Uneasy

This short story was written for the Flash Fiction for Aspiring Writers challenge, which invites writers to interact with one another through weekly photo prompts. My word count for this piece is at 175. Enjoy!


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Credit: J. S. Brand

With each step I take, my feelings of unease seem to triple. I’ve walked this path a thousand times before, rushed through its thickets and meadows, but something’s different now. As I tread its familiar stones, my hairs stand on end and my hands grow pale and clammy.

It’s not the feeling of being watched – that’s an inaccurate clique – it’s the feeling of something being not quite right. The birds aren’t singing like they’re meant to, and the crickets and grasshoppers are strangely silent. It’s almost as if the animals have been hushed quiet by some silent, unknowable force.

I reach the top of the hill and look forward, heart racing. There’s something lying across my path, dark and unfamiliar. I want to run, but my legs no longer seem capable. Then, staring hard at the shadow, a jolt of realisation shoots through me. I didn’t recognise it at first because someone’s cut off its antlers, but, there it is. The king of the forest – a white stag – the bullet wound shining in its chest.


Click the blue froggy for more interpretations of this prompt!

Hard Truths

This is my second attempt at the Sunday Photo Fiction challenge, which runs each Sunday with a photo prompt and the task of writing a story in less than 200 words. I’m a little later entering this week as I was busy working on my own prompt challenge, but I enjoy taking part in this prompt, considering the excellent photos that the challenge provides. I hope you enjoy!


The afternoon sun bore down into the back of Ashley’s head as she squatted on the step, her eyes on the road. The heat was making her head spin, but she couldn’t force herself to move. It was if she had become stuck to this hard, uneven step.

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Credit: Mike Vore

He’d said today; he’d promised, but that had been three hours ago. She realised he wasn’t to come, but, against all logic, she still couldn’t rake her eyes from the road.

The others were probably laughing at her by now. They wouldn’t be worried about her; this wasn’t the sort of family where someone would bring her a cool glass of water and tell her that it was all okay. They didn’t do that. They didn’t care.

Ashley glanced back at the decrepit shack behind her. It wasn’t a home. It was just where she lived. Then, she thought of her family. They weren’t exactly a family, but they were who she lived with. Her real family, of course – her real dad – well he wasn’t much better, or he would he would have come. He wouldn’t have left her sitting out in the burning heat, waiting for what she could never have.


You can click on this blue froggy to see the other entries! 

“The Dead”: Short Story Review

There’s a funny thing about short stories; we all seem to read them and many of us write them, but they don’t seem to merit the same level of renown compared to novels, plays or poems. I have therefore decided to start reading more of the most famous short stories, reviewing them alongside my usual book reviews, because I honestly believe that the short story can be just as powerful, and just as effective, as a novel.odyssey

The name James Joyce is a famous one, yet this is mainly due to his most well-known novel, Ulysses, which is a modern parallel of Homer’s The Odyssey, a review of which you can read here. What less people seem to be aware of, however, is the collection of short stories, The Dubliners, that granted Joyce his fame. Published in 1914, these fifteen tales depict the lives of everyday people who live in and around Dublin, Joyce’s place of birth.

This was a time when Irish Nationalism was at its peak, its residents seeking to reaffirm their nationality to stop their culture from dissipating through globalisation. This issue is, in particular, considered in the collections final, and longest story, “The Dead”. Before I go any further, however, I would like to draw your attention to this website, where you can read “The Dead” online for free. If you simply don’t have the time, though, here’s a brief overview:

The majority of the story is set during a dinner party, where the main character, Gabriel Conroy, moves about the guests, chatting, dancing and providing insights to the messages that Joyce intertwines with his narrative. After the party, Gabriel and his wife head over to a hotel where they plan to stay the night. At this point, Gabriel is beginning to feel a “keen pang of lust” for his wife, yet Gretta refuses his advances, announcing that a song she heard at the party reminded her of a past lover of hers, Michael Furey. As Gabriel struggles with his shock and disappointment, Gretta goes on to reveal that Furey died when he was very young, and that she feels responsible for his death. “The Dead” ends with Gabriel reflecting on the divides between life and death, considering his position in the world.

Although the main theme of this story is undoubtedly death, there are many other ideas explored in “The Dead”, such as, in particular, the topos of Irish Nationalism:

“And why do you go to France and Belgium,” said Miss Ivors, “instead of visiting your own land?”

“Well,” said Gabriel, “it’s partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.”

“And haven’t you got your own to keep in touch with – Irish?” asked Miss Ivors.

“O, to tell you the truth,” retorted Daniel suddenly, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!”

Gabriel is called a “West Briton”, which is taken as a serious insult, for merely writing for a particular newspaper, which reveals the fragile attitudes of nationalism at the time. However, the accusations put to Gabriel go even further than this; when he is first introduced, he is wiping snow from his galoshes, and Gretta later reiterates their importance by suggesting that Gabriel “makes” her wear them. Aside from this comment about patriarchal power, these galoshes, as Brenden O’Hehir remarks in this essay extract, are symbolic of everything that is different about Gabriel; he is the exotic, educated gentleman who, through the course of the narrative, begins to realise that he no longer belongs with the “ignorant old” nationalists around him.

He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognise from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better.

The story considers other issues, too, such as religion; it is common knowledge that Joyce, although he was Christened a Catholic, not only drifted from the religion, but came to hate it. He suggested that the Catholic order was part of the problem in the loss of Irish identity, and this is revealed in “The Dead” through two, separate comments. The first regards the place of women in the choir, Aunt Kate complaining about how her passion for singing was being threatened as the Church sought to “turn out the women out of the choirs that have slaved there all their lives and put in little whipper-snappers of boys over their heads”. This is not only a comment about women, but also a loss of tradition as the old is replaced by the new. The second comment more directly mocks the customs of the Catholic church, as the monks are described sleeping in their “coffins” each night. This appears to be a comment about religion not only preventing nationalism, but keeping it from moving forwards, as these monks are presented as the living dead, preventing Irish culture from adapting in a new, modern way.

I will leave you with a quote that represents one of the main messages of the story: whilst it is important to remember the dead, we cannot let these losses drag us down in life, preventing us from moving on. Everything needs to adapt, even Irish culture, and there is nothing to be gained from hanging onto something that can’t be changed.

Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living. We have all of us living duties and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our strenuous endeavours.

the dead

Guess How Much I Love You

This short story is for the purposes for the competition at Creative Writing Ink.

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“This is important, Daniel,” Selene hissed, slapping her husband with the playsuit she clutched in her sweaty palms. “If it’s pink then we’re making assumptions about her future, but if it’s blue we’re doing that, too! And, you know, I was reading a report that suggested that green has military links, and–“ she stopped short to give her husband another slap.

“I know I’m going overboard,” she sighed, putting the pink playsuit back onto the pile in front of them. “I just…” she sniffed, hiding behind her curtain of thick, red hair. “I want this to be perfect… I want everything to be perfect.” Daniel smiled, putting his arms around his wife.

“Hey, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh, I know that it’s important,” he paused, “but maybe not that important.” They smiled at each other, and Selene began to laugh, too. Daniel placed his tanned hand over his wife’s stomach. “The decisions we make now won’t stay with her for the rest of her life,” he smiled. “She’s not going to want to be a soldier because she once wore a green outfit, and she’s not going to be angry at us by conforming to stereotypes and buying,” he paused to pick up the pink playsuit once more, “a pink one”.

“I just…” Selene sighed, taking the playsuit from Daniel to look at it properly. “I want her to be happy, Daniel, and I want to do everything humanly possible to make that happen.”

“I know,” Daniel sighed too, hugging his wife tighter to him. “You want our daughter to have everything that you didn’t have.”

***

Selene stared down into her daughter’s tightly sealed eyes, shuddering with the power of her emotions. She was so tiny, so fragile, and so beautiful.

“She’s perfect,” smiled Daniel from the side of her hospital bed. Selene smiled back, but she didn’t raise her head to look at him; she couldn’t take her eyes off the fragile life form that she clutched in her arms. She was certain that, if she looked away, even for a moment, her daughter would disappear into a tiny, billion atoms, or Selene would wake up, and find that she was still alone in her dusky attic room, hugging herself to keep warm.

Suddenly the image of her daughter before her was tarnished by her memories, as her emotions hit her hard, causing her to loosen her grip on the baby. Daniel rushed forwards and caught her, but Selene barely noticed. Her head lulled back uselessly onto her pillow as images began to flash across her mind.

She was a little girl again, living alone with her mother. She’d never known her father, but her mother was always there. She cared so deeply for Selene that it seemed to break her; she worked tirelessly, barely sleeping, barely even sitting, and yet the money was never enough. Selene’s father had taken everything from her mother, and left her in so stricken a state of poverty, that, Selene now believed, her mother never expected to recover from. They rented the top floor of a block of flats; it wasn’t a complete flat, with only a kitchen and a bedroom, but it came with the attic space that Selene’s mother had attempted to furnish into a room for Selene. They lived, not content, but together, and Selene couldn’t ever remember being unhappy when she lived there.

That fateful day came though, and Selene no longer did live there. A car crash. It was so simple a thing, so common, so seemingly trivial, and yet it ripped Selene’s mother from the world and left her alone. She sat in her attic space, having fled from the police that waited in the room below, and cried more than she had ever thought possible. That had been the worst moment of her life, and, as she was stirred back into consciousness by her nurse, and tilted her head to glimpse her daughter in Daniel’s arms, she knew that this was the best. She would do everything to make sure that her daughter lived the perfect life.

***

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Annabel sat sprawled out on the bigger of the two sofas, eyes closed and mouth open. She sang to herself, thinking about school, thinking about the weekend, and waiting for her dad to finally walk through the door.

She opened her eyes just as she heard the key turn in the lock, and raced out to meet him.

“Alright, alright, champ,” Daniel laughed, pushing her off him so that he could walk through the door. “don’t panic, I’ve got the chips.” They feasted in front of the telly that night, and Annabel got to choose the film. They laughed together, and flicked chips at one another. One time, Annabel hit Daniel right on the nose, at which point he wrestled her to the ground and tickled her all over. Then, at last, he let out those dreaded words:

“Okay, champ, time to go and get ready for bed.”

“But Dad,” Annabel complained openly.

“It’s too late already,” Daniel chortled, ruffling her hair. Annabel sighed and got up to leave, but she found herself pausing in the doorway, her back still turned to Daniel.

Annabel,” he threatened.

“What happened to my mum?” Annabel asked, turning back around to face him. His smile drooped, eyes closing for a few minutes. Annabel waited awkwardly in the doorway, afraid that she had done something terribly wrong. Daniel sighed, and then patted the patch of sofa beside him.

“Come here,” he said, and smiled again, but this wasn’t his usual smile; it was strained – broken. As Annabel came to sit beside him, he reached over to the bookcase, and pulled, from the very top shelf, which Annabel was too small to reach, a very thin book.

“This,” he began slowly, “belonged to your mother.” He handed it over to Annabel, who read aloud the words, “Guess How Much I love You”, and then turned over the page to see two inscriptions, one on top of the other. The first was addressed to a Selene, from her mother, and the second, to Annabel, from hers.

“It was given to your mother when she was a very little girl,” Daniel continued, solemnly. “It meant a great deal to her, and when you were born, she decided to give it to you.” Annabel turned dusty page after dusty page, looking at the strange illustrations of rabbits, and endearing quotes as the little rabbit’s mother explained how much she loved it.

Annabel smiled, but still did not understand.

“Where is she?” she pressed, looking back at Daniel. He rubbed his face with his palms, then leant towards Annabel, placing a tanned hand on her arm.

“When you were very, very small,” he began, “your mother was desperate to give you everything that you could possibly want. You see this house – how big it is? I couldn’t give you this, Anna, but she did. She worked so hard for you, so determined to give you everything that you deserve. She loved you so much, but–“ Daniel clenched his fists slightly, his fingers digging into Annabel’s arm. “She made herself ill, Anna.”

Anna stared at him, eyes wide.

“She died, didn’t she?” she asked, a strange sense of numbness falling over her.

“Yes, Anna, she died,” Daniel sniffed, hugging his daughter tightly to him. “But she loved you so much, just like I do, and that’s never going to go away.” He wiped his eyes and thrust the book back at her. “I want you to keep this book, and whenever you’re feeling alone, scared or miserable, I want you to read it. Your mum loved you, Anna.” He kissed his daughter on the forehead, and took her hand as he led her up to bed.

He tucked her in, turning off her bedroom light before he crawled into his own bed, sobbing silently into the darkness. Annabel lay awake for hours that night, finally getting up and turning her light back on. She reached for the book left on her bedside table, and examined each image, turning the pages with extreme care. As she, too, cried herself to sleep that night, her tears landed heavily on the book, meeting much older tear stains, that had existed long before Annabel. When she finally fell asleep, she still clutched the book tightly to her; she lay in a ball, hugging her knees to her chest, as her thick, red hair, sprawled across the sheets.

Story Starters: A Collection

My biggest problem as a writer has always been sticking to one story after I create the initial opening; it’s too tempting to move onto something new and more exciting! Here’s three story starters, varying in length, that I’ve, at some point, abandoned.

1) This opening story sentence is for the purposes of the writing competition at: Writer’s Digest, with the brief of a maximum word count at 25 words, and the picture prompt seen below.

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A snowy owl swooped low above the forest, invisible against the white trees, and ignorant, for little did it know of the danger lurking there.

2) The flames roared high above them, great waves of smoke towering higher still. They choked and coughed as they ran, ducking and diving around the broken infrastructure that now surrounded them. Time was running out; they were already scorched and burned in more places than they knew, the agony of their wounds occasionally causing them to contort their steps as they raced onwards. Great chunks of wall and ceiling were crashing around them, too, wires dropping down into the fiery mass and sparks exploding from every direction. The reality was that they had entered hell itself, and every runner accepted that fact with a bleak resolution. There was no turning back, and, chances were, there was no escape. Hell had become the endless corridor of fire that they now faced, and they were all too aware of it.

3) The sirens were louder than they should have been. Even before her body crumpled and collapsed onto the pavement, they were there with us, ringing in our minds and pounding in our hearts. Craig was bent over her, muttering to himself and beating the ground with his fist. Little Pete was at his side as usual, waiting for the directions that would never come again. I didn’t need to crouch over her as they did, though, because I knew. In reality, I think we all knew, even before we’d hit her; we’d known even before she’d been lit up in front of my car headlights and Craig had fought to avoid her. There was no use checking her pulse or breathing rate. There was no point, because Kelly Holmes was dead, and we’d killed her. We were murderers.

“We should run,” Craig breathed, turning to face us in the half-dark. “The sirens don’t mean anything. They could be hours away yet.”

“I agree,” Little Pete piped up instantly, not even allowing a breath between Craig’s suggestion and his own sycophantic plea for attention. I shrugged, but I doubted that they could see the slight movement in the darkness. I wasn’t going to run. I didn’t want to run. I was a murderer. I had to stay and face the police, no matter how devastating that would be.

“Dan,” Craig persisted, ignoring Little Pete. “We need to go, now.” I swallowed hard, feeling braver in every new cry of the sirens.

“Then go,” I whispered, looking not at Craig and Little Pete, but at Kelly. She was beautiful even now, her long, dark hair a mess about her shoulders and back, and her slender, ghostly form almost shining in the light from the surrounding street lamps. I’d known her since she was little, from when we’d played together in my back garden. She was dead now. She would never breathe again, never laugh, never smile. She was simply gone.

“Dan, they’ll get you!” Craig whispered, his voice slightly incredulous. I could not look at my best friend, though. He wasn’t like me. He wasn’t feeling this like I was. He felt only fear, whereas I felt only loss, grief and a furious, biting sense of self-hatred. I had done this. “Dan, you know what that means!” Craig persisted, shaking my shoulder now.

“If you want to run, run,” I snapped, looking at Craig at last. “Save yourself. You better hurry up, though. It’s been too long already.” Craig stepped back slightly, confusion edging its way into his fear clouded mind. He looked at Little Pete then, suddenly lost and vulnerable. Pete looked back, and suddenly they were no longer leader and disciple, but two scared boys: criminals.

Without another word, they took off, running in the opposite direction from the houses and sirens beyond them. There were fields not too far off, and after that, the forest. If they made it that far, they were safe. It was said that fugitives and criminals caked the trees themselves, living amongst the branches and leaves on the earthy floor. I used to have nightmares about the place, but for Craig and Little Pete, it had just become the last hope. Maybe, just maybe, they would be okay.

I looked back at Kelly then, and my heart shuddered to a halt, too.

Lean into Me

This piece of creative writing is for the purposes of the competition at Ad Hoc Fiction. With only 150 words and this week’s prompt word, “lean”, this competition gives its winner free entry into the Bath Flash Fiction Award, which boasts of a prize of £1000! 

An avalanche of emotion ripped apart my soul and threatened to throw me from the Earth’s orbit. I rocked and fell forwards, landing face down in the dirt where no one could see me. They tried to pull me up again, but it was no use.

I didn’t want to see them, I didn’t want to hear their voices, because they didn’t look like her and they didn’t sound like her. No one ever would again, because she was gone and I was alone.

Then soft hands were about my shoulders, gentle, but firm. They pulled me up and hugged me close, a gentle whisper telling me not to open my eyes.

“Lean into me,” she whispered, and, as I was reborn into my childish state, I clasped onto my mother with both hands, sobbing into her chest. I was alone, but I was home.