eBook, and audiobook form, please see Shop.

If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 400 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 180! 

Comic Tragedy

Monks at Pluscarden Abbey prepare for Christmas

(900 words)

Monastic life had its ups and downs. At first it had been quite exciting, rising at 4.30 in the old Abbey in the summer, seeing mist covering the expansive lawns, whilst a golden glow on the horizon diffused over the orchard.
Opening a window with it’s ancient leaded panes and breathing in that air, the air of creation. Taking it deep, deep into the lungs, holding it, thanking God for this life, and exhaling with gratitude.
As the months went past and summer turned to autumn and autumn turned to winter, it wasn’t quite so exciting. The attraction of getting out of a warm bed onto stone cold flags, seeing your breath misting in the candlelight, not so appealing. Then a trip down a dimly lit corridor to fetch a jug of hot water for washing and shaving. Today, there was something wrong, the water was freezing cold, an ordeal to do my ablutions.
Then out into the cold wind of the cloisters to the church and Vigils, the first service of the day. Brother Cecil greeted me, his double chin wobbling beneath his round pink face.
“Having a lie-in Brother Paul?”
“No, the water wasn’t heated, it took me longer.”
Brother Cecil’s laugh sounded like a dog barking. “When I was a novice the water was never heated!”
I looked at his fat smirking face with disdain, then mentally asked God to forgive my uncharitable thoughts.
The day proceeded as usual, 6.15, a bowl of tea, bread, butter and marmalade, then Lauds, half an hour of praising God. My thoughts had changed over the last months. Surely a supreme being who designed the universe didn’t need to be adulated? It was rather like making a vivarium for an ant colony. Yes, you’d like to observe them busying themselves with making tunnels, attending to the queen, and doing whatever in God’s name ants do, but you’d hardly need them to be singing hymns and worshiping you!
Anyway, after Lectio Divina, Terce, and Mass, I felt zombified due to lack of sleep. I’d prayed for God’s help, but he was obviously off on a mission somewhere else today. I felt truly knackered.
“Come along Brother Paul, no more slacking today!” the dulcet tones of Brother Cecil rang out. “Cellar duty for you!”
My four letter reply stayed in my mind, the Lord be praised! I looked at a clock on the wall, 10.05, three hours to go, until after dinner I’d be able to retreat to my chamber and ‘crash out’ for half an hour before None, the fifth service of the day.
“Come along, come along, Brother Maurice is down there already!”
Down in the cellar, it was my and Brother Maurice’s task to brush mould off an area of wall with heavy wire brushes. Then to paint the area with limewash. Cold, damp and unpleasant work.
“Good Lord!” I heard Brother Maurice exclaim.
“What’s up?” I went over to where he was working to find a brick had become loose, revealing a cavity. “Is there anything in there?”
He removed the brick and fished around, pulling out a small book, some candles and a wide cardboard tube about a foot long. “It’s a diary, written in Latin,” he said, examining the book. “It talks about Father Jeremiah. That was before the war!”
I took the tube, and prised off the cap. There was something inside. I extracted it to find a roll of some kind of waxed paper. I unrolled it on a nearby table. “Look at this!” Inside was a copy of the Beano!
We both stared at it. Why on Earth would anyone have secreted a comic behind a wall?! Brother Maurice smoothed out the curled, but still brightly coloured paper. It showed the antics of an ostrich and a monkey in six frames. A red oval contained white lettering, BIG EGGO. “Good Lord, this is number one!”
The cover advertised a ‘Whoopee’ mask. He shook the comic and a thin black cloth mask with two elastic loops to go behind the ears tumbled out.
“Brother Maurice, Brother Paul!” called a familiar voice. The staircase creaked under the fat, brown-robed form of Brother Cecil.
We exchanged glances. There wasn’t time to hide the comic.
Later, after 1 p.m Sext, a short hymn and some prayers, I proceeded to Dinner. Today mutton stew, served with chips, roast parsnips, and wholewheat rolls and butter – a most welcome repast!
“Brother Paul, Brother Paul!” It was Brother Maurice.
“What?”
He led me to one side. “That comic we found. It’s worth … it’s worth …. He was visibly shaking.
“What? How much?”
“Twenty to thirty thousand pounds … with that mask!!”
“What?!! Look we’d better find out what Brother Cecil did with it.”
“No need!” Brother Cecil’s booming voice interrupted as his rotund form came into view. “I was intending to speak to Father Abbot, I thought it might be worth a pound or two and suitable for our Christmas auction, but just then I heard that Brother David had a bad case of diarrhoea, and there was a severe shortage of toilet paper. Brother Cedric had just gone for a supply. That, er, comic was an excellent substitute!” He looked at our ashen faces with surprise. “Apparently there wasn’t quite enough, unfortunately, so he had to use that mask thingy to ‘finish off.’ “Praise be to God that you found it!”

To purchase To Cut a Short Story Short: 111 Little Stories, the ‘best of my blog’ (up to July 2017) in paperback, Kindle eBook, and (now) audiobook form, please see Shop.

If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 400 word story group please contact me and I’ll be pleased to send details.

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on the blog. There are over 180! 

Free audiobooks!

TCASSS cover ACX Angus

I’m excited to announce that my book, To Cut a Short Story Short: 111 Little Stories, is now available as an audiobook. It comprises the ‘best of my blog’ up to June 2017, and is over six hours long. It is narrated by Angus Freathy, who has narrated 15 audiobooks to date (http://adbl.co/2m3lPDa). His ‘voices’ really bring the stories to life and I’m very pleased with the result!

I have a limited number of promotional codes (worth £16/$20 each) to give away for free copies! They can ONLY be used on either Audible.com or Audible.co.uk, but you should be able to use either site from most countries.

So if you would like a free copy of To Cut a Short Story Short: 111 Little Stories in audiobook form, please contact me via my blog contact page (only) and I’ll be pleased to send you a promotional code whilst they are still available. Let me know where in the world you are or otherwise please indicate your preference as to which of the above two sites you’d prefer (the codes are only valid for one or the other, not both).

UPDATE – 29TH NOVEMBER 2017

I’m now pleased to announce that Bound in Morocco, a short story (NOT on my blog), is ALSO available on Audiobook, again narrated by Angus Freathy. I also have some promotional codes for FREE copies of this title, which I’m happy to send on request, see details above. This is only 50 minutes long (as opposed to To Cut a Short Story Short: 111 Little Stories, which is six hours 20 minutes) but is, I think, an entertaining and enjoyable adventure, set in Morocco. Use the link given below to go to the first title, then there is a link lower down the page to go to this one.

BASIC INSTRUCTIONS

To get your free audiobook once you have the code, you need to create an Amazon account (if you don’t already have one) then you go to Audible and create an Audible account (if you don’t already have one). That doesn’t commit you to anything BTW, you DON’T have to become a member. Then you follow some simple instructions to ‘purchase’ and download your audiobook. Full instructions are given below for reference.

There’s absolutely no catch, I would just ask that you leave a positive review on Audible’s site if you enjoy the book, but that’s up to you.

You can play it in iTunes or Windows Media Player and download to your phone etc. etc. Audible audiobooks are also currently compatible with:

  • Fire phone
  • Fire tablet
  • Kindle for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch
  • Kindle for Android
  • Kindle for Samsung
  • All New Kindle Oasis
  • Kindle Touch
  • Kindle Keyboard
  • The Audible apps for iOS, Android and Windows
  • Audible software for PC and Mac
  • MP3 players and other devices compatible with Audible’s file format

DETAILED INSTRUCTIONS

1. Go to my book’s page on Audible.com or Audible.co.uk (where you can also listen to a sample).

2. Add the audiobook to your cart.

3. If you are prompted to sign in, please create a new Audible.com or Audible.co.uk account or log in. Otherwise, proceed by clicking “Do you have a promotional code?” beneath the cover artwork of the audiobook.

4. Enter the promo code, and click “Apply Code.”

5. A credit for the audiobook will be added to your account. Then click the box next to “1 Credit” and click the “Update” button to apply the credit to the purchase.

6. After you select “1 Credit” and click “Update” to modify your shopping cart, the price for the audiobook will change to $0.00. You may proceed through the checkout by clicking “Next Step” and “Complete Purchase” on the subsequent page.

TO DOWNLOAD ON A MAC  (very simple)

TO DOWNLOAD ON A WINDOWS COMPUTER (requires one extra step)

 

The Magic Onion

the-magic-onion-things-didnt-know-onions-could-do

(650 words)

Heidi came in with a string bag of onions and dumped them on the kitchen table. I looked up from my computer screen. “What’s with all the onions?”
“The guy on the market was giving them away!”
“What?! Couldn’t he sell them?”
“They were packing up. There weren’t any customers really and it was starting to rain. It was cold too. I think he just wanted to get rid of them.”
“Oh. Would you like some tea?”
She took off her navy blue fleece, tossing her long brown curls back, and hung it up. She smiled. “Yeah, thanks, that’d be nice.”
I got up and filled the kettle. I ignited the gas ring, watching the blue flame hiss and burn for a moment, enjoying it’s warmth, then put the kettle on.
Heidi came over and put an arm round my shoulder, kissing my cheek. “What are you doing?“
“Oh, just writing e-mails. Boring stuff.”
“I remember grandma used to have a lovely recipe for eggs. She’d cut a big onion ring and fry it on one side. Then she’d turn it over and crack an egg into it. She’d add some water and cover it for a few minutes. We’d have them on toast. I learnt how to do it myself and I’d eat three at a time!”
“Greedy guts! You’ll have to make me some.” The kettle was whistling. I put teabags into a large brown pot and poured boiling water onto them, inhaling the familiar, comforting odour. “My dad used to clean spoons with them!”
“What?”
“Yeah, he’d get an onion, slice it, then crush the slices. He’d put them in a pot with a little water and leave it for a while. Then he’d dab a cloth in the mixture and rub it on the spoons until they were clean and shiny. I used to clean my penknife blades with it. I had one of those Victorinox things.”
“What, were you in the Scouts or something?”
I laughed “Yeah, I was always prepared!”
We both sat at the kitchen table. I closed my computer lid. Heidi took some scissors and cut the string bag. She selected an onion, shut her eyes and held it to her nose, inhaling deeply. “I think people are like onions.”
She could be deep could Heidi. “How d’you mean?”
“Well, on the outside they can be a bit rotten but inside they’re OK.”
“True.”
“Then, there are translucent layers, but you can only see through a couple. You don’t know what’s really inside. You think they’re kind to animals, peel a layer off and it turns out they put a hamster in a microwave. That kind of thing.”
“That’s horrible!”
“People’ve done it. Then sometimes they’re hard on the outside but soft, rotten in places, on the inside.”
I poured the tea into two large blue enamel mugs. “Mum was like that.” I took a bottle of milk from the fridge and poured some into our cups. Neither of us took sugar.
She continued, “Sometimes there’s like another layer of skin inside, like an onion inside an onion.” She sipped some tea and smiled. “That’s like a schizo I suppose!”
I cupped my mug in my hands, enjoying the warmth and looking into Heidi’s green eyes. “I’ll tell you something. Just you and me, right?”
“Yeah, sure.”
“Well you remember my dad’s funeral?”
“Yeah, of course. You were well upset. Don’t blame you though.”
I took an onion, rolling it slowly between my hands. “Not exactly, I had one of these – cut into pieces and wrapped in foil. In a jacket pocket.”
She sat up. “What d’you mean?”
“Well every now and then I’d go somewhere private, get a piece out and put it up to my eyes.”
Heidi looked shocked.

“Dad was like an onion all right. Nice on the outside. Different layers for different folk. Bitter at the core.”

To purchase the stories in paperback, Kindle eBook, and audiobook form, please see Shop.

If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 400 word story group please contact us and we’ll send details.

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on the blog. There are over 180! 

Red Nose Day

dolls2

(550 words)

Ellen stood, gazing around the room in awe. Claire had said it was OK to look in here, but she felt somehow guilty, as if prying. Surrounding her, stood and sitting on the floor, and on shelves around the walls, were perhaps two hundred dolls.
She’d come to babysit her friend’s five year old daughter, Bonny. Claire had told Ellen that she collected dolls, that she had ‘a roomful’ of them, but Ellen had never imagined Claire had been speaking literally. She’d put Bonny to bed after the little girl had fallen asleep watching a Disney DVD, made herself a sandwich, watched TV, and, growing bored, thought she’d look around the house. Look but don’t touch. The babysitter’s dictum.
In the front row was a female doll with a black tunic top and rose coloured skirt. Wavy silver hair descended to her shoulders beneath a conical pale yellow hat and bright blue eyes looked out from the lifelike face above pronounced pink cheeks. She bore a curiously neutral expression. You couldn’t tell if she were happy, or cross even. Claire guessed the doll’s costume was Swiss or German. The other dolls were of every size, shape and nationality. Chinese dolls with slanted eyes, Indian dolls in beautiful saris, babies in shawls, ‘ladies’ in emerald green finery, blonde hair piled high in immaculate curls.
Then there was a section of clown dolls, perhaps thirty in number, varying in height from just a foot or so, up to an almost life-size clown in a rocking chair. Its face was chalk-white, its eyes were black hollows and its grinning lips a garish red.
Ellen noticed that they universally sported red noses, the one unique identifying feature of a clown she supposed. She heard the front door close and Claire call out, “Ellen, where are you?”
She checked her watch. Eleven o’clock. “Coming!” She closed the door quietly, hearing a creak from within. That was odd.
Downstairs, Claire was looking happy. “Hi, how was Bonny?”
“Oh, she was fine. We watched The Little Mermaid, and she fell asleep.”
“She must’ve seen that one twenty times!” Claire went into the kitchen. Ellen followed. “What did you get up to?” Claire asked.
“Oh, after I’d put Bonny to bed I watched TV then looked at your dolls. I didn’t know you meant it when you said you had a roomful. They’re amazing!”
Claire took some bread out of a container. “Yes, I collected them over the last thirty years. I’m making a sandwich. I’m starving, you want one?”
“No thanks, I already had one.”
“What did you do with the carving knife?” Claire asked.
Ellen looked puzzled. The block that held the knives had an empty socket. “I’m sorry, I washed it. I thought I’d put it back.”
“Don’t worry.” Claire opened a draw and picked out a serrated knife. “This’ll do.” She cut two slices and opened the fridge, taking out a pack of Lurpak Light and some slices of ham. “Which dolls did you like best?”
Ellen laughed. “Well, I’ll tell you which one I didn’t like. That big clown doll in the rocking chair!”
Claire turned, looking pale. “What d’you mean? I don’t have a big clown doll. I sit in that rocker myself!”
“What?!”
“Listen!”
Heavy footsteps were coming down the stairs.

To purchase the stories in paperback, Kindle eBook, and audiobook form, please see Shop.

If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 400 word story group please contact us and we’ll send details.

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on the blog. There are over 180! 

Memories of Oscar

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On Sunday 1st October 2017 I lost Oscar, ‘my little friend’ and companion of the last fifteen and a half years, after a short illness.

I took in a stray cat, Cleo, in 2001 and she had four kittens on the 27th March 2002, coincidentally the same day as my own birthday! Here they are at just a few weeks old.

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From front to back they are Ginny, Lily, Tiffin and Oscar.

I kept them all. Ginny died in May 2004, Cleo in September 2004, Lily in July 2016 and Tiffin in February 2017. So Oscar was the only surviving cat of the family of five. All the siblings had gentle, friendly natures and were very well behaved.

So as a ‘tribute’ to Oscar I’ve listed some happy memories of him, in no particular order.

• Oscar had relatively recently discovered a taste for sandwiches and toast. He liked cheese and/or ham sandwiches with mayo and wholemeal bread and butter. And he was very fond of paté on toast, Ardennes and chicken liver especially.

• He would sleep on my bed and sometimes ‘knead’ my head in the night. I had to keep his claws cut short!

• He liked me to lie on my side in bed and crook my arm, then he would come under the quilt and rest his head on my arm and sleep with me for a while. That was something he learned to do only after Tiffin passed away.

• Once, at the vets, Oscar jumped off the table and started ‘exploring,’ even going into the stock room. He rubbed around the vet’s legs and the vet said he was ‘exceptionally friendly’!

• He recently grew to like the hot air stream from the hairdryer and in recent weeks would sit on my bed when he heard it going, in order to be ‘dried’!

• Oscar would STAND at a birdbath and drink water from it (watch full screen with full volume!) [N.B. There was a problem with embedding this video so I’ve added a link in case the video doesn’t appear.]

video of Oscar drinking from bird bath

• In the evening I often go for a walk round my village. When he saw me putting my shoes and jacket on, he would sit by the door, waiting to come outside with me. Then when I came back about 30-40 minutes later he’d be waiting on the drive for me.

• My cats had their dry food in some ‘feeding tubes,’ to reduce and slow their eating. Lily could do it straight away (she was the clever one), Tiffin learnt in a couple of days but poor Oscar just couldn’t get the hang of it and had to be trained over a full week! I would put a tube on its side, and a piece of food just outside the opening to start with, gradually putting the food further into the tube and increasing the angle over a few days until it was vertical. Once he’d learned how to do it, he’d sit for several minutes at a time, happily fishing Go Cat out of the tubes.

• Oscar liked me to leave the under-stairs cupboard door open so that he could explore. He would often rummage around in there and once found a pair of glasses that had been missing for several days!

• Once I got up at 2 a.m. to see him sitting on top of a tree in my front garden in the pouring rain! The tree was maybe ten feet high at the time.

• To stop him rolling on my computer desk when writing etc. I’d ‘sacrifice’ my comfortable chair for him to sleep on, whilst I sat on a plain, hard one.

• None of my cats made any noise. Then when Lily died, Tiffin ‘found his voice’ and started to miaow. Similarly, when Tiffin died, Oscar started to miaow, sometimes quite loudly.

• When he was a little kitten he couldn’t stop sneezing one night. I phoned the vets at midnight and they asked if he was dehydrated. I had to pinch the skin behind his neck and see if it stayed up or went down. It went down and I knew he’d be OK.

• In my previous house Oscar would growl like a dog if someone rang the doorbell at an unusual time! If it was a pupil for guitar lessons he would sense that from the time and my activities, and not worry.

• When he was very young I remember him coming back under the fence from our neighbour’s garden with a long piece of blue rope that he had ‘stolen’!

 

Related:

A very helpful guide, if you’ve lost a pet.

https://www.helpguide.org/articles/grief/coping-with-losing-a-pet.htm

An online tribute I left for Lily.

http://www.cat-lovers-only.com/lily-from-tetford.html

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on my blog. There are over 160! 

If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 400 word story group please contact me and I’ll send details.

Also, I’m very pleased to announce that ‘the best of my blog,’ To Cut a Short Story Short: 111 Little Stories, and a short story, Bound in Morocco, are now both available as paperbacks and Kindle eBooks. Please see Shop in the menu above for full details.

 

Keeping It in the Family

police accident

(700 words)

“Hard to imagine he’ll get away with it,” said my sister Donna.
“Well, he says if we both stick to the story, they can’t prove anything.”
Donna looked thin and pale, not surprising, considering the strain we’d all been living under. “I still can’t believe it, that poor woman!”
“Look, I know it’s awful, but nothing we can say or do’s going to bring her back is it?”
Donna sighed. “I suppose not. But it’s not justice is it?”
“What’s justice at the end of the day? Just someone’s opinion over someone else’s. Where’s the sense in him spending years in prison. He’d lose everything, and it’d destroy mum.”
Donna turned away, saying nothing, busying herself with preparing lunch. I collapsed into an old armchair.
 –
My brother Matthew and I had gone to see a play. Donna was coming too, but had cancelled, feeling too ill after a minor dental procedure. On the way home, with Matt driving, a woman had walked out onto a zebra crossing, just as we were coming out of town on the main high street. Matt had been pontificating about the main female role, in his view the only one who could really act, never mind that she was a pretty blonde thing with large breasts. He wasn’t concentrating and the car ploughed into the woman with a loud thud, sending her flying. We got out and stood in horrified silence, looking down at the attractive face, blood now leaking over it from a crack in her head where it had hit the road. In the orange street light the vital fluid began to resemble a black veil.
“Listen Sarah, she ran out in front of us, I didn’t have time to stop,” said Matt, staring into my eyes.
“What?!”
“You heard.”
We looked around. It was gone eleven and the streets were deserted in the quiet town. There was no other traffic.
Then a window opened above a shop by the zebra crossing. A woman looked down. “Oh my God!”
Matt whispered, “She ran out in front of us, remember!”

Reluctantly, I nodded, just as a door opened to the right of the shop and a middle-aged woman clutching a mobile phone rushed out in slippers and a coat, hurriedly thrown over a nightie. “I’m a nurse,” she said, then bent to test the woman’s pulse. “She’s still breathing!” She phoned for an ambulance.

Later, we’d heard that the woman, 33 year old Sylvia Barnes, had died on the way to hospital. I’d felt totally gutted and mad at Matt. He’d said he was sorry, but he’d always had a ruthless streak and seemed to be taking the whole shocking affair in his stride. I’d needed to confide in someone, so I’d told Donna. I could trust her to keep it in the family.
We’d been taken to the police station and breathalyzed. Fortunately, Matt had only drunk coke at the interval. I’d had a large glass of Pinot Grigio. The car was in Matt’s name and I wasn’t insured to drive it, so they’d believed him when he said he was driving.
Then we’d both been interviewed the next day. I’d been asked the same question in twenty different ways. What exactly had I seen? My answer: “Nothing.” I’d been looking in my handbag for my mobile phone and just been aware of a crash and being restrained by my seat belt as I jerked forward under the impact. In the end I’d come to believe it myself.
The police had appealed for witnesses but no one had come forward, and there was no CCTV, thank God! It had all come down to Matt’s word against the suspicions of the police and Sylvia’s family.
Then yesterday had come a bombshell. I’d read that Sylvia had recently given birth to her first child, a girl they’d named Emma. I hadn’t known. A thought came into my mind, ‘It’s never too late to do the right thing.’
“What are you thinking?” asked Donna, putting a plate of ham and tomato sandwiches on the table.
I took one, and opened it, looking at the juicy thick-cut local ham. “Oh, just wondering if there’s any mustard.”

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on my blog. There are over 160! 

If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 400 word story group please contact me and I’ll send details.

Also, I’m very pleased to announce that ‘the best of my blog,’ To Cut a Short Story Short: 111 Little Stories, and a short story, Bound in Morocco, are now both available as paperbacks and Kindle eBooks. Please see Shop in the menu above for full details.

What’s in Store?

life-storage-434-3-storage-units-06222017-med

(1100 words)

Waves in Plasmas. I flicked through pages of mind-boggling equations in the heavy hardback book. The Susceptibility and Dielectric Tensors. How the hell could I have understood this stuff? Thirty years later it might as well have been in Chinese! At the sound of muffled hammering I threw the book back into a box of old textbooks and went out of my storage unit into the corridor. Four units away a bright light showed under a door. What the hell are they doing in there?!
I’d arrived at the IndieStorage warehouse at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, as per my usual routine, after teaching the guitar for four hours. There, I’d spend until 8.15 p.m sorting through boxes of books and papers and then walk into the town centre to the Cock, an ancient pub, distinguished by its whitewashed walls, criss-crossed with black oak beams, that stood at a crossroads. There I’d meet Jim, my old friend and drinking partner for the last fifteen years.
It was March; cold and dark on the isolated industrial estate. Heavy low cloud blotted out the moon and it felt like it might snow. A couple of lamp posts cast a cold light into the murk. I’d approached a large steel shutter and tapped my code into a panel. With a loud clanking the shutter began to roll up. I smiled at the thought of the first time I’d come here, I’d expected a small door, not a huge shutter for lorries to unload at, and my heart had pounded as the unexpected noise shattered the silence. I’d felt embarrassed and afraid someone would suddenly appear, demanding to know what I was doing.
Now I knew the ropes there was no problem. I stepped inside the building and, leaving the shutter up, went through to a gate. I entered my code again and it opened, giving me access to four floors of storage units, mostly five foot by ten, over one hundred units per level.
I always found the place eerie, lights only came on when you passed sensors, there was no discernible heating, and there were cameras everywhere. Some of the units had huge pictures of exotic doors stuck to their mundane thin steel ones, giving the appearance of the entrance to a castle, or a bank vault. I wondered if you had to pay extra for those.
I liked to wander around the empty, echoing corridors, wondering if some bored security guard was following my movements on a screen in a distant control room. Once I’d espied a unit slightly ajar. I’d opened the door, to find it was empty, and been startled by an ear-splitting siren. I’d looked pleadingly at a nearby camera and seconds later the din had been shut off, whether by an operator or automatically, I didn’t know. After that I’d never touched any door other than mine!
In all the times I’d gone there I’d only ever met one other soul, so I was taken aback to hear raised voices when I exited the lift and headed through the maze of corridors towards my unit. As I approached, I saw a black man, perhaps sixty years old, with a grey crew cut and a rash of grey stubble, clad in a thick maroon sweater, and jeans, arguing with a woman. She wore a long, beige gabardine mackintosh, was perhaps fifty, and taller than him. Straggly blonde hair fell over a makeup-caked face. She wore garish red lipstick and her eyelids were heavily made up with blue powder.
The man was gesticulating with a hacksaw, and they were speaking a strange language I didn’t recognise at all. I thought about turning around and going back, but they caught sight of me and fell silent. As I self-consciously walked past, the woman smiled and said ‘good evening’ with a peculiar foreign accent. I noticed she had lipstick on her teeth, which were nicotine-yellow. Her voice was husky and I saw her chest appeared to be completely flat. The man merely stared, open-mouthed, at me, as if I had two heads.
They seemed perturbed that my unit was so close to theirs, but I had work to do. Sorting through eighty boxes that had previously languished in my parents’ garage for years, before they’d moved to another part of the country.
There was no light in the units themselves, only in the corridors, and they would turn off after five minutes, leaving just occasional dim security lights. To overcome that I would normally work in the entrance to my unit, with empty boxes for sorting books spread out into the corridor, where my presence would constantly trigger a sensor
So I’d been going through boxes of old university text books and other scientific ones I’d collected, sorting them into alphabetical order of author. Maybe I could sell some on Amazon? Or maybe science had advanced so much that they were now redundant?
From time to time I became aware of the odd couple talking animatedly in their strange language, sometimes raising their voices, and dragging things around. I wondered if they had furniture stored in there and mulled over taking a walk down the corridor to the toilet to take a peek.
As I began to fill some boxes in the corridor I noticed that they’d closed their door. They must have had some kind of battery-powered lantern though, as bright light shone from beneath it. Then there came the sound of sawing and a strange intermittent thumping sound, disturbing my concentration. Damn them!
Presently I heard their door open and sounds of dragging and clanking. I retreated into my unit and peered out to see the woman pulling a trolley. The man followed, dragging a huge wooden box. With some effort, the woman picked up the other end and they manhandled it onto the trolley. She noticed me looking at them but gave no sign. In silence they padlocked the door and wheeled the trolley down the corridor. Soon I heard the distant sound of the lift.
Thankfully able to concentrate again I managed to sort through a further six boxes of books, before stacking everything back inside the unit and padlocking it. 8.15 p.m. on the dot. Excellent!

As I walked down the corridor towards the lift, I noticed something on the yellow floor tiles outside their door. Taking some tissue from my pocket I wiped it, then looked at the stain with surprise. Hmm. Well, I’d have something to talk to Jim about. I knew fresh blood when I saw it!

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on my blog. There are over 160! 

If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 400 word story group please contact me and I’ll send details.

Also, I’m very pleased to announce that ‘the best of my blog,’ To Cut a Short Story Short: 111 Little Stories, and a short story, Bound in Morocco, are now both available as paperbacks and Kindle eBooks. Please see Shop in the menu above for full details.