Category Archives: fiction

Pancakes and Possession

Our latest story prompt was a bit of a mixture, with a few stories based on the theme of pancakes and others focusing on the theme of possession. We even had a poem to add to the mix this time. Regardless of theme, all of the stories were a great success with the rest of the group and we hope that you enjoy reading them!

Yours, by Michael Bailey

Gwen walked along the woodland path here and somewhere else. It was cool in the leafy shade, a relief from the searing sun outside on the lake. The path wound up the hillside between birch trees. A strong breeze shook the branches and made the leaves shiver. The birdsong died away as the temperature seemed to drop and Gwen felt the skin on her arms rise in goose-bumps. She looked behind her, there was nothing to be seen and yet a shadow moved at the corner of her vision. She stopped and looked again, the shadow didn’t move but hung like a dark area out of focus close to the path. “Get away from me. You have no place here, go back to where you belong,”, Gwen commanded. The shadow dissolved but Gwen didn’t feel reassured. She hurried on, turning down the hill and back into the sunlight at the lakeside.

She was still agitated when she met up with her partner, Rob. She told him what had happened and he asked if she was sure. She nodded. They went back up the path she had taken but all was peaceful and untroubled. They returned to the lake and sat on a bench looking left across the lake to the cleared track through the woods underneath the descent of a winter ski lift.

Rob lifted his binoculars and studied the vertical trackway. The supports of the lift cast black shadows that lay parallel at intervals like railway sleepers. He had thought he might spot a deer but instead he saw nothing. He couldn’t be sure, he couldn’t see anything to focus on but he got the impression of something outside his field of view moving from shadow to shadow towards them. Finally it disappeared behind the brick building that housed the end of the ski lift fifty yards away from where they sat. Now it was Rob who felt the hairs on his neck rise. He could sense something there, hidden behind the wall he was staring at. Gwen suggested they go into the hotel.

They talked about what might or might not be out there and drank a beer each, encouraging one another to put the incidents aside as the products of overactive imagination in this slightly spooky out-of-season ski resort. The shadows softened and the colours intensified into the golden hour of evening as they stayed at their table by the window and ate supper.

Upstairs in their room Rob was relaxing when Gwen burst sobbing from the shower. She said she was frightened, her eyes were wide and the suntan on her face had blanched where her skin was drawn and pale. Rob tried to put his arms around her but she pushed him away clutching her towel tighter around her shoulders. No, she said, I’m frightened of you. “Who are you?” she asked, staring hard at him. “I’m Rob and you are Gwen and we are the same as ever”, he told her. He suggested they go back into the bathroom and look in the mirror.

As she stood in front of the mirror over the sink with Rob standing behind her Gwen couldn’t bring herself to look. Rob gently raised her chin with his hand.

Look, he said, there is nothing to be frightened of. He put his hands on her shoulders and massaged them and her neck which was stiff with tension. As she relaxed she let her towel slip to the floor and he looked over her shoulder to admire her nakedness. Come on into bed he said, it’s all over, nothing to be frightened any more. He took her hand and led her into the bedroom.

Gwen kissed Rob tentatively at first and then with a desperation that went beyond their usual passion. She clung to him as he kissed her. She moaned and wrapped her legs around him pushing herself against him, pulling his buttocks with her hands, digging her fingernails into his skin.

Rob’s face was above Gwen’s as he entered her. In that familiar moment when intense feelings of love and oneness usually overcame him he suddenly saw Gwen’s face transformed into the mask of a wild beast, lips drawn back in a snarl that bunched under the merciless eyes staring at him. The long sharp white teeth were daggers bared in a grimace of savagery that would surely rip his throat open in an instant. Rob’s eyes popped as he thrust harder and heard his own voice “I love you, I don’t care, do what you want, I’ll never stop loving you.”

He blinked and Gwen’s face had the look of sublime and far away calm it always had when they made love. The terrifying mask had gone. Rob had no doubt that he had seen it and that he had somehow passed a test by reacting as he had. Accepting his fate without bargaining, without relinquishing his love for Gwen whoever or whatever she was.

In the morning Gwen was her old self, chatting about the history of the resort and of the region they had travelled through to get there. She said nothing of the strange apparition they might have imagined in the afternoon or of the terror they felt in the night. Rob didn’t want to upset her so he kept quiet as well.

Weeks later Gwen started crying one evening. Words tumbled from her as she told Rob she was afraid of what she was inside. Rob let her talk until she ran dry then gradually tried to comfort and reassure her that he loved her.

She was not convinced. “How can you love me when you don’t know who or what I am inside?” she asked. Rob smiled sadly and shook his head. “Gwen my love, I have already seen what you are and I know one day you may bite my head off, quite literally. But loving you makes me what I am and I am yours.

 

The Embassy Ball, by Alex Chase

Our eyes met

Across a crowded room

Kindred spirits shared a spark

A single thought

Your eyes shone

Brighter than the diamonds round your neck

And then we’re off

Our twin circles

Never quite align

Mutually exclusive gatherings

At the Embassy Shrove Tuesday Ball

As lackeys and toadies

Each more demanding than the last

Beg for favours

“Not me, it’s for a friend”.

I found out who you were

Married

Children

A duchess, in another life

The endless social swirl

Spins us ever further.

Apart we drift.

I saw you later on that night

But you were occupied

In quartering a crepe

Lemon and sugar

Simple tastes for one so glamorous

The music plays

I hesitate

“Ask her to dance”

A voice behind me says

I turn but no one’s there

Perhaps an angel

I turn again

Too late

You and your partner

Spin

Twin dervishes

Never pausing for breath

Much less a chance for other men

To tear you from his grip.

And then the evening’s done

The serving staff

Return to tidy up

The debris of the night’s soiree

And back to work

Though sore of head and heart.

What’s this?

Another function to attend

Perhaps this time

We can communicate

In words

And not just looks.

But then I read

Divorce

Society was not for you

And so the country girl went home

To her cows

And sheep.

And stable lads.

The life less gilded.

And I was left

Once more alone

Amid the spires and steeples

Of the urban wilderness

And so I go

Through endless parties

Conferences

And balls

Until I reach the end of term

And finally

Recalled to home

I look

At that great sea of toil and strife

And shines out just this

One moment full of happiness and bliss.

 

I’m So Lucky to be Alive, by Cuca Vega

‘I’m not a pancake!’ I kept repeating again and again to Jimmy, Joey and Tommy.

They wouldn’t believe me.

‘Seriously, I’m just a kind of flat donut, that’s all.’

Jimmy has been a rye bread all his life and the wisdom that comes from such a nutritious way of being prompt him to reflect. ‘Rather a flat donut, then?’

I jumped at the opportunity. ‘Yes! yes! A very flat donut without any jam inside.’

Joey wasn’t convinced and nodded his disbelieve to Tommy.

‘Look.’ I said. ‘Have a try. Just take a little piece of me and tell me I’m not a donut but a pancake.’

Tommy liked the idea and being a mini chocolate roll it was easy to move my way and have a taste.

‘What do you say Tommy?’ the square, sliced white bread Joey shouted from his shelf.

‘Uhmmm… I think Fenny is right; he does taste more “donuty” than pancake-like.’

Jimmy was satisfied and with that he decided: ‘Right then, you can be spared during breakfast time but you are gone in the afternoon tea.’

There!

That was all I wanted – a few more hours of glorious, vibrant life.

I was so happy I could have jiggled if I was not so flat. I did manage to ‘slop-slop’ my edges to show my delight.

It was already 5.30 in the morning. We were all freshly baked and ready for the day ahead. Jimmy and Joye would be eaten up first at breakfast time. Tommy and I, it was certain now, would be gobbled up during the afternoon tea.

Life is great!

I can sit here and savour another 12 hours or so of perfect joy.

I am so lucky to be alive.

 

Nothing Keeps, by Stephen Pellow

Every evening it’s the same. Home from work and it’s been a long day, I know, but there’s never a plan. No organisation. No structure. One by one each and every cupboard is opened and I peer inside to see if there is something – anything – that takes my fancy. Something different. We can’t keep having the same stuff week in, week out. Times are hard and the budget is tight, yes, but a bit of variety wouldn’t hurt.

Right, let’s start again from the beginning. I was looking but not seeing before perhaps. There has to be something more here. Could this be something promising? Store in a cool, dry place. That hasn’t really been an option. Cool is a phrase rarely attributed to this place. The expiry date has long passed. Nothing lasts forever no matter how many preservatives you inject into it. Never say forever. Nothing keeps.

And this? This has been here longer than I have and would probably kill me given half the opportunity. Can’t bin it really though, can I? It’s not part of the diet anymore… shouldn’t really need any physical reminder. In the bin it goes.

Something from somewhere I can’t even pronounce. There wasn’t any harm in experimenting, I suppose, but nothing good came of it either.

Well this is may be worth further investigation. A tin with no labels. Keeps things interesting. But after this long you need labels. Even if you ultimately aren’t going to enjoy what’s inside the can and especially if what’s inside has expired after leaving it so long. Without putting a label on it. Don’t even. Just sweep it off the shelf and straight into the bin. If it’s not good enough for me, I don’t want anyone else having it either.

Maybe check the fridge.

Ah, fruit. Strawberries no less. Their seeds are on the outside. They’re exposed to everything. I’d rather be the seeds of its neighbour in here, the tomato. Cushy and protected inside, shielded from the elements. From feeling.

I fear I may end up popcorn. It’s like I’ve been this little hard kernel. Small and insignificant, in a bag with hundreds of others just like me. Then I have my moment. I finally reach temperature. Maybe I even get there first and I pop and suddenly I’m twice or three times my size, and oh, so sweet. But then so is everyone else. They have their moments too and we are all the same again. The playing field levelled. Most likely I’m the one piece of popcorn that’s stuck to the bottom of the bag, going stale, or ends up on the floor and gets eaten by the dog. Worse still, I remain a kernel. I never had my moment. I never popped.

Or an egg yolk. It would be better to be one of those. A yolk rests within the membrane of the egg, that itself surrounded by a shell. But not a hard shell. It is fragile. It can be cracked all too easily, spilling the gold and the white out and mixing with milk and flour to make a perfect batter.

These cupboards depress me. Pancakes for tea again and then I really must go shopping. Never any bloody food in this house.

 

The Greatest Possession, by Becky Bye

He sat and stared fixedly at the woman talking in front of him, watching the red curves of her lips warp into different positions. He heard sounds, but the words wafted over him like a dream.

Sit still. DON’T panic.

He shifted his position slightly, feigning interest as best he could, crossing his left leg over his right knee, then swapping them over.

He felt his foot begin tapping uncontrollably and he focussed all of his energy onto it, willing it to stop. He linked his hands on his lap and squeezed until his knuckles bleached white. He bit his lip until he could taste metal.

Sit. Still.

The woman behind the desk was handing out a sheet of paper to him. He smiled, reaching out a trembling hand to take it from her and peered down at the paper. It fluttered in his grasp and he squinted, trying to stop the words from bleeding into one on the page.

Focus. You’re absolutely fine.

He realised that the woman had stopped talking and he looked up at her quickly, nodding his head and making noises in the affirmative, hoping that it was the right response. She stretched out her hands in front of her, the painted nails shiny on the pockmarked desk top.

He swallowed hard and placed the paper onto the desk as the woman resumed talking. He scratched his chin, though it didn’t itch.

Deep breaths.

He uncrossed his legs and shifted slightly on the chair, rubbing his palms down his thighs to remove some of the moisture that he could feel seeping through his pores.

Nothing is going to happen, just pay attention.

After a moment, the woman stood up, straightening out her pencil skirt over her thighs and extending her hand.

“Well, that will be all, thank you, we’ll be in touch.”

As their palms met, he felt the woman’s hand tense within his clammy fingers and she hastily withdrew her arm.  His lips trembled at the corners as he contorted them into something of a smile.

As he left the room his ears buzzed, his legs and feet clumsy as he tripped out of the woman’s office and into the hallway. The clinical smell of office equipment made him feel sick and he bustled outside.

The coolness of the air outside calmed him and he inhaled deeply. He sighed, knowing that they wouldn’t be in touch.

Messed that up didn’t you.

Panic attack 1, interview 0.

 

 

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New Published Story: “Shuffle” by Jennifer K. Oliver

Hi everyone. I thought I’d take advantage of the blog and announce my short dark fantasy / horror story “Shuffle” has just been published at the wonderful Kaleidotrope magazine in their summer 2015 issue! I am beyond thrilled. The story is available online for free here:

Shuffle,” a 3300 word post-apocalyptic story about a dead thing reclaiming its life and realising perhaps death is better.

I hope you enjoy.

The Accidental Novelist

I always thought that writing a novel would be impossible, that my ideas could never be big or grand enough to become anything more than rather elaborate short (or not quite so short) stories. That said, I suddenly find myself facing my laptop, on which sits a total of 60,000 words on a single project, and whilst I am loathe to admit it, I guess that does in fact constitute a novel…and not even a finished one at that! I am roughly 5 months into a project that stole my fascination almost a year ago and not that I can say it has been easy up until this point, I can surprise myself by saying that it has actually been really fun. I just hope that it will continue to be so right up until the final edit.

Of course, I have hit stumbling blocks and bumped into various walls in order to get to this point, but unlike with previous projects, I have been able to find ways around these hurdles and to keep myself focussed on the most important point – just keep writing. Since this project began, I have not had a single day off of writing. Even if it means hastily scribbling down 50 words over my bowl of shredded wheat in the morning, some words are better than no words and it is this perseverance which I think has helped me get to where I am now. I still have a long way to go, but I do have a beginning, an ending, and quite a lot of middle, though there stretches before me a good few months of editing, re-writing and inevitably, cutting.

One of the most irritating things which has halted my progress is finding the balance between research and writing. Owing to the fact that my novel is a historical fiction, it means that much of what I have written needs to be researched fully, in order for it to be authentic. I have been aware of the dangers of doing too much research and putting myself off and have settled on a happy medium of simply getting the words down on paper, and just researching critical points as I come to them. The rest of the holes I can fill in later (she says optimistically…)

It is incredibly satisfying watching characters develop and their personalities emerge over the course of a novel that cannot quite be fully alluded to in anything shorter, and fully immersing myself in a world that I have become deeply fascinated by. I would say that my fascination has become a borderline obsession and the research that I have done has been really exciting and interesting, even if not all of it will find its way onto my page.

Hand in hand with the research and excitement however looms the shade of paranoia, and the fear that actually, my idea has already been done before. It seems that everywhere I look, I notice one of my characters appear in something else on television/in a film/in another book, and I worry that particular interpretation is better than mine. Thankfully, my incredibly supportive writers group have been able to silence my demons and have encouraged me to just keep writing and insist that my own interpretation of these historical people and events will naturally be unique to anyone else’s anyway.

I can only hope that I finish my first draft with as much enthusiasm as I have held for my project thus far (and that it won’t take me another 60,000 words to get to the end!)

Progress Report: The Resolution Revolution

I haven’t followed up on one of my previous blog posts before, but I felt that one month on a little bit of a progress report seemed like a good idea. Shortly before writing that last post I was in a place where, for various reasons, things with me needed to change and action needed to be taken.

But I have never been one for too much change, so I started with two areas I could affect immediately – writing and fitness. I had already started with this when I discovered #writeandrun21 was going on (a big thank you to Christine Frazier @BetterNovelProj and her brother Matt @NoMeatAthlete) so tying the two activities together made a lot of sense.

That was the vow – to get healthier and write more. So far, so good.

The continuing support of the #1k1hr writing sprint circle I have found myself a part of at the tail end of last year only gave me the extra encouragement to keep at it. Even when I’m writing and they aren’t around (due to all being online at different hours, spread across multiple time zones) the idea of that group is still behind me, spurring me on.

Back in my “Writing to White Noise” post I said I found it nigh on impossible to write under the circumstances of being in a public place and surrounded by fellow writers working on their stories, but without those guys and gals actually being physically present and being sat in comfort in my own home, the pressure I felt of the writing circle was gone. I find myself able to write more freely and naturally than I ever could have if we were all sat around a table across from one another.

It has now been a little over three years since I came back to writing, after almost a decade of being away from it. I found that while my creativity was still there, albeit a little different to how I remembered, I wasn’t producing anywhere near the amount of writing that I used to be able to in my late teenage years and early twenties.

While I understand that everyone else in that excellent little writing sprint circle is working on full manuscripts to their novels, for me I have been using those hours to not only work on chapters of my own novel but also on short stories as well as writing up notes and journals. At this stage it doesn’t matter what the particular project is, only that I am getting the words out. Several hundred of them a day, flowing out of me for at least one hour. Not all of it is going to be gold, but it’s all worthwhile. I’m hoping that through the word sprints it will eventually become habit for me to write like this on a daily basis unaided. Second nature. The intention is for me to ultimately be writing more, and so far that has been the case.

By the way, the walking/fitness thing is also going very well and also ongoing.

Thanks for reading, and happy writing!

New Year – Write More! The alternative resolutions list.

Historically I’ve used the calendar milestone of my birthday to note and keep track of my accomplishments, and failures, from year to year. Me getting older (progressing in both age and wisdom?) seemed a more obvious reference point to me, rather than the last digits of the year changing on paperwork I have to fill out.

But still it can be a time for some to evaluate what has been done over the last twelve months, and take steps of how to improve upon that for the forthcoming year. This last year I feel I’ve written possibly the same amount as the year before, but I’ve definitely shared a lot more of my writing than ever before and has expressed myself to more people than I have previously.

WRITE MORE

I’ve written a couple of posts for this blog that have been fairly well received and through them have got in contact with some remarkable people, all of whom showed interest and asking questions of my writing and sharing with me their own creativity.

I will still procrastinate as much as I ever have. There will always be that one e-mail I am going to want to respond to before I start writing when the laptop goes on.

WRITE MORE

Housekeeping – and I don’t mean dusting the shelves or vacuuming the carpets! “I’ll write better if I had a tidier, sparser, desk or writing area”. What I have said before about my writing space was that I probably should have one but don’t.

From part of a blog post in 2012 :

I don’t have a writing space. No nooks, crannies or cubby holes. No ready room. No secret garden. No stark whites, or muted earth tones and certainly nothing airy and spacious overlooking sweeping vistas. I write in my head, and with all the useless trivia I have retained over the years there’s certainly no room for a desk in there.  Sometimes that’s all I need, but it mostly comes down to having pen and paper and me, and that’s it. If I were to sit in a room, at a desk and try and surround myself with inspiration – when I’m put against a clock, pressured even slightly to produce something nothing happens.

IMG_7844 (Small)

I still don’t have a desk. I have a little table that is barely wide enough for my laptop that slides up rather nicely to my comfiest armchair.

WRITE MORE

Fitness – another area that’s generally pondered at this time of year, when we realise how much food has been consumed in tandem with being fairly sedentary over a few days. Maybe becoming fitter, healthier and more energised will also focus the mind and inspiration and creativity will pour over you. While I have bought some new gym clothes already, I’m taking part in #writeandrun31 which is being organised by Christine Frazier @BetterNovelProj and her brother Matt @NoMeatAthlete. Walking is more my speed though so I won’t be running – it’s a lovely idea and everyone who takes part I will hold in high regard.  http://writeandrun31.strikingly.com/

WRITE MORE

 The setting of  specific targets and goals, with regards to my writing, will never seem to work out for me (NaNoWriMo? No thank you, not yet!) and I find the added self-imposed pressure to counter my creativity. So no X number of words per day or X number of hours per day. I simply vow to WRITE MORE – wherever and however I can, whenever I feel I can.

WRITE MORE

and Happy New Year to you all!

Has your writing ever upset someone important to you?

Have you ever produced something that has had a negative effect on someone you know, or your relationship with them?

You can’t please everyone in writing; it is an impossibility. Any subject that we as writers choose of our own volition to explore in our work has the potential to upset somebody somewhere. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and this is something that we can’t really dwell on too much.

But I am not talking about generalities where making a comment and taking a stance (accidental or otherwise) in terms of sexism, racism, politics or another subject where whole groups can be offended – instead I am asking if you have ever written a story that you personally have been happy with and have shared with others, and have had good feedback on, only to find that one person close to you was upset with it to the point that it altered your relationship with them?

Last year, taking a prompt from the Storyslingers writing group, I wrote a flash fiction piece that I was extremely satisfied with. I felt it was some of the strongest writing at that time I had produced and was keen to send it to trusted groups of people for their comments. This included a friend who while not a writer herself had been supportive of my writing and always wanted to read my work.

So I sent it to her without taking the content of the story into account. I hadn’t thought of her while I had been writing the story and it never occurred to me that there was anything in it that anyone could find overly upsetting. I didn’t think when I sent it about things that she had experienced in the past. Things that my story would be taking her back to and that she would sooner forget.

We are still in touch from time to time, wishing each other well with polite platitudes, but our relationship has been damaged and there is now a distance between us. I should have known better and not sent her the story but I just didn’t think at the time. As a result I went through many months of doubt regarding the things I wrote about. What if one of my stories was to upset someone else I am close to, even a family member? I came to the point where I realised I can all self-censor within reason but if I spent too much time worrying about causing offence I would end up not writing anything at all.

To an extent this sort of internal discussion is always off to the back of your head, relying on your own moral compass telling you “that might upset some people” and making the decision to make alterations on the fly.

Has your writing ever upset you?

I don’t mean through frustration; through it not meeting the standards you want it to – but the actual content. Have you ever written something that has made you question what on earth you had inside you that could result in something that you find intolerable? Last week, during a quick writing session before heading out to work, I turned out something that I found to be the most demoralising and pessimistic 300 or so words I have ever produced and I vowed it would never ever see the light of day. It left me with such an uncomfortable feeling for most of that morning but ultimately I’m grateful that I’ve purged that from my system and hopeful that it’s going to open the way to some more constructive and redeeming writing. Something more along the lines of what I want to be producing.

No feelings were hurt in the writing of this blog post – hopefully none will be made from reading it.

 

Show and Tell

It’s fast becoming a universal truth, that just about anyone of a literary bent is only too keen to trot out: the importance of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ in fiction. In other words, don’t say ‘he was an angry old man’, instead describe how ‘he leapt out of his mobility scooter and shouted at the children dropping sweet wrappers’.

Showing not telling is an easy rule to remember and once you get the hang of it it’s simple enough to apply to any fiction you read. But I have my suspicions about it. Should something as complex as literature really be judged by so simple a rule? More importantly, are we not in danger of imposing an arbitrary constraint on our writing, and therefore putting a limit on our powers of expression – the one thing that should have no limits?

As it happens, my natural inclination is indeed to show rather than tell. This stems in part, I think, from my having previously worked as a journalist which, unless you’re employed by the Daily Mail, is (or should be) about specifics – who, what, where and when – and a semblance of objectivity. It also comes from my admiration of works by authors such as Cormac McCarthy and JM Coetzee, where exposition is either completely absent or kept to an absolute minimum.

But over the past year as I’ve written more short fiction I’ve allowed myself the luxury of a bit of telling here and there, as I strive to pack as much as possible into a limited word count. Is this at all a positive development in my style, or simply a bad habit I’m getting myself into?

Ultimately that’s for others to judge, but I can’t help thinking that the show-and-tell rule is as much associative as causal. Just as watching lots of TV may be associated with obesity and ill health, that does not mean the former is the thing that always causes the latter.

Likewise, you are likely to find that writing which includes a lot of telling isn’t going to be terribly good. But the use of telling need not itself be the principle reason it’s no good.

I recently found support for this idea by reading Paul Auster’s novel, Sunset Park. Right from the start this book is nearly all tell, with the showing saved for the most crucial moments in the story. And the big surprise is that it works – the prose is alluring and quickly draws the reader into an absorbing story – with the novel’s weaknesses relating to overall narrative arc and a slightly unsatisfying ending, rather than Auster’s writing style.

I don’t doubt there’s a strong basis for the show/tell rule, and for most people most of the time it probably is the best way to ensure effective prose. But even so, perhaps we should keep minds as open as possible in the quest to produce writing that works.

Fact or Fiction? Two Tales of Turkey, by Muriel Higgins

It is true that we lived in Turkey for three years in the 1970s, but did the events related in Thanks But No Thanks and Hot Baby really happen?   Perhaps everything’s fact, or is it all fantasy?  Or can it be that one story is true and the other is made up?  Please read and comment.

Note: Words in Turkish have been written on a standard UK keyboard, so they lack the diacritics etc. of the Turkish alphabet.

Thanks But No Thanks 

South coast of Turkey, midsummer, a hot and scratchy time.  Our  campsite was near the shore between the sea and the highway on land which must once have been sea, and we swam and stayed in the shade till it was pleasant to move around.  The sea had receded here, while in other places by quirks of tide and current it had encroached.  We’d seen tumbled piles of masonry lapped by clear water, remains of ancient settlements, footprints of earlier visitors.

That was how we thought of ourselves too, visitors, not tourists.  Of course in those days anyone who reached Turkey by car was a traveller rather than a tourist, and many of our fellows seemed to have come to enjoy history-based exploration. We knew this from the scribbled recommendations for walks in the campsite office, and that was what set us off inland one  afternoon, the ground still hot underfoot and warmth radiating from the rocks.  We crossed the highway to the old road, centuries ago almost certainly hard by the shore.  Along this still discernible way would have passed Alexander and his Macedonians, later legions of Romans, St Paul on his journeys … same sunshine, same scrub either side of the track, same mountain scenery to the north.  Who knew what small finds there might be, come to the surface, disturbed by animals, missed by other hunters?

The dry smell of heat mingled with a sour waft of air from the thin sheep beyond a fallen wall.  Their bleats punctuated the chirps of crickets and the odd tiny clatter as a lizard scattered some pebbles. You might have imagined you were in another century.  Then, as often happens in a deserted spot, we suddenly weren’t alone: a small group of children came round a bend towards us.

Merhaba,’ we greeted them, ‘nasilsiniz?’  Hello, how are you?

One of the bigger boys was carrying a bag, and he pulled out a dusty bottle before observing ‘You’re not Turkish.  But you speak Turkish.’

‘No, we’re English,’ we said, ‘and we only speak a bit of Turkish, biraz yalniz.’  This was true, but we were up to most ordinary exchanges, and generally such conversations ran along predictable lines, which made it easy.

‘How come you speak Turkish?’

‘We’ve been living in Istanbul, we’re teachers.’  Distant sophisticated Istanbul, teachers.  The boy had nothing further to ask.  He waved the bottle in our direction: ‘You would like a drink of spring water, very cold, good?’  Yes, we would have, but everything we knew stopped us.  In a gentle version of the gesture common to the area we raised our eyes skyward, in this case meaning Thanks, but no thanks.

He dived into the bottom of the bag and pulled out what we saw was a handful of coins as he opened his fist.  ‘Eski, cok eski’ – old, very old.  Perhaps, we thought, and perhaps – and more probably – not.  Again from us that gesture, immediately understood. ‘No, we’re not buying, istemiyoruz, we don’t want them, thanks.’  Resigned, he dropped the coins into the bag, and gathering his followers around him turned and made to continue along the track.

We didn’t want to offend him, or any of them.  ‘Allahaismarladik,’ we called, in the correct farewell of those leaving.  The automatic response of those in situ came in a chorus:  ‘Gule, gule.’  These kids were the ones who belonged here, to whom this landscape and this track belonged.

A right turn would lead us back to the highway and the campsite.  Hot and thirsty, we picked our way along.  Fantasies make miles pass faster, so I hazarded: ‘What would you like most at this moment?  A glass of water would do me.’

‘How about a chocolate éclair?’  It wasn’t what I expected, but – yes, I thought.  And now we were at the edge of the highway, and one car was coming.  We waited till it passed, and saw a package flying through the air, landing by the edge of the road at the far side.  ‘What’s that?’

‘OK, let’s go and see.’

Yes and yes and yes.  We recognised it as a box from a pastahane, a cake-shop.  These weren’t bakeries for bread, but specialised in fancy sweetmeats: baklava, kadaif, seker pare, lokum – how the mouth waters.  One would choose or order by weight, then purchases were lowered into a box, dripping with syrup and nuts; this was wrapped in paper and secured with a flourish of synthetic ribbon – which was exactly what we could see.  ‘Got to open it, this is just weird.’

It was. We did.  Yes, believe it or not, chocolate éclairs.  Pastahanes did foreign delights too, and easily mastered choux pastry with chantilly cream topped by glace icing.

‘Maybe they were having a fight: someone was making a point.’

‘Or a child chucked it out in a tantrum, or just a fit of mischief.’

‘Or they’d been left in the car since yesterday and went off?’

‘We don’t want other people’s leavings, do we?’

‘They might come back for them anyway.’

‘Pity, but we’d better not eat them …’

‘Just leave it here then.’

The ping-pong debate reached a standstill.  We closed the box, pulled the wrappings together and retied the bow, placing it visible at the roadside, looking, I now realise, like one of those sad memorials to an accident.

That evening we ate apricots with sheep’s yogurt that came in a bulbous pottery jar with a handle.  And here it is, to show you that this really happened.

Hot Baby


The baby was all scream and heavy clothes.  A woollen bonnet pulled well down in front almost covered its face, but what you could see was a furious red.  It looked feverish and overheated, and I felt I wanted to loosen the clothes, untie the bonnet, give it some water and cool its brow.  The group of peasants to whom it presumably belonged took no notice of the bawling, the men smoking and laughing, the women, including the one holding it, staring into space.  You wouldn’t have known we were all on a Bosphorus ferry, one of the many which plied from Istanbul up towards the Black Sea.

Our two daughters saw me looking at the baby, thought I might be going to start talking, and edged away.  With fair complexions and blue-green eyes, they knew what might follow: chucks under the chin and a pinch of the cheeks.  In skimpy dresses and sandals they couldn’t have been a greater contrast to the peasants and their baby.
‘Sicaktir, degil mi,’ I said, hot, isn’t it.  I made a wide gesture to include the weather and the surroundings, and the baby: they could understand what they liked.  No response.  I looked at the baby and made some sweeping movements towards my ears and up over my brow, trying to suggest that it was too hot.  No, the mother wasn’t going to pay me any attention, foreigners didn’t speak Turkish.  But I heard the men say Not German, and knew they were referring to us.  Many Turks had worked in Germany, and they’d have recognised the language.  Ingiliz, Amerikan they were saying now.  I smiled and said ‘Ingiliz.’ This exchange went no further, and from then until they got off on the Anatolian side I stole looks at the baby, afraid it might cry itself into convulsions.
A few days later my husband came home from the office looking worried. ‘Something’s up’ he said, ‘but I’m not sure what it can be.  The Consul General wants to see us, both of us.’
Richard Moxon ushered us courteously into his very grand office, part of the impressive building which had been built as an Embassy but turned into a consulate when Ankara replaced Istanbul as the Turkish capital.  The Consul General was a generation older than we were, and headmasterly in manner.  He wasted no time: ‘We have a bit of a problem on our hands, but – ’ he smiled, ‘ – nothing that can’t be taken care of.  You were on a Bosphorus ferry at the weekend?’
We agreed we had been, and he produced a scruffy photograph: ‘That’s you, and your family, yes?’  It was.  Again we agreed.  What was this? Who’d taken the picture?
Fact is,’ he hesitated, ‘you talked to some Turkish people.  Yesterday someone blew in with this picture and what we think is a cock and bull story about a baby.’  We nodded; who could forget that baby? ‘Seems the baby, um, well, has died, that’s what we were told.’ He was watching me. ‘He died of pneumonia, they say.’
‘That’s terrible,’ I said, ‘but what’s that got to do with us?’
‘They say,’ he cleared his throat, ‘you tried to get them to undress him, and when they didn’t you put the evil eye on him.  Also, you insulted the mother by calling one of your children mother.’
‘It’s preposterous … completely … of course I didn’t.’  But at least I could explain the ‘insult’.  The Turkish word for mother is anne. ‘Our elder daughter is called Anna, and this is always happening – we call her, and people think we’re saying mother.  Our Turkish friends laugh a lot about it.’
Moxon unbent a mere trifle, and smiled.  ‘That’s that, anyway.  And of course the evil eye story’s a put-up job, I understand that.’
‘And anyway I didn’t try to – all I said to them was it was very hot.’  John came in: ‘It’s a scam then, isn’t it? A try-on?  But why?’
‘Afraid so.  They want compensation, that’s why.  They’ve asked for -’  he named a sum in Turkish liras that was the best part of a hundred pounds.  ‘Rather amateur, if it was a son and it did die, that’s not enough, really.’
‘Surely nobody’s going to fall for the story and pay?’ I asked. ‘Can’t we get a lawyer and …’
‘Now, can anyone prove that something didn’t happen?  Prove you didn’t put the evil eye on the baby?  I’m afraid not, and it’s not worth trying, really.’
‘So what’s going to happen?  Don’t want to pay, do we?  It’s a swindle.  Can we just let it go and hope for the best?’
‘No, I assure you, that won’t work, lead to more trouble.  What we must do is settle out of court, there’s no point in anything else. In these cases we usually find – ’
John interrupted, quickly on to usually: ‘We’re not the first, then? There’ve been others?’  Moxon nodded.
‘We’re going to pay them? That’s outrageous.’ I couldn’t believe what he was saying.
‘Perhaps.’  He was very calm. ‘We have a charity fund here, ours to hand out, no questions asked, not from H.E. in Ankara, not from our masters in King Charles Street: it’ll come from there.’
‘But -’
He cut in: ‘You wouldn’t want to embarrass HMG, would you? Cause trouble?’
I couldn’t say a thing, I was too busy thinking that Her Majesty’s Government operated a slush fund, it paid out for … it was hush money, that’s what it was.
Moxon laid a finger on the Daily Express which was on top of The Times in front of him.  ‘Britons in … um … Baby Death Probe,’ he said in capital letters with distaste. ‘Wouldn’t do, would it? Local English language press too, they’d be on to it fast enough.’
I thought He had that prepared, he’s manipulating the two of us, just like that bunch of peasants is manipulating the lot of us.  ‘The baby didn’t die,’ I said defiantly. I felt like a fish on a hook. 
‘Come, come, papers don’t care about what’s true or not if they want a juicy headline. And you can’t prove it, now can you.’  The consul’s tone changed.  ‘Now I’ve got something else to say to you.  In these situations it’s usually the more prudent course, the most expeditious – ’ he enunciated the syllables with emphasis ‘ – to take out the officer and his family and ask for an immediate posting.’  He smiled wryly. ‘As far away as possible.’
‘But – ’ now it was John who sounded uneasy.  He was cut off: ‘You’re thinking about your career.  Don’t worry.  You’ll find I’m sure that London is most understanding, no blot on your record, no, nothing like that.  He wagged a finger and looked each of us in turn straight in the eye: ‘You’ll keep this to yourselves.’  It was a statement. It was an order, giving meaning to the sinister nothing like that.  John kept to the present: ‘One thing then, what about … how do we … a cheque?’
Now the difficult business was over, Moxon, suave as you like, said ‘No need.’ I could swear he wanted to add dear boy.  He made a note on a pad.  ‘I’ll minute Pay and Records, and they’ll look after that for you.  Your share of the er disbursement will appear on your next salary slip as “voluntary charity donation”, right?  They’re used to that.’
He must have read my sceptical expression and turned to me: ‘Oh yes, it is a charity.’  Avuncular, in tone my dear if not in words, patronising old git.  ‘We make charitable distributions, we support DBSs, a number of them in this city.’
Distressed British Subjects, that was, yes, people marooned by circumstances, mostly old and needy.
‘Heating, telephone, doctors’ bills, shoes, things like that.  It’s a good cause.’
And no need for any secrecy about that, I thought.  Unlike us. 
How had he put it?  You’ll keep this to yourselves. I can still hear Moxon’s words and picture him in his fancy office, tap on the nose, Official Secrets Act, big stick.  And that’s what we’ve done, kept quiet about it, for more than thirty years.  But now, thanks to the Statute of Limitations and its thirty-year rule at last we’re free to recount this tale of trickery and collusion, condoned at a high level and played out in the grandeur of the British Consulate in Istanbul. Makes you think about hostages and ransoms, doesn’t it?

Fiction, Poetry & Music night at Beggar’s Banquet

Storyslingers and music cafe Beggar’s Banquet teamed up last Thursday to put on a night of stories, poetry and groovy tunes. The gathering wasn’t widely pimped, though we ended up with around 17 people in attendance, most of whom were writers, artists or musicians (and those in between who do a bit of everything!).

The venue was cosy and mellow-lit, creating a warm and friendly atmosphere. It was gently buzzing as people started turning up—a lot of readers had only met briefly before, so it was nice to reconnect. We also got to meet a few spouses; now they finally know what we get up to when we’re all together. We hope they enjoyed themselves, too!


The universe must have been in balance that night, as we were able to set the playlist as writer-poet-writer-poet. Nine wonderful writers shared their work in the end, reading a varied and vibrant selection. As always with these events, we were excited by and extremely proud of the talent in our local area.

Tish Oakwood reading her superb collection of poems

Sue Ashby also sharing a selection of beautiful rural-themed poems

Me reading my short speculative piece “Ring-Ring” 

To close the event, our generous host Meru performed a nifty acoustic song about not having anything to sing about. His soft, gravelly tones went down a storm, and we hope he’ll sing for us again at future gatherings.


Our line-up:

Peter Jump – who read two short stories.
Tish Oakwood – who read a collection of poems.
James Broomfield – who read a short story.
Elaine Cadogan – who read a collection of poems.
Jennifer Bell – who read a short story.
Sue Ashby – who also read a collection of poems.
Jennifer K. Oliver – who read two short stories.
Juliet Austen – who read a selection of her poems.
John Maynard – who read a short story.
Meru – who sang and played acoustic guitar.

We’d like to thank everyone for coming, especially those who brought material to read. We hope you’ll join us again next time! 🙂

Storyslingers First Story Slam

After a rainy month of preparations and organisation, the sun finally shone on Shaftesbury for Storyslingers’ first ever Story Slam. Writers from all over Dorset came to Shaftesbury Arts Centre, some to compete, others to listen and network. The Rutter room was packed out, over spilling and babbling with excitement. We’d jazzed the room up with drapes of colourful fabric, projected Dan Morison’s mecha cowboys on a wall and set up our handmade bookstall, spread with the finest of local book art and writing.
We had Daniel Frisby as compere who slickly guided is through the evening. Our first reader was James Broomfield who read a quirky story set in rural Devon following a man seeking a brotherhood. He thinks he’s found it when he discovers a society of beard-trimming smokers. Yes, you read that right; beard smokers. James’ story was wonderfully crafted, sharply observed, original, funny and thought-provoking. The evening was most certainly off to a good start. The following readers didn’t let the quality drop. Each story was different, but all at an impressive professional standard.

I’m glad I didn’t have to judge these stories, they were all so unique and brilliant. Fortunately we had two exceptional judges, award-winning novelist Allie Spencer (four novels published with Arrow. http://www.alliespencer.com/) and flash fiction expert and columnist at What the Dickens Magazine, Gail Aldwin. (http://gailaldwin.wordpress.com) We enjoyed some amazing live music from the Wrongo Bongo Band while the judges got busy conferring. This four-piece band play an extraordinary variety of instruments, from a berimbau to a didgeridoo; “The Wrongo Bongo Band has to be the most entertaining group of whacky musicians we’ve ever heard” –Andy Hamilton. Mike’s didgeridoo solo comprised of him holding up signs with Australian animals inscribed upon them, and then ingeniously imitating their sounds through the didgeridoo. 

(this is a photo of the band taken from their facebook page, click here. 
While the band built an exotic vibe, we continued to sell our handmade books, met new writing friends and discussed all the amazing stories we’d heard so far. Then the judges returned and Gail Aldwin got up on stage to read her story Dusting Off the Memories (published in Dorset Voices anthology, Roving Press) , beautifully written and read. Next up was Jennifer K Oliver’s richly described Steampunk story, then my own reading of a story I’d read the week before at London’s Southbank Centre. Dan Frisby told a beautiful allegorical Hare and Tortoise style tale set in the foothills of a Japanese mountain. Mountains seemed to be the unofficial theme, with my story entitled Mount Analogue, and a quote from Rene Daumal’s novel of the same title featured in the programme. Finally, Hamish Sinclair was drawn from the Lucky Dip and read a beautifully lyrical story making wonderful use of language.
With the evening drawing in and all the stories told, the judges came up on stage and gave their feedback to the six competitors.  Both judges were impressed by the quality of writing and the diversity of subject matter. “Allie was a great person to deliberate with in finding the winner and runner-up, particularly as the standard of all the stories was very high. We finally agreed that James Broomfield’s story should win due to its extraordinary content (about a man trying to find his brotherhood in North Devon by experimenting with smoking beard trimmings).  Technically the writing was superb with a strong and unique voice.  Runner up came Andy Hamilton’s ‘Stage Fright’ a classic ugly duckling scenario told in a fresh way.” –  Gail Aldwin.
James won a beautiful set of correspondence cards printed by Bath-based fine stationers, Meticulous Ink. “Each card has been lovingly letterpress printed on an 1870 Model No.4 press using only the finest oil based inks. We use cotton papers from local paper mills here in Somerset and our hand lined deckle edge envelopes give these cards that extra special touch.” – Meticulous Ink. This prize was kindly donated by Meticulous Ink. You can buy their correspondence cards via etsy: http://www.etsy.com/shop/MeticulousInk
Everyone was awarded with some amazing bookmarklets, made by our very own Jennifer K Oliver. The evening wrapped up with more music from the Wrongo Bongo Band, some networking and book buying.
Watch this space for the second slam, probably sometime in early 2013.