Flash Fiction and Combating Your Weaknesses

While working on my MA this year, I’ve really tried to focus on identifying and combating my weaknesses as a writer. It turns out it’s very easy to identify weaknesses. Here are some I’ve identified myself, by looking at the habits and strengths of successful writers:

  • the boundary between emotive and shlocky
  • finishing things
  • working without tangible evidence of progress or success
  • writing comedy that is actually funny
  • writing romance that isn’t cheesy/cliche
  • writing convincing dialogue

And, for fun, here are some I’ve had pointed out to me:

  • your main character is too superficial and self absorbed to be likable (damn lady, that character is me)
  • you rely too much on rhyme in your poems
  • your dialogue is unrealistic
  • this has been done before so many times that I think if you’re going to do it, you need to do it WELL
  • I don’t like sci-fi so it’s difficult for me to critique it (but could you try though please, creative writing teacher)
  • I don’t like fantasy so it’s difficult for me to critique it (but could you try though please, creative writing teacher)
  • I don’t really write short stories so it’s hard for me to critique it (can I have some of my seven grand back please, teacher)
  • please stop rhyming all of your poems
  • ‘People carrier’ is not convincing sci-fi language, I don’t think people would say that in real life
  • FFS do you literally only know words that rhyme

Ok, I’ve gone off on a tangent now. But the point is: I am trying to focus on setting myself challenges which target my weaknesses. This flash fiction piece was an attempt to target the following:

  • dialogue
  • comedy
  • finishing things

I tried to find a picture on the topic of heaven but couldn’t find anything particularly relevant. Instead, here’s a picture of Pete and me on the ‘Heaven and Earth’ bicycle tour of Hoi An in 2014, and at the Danang Intercontinental resort the next day (the closest I’ve come to heaven on earth so far).

Seeing as this is a challenge to target my weaknesses – PLEASE feel welcome to offer some critique/criticism (particularly relating to dialogue, comedy and the effectiveness of the piece as a whole) in the comment section.

Thank you!

Emily x

  • P1050055
    Hoi An with Pete, July 2014.
    P1050114
    The view from our balcony in the Danang Intercontinental, July 2014.
    P1050161
    On the private beach at the Danang Intercontinental, July 2014.

     

    Checking In, Checking Out

    The pearly gates are furry, not pearly. Imagine that! I read the information plaque just after I joined the queue: a misprint that got out of hand, apparently. And it’s leopard print! Going by what I’ve seen of the lobby, leopard print and gingham are the height of fashion here in heaven.

    Angel bouncers are a misconception too – those decisions are all made electronically nowadays. Well – there is an angel, but he’s more ‘fancy spa receptionist’ than ‘shit nightclub doorman’, vibe-wise. I reach the front desk after two hours. Angel gives me a glass of watermelon juice, a glowing smile and a sing-song greeting.

    “Hello and a very warm welcome to Earth Heaven, may I take a surname for yourself please, sir?”

    In case you’re wondering: yes, it was unexpected.

    “Trent.”

    “Fabulous Mr Trent sir, thank you. Okay, bear with me, bear with me… George is it?”

    “That’s me.”

    Angel swallowed a guffaw before apologising stoically. Turns out George is slang in Earth Heaven for a fluorescent pubic wig. Pretty rich considering his name-tag read ‘Colostomy Southampton’ and I hadn’t said a bloody thing.

    “Fabulous! Okay, Mr Trent sir, bear with me… okay. First and foremost: you bashed your head on an outcropping of rock while bouldering with your girlfriend in the Dordogne, correct?”

    “Well, she’s my wife actually, but- ”

    “Oops, terribly sorry, it was your honeymoon, bear with me… Okay that’s sorted for you… Can I just confirm with yourself that this collision caused a large intracranial haemorrhage which increased intracranial pressure, prevented blood supply to your brain and subsequently resulted in death for yourself?”

    “Uh-”

    “Sorry Mr Trent, I know it seems like stating the obvious, it’s just a little formality we have to run through with yourself sir for legal reasons, terribly sorry sir.”

    It was only at this point that I mustered the wherewithal to ask if my wife was ok. My blood ran cold as Colostomy’s brow furrowed sympathetically. Well it might have done, had my blood not ceased to circulate my body as a direct consequence of my recent death.

    “Unfortunately not, Mr Trent, sir.” Colostomy patted my forearm reassuringly. “According to these records she’s gutted, actually sir.”

    “So she’s alive?!”

    “Oh! Sorry, yes, alive. Definitely alive! Misunderstood your question there. DOIYNNNG!” Colostomy mimed a slapstick halo tug. “I honestly think, Mr Trent, I’d lose my own halo if it wasn’t an integral component of my immortal, celestial form! On that topic though, Mr Trent sir, I can actually at this juncture offer you a free upgrade to our couples package for no additional cost, is that something you’d be interested in at all today, Mr Trent?”

    “Excuse me?”

    “It’s something we offer all new arrivals sir, although I should point out that whatever decision you make for yourself and Mrs Trent is final, sir; once it’s in the system I can’t undo it under any circumstances.”

    “Hang on. Are you asking if I want you to kill Jenny?” Colostomy giggled uncomfortably, shifting in his ergonomic gingham cloud chair.

    “Well, in a word, sir, yes. Though many customers prefer to think of it as offering their spouse the chance to get to heaven early and remain with their loved one. Yourself, in this case! Unfortunately I will need to press you for a quick decision on this one.”

    “That’s horrific! Jenny’s only 28! She deserves to live a long and prosperous life! To know what it feels like to look into the eyes of her-”

    “Okay, I’ve popped you down as a no for that one Mr Trent, since we are pressed for time – may I remind you that Mrs Trent will almost definitely die anyway within the next fifty to sixty years, and she is currently operating on a 78% likelihood of coming to heaven, at which point we’ll be back in touch with yourself, Mr Trent. So no worries, it’s – what’s that Earth phrase – six and two threes really, isn’t it sir? Oh no, not that one… Much of a muchness!” He laughed, muttering the phrase under his breath a few times. “Does that all sound okay to you, Mr Trent, sir?”

    “Well-”

    Now, in a moment I’ll give you your welcome pack and my colleague will be along to show you to your room. There’s an orientation presentation which screens hourly in the recreation room. Any questions you have will hopefully be answered then. Does that all sound alright for yourself, Mr Trent, sir?”

    “Uh-”

    “Ah! Here’s Pam: she’ll show you to your room and answer any other questions you have along the way, okay?” Colostomy hauled a gingham holdall onto his desk and smiled at me with finality. “Here’s Mr Trent’s welcome pack, Pam. He’s on the 532nd floor. Oh, and double room please, he opted IN to the couples package-”

    “No, I opted OUT of-”

    “Of course, haha! Pam, I’m as useful as a lead halo today! I’ll just call my manager and get that sorted, okay, best of luck to yourself there sir, Mr Trent, sir, bye bye!”

    Before I had chance to respond, Colostomy had disappeared and I found myself struggling to keep up with Pam through a labyrinth of corridors.

    “Pam is it?” I called after her, hoping to slow her down. “Lovely, a good traditional English name, reminds me of an aunt I used to-”

    Pam turned to me and beamed.

    “French, actually! Short for Pamplemousse! Pamplemousse Apartheid. And I know what you’re going to ask next so before you do: no, you can’t meet him, 33 years old and yes but they rotate the menu weekly. Hang on, my phone’s ringing.”

    Pam coughed, vomiting a cloud of pixels from her throat which formed into the shape of Colostomy’s face in the air in front of us.

    “Hiya Pam, could you just pop Mr Trent back to reception for me for a moment, love? Just an extra admin thing to sort, you’re both going to laugh when you hear it!”

Waiting For The End Of The World

Here’s the first draft of a short story I wrote yesterday for my Fiction class, based on ideas from a class I’m auditing: ‘The Medical Mind and Literature’. This week, we talked about palliative care, ageing and dying. We looked at Beckett’s morbid approach to those things in his short plays Footfalls and Rockaby and discussed more positive approaches to dying, as in this interview with a palliative care assistant Kathryn Mannyx. I’m finding Beckett’s short plays pretty terrifying, but I like his ambiguity. I wrote the following story with that ambiguity in mind, but with slightly less morbidity. Quite a tricky topic to avoid though, when writing about death. The characters are loosely based on my grandparents.

Emily x

P1010116
Le Touquet, France. 2012

Waiting

“They’ll be here today, I’ve got a feeling today was the day they said. The nineteenth.” Olive pressed her toes down into her slippers a little, tried to use the grip to push herself up a little more in her armchair. But the Parkinson’s made it hard to feel her toes nowadays. When did sitting become so uncomfortable? No matter how many cushions and blankets she had, no matter how she rearranged herself, Olive couldn’t escape her jabbing bones. It was like trying to sleep on a bag of tent pegs.

“Well I won’t contradict you. You’re the one that heard them say. I didn’t hear anything.” Alfie didn’t take his eyes off the television as he answered his wife. It was always on, lately. He couldn’t remember the last time it’d been off. Quiz shows, mainly. Sometimes it was the overexcited man telling people to open boxes. Sometimes it was the suave man with the false laugh, the one that Olive liked, who wanted you to guess the most unusual answer. Alfie didn’t understand the point in either of them. Yet another thing that made him feel he’d lost touch with things.

“I don’t know how you didn’t hear. It was commotion everywhere. Honestly Alfred, trust you. Trust you to miss the end of the world.”

“I hardly think it can have been the end of the world, Liv. We’re still here aren’t we? If it’s the end of the world I think I’d have noticed, I think I’d have got out of my chair Olive, don’t you? I’ve spent half my bloody life sat in a chair talking to you. If this is what the end of the world looks like I think I’ll bloody kill myself.”

“Still swearing at your wife, at least that hasn’t changed. Make me a cup of tea Alfie, I’m sick of having this conversation. Your memory, honestly. Anyway, if it’s the end of the world then you can’t kill yourself can you, you’re already dead. Stupid man.” Alfie looked affronted but, really, he liked to be teased by his wife. Slowly, he rose from his seat and doddered into the kitchen. Less than thirty seconds later, he was back.

“What am I doing in here, Olive?”

“For goodness sake Alfie, you’re making us a cup of tea!  Honestly, your mind, my body, what a pair. Anyone would think we were getting old.”

The bungalow hadn’t helped Alfie. He’d been a lot grumpier, a lot more confused, since the downsizing. At least before, he could get to the corner-shop or the bookies on auto-drive. He’d been anchored by the old house. The carpets their kids had learned to crawl on; the dining table where they’d had the grandchildren round for Sunday lunch. Memories bound up in everything. Signposts. This new bungalow – with its too shiny granite worktops and its garish ‘feature walls’ – had irritated him from the start. Olive resented their daughter for pushing the move. For insisting they’d be happier. For not visiting once it was all sorted. Not that that mattered now.

“I don’t like Fenny Bentley. I’ve never liked Fenny Bentley, Alfred. Why did we let Christine convince us this was a good idea? We’re city people. I miss Duffield. And it’s a ridiculous name for a place! It’s embarrassing to tell people our address.”

“Who do we tell? I don’t tell anyone. Olive, before I put the kettle on, remind me what they said. Remind me what they said about the end of the world. You’ve got me worried.”

“It wasn’t just what they said Alfie, it was everywhere, you could hear it, you could see it for goodness sake! You said you could see it! And why don’t you put the kettle on first, put the kettle on before you make me explain it again. You’ve been making me explain it for two weeks, I need a cup of tea.”

“I’ll put the kettle on when you’ve reminded me. Remind me what happened, I think I’d remember it, don’t you? The end of the world?”

“Like a dog with a bone, Alfred, honestly. I’d sooner tell you over tea.”

Slowly, Alfie walked back to his armchair and lowered himself into it, as though it were a bathtub of scalding water.

“How can you think of tea when you’re saying it’s the end of the world?”

“Because Alfred, I’ve had time to make peace with the idea. It’s not new information for me like it is for you, I’ve known it was the end of the world for two bloody weeks! Look, you’ve got me cursing now!”

“Tell me what they said about the end of the world, for God’s sake woman!”

Olive sighed. The kettle was only a few steps away. It might as well have been in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

“Alfred, it’s really quite simple. I wish you’d write it down so that I didn’t have to keep reminding you. Our daughter called. It was the middle of the night. Four o’clock, I think-”

“Which daughter?”

“Which daughter? What do you mean, which daughter? It was Christine, we’ve only got one daughter.”

“Yes, I know we’ve only got one daughter! I’m not an imbecile, Olive, I thought you might have meant Chloe or Charlotte.”

“Alfred, Chloe and Charlotte are our granddaughters, why would I say daughter if I meant Chloe or Charlotte?”

“I don’t know Olive, because you’re mad. Carry on with your story would you?”

Olive closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. She thought about the teabags in the next room, wondered if she could make the few steps to the kettle. The kettle was too heavy anyway, once it was full. The little things we take for granted. Once she’d dreamed of a face with no wrinkles. Now she’d just settle for being able to lift the kettle. What was coming next to make that dream seem too big?

“Don’t interrupt me this time then, Alfred. Just listen. Christine, our daughter, called in the night. It was four o’clock and she called, still dark, it was two weeks ago now, November fifth or sixth, I think. You were already awake, you’d heard banging. Christine said to me ‘mother, I’ve got terrible news, it’s the end of the world; the end of the world has come!’ Well I was half asleep, I’d been dreaming about a dog, a Yorkshire terrier; I’d been running with it. I was still half in my dream and I didn’t fully appreciate the gravity of what she was saying. I said ‘the end of the world, Christine, you mean the four horsemen of the apocalypse?’ I asked her if her door was locked, you know how she is with leaving the front door unlocked. She said ‘no mother, don’t be silly, that’s the bible, it’s the end of the world. The environment, you know, we can’t live here anymore, haven’t you heard the explosions?’ Well at this time, you hadn’t told me about the explosions that you’d heard, and I’d been dreaming, you know, the Yorkshire terrier, so I didn’t know about any explosions. I said ‘You and the girls can’t live here anymore?’ And she said ‘no, not just us, all of us, humans, they’re evacuating, it starts tonight, that’s why I’m calling.’ Well it sounded like nonsense to me, so I said ‘that sounds like nonsense to me, Christine, I’m sorry to say, someone’s probably having you on.’ She said ‘no mother, look outside if you don’t believe me, anyway I’ve got to go, they’re taking us now!’

“Who’s taking them now?”

“Well quite, that’s what I said, and she said ‘they’re evacuating, there’s a space station and we’re going there! They’re starting with the women and children and they’ll be sending for the rest of you within the week.’ The moon, she said! Well blow me, I thought, barely fifty years ago, we thought it was made of cheese and now here they are, moving us out there! I said to her ‘hang on a minute Christine, if that’s the case, you’ll need to come and get me, if they’re taking the women.’ ‘No, no’ she says. ‘No no, women counts as under sixty, they’ve put you in the O.A.P. category. They’ll be back for O.A.Ps within the week.’ Well blow me, I thought, not a woman! ‘Not a woman indeed!’ I said to her, but she was talking to someone else in the background and she said to me: ‘listen mother, I’ve got to go, I’ll see you within the week!’ And that was that! Two weeks ago and not a peep!”

Alfred was quiet for a moment, staring glassily at Olive.

“I’m sorry to tell you Olive but it sounds like a load of bollocks to me.”

“It doesn’t matter what it sounds like Alfred, at the time you said you could see it out the window.”

“See what?”

“The end of the world!”

“Well what the bloody hell does the end of the world look like?!”

“For goodness sake, Alfred, I don’t know, I wasn’t the one looking out the bloody window! Lord, give me strength-“

“Well, what about the men? When are they coming for the men?”

“I’m not sure Alfred, but I assume that you’ll be lumped in the O.A.P. category with me.”

“What about the cat? Is there a cat category?”

“Alfred, we’ve not had a cat since nineteen seventy-five.”

“It was a bloody joke, Olive.”

“Right.”

Silence resumed. The well-spoken man on the television was discussing the big cash prize. It seemed like a lot of hassle for a thousand pounds.

“So if she said the end of the week, why did you say she’d be here today, if it’s been a fortnight?”

“What?”

“You said they’d be back for the O.A.P.s within a week, but you said before they’d be back today, and it’s been a fortnight.”

“Well, yes. It’s quite a big operation, I imagine. I imagine it’s taking longer than they anticipated. They always underestimate how long these things take.”

“These things? What category of things exactly are you referring to, Olive dear?”

“Oh hush Alfred, you know what I mean.”

“Well if it’s the end of the world, has there been anything on the news?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know? You never stop watching the damned television!”

“Yes but it’s the recordings thing that Christine set up. I don’t know how to get it back onto the main channels.”

“Let me have a-”

“You tried yesterday Alfie and the day before. It’s no good, you’re as useless as me. Just a different kind of useless.”

“Right. Well. Well! What about the phone? Have you tried calling anyone? Our daughter, or anyone else? Surely you could call someone to find out when we’re getting picked up. Or if it is bollocks after all.”

“Well that’s another problem! The phone’s one of those battery powered thingies with no wires. I tried calling Christine back the next morning but it wouldn’t connect. Didn’t even ring out, and now the battery’s gone and I don’t know how to fix it. Christine normally does it.”

“Jesus Christ Olive, we’re prisoners in our own home!”

“Alfred, how many times do I have to ask you not to blaspheme in this house?! And you’re overreacting. I told you, they’ll be here today to pick us up, or Christine’ll be back. Then we can fix the phone and the TV and get to the bottom of this end of the world business. There’s no use us two going over and over it, there’s nothing left to say.”

More silence. On the final round of the quiz show, the contestants guess was unsuccessful. Polite hugs, commiserations, theme music. Olive muted the television. As though on cue, the clock on the mantelpiece rose to fill the void of sound, chiming six o’clock.

“That’s dinner time, that is. Six o’clock. What are we having, Liv?” Alfie was cheered by the idea of food; the routine, the comfort. Perhaps there would be a beer. When all else failed, the effects of beer gave texture to a day. He pulled himself up, energised by this thought, and helped his wife to her feet. She wobbled a moment before finding her balance, and letting him lead her slowly into the kitchen, sitting her at the dining table. Alfie did the cooking now but old habits die hard. He liked Olive to tell him what to do.

“What am I making?” He opened the fridge door and scanned the contents expectantly. Two eggs; a tub of butter; some milk dregs; two shrivelled carrots; no beer.

For Olive, this daily refreshment of Alfie’s disappointment was the hardest thing.

“Love, we’re down to tins. And there’s some bread in the freezer. How about beans on toast? And tinned peaches for pudding? There might be a bit of custard powder left but we’ll have to mix it with water.”

“Why on earth are we down to tins? I’m not having that Liv, I’ll go to the shops. Where’s my coat?”

“I’m not letting you go roaming out there, it’s dark. And late. And it’s the end of the world. Christine will be here any minute, with food, or they’ll be coming to get us-”

“Oh bloody hell Liv! I’m not living off of tins because of some stupid idea you’ve got in your head, give me my coat, I’m going to the shop, and if you try and stop me I’ll give you a clip round the ear!”

“Alfred Johnson. Do not threaten me like a child! You are not going to the shop. Even if it wasn’t the end of the world, you don’t know where the shop is and you’d get lost. And who’s going to come and find you? Me?” Olive gestured down to her legs, pale and veined with blue. As useless as having slinkies for legs. This softened Alfie. Sighing, he turned to the cupboard and started preparing the meal.

They ate at the dining table, slowly and silently. Alfie wanted to ask questions about the end of the world, about who was coming, about what the end of the world meant. But it was hard to remember which questions he’d already asked, and the bickering was starting to weary him. Olive wanted to discuss it too, wanting desperately for Alfie to remember the bangs, to describe what he’d seen out of the window, to reassure her. But he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, and she didn’t want to bicker either.

Another quiz show and a soap took them to seven thirty. They’d watched the same few episodes a few times now. Olive didn’t really mind though, so she didn’t remind Alfie. It was probably too late now for anyone to come and get them, probably a little too early to go to bed. When they were younger, the evenings had been too short. They had always ended up accidentally staying up too late. When did that stop?

“Alfie, be a love. Unhook my bra for me so I can get into my nightie. I can do the rest myself.”

“Ey, it’s my lucky night!”

“Come off it, you make the same joke every night you batty old thing. Unhook it.”

“What about them getting here? Look well if they get here and you’re sat there in your nightie, with no bra on. They might not take us, if you’ve got no bra on.”

“Alfie love, I doubt they’re coming tonight. With it being this dark, and seven thirty already. I think it was tomorrow they said anyway. Today or tomorrow it was, it’ll probably be tomorrow now.”

“Oh, it was today or tomorrow?”

“Yes. Nineteenth or twentieth, I’m certain it was the twentieth, now I think of it. They’ll be here in the morning I expect, when it’s light. We’ll watch one more soap shall we, then we’ll go to bed ey? Then in the morning, when it’s light, we’ll be nice and refreshed, ready for them to collect us.”

“Well if you think it’s tomorrow.”

“It’s definitely tomorrow.”

“Well, either way, I’m checking what’s going on outside tomorrow, in the morning, when it’s light. Sort this out once and for all.”

“That’s fine love. You check it when it’s light. But they’re definitely coming tomorrow.”

“Alright love, tomorrow it is.”

If The Letter Had Arrived

A balcony scene - Venice, Italy, 2013.
A balcony scene – Venice, Italy, 2013.

Here’s a horrible short story I’ve been working on for the past couple of days based on an idea I came up with on a run: what would happen if Shakespeare’s tragedies hadn’t ended as they did? It’s said that “comedy = tragedy + time” but I’m not sure I agree; my idea with this story is more along the lines of “tragedy = romance + time”. I’m sure this kind of ‘fan fiction’ has been done online a hundred times but here is my spin, anyway.

Emily x

If The Letter Had Arrived

One bare foot pressed against the chill stone floor, Juliet kicked back and forth listlessly in her rocking chair and gazed out over the scorched, barren landscape of her Mantua. Though she’d often dreamed of moving closer to the city as the years had passed, her husband had never been convinced that it was safe; they had stayed out here in the dusty outskirts, existing on the little funds that they had been able to sequester on that final night. On evenings like this, sat alone as dusk settled and drew in the horizon, the bareness scared her. Juliet pulled a woollen blanket around her cold shoulders and waited. Romeo was late home again.

This time he was drinking and gambling. Most nights were much the same. Although he didn’t like to talk about the details, Juliet knew that her husband supplemented their humble ‘nest egg’ with what he called “satisfying the whims of the fringes of polite society”. Romeo had not lost his penchant for poetry, though Juliet knew that she had long since ceased to be his muse. Drinking and gambling were part of the territory of his work, he had told her. Whether the women that she smelled on his clothes were as fundamental, she was less sure. Romeo’s passions were insatiable and in the end, he had deemed Juliet finite.

She should have known. She often tortured herself with these words, knowing how he had pined for other women before her. Knowing how fantastical and insubstantial his love for her had seemed. The moon, indeed! But love is blind and youth is hasty, she reminded herself. Some days, as she sat on the cool stone of their kitchen floor and washed his shirts, she imagined how he spent his days and nights in the city: his head buried in the nape of some young girl’s neck, chasing some impossible satisfaction in the scent of her hair. Other days she dreamed about her nurse. She cursed herself for not taking her advice and marrying Paris. How childish she felt now for dismissing him as boring. The real mistake had been relying on a man alone to stem boredom. Sometimes at night it was Paris’ face that she saw as she drifted into sleep. More often though it was the city itself: the world that he would have allowed her to live in. She remembered the Juliet that she had been then and winced: that fierce Juliet had not seemed destined to be some drunken crook’s wife.

She missed the buzz of Verona.  The night-time heat of the narrow streets and the pungency of the aromas that floated up from the Adige River; the sordid stories that they allowed her to imagine about the lives of her neighbours. She missed the red hot anger of the rows that she had had with her father, the coolness of the stone floor as she had fled from him and the sweet, soapy scent of her pillow as she flung herself upon it. She missed walking veiled through crowds, anonymous, listening to the cat calls of the market vendors. And she missed the hushed murmurs of the guests at her father’s parties as she descended the grand staircase like royalty, swathed in the finest silks and velvets of the Veneto. “Look at Juliet”, she had heard them whisper. “What a fine woman she is becoming”. Life in Verona had been all about beginnings. Juliet was not sure when her world had ceased to be fresh and new. Now her world was the long, slow suicide of waking and sleeping in Mantua.

She awoke, disoriented and still in her chair, to the familiar laughter, chatter and loud crashing of drunken Romeo. He had brought someone back, some other lonely bar fly she supposed. She saw her husband, backlit by the struggling candle she had left burning in the kitchen, fumbling with tankards and a keg. She sighed and half rose from her chair to complain but he was already stumbling towards her, beaming, ready to silence her protestations.

“The inn-keeper sold it to me at a very good price Jules and I had good reason: we’re celebrating!” He kissed her forehead roughly and flung a tankard into her hand, ale slopping onto her dress in his fervour. His shaggy beard was glistening with the memory of several pints already drunk. Romeo gestured at the other man and beckoned him towards her. He lit a second lamp and the little living room filled with warm light, revealing the guest’s shy smile.

“Juliet”, Benvolio breathed her name reverently, as though in the presence of a spectre. “I said I wouldn’t believe him until I saw for myself.” He stepped closer and took her by both hands, guiding her to stand. In fifteen years, his face had become more lined but his warm eyes and the gentleness of his smile had not faded. Juliet became suddenly bashful of her thin, worn nightdress. He held a hand to her cheek, as Romeo stood grinning, evidently thrilled by the high drama. “You look a little fuller and a little more tired but I still see you in there when I look closely, the beautiful girl that stole our Romeo’s heart.” His voice was warm but his words cut her; Romeo had become inconspicuous through his facial hair and his humble clothes. Time itself had taken care of Juliet’s anonymity.

They drank long into the night, until the keg ran out. They had found each other in a bar, it turned out. Benvolio was visiting on business. Romeo repeatedly chastised Benvolio for not visiting sooner; Benvolio laughed uncomfortably and reiterated his fear of punishment. They shared stories of the fifteen years past. Juliet looked for jealously in Romeo’s eyes when Benvolio revealed that he had married Rosaline. “Five beautiful children! The first true union of the Montagues and Capulets!” Juliet felt a pang of jealousy in herself then. Sometimes Romeo would still talk about Rosaline fondly, but it was the children that she had not given him that she knew he pined for the most.

Eventually Romeo fell asleep slumped at the table, tankard still in hand. Juliet guided him to bed and returned to the little sitting room, dropping lightly into her rocking chair again. Benvolio’s smile gleamed in the candlelight. “This little room, the candles, the stone walls. It reminds me of the last time I saw you, how we all thought it would be the last time. To look at you then, no one could have convinced me that you’d ever wake up.” She cast her mind back to that long ago night in the tombs; the relief that the plan had worked; the glittering excitement in Romeo’s eyes; Lawrence ushering them nervously through corridors and dark alleys in the dead of night; the only time she had ever ridden astride a horse. It had once been a gilded memory, worn thin by overuse. She found it too painful to dwell on now.

“He’s the same but you’ve changed. You look tired Juliet.” He was standing over her and swaying a little, his hand outstretched. She took it and he pulled her to her feet clumsily, landing himself in the rocking chair with her on his lap. Men took to alcohol differently: Romeo was the type to become excited quickly and then slump into lethargy or depression. For other men it was a slow burn to misguided passions. The light of the latter burned in Benvolio’s eyes now, searching for some equivalent light in hers that she felt powerless to offer him. He pulled her towards him and kissed her firmly on the mouth. “What happened to you Benvolio?” She asked, tired. “You used to really care about him. All you wanted was for your friends to be happy.” Her voice was flat, mournful. He looked at her without really looking at her. “What happened to you Juliet? All you used to care about was him.” He kissed her again and she let him, not so much out of desire but out of apathy. The old rocking chair creaked loudly to the rhythms of their bland love making, and Juliet found herself more irritated by the sound than distressed that it might wake Romeo.

Benvolio left as the sun began to crack over the horizon, while Romeo lay snoring deeply in the next room. She watched him walk away from her – hurriedly and without turning to wave – and knew that it would be the last she saw of him. Rocking again in her chair, she waited patiently for the sun to rise enough to begin warming the house from the chill that the night had set into its stones. She thought about all the sunrises and all the sunsets and wondered what it would take to make her feel something again as she had done when she was thirteen.

All Good Things Come To An End

This is my favourite thing that I have written. It is a short story which came from a discussion with Pete. He claimed that, if given the chance, he would become immortal. I argued that being immortal was a bad idea because, eventually, you would get buried alive; being buried alive as well as being immortal is about the most awful thing I can imagine. Pete said that actually, it wouldn’t be so bad because the human mind is a powerful thing and would find a way to deal with it.

Fun fact: I wrote this story while staying in an Alpine lodge in Slovenia and, half way through writing it, I looked up to find three goats had joined me in the living room and were looking at me expectantly. They were total jerks but we hung out for the rest of the week anyway.

Emily x

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All Good Things Come To An End
Only two things mattered in the life of Philip Masterson. The first was that – due to a miraculous and marvellous medical advancement of his own making three years earlier – he was entirely immortal. That is to say: his life could not be ended by any means. If an appendage or organ were to be removed, no matter how viciously, it would regrow in seconds. If he were to be obliterated by an explosion, collision with a large vehicle or careful dicing, he would fantastically reform. His ‘vital’ organs were impervious to ‘deadly’ gases, poisons and powders. Some critics postulated that this state of existence was not actually immortality; seeing as he did not require food, oxygen or water to survive he was, in their view, not alive at all. Philip Masterson graciously acknowledged these suggestions but asserted that, for all intents and purposes, he felt alive. And what was life but a chain of feelings?

The second important thing about Philip Masterson was that at some point in his past he had – following an ugly altercation with one of his more impassioned critics – been buried alive.

Philip did not know for how long he had been buried alive. He had no way of telling the time, since he had not been wearing a watch at the moment of his burial and there was no light inside his coffin.

For the first few hours of his incarceration, as you might expect, Philip had tried to escape. Having no tools with which to do this, and with the coffin being made of metal and residing under several feet of hardened concrete, his attempts did not last long.

For the next few days Philip battled with what psychologists refer to as the ‘Kübler-Ross model’ or, more commonly, ‘the five stages of grief’. Those same psychologists might say that he was grieving his lost existence. He started by flirting with anger at the perpetrators of his entrapment. Then he attempted denial and lay patiently waiting to wake up for a while. In the bargaining phase he optimistically appealed to Pan, Shiva and Jesus Christ in the vain hope that one of them might answer and rescue him. He felt terrible self-pity in the depression phase. He couldn’t really think of a fate more deserving of his pity than being both immortal and buried alive. It was a relief when he reached the acceptance phase and was able to lie still and feel a bit less. He had a nap and recuperated.

After the first fortnight, the stifling claustrophobia that accompanied the acceptance of his fate became too exhausting to sustain. Waiting to be rescued or discovered was not a stimulating enough hobby. On the first Monday of the third week, the shedding of sanity could happily begin.

The next day, Philip decided to move into a mansion in his mind. He wasted no time with estate agents, solicitors or surveyors. In the real world – even with all of the wealth that his scientific discovery had brought him – he had had to stay within a reasonable distance of his children’s secondary school. The mansion that Philip found in his mind had the advantage of not being near anything – and not needing to be. On the front lawn stood a rectangular pond. Among the water lilies on its surface sat six stone frogs which periodically and whimsically exchanged jets of water from their half open, smiling mouths. He had seen something similar at a theme park as a child. The water in the pond oscillated between rich cerise and a cool cerulean. He had always loved the fountains in Barcelona that at night-time were illuminated in Technicolor. It was a bonus that his fountains stayed lit during the day. When he wanted it to, the water tasted like Dandelion and Burdock.

Sometimes in the evenings he would take a long bath. His bath was made of glass. Within the glass, beautiful tropical fishes darted and danced. On other evenings he would recline in his back garden with a pint of homemade ale and play Scrabble with himself. He always used all of his letters and the words he found were always satisfying. Contrary to popular belief, constant success did not become boring.

Philip learned to knit, to play the sitar and to recite the entire works of Shakespeare in twenty languages. His next plan was to write his own language and to translate the great works himself. He would learn to recite that too. He had another idea to watch all of the Hitchcock films in a row and to compress each one into a haiku. Philip’s evenings stretched out in front of him like endless, rolling hilltops.

Back in the metal coffin, deep beneath the surface of the earth and weighed down by several feet of hardened cement remained the real, live Philip Masterson. His wife, his children, his captors and his dog were all long dead. If anyone was left above the surface and had the inclination to uncover him, they would see a man who looked as though he was in a deep and very peaceful sleep.

Sometime later – at the point that the sun expanded into a red giant and consumed the planet Earth where he had once resided – Philip believed himself to be sat in his garden, reading the newspaper and eating a Big Mac.

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‘PARTRIDGE’ and ‘LICHEN’ were the most satisfying words here.

“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt”

Here’s a short story I wrote last year  having read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a collection of magical realist short stories. It made me interested in stretching the boundaries of possibility and not making a big deal of it.

Some of the story comes from personal experience. Most importantly, the manner of my granddad’s death and the unexpected calmness of my Nana’s reaction to it. I thought about how open and adaptable the human mind can be, which is where the premise of the story comes from.

I’m part way through writing a collection of short stories which all attempt to mull on this theme. It is best summed up by the lovely illustration below from one of my favourite authors: Kurt Vonnegut.

Emily xx

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5

Alone, but for the dog

It was an unfortunate series of events that had left June, deep in the throes of Dementia, alone but for the dog. Her husband Jack had just begun to notice the warning signs. Two weeks ago June had poured them both a nightcap but, instead of the usual glug of Glenfiddich, June had brought two tumblers brim-full of clear liquor. Jack had only to smell it from the tray to know that it was Pernod – the aniseed stench was petrol station heavy. But before the confusion had registered in his brain, June, a sipper by nature, had swilled the lot. Her eyes were glistening. ‘My father introduced me to real single malt whisky. None of this Jack Daniels shit the kids are drinking these days. It’s for the dogs’. June did not usually swear. Nor did she usually denigrate dogs. The dog was on the sofa within earshot of the insult but said nothing.

The Pernod had been living quite happily in the liquor cabinet for almost a decade now. It had been put out to pasture after the last meeting of their bridge club, which had dissolved on account of all the death and sickness which had come with being a club of septuagenarians. Jack and June did not drink Pernod. They didn’t like it. They liked Glenfiddich.

A week after the Pernod incident Jack died suddenly. He had woken in the night half way through a heart attack and within an hour or so he was gone. Most of the time, June still felt quite lucid (and the rest of the time she thought she did). She was clear-headed and composed as she traipsed through the motions of Dealing With The Death Of A Spouse, although it was really quite a blow. Having outlived all of their friends and having not produced offspring, Jack and June had been all alone in the world. Now June was completely alone. Alone, that is, but for the dog.

Being alone but for the dog might have been a problem for an old lady with Dementia, had the day of Jack’s funeral not also been the day that the dog decided to start talking.

June had been the only funeral attendant – an unpleasant but not uncommon fact of life for eighty-three year olds. Afterwards, as she clicked the front door shut behind her, she prepared herself with a deep breath for the first moment of domestic life post-Jack. It was to be her first evening as the sole resident of their sixty year marital home. She spent a moment in the doorway, not ready to enter the living room and see Jack’s empty chair. June contemplated the tragic inevitability of her future. People think that with old age marriage becomes a tale of companionship. They imagine that old people don’t experience desire once they cease to incite it. In the doorway, June briefly lamented the fact that she would never be kissed again. Desire, for June, had lived and died with Jack.

Wilbur was a Great Dane with black spots on sleek white fur. Six foot three when standing on his hind legs, he was named ironically after the runt piglet in Charlotte’s Web. When June found him in the living room after the funeral he was wearing a grey tweed suit of Jack’s with a powder pink shirt and braces. When June walked in, he furrowed his brow sympathetically. “How was it, June?”

June blinked and stared at Wilbur. He paused and then walked to the liquor cabinet. “Let me get you a drink” he said fraternally, pouring out two generous portions of Glendfiddich. “I’m joining you on the whisky if you don’t mind.” He winked at June as he handed her the glass. “Pernod’s for the cats”. June took the Glenfiddich and spoke at last. “You can talk!” It was a predictable thing to say but, considering the circumstances, reasonable. “Can we skip this part and start having fun?” Asked Wilbur, smiling. June sipped her Glenfiddich and nodded slowly. After a few moments she grinned and asked: “Who’s your favourite author?” Wilbur laughed. He had always been a great fan of June’s open minded nature. “Tolstoy, but I mainly like his short stories. I’ve not read Anna Karenina which I think makes me a bad Tolstoy fan. Do you like Bukowski?”

That evening June stayed up until 11pm: it was her latest bedtime in years. She and Wilbur were having so much fun. She read aloud to him her favourite excerpts from Anna Karenina and he recited his favourite Robert Frost poem, Fire and Ice. They laughed fitfully rifling through June’s old lipsticks and eye shadows and giving each other makeovers. June’s arthritis and Wilbur’s lack of opposable thumbs made their efforts equally ridiculous. Wilbur tried to recreate a montage fashion parade such as one might see in a teen movie. He put some Eighties Madonna on the Hi-Fi and bounded in and out of Jack’s wardrobe in various comical combinations, but ended up getting his head stuck in a turtleneck and eating a moccasin shoe in overexcitement.

When they were tired Wilbur made some cocoa and they built a fort from blankets and cushions to snuggle in and share favourite memories of Jack. If you’re wondering at this point whether Wilbur’s intentions were anything but honourable then put the idea out of your mind. Wilbur was a dog, remember, and a neutered one at that. Besides, he knew as well as you and I do that June’s understanding of romance lived and died with Jack. Wilbur knew it instinctively but you should know better; I told you only a few paragraphs ago. The new sleeping arrangement was undeniably symbiotic though. Dogs love blanket forts and old ladies love to be the little spoon.

Three weeks later June followed Jack to the land of peace and conclusions. She was in the garden deadheading marigolds while Wilbur recited The Owl and The Pussycat to her, substituting ‘dog’ for ‘owl’ and ‘OAP’ for ‘pussycat’. June was giggling and sprinkling the flower heads onto the springy grass at her knees as a warm feeling, normally associated with drinking red wine at lunchtime, spread dizzily through her. Gently she lay among the marigold heads and smiled her final smile up at Wilbur, who smiled softly back and bellowed jovially, “Go forth, Titania!”

The dog barked for an hour before a frustrated neighbour peered over the fence and saw the scene: a gaunt, wild haired old lady, lying dead in the grass wearing nothing but a stained nightdress, next to a distressed and lonely dog.

The death certificate cited malnutrition as the cause of June’s death but, had she or the dog been able to share the truth, the world would have known that she had died of happiness.