This section contains very short pieces usually written in response to competitions or requests for submissions to magazines. They are much shorter than short stories and could be nuggets for longer pieces but stand alone as they are.
GASLIGHT was originally published a couple of years ago in an anthology of fiction and poetry ‘The Tall and the Short’. No longer in print.
Simon hadn’t told his mum the whole story earlier in the week when he asked if he could stay on Friday. Mum didn’t usually like him staying out late in winter. She said it was too dark to be lingering on the way home and eleven year olds shouldn’t be out wandering the streets at night. Just this once however, as it was a cultural event, she had agreed to let him go to the school film club.
He hadn’t lied. He had gone to the film club, but he had been a bit vague about the film that was showing. Art house production or not, she didn’t approve of horror films and would have said ‘no’ had she known. Simon wasn’t that keen on them himself if he were being honest and he had only asked because Steve had said it would be really cool to go when they wouldn’t be allowed to see it in a cinema for years yet.
The film had been worth the small subterfuge, it was much better even than Steve’s hyped billing in fact. A little too good for their tastes as it turned out, and so nerve jangling that Steve and Simon had felt the need to look away from the screen for long stretches. Both boys had been glad when the end credits rolled.
The night was very dark after the lighted precincts of the school. That had been part of the appeal in the planning of course, but in the reality of the film’s aftermath the thrill palled.
Both boys lived on the edge of town, only a few hundred yards apart, but their routes home from school lay along different roads. Simon lived up behind the church at Walley Heys and Steve’s house was at the back of the Old Hall up on Hambleys Rise. Each had two miles to walk alone in the dark, a boring commonplace trudge on normal school nights. Now, with the memory of what they had just seen lurking in every shadow, those miles were a marathon of fear.
There was an alternative. Sometimes after school they would walk together to one of their houses and the remaining boy would then walk the short distance home alone. They took turn about being the one to walk past the Old Hall and the squalor of Bailey’s farm, but tonight, being a one off sprint of terror, they tossed a coin.
Together they walked to Steve’s house, talking over loudly and being as macho as eleven year olds could. Anything to occupy their minds and stop the furtive glances at the shadows gathering as town turned to country. Their laughter became a little more brittle as they left the main road and turned off past the brick pond with its inky depths and soughing, leaf shrouded banks. They reached the driveway of Steve’s family home. Simon started one last conversation to delay the inevitable. The few hundred yards between the houses had seemed trivial outside school. Here the night seemed to swallow the road ahead in its hungry maw.
Steve trotted down the drive and Simon dragged his feet to the end of Steve’s road. Here his way led left, down the lane past the Old Hall, long deserted, and Bailey’s farm. No cars could get past the farm, the gate there remaining locked at all times. Pedestrians had a right of way through to the canal bridge and what had been the village beyond. If the brick pond and its surroundings had been gloomy, the grounds of the Old Hall and the fields around Bailey’s Farm were stygian.
The gaslights on the lane were a relic of the highpoint of the town’s nineteenth century expansion. They were supposed to have been replaced by electric lights the year before, during the summer of 1966, but council money was tight and they had received yet another year’s reprieve. Each lamp cast the feeblest of yellow glows, and Simon ran from one illuminated circle to the next, loitering in each as long as he could before darting to the next oasis of light. As he ran, shadows and flickering reflections wakened memories and ghosts of long gone splendours in the windows of the neglected Hall. Above him, the arching boughs of trees lining the lane scraped and screeched against each other where they met overhead. At last he was past the Hall and to his left front, across the canal, the lights of his own lane twinkled and beckoned. All he had to do was pass the farm, slide through the gap at the side of the gate, cross the canal bridge, and he was back on tarmac with electric street lights and the houses of living people. The things from the film that hung close on his heels and in the hedges and fields, and in each patch of darkness between the lamps could not follow there. He would be home.
Simon made a vow.
He would tell his Mum and Dad he didn’t want to go to film club again. He would do his homework before Sunday night, and he would help with the washing up and the gardening and wash the car, he promised in his head. Just as long as he got across the bridge in one piece. Fingers ran down his spine. Sweat from running between lampposts he told himself, but the hairs on his neck belied his thoughts.
He rounded the last bend before the farm. At the farm entrance he could see the gate and the pedestrian access at its side leading to the canal bridge and safety. Another gas lamp grew out of the grass verge, out of the shadows by the gap he had to walk through, out of time. From the iron cross piece, barring the way, grimly marking the transition between two worlds swung something grey and shapeless, bumping, slowly spinning at the end of a rope , a shapeshifting gatekeeper to his world beyond.
There had been a time. There had been a time when he had known there would be time like there was now. But he had not known it would be like this. He had not felt it.
He had watched the sad old men down on La Playa del Mar and laughed at their sadness. How they tapped at a typewriter. And from their tapping came only letters on the page. Men scribbled on cigarette packets with biros long turned white with their emptiness. No words, not even letters for them. The memory of letters indented on wood pulp. Indented like the memory of words in his head.
But now was the time he had known would be his, but had not known that it would be like this. The time he had not felt before it arrived.
He looked up from the sand and watched the young men, the men with juice in them, with life in them, with words in them. Words they did not use, or used too much as the fancy took them because for them, now, there would always be words.
He should tell them, shout to them as they promenaded past him, laughing. He should shout, ‘Write. Write right now’. But they would laugh more, and go about their laughing with a joy, because that was what there was now, for them. Laughter at the endless flow of words. As he had once laughed.
He looked at the empty screen. He could write on the sand. It would be the same. It would be better.
Would he have laughed at writing in the sand when he walked where they now walked, laughing?
He would. He knew he would have laughed. Laughter was cheap when one had words.
They would laugh. Writing on sand. The wind and sea and feet would erase the words. Why write words to have them erased?
But the memory of the words was in the sand. Clearer than in the memories of men. Sand and sun, red in the Plaza de toros would sanctify the words. Each spilling and recasting of grains and blood recast the words anew.
He would write in the sand and die.
Other deaths would retell his tale.
And he would laugh again.
He took his laptop.
He could not write in sand with a laptop.
He would go and drink Sangria and think what one wrote with in sand.
Maybe he would ask one of the men and they would laugh together and watch the young girls laughing.
In the morning he would write.
Trouble Amongst the Turnips:
A Counterblast to Television Remakes
In the hot sunshine of the early summer afternoon Demelza and Prudie were thinning out the young turnips which had been sown in the lower half of the long field. Prudie dashed a particularly weedy specimen to the floor in disgust.
‘Why is he growing turnips in here again?’ She asked in a tone that matched her actions.
Demelza turned her head quickly, the dark curls flashing in the sun.
‘You shouldn’t be speaking like that of your betters Prudie.’ she said her mouth set in stern disapproval.
‘Stuff that. He’s mad. I thought he was a follower of old what’s his face from Raynham?’
Demelza was shocked by the impertinent tone and the offensive language.
‘If you mean Viscount Townshend, Mr Poldark is indeed a fervent admirer of the Norfolk four field system and our late Secretary of State. And I’ll thank you to remember your manners.
Prudie dashed another stray turnip to oblivion and sighed.
‘Sorry missus but be fair, if he’d actually bothered reading them pamphlets proper like, he’d know you have to rotate annual or you get all sorts of bother.’
Demelza gently pulled a wastrel root vegetable from the ground and laid it aside.
‘Leaving aside club root, flea beetle and root maggots you mean?’
Demelza nodded sagely not having heard of any of them.
‘Well has he had any nitrogenous fixing crop in here recent like?’ Prudie fixed Demelza with a gimlet eye. ‘Well? ‘as he or ‘an’t he?’
Demelza had not the faintest idea what a nitrogenous fixing crop was but was reluctant to let her beloved Ross take any blame.
‘I’m sure that your master has attended to all the needs of…’
‘Tush my pretty one, he had turnips in here last year and he tried wheat the year before and it was turnips again afore that. And why? What beasts have we to feed ‘em to? We ‘ad boiled neeps, fried turnip, turnip fricasee, roast turnip, turnip soup, turnip broth, stuffed turnip, turnip hash, turnip gallimaufry, and turnip surprise.’ She looked around to ensure their privacy, which was a rather pointless exercise as they were in the middle of an empty field. ‘I don’t like turnip.’ she confided.
‘Ah.’ cried Demelza ‘but the noble turnip…’
‘Noble! Pah! god rot ‘em. And let me tell you another thing. They’ll be weedy little runts anyway without no dung on em. And if you haven’t had any clover in for so long where will the goodness be anyway? And why’s he growing wheat this far west? Barley I could see but when have we had barley? Never. He should ave stuck to fighting and wandering around without a shirt. It’s what he’s good at. Bloody turnips.’
‘Ah but you see Prudie Mr Poldark has read the works of other great agriculturists and whilst he rightly respects and admires Viscount Townshend he believes that Mr Tull had the right of it when he observed ‘Too much nitre corrodes a plant.’
‘Tull?’ Observed Prudie with a sneer. ‘Posh bloke from Berkshire, big hair?’
‘That was a wig Prudie, it was the fashion.’
‘Aye I knows him. Jethro. Stood on one leg all the time?’
‘I believe at one time he did have a certain preference for a monopedal stance, but that has little relevance to his agricultural credentials.’
‘That’s as maybe but its hard to develop real hands on experience hopping behind a plough playing a flute that’s all I’m saying. Should have stuck to his flute. Folks would have paid good money for a big haired bloke playing the flute on one leg. And he could have let country folk get on with a proper crop rotation system.’
Demelza decided that perhaps, despite Ross’s nascent one nation Toryism mixed with quasi socialist overtones, she would let the hired help get on with the work themselves. She rose to her feet, playfully boxed Prudie’s ears, told her to keep her radical ideas to herself and marched off for a quick gin, wishing that someone would hurry up and invent tonic water and a refrigerator, whatever that was.
Better Get on With It
Under the cover of fading twilight Piers Lomond narrowed his eyes against the drizzle coming up river from the west. Pinpricks of orange twinkled into existence through the murk on both sides of the great estuary. He knew from previous forays onto the bridge at night that those pinpricks would soon blossom into clusters of electric fireflies winking through the darkness, struggling to reach out to him across the waters.
He didn’t want to be reached out to. Not by the works of man. Somewhere out beyond the cloud mass rushing in from the Atlantic, the sun was declining beneath the grey storm tossed waves, light being swallowed by an omnipotent monster as the earth spun eastward. A wind was beginning to pick up, not yet strong enough to fleck the mud dark tide below with white caps, but already chopping the waters into black troughed waves. If the forecast was correct it would be a gale by morning, and then a storm. Lomond shook his head to flick the accumulated water from his face and hair. None of which would bother him.
He regretted the cloud and rain. He had imagined that if, he snorted as he corrected himself, no, when, this time came, Tir na n’Og would welcome him with blazing yellow shafts shining through the warm red sky of forever. But even the end was going to be grey and disappointing. Westerness, the land of eternal youth was weeping and Lomond felt as if he had somehow missed the boat. Even in his current frame of mind he allowed himself a wry smile at the inadvertent pun. He wouldn’t need a boat to get there. Below him the second highest tidal reach in the world was churning, turning to rush millions of gallons of water into the Irish Sea. The highest was a couple of thousand miles almost directly west of where he stood, across the waters of the Atlantic in the Bay of Fundy. He’d checked. Just out of interest. When he had still had any interest to spare. So, on to bigger, better things then.
He turned and leaned back on the safety rail, staring upstream now. The angles were all wrong. Mostly he could see the spread of the carriageways that crossed the span of the bridge. The rest was darkness of the eternal night from the East. At least the rain wasn’t in his face any more, and neither the darkness nor the weather prevented him seeing what he was looking for. She would be settling down for the evening. Forty miles upstream the world would seem a different place. A warmer, brighter, less elemental place, confused and cluttered by the ephemera of distractions that humanity constructed between itself and reality. Piers saw through it all to the nub, the heart, the essential futility of all the pastimes and geegaws, the bread and circuses. The pointlessness of obfuscation.
He’d done all that. He’d collected a lot of things. And all the while niggling, itching, growing inside, sapping the ability to pretend everything was fine, was the knowledge. The knowledge of having reached out and being cursed for daring and yet more, for attaining what he desired, that which was not his.
He turned again to face into the west and heaved a sigh of resignation.
[This was just an exercise that went a bit differently than I had imagined. I don’t normally like exercises that demand you write something to a set goal/formula/inspiration – if it isn’t my inspiration I think it is lacking something, some veracity, some depth – oops! Careful – sounding a bit twee there, but you know what I mean. Don’t you? Anyway this time I promised I’d have a go because I was asked and it seemed churlish not to and you know what? I enjoyed it. It may not seem like it from the tenor of the above piece. But I did.]
[Party Time note]
This is a very short piece I worked up from an actual experience (suitably embellished) and then pared down dramatically for possible inclusion in a magazine for Hallowe’en 2013. It didn’t make it but I thought you might like a read anyway.
I jumped on the train just as it was about to depart and the door slammed shut behind me. The carriage was empty. Ceridwen had warned me not to get on the first train by the barriers. Only the second went her way. I hoped her Hallowe’en party would be worth all this. When she asked me I’d only said yes because I was infatuated. I hated fancy dress parties, particularly ones with as vague a theme as this one. When I had asked what to come as, she had said ‘The past. I love old things’. An odd way of putting it, I had assumed she was having a dig at our age difference. The train fitted the bill at any rate, it was older than I was. It pulled out of the station and the rocking of the carriage lulled me to sleep.
I woke with a start. We had stopped, but where? ‘Beech Grove’, the sign said. I panicked. Where was that? I was sure it wasn’t on the line I was supposed to be on. Beyond the platform lights the night was black and the station deserted. I looked round for someone to ask where we were, but I was still alone in the carriage. The diesel moved off into the darkness. I must have got on the wrong train. I would have to get out at the next stop and retrace my steps. I checked my mobile. No service.
We seemed to rattle on forever before we stopped again. I got off and the train departed. I could see no station nameplates. As I made my way across the old bridge to the opposite platform the night seemed to gather more thickly about me with every step. Each light I passed seemed to flicker and dim to almost nothing behind me, darkness pressing me forward. Ahead, a station building reared out of the gloom. I reached the dilapidated ticket office. It was closed, but in the window was a crisp new notice.
‘This station will close on 31 October 1963’.
This piece was originally written in 2004 as an entry for a BBC competition for short pieces inspired by the series Hustle . Not sure it really fitted what they were after – too political not a jolly ‘crime caper- and obviously too hot a political potato for them at the time regardless of any (lack of?) merit or otherwise.
ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF A SCIENTIST
Focuses the mind, death. I knew it was over for me when I heard he’d died. Didn’t quite foresee all the fallout of course, but I knew it was going to be unpleasant.
Of course I’d tried to limit the damage before that. I’d said to William: ‘Will he weather the storm?’ He was the man’s boss after all. Well, we all know the answer to that one now.
I thought we should have protected him more. This business is all about face and I didn’t see how we could keep face if we hung him out to dry.
As I said to William: ‘Ecce homo! This is the man! One of the five or six people in Christendom who understands what the bloody Iraqis are doing. Expose him and the public’ confidence will be blown to hell’
Didn’t think he’d die though.
Christendom was a mistake. Terribly unfashionable. Left a bad smell. Not at one with the PM’s values apparently, despite his bloody crypto Catholic views. Acknowledging 2000 years of history is a sin apparently.
Anyway, the poor sod’s dead and I know he wasn’t one of us, but does the public understand the difference? No. One spook’s the same as another to them. The fact that he was only a bloody technician means nothing to them.
I should have been firmer. I knew we had no real evidence. Nothing that would stand up in a court of law, but then, what intelligence would? It’s not that sort of game is it? Hand on heart how often is what we say unequivocal? Wouldn’t call it the bloody Assessments Staff if it were would we? We’d call it Truth Staff, or something equally Orwellian. This was worse though, all froth and no substance.
Never thought I’d have to justify this sort of stuff to anyone. That was always part of the deal. We’ll give you our assessment, warts and all; you don’t expose us to the public gaze. I mean what do they know? What can they know?
We put up a bloody good case, considering. Gave them what they asked for. They didn’t ask the objective questions of course. They never do, but we answered what we were asked, and by good Christ almighty they got the answers they wanted.
Of course, they didn’t ask for all the intelligence on the existence of WMD, but where would that have got them? Nowhere! As I said, intelligence is an imperfect science; one simply does not get clear answers with open questions. Asking the question the right way lets the politicos get the answer they need for public consumption. So HMG in its infinite wisdom didn’t ask the DG ‘What have you got on the existence of WMD?’ No. No open questions. This isn’t bloody therapy for Christ’s sake. That would have led to confusion. No. They asked ‘Give me everything you’ve got that confirms they’ve got WMD.’ Different bloody question. Different bloody answer.
Poor old 6 and the West Country running round like bloody loons of course. No way they’ve got a full brief for the politicos on that one. Tons of stuff the other way, but they weren’t asked for that. Some little oik turns up with a note from his mother saying: ‘however other evidence suggests…’ and he’s off to freight and mails or wherever it is that doubles for Siberia these days. So you dig where you’re told and not one inch left or right.
So when the old judge asks ‘Was the report manipulated by No10?’ we all stand up and say ‘Absolutely not sir’ with our woggles standing stiff and true without a word of a lie.
I lied my bloody arse off for the Crown over this one. Had to really, question of loyalty; pencilled in for a knighthood already. More than pencilled in actually, indelible ink, so to speak. Owed it to them to keep my face straight and nod and bleat when asked. I’ll get the K of course. Least they could bloody do under the circumstances; might get something a bit better than that actually. And of course, having proved how sound I am, there’s every chance of a few directorships, but I say!
Poor bugger’s dead after all and someone should say sorry. The politicians have all sloped shoulders of course. Bloody typical, I’d expect nothing less of any of ‘em, left or right.
But I looked at the judge and wondered what we were doing. Something stuck in my throat just a little bit at that point.
I mean, I know we pull the wool over the public’s eyes, good God one has to in order to have any chance of running the place, but did we have to sacrifice a poor old sod like that?
I did. I turned the No10 intelligence requirement into a set of tasks and my people came back like good little goats and bleated back the 10 per cent that backed the implied answer. And I paraded it up to the JIC.
There was no need to massage the answer, for God’s sake; do the press have any idea what goes on? You don’t need special advisors and press manipulators and policy wonks burning the midnight oil when the report hits the desk.
The massage was in the question. Just like it always is.
Thank God they got rid of the people bright enough to spot that one eh? And the poor old sod was left out to dry. To die
I’ve decided to take early retirement.
Oh it was inevitable really. The day he was reported dead I knew. Everyone associated would be moved sideways eventually. Oh, one may escape it for a while but I was right in there, I provided HMG with its alibi.
I’ll be okay, they have to look after me after all, or arrange for the traditional accident in a Norfolk ditch.
Here’s to the K and no sleepless nights!