From The Static: Happy Endings

 

Why do people find the sound of the ocean relaxing? If there was a beach involved, and a hot sun, maybe a cocktail or two, I could understand. A CD of ocean sounds in a darkened room is another matter. After a few minutes of that I’m usually desperate for a leak.

“Can we cut the sounds?”

With my face in the cradle thing, I can’t see her move away, but I hear the gentle swish of her long skirt as she walks. A click later, and the waves are gone. She swishes back and her hands once again attack the knots in my shoulder.

“Is there anything else I can put on to help you relax?”

Her Polish accent isn’t up to scratch, though I know for a fact that she was born over there. This is the one time the establishment that habitually popped in for a rubdown liked to hear an accent. English girls are far too pure for this type of work.

“You could talk to me.”

Raising my head slightly out of the cradle, I check to see if the candle I brought with me is still alight. It is. I’ve always found the scent of vanilla to be relaxing, evoking as it does the summer days of my youth. More importantly the candle was made with a psychoactive barbiturate, and it should be making my masseuse nice and talkative. It may not be ethical, but I only have a short window of opportunity here.

 

#

 

Something is going on inside. It’s all boring, adult stuff with strained voices and nasty glares. Natalia is ushered outside with a bar of chocolate to keep her quiet, so she goes to the back of the hotel where it is quiet, and takes up her usual spot on the low wall. There’s the occasional shout from within, but it’s easier to ignore them with the feel of the sun on her face.

From the corner of her eye she sees movement so sudden, she almost drops her chocolate. Something is in one of the giant bins down past the kitchens. A bag lies on the ground next to it, and a second joins it, arcing through the air. Those bins have always scared her. They were big enough to swallow her up whole. They stink of rotten food and cigarette ash.

A third bag comes out, and then a pair of legs swing into view. A boy of about her age swings himself out of the bin, and onto the ground. Opening one of the bags he takes out a complete loaf of bread. The first few slices get tossed back into the bin, but the next one is evidently free of mould, and he stuffs it into his mouth.

That’s when he looks up and sees her. They stand there, the two of them, just staring at each other across the open space behind the hotel. Natalia finds herself slowly putting the chocolate bar into her pocket, out of his sight. As she does, he grabs the bags from the floor, and squeezes back out through the railings into the street beyond.

Briefly, she feels shame, as if she should have given him the chocolate. It was hers. She didn’t want to share it. She sits back down on the wall and continues to eat it.

Years later she will remember that moment and still feel regret.

 

#

 

“We can’t afford it.”

“It is an important day for her, beloved. We can stretch to it just this once. Things are not that bad yet.”

Her parents argue a lot these days. Natalia usually makes herself scarce, but this is an argument close to her heart. It is a beautiful dress, perfect for the occasion, and the thought of not being able to have it causes her stomach to knot. She just has to have it. Papa will not refuse her, but then, he is not the problem.

“They are that bad, it is just that you refuse to see it. It is coming up to peak season, and we can barely fill a third of the rooms. It is just a dress. There are many dresses.”

“It is not just a dress. Natalia will only turn 16 once, and I want her to feel like a princess. She is too young for reality, beloved. Let her have this.”

“You are too soft with her.”

Natalia does not stay to hear more. She knows her father has already won this argument. Running up the stairs silently to her room, she looks at herself in the mirror and tries to picture how she is going to look in that beautiful dress.

That dress was the last to go. She had felt as if her heart would break when it did.

 

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Walking home she detours through the high street to look at clothes she cannot hope to afford. Her reflection stares back from every window, dressed in the cheapest trouser suit she had been able to find. It is not a lucky suit. It has been worn to countless interviews that all go the same way. Early optimism gives way to depressing inevitability.

Not the right fit. Best of luck.

The only problem is having been born in the wrong country. Her parents want her to move back home to them, but that country has never been her home. They left when Papa’s health deteriorated, and he could no longer afford British treatment. Natalia had driven them to Dover herself, and watched them board the ferry. Some cousin was picking them up from France. Papa had tears in his eyes as he left. Partly they were for her, but mostly they were for a country he loved, and yet was leaving forever.

That was two years ago. She hadn’t seen them since. A short weekly phone call is all they can manage, but at least the distance makes the lies easier to tell. She can’t bear them knowing the truth. If Mama ever found out, she’d be dragged off to a foreign country and a long forgotten language.

Twenty four years. Almost quarter of a century. Yet they still treat her like a foreigner. Worse; an immigrant. This is her home, and she’s damned if she’ll let them force her out.

 

#

 

It’s a small group, but they’ve learned the hard way to keep the numbers light. Get in quick, get out quicker, and don’t get into a fight. It’s less dangerous that way.

They split into two; distraction and grab-team. Natalia is a grabber, ready to go over the wall and make a dart for the storage bins. They take as much as they can, toss the bags over, and climb back up to safety.

It’s not stealing. Not really. It’s all out of date food fit only to be destroyed, so it represents no real loss to anyone. The food banks haven’t been able to keep up with demand in years. Immigrants like Natalia find themselves at the back of the queue. It’s inevitable that people take matter into their own hands.

“Go.”

As soon as the security thugs turn to the distraction, they drop down the ropes and run. As soon as they get into the storage depot, Natalia grabs whatever she can find and shoves it into a plastic bag. Within a few seconds the bags are full and they make for the ropes.

“They’re coming back.”

Natalia flings her bags high over the wall, and jumps for the rope. Her fingers close around it and she starts to climb. A sudden weight hits her and drags her off.

“Oh no, darling. You ain’t going anywhere.”

“Please…”

Natalia struggles but she can’t break free of his grasp. His face is so close to hers she can smell his breath. He smiles, a sickening smug grin that leaves her wishing she was strong enough to wipe it off his face. There’s something green between his teeth. At least he gets to eat well enough.

 

#

 

“I’m surprised they didn’t deport you.”

Having turned over on the bed, her hands are on my chest now, working my pecs and out towards my shoulders and arms. She knows what she’s doing, and takes pride in her work. We both know this isn’t a vocation for her, so I’m impressed with her professionalism.

“An old friend of my father stepped in.”

Now we get to the rub. This old friend of her father’s is the reason I’m here. Let’s call him Sir Percival Pygge. It’s not his real name of course, but it keeps me amused. Nasty piece of work. He wasn’t the first on the anti-immigrant bandwagon, but it wasn’t long before he was driving it forward like he’d been doing it all his life.

“He got you this job?”

“He still pops by every other Thursday.”

“Everybody deserves a happy ending.”

Natalia moves her hands down my body, heading south to the towel that covers my dignity, such as it is. For a moment I’m tempted. A little tension relief never hurt anyone, and it’s been a tough week.

“I wasn’t talking about myself.”

“Nobody comes here just for a massage.”

Continuing down, her fingertips move under the towel. I grab her hand by the wrist and move it back out.

“I did. That and the chat.”

She skips the towel and moves down to my legs, but I can see she doesn’t know how to finish without making me finish. After she’s done with the legs, she hovers there, unsure what to do next.

“How would you like the chance to improve your situation?”

“What girl doesn’t dream of jerking off jerks?”

“I’ll take that as a yes. I’ll leave you the candle. Make sure you light it when this old friend of your fathers comes to visit. Give it ten minutes, and ask him some questions. I’d recommend recording the answers. Maybe work your way up to Baildon.”

Natalia is a clever girl. It only takes a few seconds for the realisation to hit her, and even less to pass from anger to understanding.

“In return you expect me to share what he says?”

“Consider it an insurance policy for you.”

“Who are you?”

“You can call me Iggy. Iggy Free.”

I’m taking a risk telling her. It’s not my real name of course, but I can count on the fingers of one badly mauled hand the amount of people who can put that name to my face. I don’t really expect her to believe me, but she does.

“Thanks for the massage.”

She leans over and kisses me on the cheek.

“Anytime.”

She leaves the room, giving me privacy to dress. Off to another job no doubt. Her story is far from unique. I’ve heard many variations on the theme. That makes it no less deserving of being told. Just another voice from the static looking for their own happy ending.

 

 

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Gig & Album Review – Striking Matches In The Wind

Striking Matches In The Wind Launch Concert, Dunster, 14th March 2015

I’ve been lucky enough to see Steve Pledger perform live a few times now. I saw him support Luke Jackson in Windsor, and saw him produce an electrifying performance in Exeter. Both of those nights will live long in the memory. However, the launch night for Steve’s second album, Striking Matches In The Wind, was on another level entirely.

The Tithe Barn in Dunster was a great venue for Steve, with a beauty that was the perfect accompaniment to his lyrics. He threw himself confidently into the gig, kicking off with a couple of old favourites from his first album, 14 Good Intentions, before introducing the audience to his new songs. Steve has always had great stage presence, but at the launch he was immense. We often hear X-Factorisms strewn around like wedding confetti, but it has to be said that Steve owned that stage. This was the performance of a man at ease with what he’s doing, equally comfortable with explaining the stories behind the songs as he was singing them.

That’s not to say he was strutting around like a Jagger or a Williams. Steve remains very humble, and grateful to be able to share his songs with a wider audience. His voice is a marvel, with the vocal work on quiet emotional pieces like Remembering Mr Perrin, or Friends and Fathers, almost unrecognisable from the vocals on the more powerful In My Better Moments, or A Heart Filled With Nothing To Do.

A key difference to other gigs I have seen Steve perform in, is the guest musicians who added so much to both the night and the album. Tanya Allen played the fiddle on A Heart Filled With Nothing To Do, while Giles Newman Turner performed harmonica on the “anti-austerity boogie” Quit Blubbin In The Cheap Seats. Guest of the night had to be the sublimely talented Ange Hardy, who harmonised with Steve on There We Are, and they followed up with a folk ditty, Sing John Ball, which had the entire audience singing along.

That is not to take away at all from Steve’s performance. He had the entire audience captured, hanging off his every word. During his two love songs, Loving Condescension and Days Like These, there was not a hint of movement. In the days preceding the gig, I’d had to do a lot of travelling, including trips to Cyprus and Spain. Factor in the four and a half hours of driving to get to Dunster (via Exeter), and I was concerned about being too tired to properly enjoy the show. I needn’t have worried. I could have sat through it all over again. The single song encore was not enough.

With the radio play the album is getting, Steve Pledger is deservedly soon to be a name recognised by many. He is going to be exceptionally busy and much in demand. If you get the chance, do yourself a favour and go and see him. He’s poised to become very hot property indeed.

http://www.stevepledger.co.uk/events/2015

Striking Matches In The Wind album review

I should start by saying how much I loved Steve Pledger’s first album, 14 Good Intentions. It is easily one of my favourite albums, and I’ve listened to it many times. Partly this is because it is a family favourite – the most requested album from my children on any long journey. I love the simplicity of it. Effectively it is one man and a guitar, singing the most beautiful soulful songs. The man that is, not the guitar. A singing guitar would be weird.

I was looking forward to picking up the new album, though I have to admit I was also feeling a sense of trepidation. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d have bought the follow up to a beloved album and been left with a feeling of crushing disappointment. I’d been lucky enough to hear 3 or 4 of the songs during Steve’s live gigs, and they certainly boded well, but there was a little nagging doubt in my mind. Would any song on there really be able to go toe to toe with In My Better Moments, a song that I’ve adopted as my own personal anthem? Would he be able to sing anything as achingly beautiful as Love, Bess; or as rip-roaringly rocking as Experience Is Cheap; or as meaningful as The Abstention Song?

Simply put, 14 Good Intentions surely could not be equalled?

I was right. Striking Matches In The Wind is not the equal of the first album. It has surpassed it in every way. This album is a game changer for Steve Pledger, as proved by the amount of radio airplay it is getting.

As I’ve already said, I LOVE the first album. It feels like a live performance captured on CD, without the annoying crowd noise you get on live CD’s. I can’t deny that the production on Striking Matches is a real step up however – Nigel Neill has done a fantastic job (and he clearly has very photogenic hands). The entire album sounds amazing. The calibre of musicians performing with Steve on this album is very high. The highly rated Lukas Drinkwater really lifts the songs he performs on with his double bass. The fiddle work of Tanya Allen is likewise a superb addition, especially on the hauntingly wonderful A Heart Filled With Nothing To Do. Giles Newman Turner is a perfect addition on Quit Blubbin In The Cheap Seats, his harmonica accompanies Steve’s guitar and vocal work so well.

Also appearing on the album, singing with Steve on There We Are, is Ange Hardy. She has (deservedly) been nominated for, and won, so many awards of late that I was surprised not to see her at the Oscars this year. Her music is unashamedly folky, and utterly wonderful to listen to. Go listen to the first song on her first album, I Wish from Windmills and Wishes. I’ll wait… see, told you it was wonderful. That is just track one, album one. I know, right? But I digress.

The album is full of gems – all killer, no filler. Does anything go toe to toe with In My Better Moments? Yes, pretty much every song, and especially Scared Inside. Does he sing anything as achingly beautiful as Love, Bess? Yes, take your pick. Personally I think Friends and Fathers is hard to beat on that score. Quit Blubbin In The Cheap Seats surpasses Experience Is Cheap for a foot tapping brilliance. If you want meaningful you are spoiled for choice, but Beneath The Sun, The Parable Of Intent and Matches In The Wind should satisfy your cravings.

There are even a couple of love songs thrown in for good measure, though Steve apparently doesn’t write love songs. Loving Condescension and Days Like These are two of the best love songs I’ve heard in a very long time. I particularly adore the guitar riff on the latter, though having seen him perform this one live at the launch concert it looks bloody hard to pull off. Not one I’ll be attempting any time soon.

Once again there are key themes that run throughout the album. The first album was a fervent wish for something better, an urge to move away from apathy, and in many ways that theme continues in Striking Matches. “There must be more,” he sings in Beneath The Sun, a line which could have come from the first album. This Land Is Pound Land is about the changing face of the High Street, and how we’ve lost something important in our constant search for value for money, “But you get what you pay for, and we’re paying now”.

There is a subtle difference here though. If I had to sum it up in a word, I’d say it was altruistic. This starts with the first song on the album, People Who Care, about being there for a friend who feels isolated. “The good that comes begins with you and me,” he sings in Beneath The Sun. The Parable of Intent is a conversation between man and the Earth, and that it’s easy to talk a noble game, but if we do not back up those words with our actions, it is a meaningless gesture.

When the album ends with Matches In The Wind, it would appear almost as if he’s given up; that he recognises that nothing we do makes a difference. We’re all just striking matches in the wind. That’s not the message here, however. The last lines of the album reveal a more hopeful stance, that we cannot let the prevailing wind stop us from giving more of ourselves. We should all be more altruistic.

“And it feels like striking matches in the wind,

But as long as these sparks fly our fire will not die

We’re striking matches in the wind.”

My only slight gripe is that the album is just too damn short. 12 songs, 50 minutes… I want more, Steve, there must be more. I’m greedy like that.

Of course Steve has made life a bit more difficult for himself with this album. If the third album is at least as good, if not better than Striking Matches In The Wind (which it will be), and then the fourth, and then the fifth… well… I don’t envy him when it comes to narrowing down to just a few songs for his future Best Of album.

Striking Matches In The Wind is released on 2nd April 2015, and is available for pre-order via http://www.stevepledger.co.uk/.

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Steve Pledger at Hope Hall

Earlier in the year, on the recommendation of my Uncle, my wife and I went to a small church in Windsor to watch a couple of singer songwriters – Luke Jackson headlining, with Steve Pledger in support. I’d heard neither, but my Uncle is never wrong with his recommendations. It was a lovely intimate venue, full of friendly people anticipating a good gig. My expectations were not particularly high, but the tickets had not been expensive, and I was just glad to be out of an evening with my wife. It proved to be a great night, with both guys on top form. Steve Pledger blew us away though. At the interval I could not get up quick enough to say hello and buy his CD.

This may explain why at the weekend I put in 300+ miles in the car, 5 hours of driving, just to see him play live again. The venue was the beautiful and intimate Hope Hall in Exeter. It is a hidden gem out in the suburbs of Exeter, tucked down an alleyway near to Exeter Hospital, and full of wonderful artwork. My Uncle was promoting the gig, so I got to help set up (though mostly just got in the way) and listen to the sound check. My children (7 & 4) both love Steve’s album, but occasionally get the odd detail wrong. In ‘Abstention Song’, Steve sings about “two-faced lying hypocrites”, which my son believed to be “toothpaste flying hypocrites”. Steve was tickled enough to play that version in his warm up, and then told the audience about it in the gig itself.

I’ve been lucky enough to sit through a lot of gigs. Rarely have I been disappointed, but then rarely have I seen one of those gigs. You know the ones. You can’t stop talking about them, and you want everybody to appreciate what they missed. By the end, you aren’t thinking of the journey home and a warm bed, you are genuinely gutted when the performance ends and the lights come up. Steve played a one song encore (a hugely impressive cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’), and it just wasn’t enough. Had he played on for a further two hours, it still would not have been enough. This one definitely one of those gigs for me.

From the moment he hit that first note on ‘Back to the Beginning’, he had the whole audience in the palm of his hand, many of whom were hearing him for the first time. The first half was a mixture of emotional gut punches like ‘Remembering Mr Perrin’ and ‘Friends & Fathers’, and lighter songs such as ‘Ain’t No Love Song’. There was even a bit of audience participation on ‘Poundland’, a lament to the changing face of the High Street. The second half was a similar mix, with the heartbreakingly beautiful Love Bess a definite highlight, along with my personal favourite, ‘In My Better Moments’.

In the flesh, Steve has great stage presence. His music is unashamedly serious, but he is also humble and self-deprecatory. His message is a simple one; we have to be serious about what we want to be changed. In his introduction to ‘Love Bess’, he said that the song was about death, no surprise there, but that it was also about hope. In that one comment he encapsulates what is so good about his songs. They are serious, but they contain such hope for a better future. They challenge the shallow preoccupations of our society, talk of a desire to see real change, and a belief that this change is possible (‘Beneath the Sun’, ‘The Spirit of What Ought to Be’).

The plan is for this to become perhaps an annual event, and certainly there will be a repeat next year. If that happens, I cannot recommend coming along highly enough. It is a night that will live long in my memory. Steve also has a tour coming up with the wonderful Ange Hardy, which will be well worth going along to – http://www.stevepledger.co.uk/gigs.

I’m off now to badger local music venues to book him for a gig. If that doesn’t work, I may just have to do what my Uncle did and arrange/promote one myself. Who’s in?

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Indulging in nostalgia

It was our Sunday ritual. We would pile into the car and head for the motorway, turning East towards London. I always looked out for the hotel, that’s when I knew we were almost there. We pulled off the motorway, past the Carvery, and then turned to drive past the smallest police station that looked like it was based in a flat. We turned again to the right, and then right again into a small cul-de-sac. Dad would park in front of the very familiar garage door. Once out of the car my sister and I would run for the gate, then run up to the house. The door was always unlocked, though we rang the doorbell anyway. Through the front door we went, into the porch and beyond into the house. We darted through the brown folding door on the right and gave Nan a big hug, before going into the lounge where Granddad would be sat in his favourite armchair by the television. 

He would always turn slightly in his chair as we came in, and beam at us, acting almost surprised to see us there though of course he would have been expecting us. He gave the best hugs, both arms around you squeezing tight. Sometimes I’d spend hours just sitting on his lap with his arms around me, watching The Match on television. It was one of the safest places in the world. 

Granddad used to be in the Mines Rescue Service. I still cannot comprehend what it must have been like for him underground. He would never really talk about it, at least not to me. He was on a rescue team at the Six Bells colliery disaster, though the attempts were hampered by roof falls and gas present after the explosion. 45 men were killed, and Granddad would have helped carry out the bodies afterwards. No wonder that shortly after that disaster he would move the family from their home in Wales, and settle in Berkshire. He did not want my father and his older brother going down the mines to work. 

We spent many happy hours in that house. I can still close my eyes and picture every inch of it, from the ornamental miner’s lamps around the fireplace (many of which now occupy the same place in my parent’s house), to the fluffy Dusty Bin replica which sat by the television cabinet. There were cupboards full of cheap nature video tapes, the odd western, and some Disney videos my father’s cousin worked on. I can still see the coffee table with the enormous family bible that fascinated me as a child. 

Sometimes we would have a full roast there. I can close my eyes now and remember the taste of the vegetables. Everything was boiled for way too long and then mashed up together in the colander to produce a vegetable mix where nothing was identifiable. Back then this was practically the only way I could be persuaded to eat vegetables. If we went just for tea we would have a salad feast, and I would hog the bowl of tuna. I would eat more in that house than anywhere else. After tea came the deserts. My father loved the trifles, but I loved my Nan’s Victoria sponges, and ice cream with the magic sauce that hardened when it got cold. Everybody loved the Welsh cakes, usually made with chocolate because I wouldn’t eat the more traditional raisins. 

It must be around 10 years since my Grandparents moved to Cyprus. I have seen them a handful of times since, enough to get a glimpse of how Alzheimers has affected my Nan. I’ll confess to feeling a little bitter that they went. I’d have loved to have seen them more over the last decade, and for my children to have had a relationship with them. Some of that close relationship has been tarnished in recent months and years. 

My granddad died yesterday. It had been on the cards; he was 91 and fighting a losing battle with cancer. I had expected to feel only a sense of resignation when he passed. Instead I find myself thinking back and indulging in nostalgia. I’ll miss the man in my memories greatly. In many ways, I’ve been missing him these last ten years. I’ll never forget those hugs. 

I have written two pieces for my site this year, and both sadly are remembrance pieces. I hope that this is the last I’ll feel compelled to write for a long time.

Go hug the ones you love, and make sure it is a big hug using both arms and with plenty of squeezing.

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Memories

About three weeks ago I was sitting with my godparents and my friend Charlie. We were talking about a fairly new diner in town that does fantastic burgers, and I jokingly asked if they’d deliver as far away as I live. Quick as a flash, my godfather told me we should arrange a takeaway and eat round their house. It was a moment of unthinking generosity absolutely typical of him. He was living off tomato soup at the time, but was just happy for us to be with him. We had popped into the hospice for a quick 15 minute visit, and ended up staying an hour longer. At the end I gave him a hug, told him I loved him and would see him soon, and off we went. I didn’t see him again before he passed away last Friday. 

I’m not ready to talk about him in the past tense yet. I doubt I’ll be able to do so for a long time yet. He is such a huge presence in the lives of many people, with a personality that cannot be diminished merely by dying. Even after so long fighting cancer, that hideous blight on humanity, it was a genuine shock when I received the phone call from my father. Part of me thought he would pull it back again. It would be wrong to say that he’d lost his battle, because he kicked cancer’s arse. It was the most one sided fight anyone is ever likely to see. Every time he was given a finite time frame, he beat it. He deserves his rest now, but cancer will be curled up in a ball somewhere, licking its many wounds and hugely regretting starting this fight.

It makes me smile to know that everyone who knew him are quietly discussing their favourite stories of him. I was reading on Facebook one of my friends talking about a legendary zoolander-like dance off between her husband and my godfather at my wedding. It is a huge regret that I missed that, having already left for the hotel. Oddly enough at their wedding I did get to witness a joke-off involving my godfather and another friend. I was near crying with laughter as the two of them shot joke after joke at each other. 

This is not a eulogy. There are others far better placed to write that, not least his two sons that I am honoured to call friends. You could not hope to meet a nicer family. I have known them my whole life; have spent days, weeks, and months in their company. As a child I spent many a school holiday with them, and our families occasionally went on holiday together. Some of my happiest memories were spent with them, and my godparents were huge influences on me.

My godfather finally helped me conquer my fear of cycling without stabilisers with his gentle coaxing. He also helped me not to take myself too seriously. I was an overly sensitive and annoying brat as a kid, yet he had a way of getting me to laugh at myself. When my friend and I were going after our cookery badge for cubs, we made steak and kidney pie round his house. I was a fussy sod when it came to food, and inevitably I hated it. I dealt with it in my usual calm manner, by throwing a strop like a prima donna. My godfather picked up the plate, and started eating. “Yuck… eurgh… horrible,” he said, as he ate forkful after forkful. Even I couldn’t help but laugh. 

There are so many great memories. After fussing over us children steering a boat along the Norfolk Broads one holiday, he took over only to almost immediately hit the bank. My dad was following him in the car on another occasion, and had to laugh when my godfather veered in and out of the cones on the way into some services. His explanation, “It said use both lanes”, left us all in stitches. My overriding memory will always be of his laugh. He had the most infectious laugh I’ve ever heard, and it never failed to lift my mood when I heard it.

It seems trite to say I will miss him, but I will. A world without him in it is a greatly diminished one. He leaves us with such wonderful memories filled with warmth, love and humour. It is rare to find someone so universally loved by those who knew him, and we all know just how special he is. These last few years were a gift to us all. He fought with such determination, courage and dignity. It would have been easy to give in, but that is not his way. 

Simply put, those of us who know him are far better off for having him in our lives, and we will remember him to the end of our days.

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2013 in review

This site was set up earlier this year to support a story submission. I had always shied away from having this kind of blog for a few reasons. I wasn’t convinced I would keep it updated. It is hard enough to find the time to write stories, let alone update a website. Life often gets in the way of any quality writing time. I have two young children, who seem to think that they come before my stories. Sadly my wife agrees. I have a full time job, and my employers would presumably not be too happy were I to write while they are paying me to work.

Yet the main reason for not wanting a blog is that it feels very self-indulgent. It is one thing to submit stories for publication, but to have a blog is to declare one’s thoughts to be worthy of being read by others. I enjoy reading authors’ blogs, and gaining a valuable insight into getting their stories published. I am currently unpublished, so why would anyone want to read what I have to say?

Finally taking the plunge felt oddly cathartic. It was as if I was finally declaring myself to be a writer. Having put something online, I took the step of letting friends and family know it was there, most of who had no idea I harboured this ambition to write stories and have them published. I received a great many messages praising my Game of Threes entries, and many requests for more to read. It gave me a real boost.

So having said that blogs were self-indulgent, surely writing a review of my writing year would be the most self-indulgent blog post possible. In for a penny, in for a pound.

I started the year determined that I would at least start putting my work out there, and giving myself a chance. About this time last year I had clicked a link on Twitter from a retweet that appeared in my timeline, something I very rarely do. It led me to a site called Litreactor, and a contest they were running called Teleport Us. It was probably the best decision I made all year.

Teleport Us was a science fiction writing contest – 4,000 word short stories with three mandatory elements.

1)      Must explore utopian/dystopian themes

2)      Must feature a non-human character

3)      Must feature realistic technology (not veer off into fantasy)

 I started several stories before aborting them early on. One of these was a science fiction take on Emile Zola’s Germinal which I had recently read and left an impression on me. Another was using children to operate army drones as they treated it like a computer game, though I’d never heard of Enders Game at that point.

In the end I decided to tap into some very raw emotion from the recent death of a family member, and created a simple story of a man trying to deal with the tragic loss of his wife. So haunted by grief and his own memories, he signs up to become ‘technically evolved’ – downloaded into a non-biological body. He soon learns that his memories of her are crystal clear, and will never fade with time. Wracked with emotional pain, he tries to find a way out.

 Hoping for at least a decent showing, I submitted ‘The Memory Remains’ to the contest with little in the way of expectations. Quickly I became addicted to reading the stories of other entrants, devouring story after story and leaving feedback. It was a wonderful contest to be part of, with a very supportive atmosphere. I learned a great deal not only from feedback on the story, but reading and critiquing other stories too. I even won a book for reviewing so many. I was overjoyed to be named amongst the top winners, and received a critique from the author Dana Fredsti. I’ve since submitted to a few publications, but it has not yet been picked up.

My next piece was written for submission to Pantheon Magazine for their Poseidon issue. Albatross was the story of one man in a boat following a ship wreck, kept sane only by a seabird that may or may not contain the soul of a dead sailor who wants to eat him. While draft one exists, it wasn’t of a good enough standard to submit in time, so I moved straight onto the next piece.

 All The World was inspired by Pantheon’s Dionysus issue. Three children on the run in a ruined city happen upon an abandoned theatre protected by the mysterious Master of Revels. Forced to perform for his audience of statues, the production takes a sinister turn when their hunters arrive on the scene. In subsequent drafts the three become one child. This was turned down by Pantheon with praise for the character of The Master. I’m planning to take this forward, but without the futuristic setting, and with a different foil for The Master.

Litreactor hold occasional contests for subscribers. Stories are submitted with complete anonymity, and everyone has to critique all the stories including their own. The prompt was on a Steven King quote, about even the most evil of villains being the hero of their own story. I wrote a revenge story called Lady Justice, with a young women gaining violent revenge on the business men who robbed her grandparents of their pensions.

Kingdom Come arose from an old idea for a comic book planned with a fellow unpublished author. It is set within the world of Cryptids, featuring a banished God and his plans to create his own kingdom. A second draft has been completed, and is just awaiting feedback before I attempt a third pass at the story.

I managed to squeeze in one more before the year ended. A friend asserted that he’d never read anything that scared him, and didn’t know how to write scary. That sounded like a challenge to me, so I gave it a go. Ever After was the result, starting off as a simple nod to modern horror films, before diverting off into a meta-fictional ending. Five people wake up at a table containing a very early Christmas meal with no idea of how they came to be there. All five face certain death, but only one will truly get to meet their maker.

It’s been a successful year. I started 2013 determined to write more, and to start submitting for publication, and I succeeded. For 2014 I’d like to keep that momentum going, and to start having stories published. Oh… and to continue writing blog posts of course.

 Fingers crossed.

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The Game of Threes

If you are seeking to become a writer and are looking for a site of likeminded people, I heartily recommend Litreactor.com. As well as their annual short story competition, the workshop is a great place to get comments on your work. While I have yet to dabble in the Beyond Thunderdome contests, I did a few stories in The Game of Threes.

The rules were simple – write a three paragraph story (with some flexibility given to poetry and dialogue) based on a three word prompt. Once you’ve written your story, you post a new three word prompt for the next contestant.

These were designed to be written quickly, with very limited editing.

Here were my entries, oldest to most recent:

 

Missing Word Soup

He didn’t fear death. Not being a believer had its benefits, and rather than face an eternity of small talk he expected nothing but peace. Dying wasn’t going to be fun. He didn’t look forward to that last moment of pain. A moment is all it would be; a flash and then over. There was little call for panic or hysteria. Sadly he seemed to be the only one there feeling that way, as another tremor ripped through the aircraft.

Next to him a woman held the crucifix round her neck, her ashen face staring at him with wide eyes as if waiting for comfort. Most people around him were weeping uncontrollably, which was understandable but still irritating. Repressing a sigh, he plugged his headphones into the armrest and turned the volume up. The music was loud with heavy bass, but he found it soothing. It made everything less real. Placing the complementary mask over his eyes, he could now pretend they were simply travelling through bad turbulence.

There were regrets of course. He hadn’t eaten enough steak in his life. He’d never had that glass of Eagle Rare. There was still half of Capote’s In Cold Blood left unread. There was no family to miss him, nor so much as a faithful dog. In truth, there was little of life he was sorry to see go, though he sure would miss his favourite television show. As the ground rushed up to greet them in one final embrace, he smiled. He wondered if anyone else on the plane would regret missing Word Soup. When the flash came, he was still smiling.

The ridiculousness of the prompt seemed ideal for something a little tongue-in-cheek. The stories that had been written on previous prompts had been quite serious, and I wanted to lighten it up a bit. It’s a rough first draft, but was well received.

 

Doctor of Agniology [sic]

I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve been born twice. While both were painful in their own way, I only remember the second time. That time I wasn’t pulled from my mother. I was born on my knees, retching up a lifetime of lies and pretence along with the strangely luminous green bile.  It felt like Death itself stood behind me, holding back my hair as it all came out of me, waiting to claim me. He would have to wait.

‘Trust me,’ he said. ‘I’m a doctor.’ It sounded like a phrase he’d uttered often, as he convinced those like me to swallow our medicine. I’ve seen the look of fear and doubt in the eyes of others as their world faded to reveal what’s real. The bright colour we lived with all our lives faded to reveal the true drabness of this world. That content feeling we’d always known abandoned us, letting the dread in. Just because it’s real, doesn’t make it any easier to take.

‘A doctor of what?’ I’d asked, pills already swallowed. At the edge of my vision I could make out the colour beginning to drain out. He didn’t answer, just stood there watching as the cramps hit me and I went down to my knees. Then he knelt in front of me. I can still close my eyes and see his face in front of me. I presume he said the words aloud, but I remember feeling them instead of hearing them. If ignorance is the disease, then I give you the cure.

There was some debate over the title, but I kept it as written. I don’t know where the Matrix-esque story came from, but the idea of being healed of ignorance seemed to fit that style. It’s derivative, but I’m quite pleased with it.

 

Every Third Monday

The lone wolf padded silently into the clearing, carefully watching the pale speckled doe. Unconsciously he bared his teeth, the rabbit he’d devoured several hours ago now forgotten. Gracefully moving her head she looked straight into his eyes. Feeling a familiar jolt of recognition, he was not alarmed when smoke filled the glade. The transformation was painless, and he delighted in being able to stretch his arms and flex his fingers.

They wasted no words as they came together; each seeking the other’s lips with a desperation born from too much time apart. Every touch was savoured by them both, bittersweet moments of captured love which couldn’t last. Each of them was determined to put the inevitability to one side, but they made love only too aware of the dwindling sands in their allotted hour glass. It couldn’t help but add a taint to their snatched moments of happiness. Purity eluded them.

As time swiftly passed the joy lessened and the heartbreak grew. They parted with great reluctance, each feeling keenly the pain of separation. While it threatened to engulf them and fill them with despair, both knew that soon they would have forgotten the other. They would revert completely to their other forms. Yet something would draw them together again in twenty one moons. They would share again a few short hours together. As each ran in opposite directions before their bodies took over their minds, their hearts remained in the glade, ever entwined.

The prompt suggested something mundane, so my contrary nature made me want to go the other way and do something mythical. The language is a little flowery, not my usual style.

 

Rolling The Die

Her rest had been disturbed, and she felt an all too familiar stab of irritation. There were times that the shackles bit deeper than others, as she was compelled to travel ever onwards. She thought of herself as a remote appendage on a vast body, and was quick to grab some respite wherever she could. When the body called though, it could not be ignored. So here she was, slipping unseen through the crowds until she reached the right place.

Time was frozen for the mortals. Circling the group she felt for the one that had invoked the name of the body. He was a heavy set man with sweat pouring down his face. She looked into his eyes and read his story. There was great sadness in there as well as love, death, betrayal and redemption. Not that these were unique to him of course, and she wasn’t the type to be swayed by a hard luck story. She had a job to do.

From a hidden pocket she produced a small wooden case, and popped a single die into the opening. With a well-practised flick of her wrist she shook the case and sent the die tumbling onto the table.  It span for a few moments then settled to show a 1. Moving to scoop it up she paused and looked again into his eyes. There was something of desperation and hopelessness there that called to her. It was not for her to pick and choose the righteous, but sometimes she just felt a compulsion to intervene. She glared at the die and it popped over to show a 6. His lucky day, she thought as both she and the die drifted away.

Rolling the die clearly suggests a gamble of some type, but taking it from the gambler’s POV didn’t appeal. I preferred to go with Lady Luck herself.

 

Not So Random

The small brightly coloured bouncy ball flicked up in the air and landed safely in the palm of his hand. He perched on the waist-high wall that ran parallel to the street and watched the commuters hurry past as they took no notice of the world around them. The sun was already bright in the morning sky, as it shone down the corridor between the office blocks, and he wore mirrored shades to keep the light at an acceptable level. Holding the ball resting between index finger and thumb, he flicked it into the suited throng.

Almost immediately it was kicked unknowingly, hit a briefcase and bounced further down the street where a little girl saw it. Pulling clear of her mother, she darted forward to grab it, causing one of the commuters to swerve to avoid her. The commuter tripped on an exposed pavement slab, and staggered sideways into a fellow worker, pushing him into the road. A passing cyclist veered to avoid hitting the man, but despite the driver in the car behind him slamming on the brakes, he could not react in time and clipped the bike.

Miraculously the cyclist ended up sitting on the hood of the car completely unharmed. The bike was not so lucky however. It had been flung into the air and across the road, where it was perfectly placed to smash through the windscreen of a speeding car. The bike struck the driver in the head killing him instantly. All of this was watched dispassionately by the man on the wall. As those around him rushed over to the car with the bike still stuck through the windscreen, the man reached for his mobile and spoke just two words into it.

“Mission accomplished.”

I like that something so minor can cause something so major, and the idea of someone who can calculate the seemingly random events required to reach a specific result.

 

Psychosomatic Feline Presence

“Hayfever?” asked the man on the bus next to him, voice tinged with sympathy.

Max shook his head. His eyes were puffy and streaming and he blew his nose constantly, turning the tissue to try and find a dry spot. He saw the world through a permanent glaze of saltwater. Loosening his collar to relieve pressure on the hive on his neck, Max avoided eye contact hoping this would end any conversation. Sadly the man was one of those types who just like to talk, and any stranger will do in a pinch.

“Cold?” he asked.

Again Max shook his head. Removing a tube of throat lozenges from his inside pocket, he pushed one out with the tip of his thumb and popped it in his mouth. It gave him scant relief, and the effects did not last long, but it was something at least. A sudden bout of coughing made the lozenge shoot out from his mouth, landing at the feet of a particularly plump woman who stared at him with disgust and loathing. He looked at her apologetically, and then popped another throat sweet.

“Allergies?” the man pushed.

This time Max didn’t answer. He stared down to the floor of the bus where the cat sat preening itself. Today it was a ginger tomcat fond of rubbing its head against Max’s shin. At least it stayed down on the floor; yesterday it was a black and white cat who sat on his lap occasionally pushing its face into his chin. Nobody else could see it, and it followed him everywhere. At night it curled up on the pillow, tail resting across Max’s face. For the millionth time he cursed his own battered psyche. Safe to say he was more of a dog person.

This is my favourite. It is rare, but occasionally a story comes to me almost fully formed. Most need to be coaxed out, but this one popped into my head virtually complete when I saw the prompt. All I needed to do was write it down and post.

 

Flowers in Bloom

“Damn it,” I thought to myself, “I don’t want to die in a cliché.”

I could feel the blood trickle down my arm and drip slowly from the tips of my fingers down to the earth beneath me. I didn’t mind that the greenhouse was filled with roses, but why did they have to be red? It was like dying in a metaphor. She’d worn a red rose in her lapel when she’d first walked into my office, smoke curling from her unfiltered Lucky Strike. She had me wrapped around her little finger before I could say double whiskey on the rocks. It was such a simple case – follow the husband, take some photos, get paid. I wasn’t banking on a conspiracy surrounding irrigation, a small island off the coast of Peru, and a dead dog called Cudro. If I was smart I’d have quit the case and moved to a nice small town with a nearby whiskey distillery. I guess I listened to the wrong brain this time.

Regan was a killer, but luckily for me he wasn’t the sharpest thorn on the rose stem. He moved slowly and cautiously, still following the trail of blood I’d left him. Clearly it hadn’t occurred to him that I could stop the flow long enough to set up an ambush. I jumped him from behind and knocked the pistol from his grasp. Throwing a punch into his jaw I was left stunned when his head exploded showering me with the stuff of nightmares for months to come, if I lived. He dropped to the floor and I saw her standing there with a literal smoking gun.

I slumped to the ground, and fumbled for my packet of smokes. They had seen better days, but I managed to find one that was relatively intact and popped it between my lips. I patted down my pockets and picked out the box of matches. Opening it to take one out I read again the scribbled note “C.I.S.V. 148759” half expecting to experience a sudden epiphany that would clear the fog and have this all make sense. Nope, still not a clue. On her way past me she bent down and lit my cigarette for me. I looked at her legs and saw a flash of garter that made me suddenly dizzy, though that could have been the blood loss. I allowed myself to fall to the ground and bent my neck to watch her walk away upside down. Sure, she might have killed me, and if by chance I survived I’d face a lot of awkward questions I had no answer for. For a dame with a body like that though, I couldn’t help but forgive her.

The End

A good friend of mine had left the last prompt, so I decided to make it tougher on myself by asking him to assign me a genre as well. He had been watching a lot of noir at the time, and so naturally that was the style he assigned me. I’ve not watched a lot of noir, though I love Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, but I figured I’d give it a go. It’s a clumsy start (looking at it now, using cliché and metaphor so close grate on me), though I’m proud of getting three films references into one sentence.

 

Broken Wine Glass

 

 

As he looked down it was the broken wine glass that upset him, far more so than the dead body. The stem and foot were intact, but the bowl had mostly shattered across the floor. It was a Riedel Sommelier burgundy crystal glass, a thing of beauty. He’d enjoyed serving wine to guests with that set, but always made sure they were safely on the table when he told them what they cost. Now the set would be incomplete.

Adding to his pain was the leakage; the red liquid oozing from its broken vessel. The burgundy didn’t spread, contained by the expensive Berber rug he’d purchased in Morocco at great expense. He could never look at that rug without thinking of the Medina of Marrakesh, or swimming in the sea off Rabat. Its sight conjured up memories of the smell of tagines and tobacco. Now it lay on his floor bleeding, as dead as the body lying at its edge.

Finally he steeled himself to look at the body. In death the features had relaxed, the skin no longer tight over the face. His chiselled chin was no longer defined. If he’d been a celebrity he’d have thought it looked like a bad lookalike. In fact, he could almost convince himself that he wasn’t looking down at his own dead body, victim of his love of red meat, alcohol and a more than occasional cigar. Almost. Feeling the pull he allowed himself to be dragged away, the scene fading before his ghostly eyes.

I had trouble with this one, it took me quite some time to come up with something. Partly it was due to being out of practice (the game died out for a few months), but it’s an odd prompt. I had the idea of the wine oozing out being like blood, and eventually stumbled into this.

 

If anybody fancies playing along, head to litreactor (http://litreactor.com/discuss/the-game-of-threes?page=1#comment-161278) or feel free to post your three word prompts in comments.

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Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing

Following the recent death of the great Elmore Leonard, I came across his 10 rules for writing from http://badassdigest.com/2013/08/20/never-open-a-book-with-the-weather-rip-elmore-leonard/:

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

 

Sounds like good advice to me.

 

 

 

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Welcome

Welcome to my site.

Here you will find samples of my writing, updates on stories I’m working on, and just maybe some random musings.

Please feel free to contact me or leave comments.

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