This week’s brief posed a particularly difficult challenge. This was because it asked me to incorporate material from a book that I haven’t read, and nor did I have any intention spending the week reading. Further, it was by an author that, while extremely popular, was completely alien to me.
It is safe to say I have never even considered writing anything in this genre before. So, like all good people with their backs up against the wall, I did the only thing I could do and thoroughly weaselled my way out of the challenge by changing the goal posts. The brief, from Sadhya Rippon on Facebook was ‘Death comes to Northanger Abbey.’
I suspect it will become obvious fairly quickly how I sidestepped that one.
I sincerely hope I have done the source material at least some justice, as I was basing it entirely off the summaries on Wikipedia and Spark Notes. If I haven’t then that was my intention all along and this is my ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’.
Enjoy. If you dare.
2014 – A Year in Stories
A Gentleman Caller
”I say, Eleanor,” General Tilney bellowed up the stairs. “Do hurry up getting ready. Your gentleman caller will be here soon and I shall be very annoyed if you are not presentable when he arrives. He’s a very important and wealthy man, you know!”
The words had little effect. Eleanor was little interested in having a man selected for her to marry. It was so old-fashioned, and anyway, he would undoubtedly be a crashing bore.
Eleanor wished awfully that Mama was still around. She would have had a thing or two to say about her daughter being married off against her will, and no mistake.
She harrumphed and decided it was better to acquiesce to her father’s wishes, at least for the time being. Perhaps this wealthy and important gentleman wouldn’t take interest in a lowly General’s daughter like herself, and her father would leave her be again for a little while. That is until he latched on to the son of another of Bath’s social elite and insisted upon arranging courtship.
It was not that she did not wish to meet a young man, in fact she very much hoped to one day be married. She merely wished to do so on her own terms. To find someone that was right for her and not for her father, just like her brother Henry had with young Catherine.
Father did not approve of that relationship either, but Eleanor believed it would stand the test of time and that the young girl would eventually win him over.
Running a pearl-backed brush through her hair she wondered what her latest suitor would be like. If she had to guess it would be the son of one of father’s military friends. A wealthy field marshal’s boy with aspirations in one of the King’s regiments no doubt. She sighed. Her father’s choices were so predictable. He had no idea what she actually looked for in a man.
“Eleanor Tilney!” the voice bellowed again from below. “I insist you come downstairs immediately!”
“Coming, father!” she replied, and finished brushing her hair. Oh well, she thought. Once more in to the breech, eh?
The carriage wheels crunched along the gravel driveway that led through the impressive wrought iron gates and up to the main entrance of Northanger Abbey. The coach and the horses were as dark as night, and the driver wore top and tails of funereal black.
The lacquer on the vehicle was so dark that it was almost as if it sucked in light from around it, Fothershaw the gardener observed as he watered the flower beds in the Abbey’s sizeable front garden. He wondered who might be inside.
Ethel, one of the cook’s assistants, had informed him that she had overheard Simpkins the butler say that Miss Eleanor was to receive a gentleman caller today.
If this was the gentleman in question then he was a gloomy bugger and no mistake, Fothershaw observed, and went back to tending the petunias.
The carriage rolled to a halt, and an immaculately dressed footman stepped forward, opened the door and bowed low.
“Welcome to Northanger Abbey, Mr. Death,” he said, obsequiously.
“It is just Death.”
“Excuse me, sir?” the footman replied, unfolding from his bow.
“It is just Death. Not Mr.”
“Very well, sir. Mr. Death was your father, eh?” the footman said, trying desperately and failing to inject some humour in to the conversation.
“Oh. Er. Very well, sir,” the footman said, learning a valuable lesson in choosing his battles. He looked the man known only as Death up and down. The striking thing about him was that he was entirely covered from head to toe in a huge black robe.
This was striking to the footman firstly because it was a balmy day in the middle of July, and secondly because it was all you could see. He strained his eyes to try and see inside the man’s cowl, but it was as if there was an invisible barrier that seemed to reject his attempts, and those of any light that happened to stray in to the vicinity.
He was glad when the strange man simply wandered off in the direction of those house without another word. The gentleman was the butler’s problem now. He felt a palpable sense of relief, as if the weight of an immense dread had been lifted from his shoulders.
“Welcome, Sir, to Northanger Abbey,” Simpkins the butler said, bowing even deeper than the footman, as the robed gentleman entered the residence. Where the footman had not been, Simpkins was forearmed with the knowledge of the visitors little quirk regarding his name. “Sir, please do follow me through to the drawing room; General Tilney is waiting, and I understand that Lady Eleanor will be emerging from her chambers forthwith.”
Remaining mysteriously silent, the visitor held out a bony hand towards the butler. The hand contained a rather crooked looking scythe with an incredibly keen blade. Simpkins realised that he had not noticed the implement before, and his brain was running several simultaneous marathons in order to catch up with his eyes. Eventually it decided it wasn’t worth the effort and simply elected not to bother.
Without recalling himself ordering it too, the butler’s hand reached out and took the scythe. “Would Sir like me to take his robe also. Sir must be AWFULLY warm.”
“No,” the man said, firmly. A few seconds later, after the butler had merely stood there in a rather stunned silence, he added “Thank you.”
“Very well,” Simpkins managed eventually. “If Sir would care to follow me…”
The butler walked off rather more quickly than usual in the direction of the drawing room, not awfully concerned at this point as to whether or not the visitor was following him. Upon reaching the doors, he pushed them wide open. The General and Eleanor were waiting inside.
“Ah!” the General roared as he left his seat. “Death, my good friend, it has been too long.”
“Indeed, General. I had not expected to see you again for…some time after our last meeting.”
“Well quite. It was such a shame that we had to meet under such sad circumstances, but every cloud has a silver lining, and whilst I lost my dear and beloved wife that day, I am glad to say that I gained a friend.” The General turned to his daughter, who remained seated. “Death was present when your mother passed away, dear,” he offered by way of explanation.
“Oh, I say!” Eleanor exclaimed as she rose from her seat. “Are you a doctor?”
“A mortician, then?”
“Of sorts. You might call me an…interested party.”
“You knew my mother well then?”
“You could say that I knew her better than most…”
“Oh you simply must tell me about her some time, I knew very little of her myself.” Eleanor cast a mourning glance out of the window. “I do miss Mama.”
General Tilney walked over to his daughter and put a consoling arm around her. “We all do, Ellie, we all do. But come, Death here has not come to speak of the deceased. Please do take a seat my friend.”
“Thank you, I would prefer to stand,” Death replied. “Tell me, General, why did you summon me here? I am not in the habit of making house calls. At least, not under the present…circumstances.”
“Well, forgive me for being so bold, but Eleanor here has been looking for a suitor for some time, and I have yet to come up trumps with an appropriate match,” the General began. “I was taking an afternoon stroll a week ago and saw a number of mean harvesting wheat in a field using scythes, and for some inexplicable reason it made me think of you, and by Jove you seem as good a match as any.”
“These men,” Death replied. “What would you say the expression on their face was as they were reaping in the harvest?”
The General scratched his head, a touch perplexed by the question. “Well, I didn’t pay particular attention to their faces,” he said eventually, “but if I had to choose I’d say they were looking quite grim at the time.”
“Ah,” Death replied, sipping a brandy that no-one could recall giving him. “That would explain that then.”
“So, what do you say, Death, old friend? Would you be interested in courting my daughter?”
“My work does not traditionally allow time for courtship,” the Grim Reaper replied, taking another sip from the glass he held in his skeletal hand. It seemed to the Tilneys that in the robe he was wearing, taking a drink without spilling it all down himself must have been a logistical nightmare. “But it is solitary work, and I have wondered what it would be like to engage in the huma…I mean, normal courtship rituals. Very well, as long as Lady Eleanor is amenable.”
“I shall have to give it some thought,” Eleanor replied, assertively. “I mean, father might call you an old friend but I barely know you. Perhaps we can meet for dinner and talk further?”
“Excellent,” Death replied, bowing rather stiffly. “I shall collect you at 8pm on Saturday.”
After Death had left in his coach, and the sense of general unease had lifted from Northanger Abbey, General Tilney sat down with his daughter in the drawing room.
“Well, Ellie, that was certainly a step in the right direction. Why him and not the others?”
“I haven’t agreed to court him fully yet, father,” his daughter reminded him. “But he seemed…different. Not the usual calibre of well-dressed ape that you present to me. I am willing to give him a chance. Do tell me what he was doing in the Abbey when mother died.”
“You know, my dear, I don’t really know now that you come to mention it,” the General replied, stroking his chin. “I only noticed him there at the bedside in her final moments, but it felt as though he had been there forever. He disappeared rather quickly afterwards. It was a sad moment for all and I suspected he had gone to grieve in private.”
“How odd,” Eleanor mused. “And you haven’t seen him since?”
“Not to this day…” the General said, tailing off until another thought grabbed him. “Do you know what else is strange? It’s the darnedest thing, but it has been nearly a decade since your mother’s death and the chap hasn’t aged a day.”
Next week we have a character piece. I’m sure it will be a pizza cake.
This week’s brief comes from Karl S. Green (@KarlSGreen). He is a prolific writer (and that isn’t really doing him justice) and you should definitely go check out some of his stuff, which I believe is available to read on his website.
ANYWAY, Karl’s brief was as folows: ‘A sci-fi story featuring at least one alien spaceship. Oh, and I’d like it set in Harrow. And during the 1930′s.’
I struggled a bit to shoehorn the 1930s in but otherwise I think I’ve been fairly faithful to the source material. Without further ado, I give you ‘The Paw of the Worlds’.
2014 – A Year in Stories
The Paw of the Worlds
The disc shaped craft spun silently over the dark streets of London. Its progress was ignored on the ground due in part to its cleverly designed cloaking device. However, this was mostly due to the fact that radar was a nascent discipline, and with the situation on mainland Europe as troubling as it was, any and all dishes in the possession of His Majesty’s Government were pointed firmly in the direction of France and Germany.
The beings within observed that this city was much quieter and calmer than others they had observed during their journey around this unfamiliar planet.
Some were hives of activity. Bustling centres that never slept, or busied with the industry of wartime. This hustle and urgency had not yet reached the city below them, but they expected that it would in time.
It seemed to the creatures like a good place to test the waters of interplanetary communication, and so they directed their craft downwards, and came to a halt on a green, open space, that happened to be Harrow Recreation ground.
The ship revealed itself as the cloaking device disengaged. The disc-like craft was made from a material that reflected light even when none seemed to be present. There was little detail to the exterior of the ship, which was largely smooth, excepting the spindly little legs that protruded from the bottom and were keeping it clear of the ground.
A hiss could be heard, and lines began to appear in hype previously smooth exterior. A metal ramp lowered slowly to the ground, and the creatures within emerged.
There were four of them in total, and none looked alike. In contrast to the people of Earth they came from Frolia, a planet where several species had developed at a similar pace, and between them they ruled the planet amicably.
One was a humanoid, roughly seven feet tall and thinly built with blue skin and six eyes; another was an eight legged horse like creature with two heads; the third was no larger than a human baby and floated, seemingly independently of any assistance, about five feet from the ground; the last alien creature seemed almost reptilian and crawled around on four legs.
Of course none of this information was relevant to the welcoming committee that greeted the alien landing party from Frolia which, as it was 2 o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday, was made up entirely of a pair of stray dogs that lived on the streets of Harrow.
Until the craft revealed itself they had been foraging for scraps of food in a bin in the park. When they saw the ship magically appear in front of their eyes, they were not amazed.
Or, more accurately they were no more amazed by the sudden and inexplicable appearance of an alien spaceship than they would have been by spotting a new rabbit to chase, or finding a new and interesting odour to thoroughly investigate before replacing it with their own.
They were, after all, dogs. Everything is amazing to dogs.
The lizard-like creature slithered down the now fully extended rampand studied the three dogs, whose interest had been piqued sufficiently that they had temporariliy discarded the remains of the beef ans horseradish sandwich they had been tearing in to gleefully.
Looking directly at the dogs, the creature opened its jaw and emitted a fast burst of speech in a language that had never before been spoken or heard on planet Earth.
The closest of the two dogs, a mongrel, who had understood none of it cocked its head slightly and gave an exploratory bark.
The lizard creature turned and looked at its compatriots at the top of the ramp, who all began to descend to ground level. When they reached the floor the humanoid alien began to tap away on a screen of some sort that was attached to its wrist.
“Detecting language,” it informed its friends in their shared native language. A few seconds later the results came back. “Language unknown. Closest approximation is Canin language from Barkulus 4. Patching in translation field now.”
The alien pressed a button on its wrist screen, which caused a holographic field to appear around the landing site of the craft.
“Translation field active,” the alien added.
“What does ‘translation field active’ mean?”
The aliens who had been communing amongst themselves, turned to face the source of the question, which it seemed was one of the dogs. The humanoid stepped forward.
“It means that through the use of our technology we have created a field, within the boundaries of which we should largely be able to understand one another’s languages.”
“Cool,” said the dog, not having understood a word. “Got any food, mate?” it added hopefully.
“Err…” said the humanoid, or whatever the equivalent was in its tongue. “We have come to initiate interplanetary discussions in order to aid the furtherment of the planet known throughout the galaxy as ‘Earth’.”
“Wouldn’t know anything about that, mate,” the dog who had assumed leadership of the group replied. “Nice trick though,” he added, referring to the shimmering field of holographic light that surrounded them. “Very pretty.”
“Thankyou…” the humanoid continued.
“My mate over there can sit if someone asks and he feels like it. He’s clever.”
“Quite,” the alien responded, its tone becoming somewhat strained. The nuances of tone were lost on the dogs, however, outside of loud and angry and soft and friendly.
“What is your name?” the floating creature interjected, in an attempt to save its exasperated friend.
The lead dog cocked his head and considered the question. Part of this consideration involved a quick lick of his unmentionables, and after a thoughtful scratch behind the ear, felt ready to answer.
“Don’t know. Don’t really have one. That over there is Rufus.” He indicated at one of his canine colleagues with his head. Rufus was a bulldog, and was currently investigating the inviting smells of the space ship’s small legs, and preparing to make them smell very much like he did, which it had to be said was not very nice. “Nobody ever gave me a name, though. People shout ‘Get out of it’ at me a lot though, so maybe it’s that?”
“I am Gagargaflax,” the humanoid replied. “This is Morpu, Jajjjarsxxxe and Lo,” he added, indicating the lizard, the floating creature and the horse-like creature in turn. “We are emissaries from the planet of Frolia, who wish to include Earth in relations with the wider galaxy.
“We were sent to meet with representatives of the people of Earth in order to form a lasting bond and bring our two societies closer together. As such we would be extremely grateful if you could take us to your leader.”
Rufus the Bulldog, fresh from his work re-scenting the alien spaceship and on his way back to investigate whether or not there were any other interesting things to piss on, interrupted.
“I couldn’t help but overhear mate, but we don’t really have a leader as such,” the bulldog interjected. “This one here though, he’s definitely the smartest of the lot of us.” He attempted to gesticulate with his head to the dog occasionally known as ‘Get Out Of It’, but failed, owing to his lack of neck.
“Very well then,” Gagargaflax said, returning his attention to the lead hound. “I would be most grateful if you could answer a question for me. On our way here we passed over many lands that seemed deeply troubled. Smoke was belching from factories and what appeared to be machines of war were being readied. We wish only to commune with peaceful planets. What is the meaning of the things we have seen?”
“Wouldn’t know anything about that, mate,” Get Out Of It replied, “No wars going on around here. As you can see.”
“Yeah,” Rufus added, “As you can see. Anyways, if anything like a war was going on around here, he’d know about it. Because he’s smart, you see.”
“Quite…” Gagargaflax replied. “If you will excuse me for…just a second.”
Gagargaflax shuffled off to his compatriots.
“They are certainly unconventional,” Morpu observed.
“Indeed,” Lo added. “Are we sure we want creatures like this to be part of our galactic alliance?”
“I agree they are not your…usual candidates for membership in the alliance, but Earth sits on an incredibly important strategic point in the galaxy, and it would behove us to make a pact with the denizens of the planet. The small one appears to be the planetary leader.”
“I am in agreement with Gagargaflax,” Jajjjarsxxxe interjected. “We can instruct them in the proper etiquette of the galactic council later. Right now we must secure their bond of friendship that we may secure their planet for its strategic value.
“You are always one to think of the long term, Jajjjarsxxxe,” Lo replied. “Very well, we shall take them with us back to Frolia for negotiations and the initiation ceremony.”
Gagargaflax returned to the waiting dogs, who were busying themselves with some interesting smelling old boots, to deliver the news.
“My friends, I have wonderful news,”
“Oh yeah?” asked Get Out Of It. “What’s that then?”
“We wish to offer you a seat on the galactic council, and Earth a place in the galactic alliance.”
“Do you…err, do you accept?”
“Will there be food?”
“Yes, there will be as much food as you wish.”
Get Out Of It remained skeptical. “Can Rufus come?” he asked, testing the water to see how far he could go.
“Yes, Rufus can come.” Gagargaflax was clearly getting frustrated again.
Get Out Of It racked his brains, which didn’t take very long, to see if there was anything else he could scam out of this well meaning creature, but alas could think of nothing.
“Alright then. Let’s go.”
And so Get Out Of It and Rufus were taken on board the Frolian ship, and set off out amongst the stars on an interplanetary adventure.
It was not long however before the dogs’ behaviour became so reprehensible that the Frolians agreed that their membership of the intergalactic council was too high a price to pay for the strategic value of the planet, and they were returned to Earth before they had even reached Frolia.
The Frolians vowed that no member of the galactic alliance would ever return to the planet, dooming Earth’s other species to never encounter an alien race again, for as long as they existed.
But the dogs got a free meal out of it, and in the end that was all they really cared about.
Not much to add
This week’s challenge was one of the more abstract briefs I have had so far this year. It really meant that I could go anywhere with. It had the potential to go off in to the fantastical or to be entirely grounded in the real world, and I went more towards the latter in this instance.
As soon as I read it I had an idea of where I wanted to go with it, so the challenge was not coming up with a plot (ironically) but rather was in how to convey the message that I wanted to get across, which is that if you are looking really hard for something you can quite often miss the interesting things that are going on around you. I will leave it up to you to decide if I have managed to do this!
Anyway, the brief came from Steve Newman (twitter user @bigfoottreasure) and went a little something like this: ‘Author can’t think of a plot, goes in search of one.’
You don’t have to search very far to find the result, as it is below.
2014 – A Year in Stories
Around the World In 80 Pages
It had happened the same way every night for a week. Fred sat down in front of his computer and stared at the blank document open on the screen in front of him.
His face lit by the glow of the monitor, he insisted that this night, this was the one where he finally got started on the greatest novel ever written.
But every night it was the same old story, or rather lack of story. After an hour of staring blankly at the screen he would close the word processor and insist that tomorrow would be the night.
This night was no different. He sat, staring at the white screen. The cursor blinked at him accusingly. ‘What are you waiting for?’ it cried. ‘Don’t you have the moxy to write a novel?’ He was starting to think that maybe he didn’t.
By this stage he was begging for a distraction. Any excuse to take his mind away from writing and on to other things. A notification popped up in the corner. An email! Perfect. Fred clicked through to his mailbox.
It was only spam. He cursed. TravelWise with another one of their promotional emails offering cheap holidays to places he wouldn’t visit if someone threatened to shove a pair of angry ferrets up his trousers.
He switched the window back to the word processor and leant his chin on his hands. If only he could think of a plot. He knew he had a novel in him. I mean, everyone does, right? It’s just that his was apparently better guarded than Fort Knox and more secret than the location of the holy grail.
He racked his brain for inspiration, but his mind began to wander. Perhaps he needed a holiday after all, just to get his creative juices flowing. He clicked back on to his email to see what dreary destinations were on offer today.
Scrolling through the email he found himself thoroughly underwhelmed by the idea of a weekend in a cottage in the Brecon Beacons; completely unenthused by a wildlife tour of Sussex and downright disgusted at the thought of a Club 18-30 booze up for a week in Marbella. But at the bottom of the email he saw something that caught his eye.
A year long round the world tour.
As he scanned the list of stops he became excited. Rome, Athens, Budapest, Prague. And those were just some of the ones in Europe.
He baulked slightly at the price: £10000. But it was all inclusive and he HAD just inherited some money. The mouse barely hovered over the ‘Buy’ button before he clicked. Within minutes he had set up a payment installment plan. Within the hour he had quit his dead end job.
If spending a year travelling around the world didn’t inspire him to write the greates novel in the history of the world, frankly he didn’t know what would.
Two weeks later Fred was all packed d ready to go. He sat in the departure lounge at Heathrow airport and flicked through a complimentary magazine as he waited for his flight to New York, where his adventure would truly begin, to board.
The adrenaline was flowing through his veins. He had barely so much as left Berkshire before, let alone Europe, and here he was preparing to jet out to the Big Apple and the USA. A tingle of excitement ran down his back.
“Would all passengers for Zoom Air flight ZM9934 please head to Gate 42 as the plane is now ready for boarding, thank you,” a nearby tannoy announced.
It was time.
Fred spent the next two months in North America. He climbed the Empire State Building, swam with dolphins in Florida, hiked the Grand Canyon and camped in the wilds of Yellowstone Park. He watched ice hockey in Vancouver, went on a Moose safari in Nova Scotia, and attended Cinco de Mayo in Tijuana.
Yet, despite all of that he struggled to find a plot for his novel. Every situation he found himself in, he felt as though he had been here before. Or, rather, someone else had been there on his behalf, and written about it in some way.
North America felt so cliché to Fred. Even Mexico and Canada felt like they had been done to death already, either in literature, film or television. There was nothing new to write about. No new story to tell. And so he moved on.
After he left North America on his world tour, Fred was next deposited in Japan. Here, he felt sure that a plot would present itself. After all, Japanese culture was so utterly different to that in the West that something would surely start his creative juices flowing.
But, he was disappointed to find that actually he didn’t feel all that inspired. He sat on a bench in Dinseyland Tokyo, looking out over the bay, where he could see Mount Fuji in the distance and sighed.
He readjusted his Mickey ears and took a bite from his toffee apple. The problem with Japanese culture was that it was TOO different. Sure, he felt that his creativity had been stifled by the homogeneity of British culture, but Japan was a swing too far in the other direction.
Everywhere he turned there were people doing interesting and unusual things. People partaking of foods and drinks that he had never tasted, games and sports he had never imagined, and as for the theatre and television, well it was beyond even what knowledge he had gleaned from all those late nights watching Takeshi’s Castle.
It was too much. Someone like Fred could not relate to the common Japanese man, and therefore he did not feel as though he could tell his story. He had failed to find what he was looking for under the pagodas, so one again he moved on.
His next stop was the Asian mainland. He spent some time trekking the Great Wall, and yet more time still on the backpacker trail around Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
In a hostel in Bangkok he found love, or at least what passed for it on the road. He spent two weeks exploring the Thai countryside with a Canadian girl, as their passion burned brightly before dying out as, eventually, they both had to go their separate ways.
As he flew on to Mumbai, his next destination, he wondered if he would ever see her again. He realised as the plane made its ascent out of Thailand that in the fortnight they had spent together he had completely failed to divert any of his thoughts to coming up with a plot.
He scanned back through his memories of the previous fourteen days and they were all taken up by her. He could not remember a single other thing from his time in South East Asia, all he could think about was the girl he spent the time with.
He sat back in his seat and smiled contentedly, but a small part of him remained sad that he had still not yet managed to find the plot that he was so desperately looking for.
He mused further on his failure thus far to think of a plot as he wandered the streets of Mumbai, and it nearly cost him dearly. As he wandered around oblivious to the world around him, a young pickpocket snatched his messenger bag from his shoulder.
Spotting the miscreant, Fred gave chase immediately. He was glad of the parkour lessons he had taken at university, as the small child was nimble and quick, and clearly knew the area of the city well.
They leapt over boxes and street stalls and weaved in between people as the chase went on. Eventually his superior speed paid off and he caught the child, snatching his satchel back in annoyance. He looked through to see if anything was missing and cursed when he found that his notebook, on which he had written all of his germs of ideas for stories, had fallen out during the chase. That would set him back another couple of weeks.
Incidents like this peppered the rest of his year of travel, and eventually he returned to his parents home in Berkshire empty handed and despondent.
None of his friends could understand why he was so sad. He had, after all, just spent a year travelling to some of the world’s most exotic locations and seeing some wonderful and fantastic things.
After a few weeks of doing the rounds of visits to friends and family that he had not seen in over 12 months he settled back down in to what he supposed he could call a normal routine.
His uncle found him a job in the local supermarket while he looked for something more long term, but every night it was the same as before he left. He would sit in front of the computer for an hour or more at a time and stare at a blank screen. All that time and all that money wasted, and he hadn’t come back with a single idea for a story.
After the third night in a row of sitting and staring at the blinking cursor he gave up. Perhaps what they all said was a lie. Maybe everyone didn’t have a novel in them. He sighed deeply and wondered what he could do next.
“Oh well,” he said to himself. “I suppose I could write up my travel journals. Though I can’t think why anyone would want to read any of that…”
Taking a sip from his mug of coffee Fred stretched his fingers out and began to type. Several hours later he was startled to hear birds singing outside his window. He opened the curtains and daylight streamed inside, forcing him to blink in order to adjust. It had felt like he had been writing for no time at all, but he had been up all night.
He looked at the document and saw that he had written ten thousand words. Perhaps he had inadvertently found his muse after all.
Next week I have to tackle some sci-fi. Considering I read a lot of the genre I’ve never really tried to write any, so it might be interesting!
To say that I was relieved when I saw that this week’s brief was to write a story about a despot would be an understatement. After all one of my unfinished novels is about a kid who finds himself suddenly thrust in to power in a Caribbean banana republic.
I thought ‘this will be a walk in the park, I’ve written 50,000 words about this sort of thing already!’ In reality it turned out to be much harder than I expected. He brief, as you will see, was quite open ended and meant that I could easily have written three or four times my self-imposed word count on the consequences of my chosen dictator’s actions.
In order to reign it in and keep it down to around 2000 words I feel like I had to simplify it a bit. Things probably would have been a little more complex if this happened in real life, but it is what it is, and I think it is a good brief that makes you think about how much more you wanted to write.
Anyway, this week’s story idea came from my father and is as follows: ‘A story about a despot (in a modern context, not as a fairy tale) who realises the error o his ways, and sets about reforming his country to benefit his people. How he goes about it, and the consequences are your choice.’
So read on for the story of Presidente Juan Carlos…
2014 – A Year In Stories
El Presidente’s New Clothes
Juan Carlos surveyed the sunset as he sipped at a cold Daiquiri. It was the height of summer, and he appreciated the cooling effect of the icy cocktail as the sweltering heat of the early evening began to ebb away, to be replaced by the cooler airs of the night.
As the sun dipped below the horizon the lights in Porto Bello began to twinkle on one by one, as if someone had laid the stars out on the ground before. Nothing more than a man of his great status deserved, he observed wryly.
The heat had not fully left the air, so he took another sip of his drink and laid it on the table in front of him. Inspecting the selection of cold meats and fruits that lay immaculately presented on a silver platter he opted for a slice of pineapple and some mango. He clicked his fingers and one of his palace servants appeared, in full military dress, to fan him with a large palm leaf.
The Assassin crept silently along the corridors of the palace. Dressed in all black the heat was unbearable, but her mission was such that she forced herself to push on.
If her intel was correct the President would surely be out on his private balcony enjoying an evening drink. She sneaked in to his private chambers and sure enough the French windows were wide open. The breath of the cooler night air was a relief to her.
There was a shape in the gloom of the doorway. She let her eyes readjust to the light and determined that it was not El Presidente. Whoever it was was waving a fan up and down. She cursed her luck. Collateral damage was regrettable, but a necessary evil for the satisfactory completion of her mission.
Drawing her knife she tiptoed up behind the servant and, placing a gloved hand over his month, silently slit his throat.
She bore the body down to the ground, and now only her target was left in front of her. She crept forward. There was no time for regrets now, it was too late to turn back, and too late for El Presidente.
Almost too late.
“I say, Gilberto,” Juan Carlos said. “It’s still quite warm, do start fanning again.” The tone of voice suggested that it was not a request.
The assassin froze in her tracks. Juan Carlos waited for a second, before turning around to see why his servant had ceased fanning the cool air on to him. He was shocked at the scene he surveyed.
Wasting no time he shrank down and cowered behind the table. “Please don’t kill me!” he yelled. “I’m too important to die!”
“You fucking coward!” the Assassin roared. “You have run this country in to the ground and ruined her people and you don’t even have the courage to face me like a man?”
“No,” Juan Carlos smiled. “But my friends do.”
The Assassin cursed and turned around. She was confronted by two rather large gentlemen holding AK47 assault rifled. The bastard hadn’t been cowering, he had been reaching for a panic button under the table. Her knife clanged audibly as it hit the floor of the metal balcony.
A second later the butt of one of the Kalashnikovs was introduced rather forcefully to her forehead and she thudded rather less audibly as she hit the floor herself.
When she woke up again it was morning, although she could barely tell. Very little light came in through the barred window high up in her prison cell, if you could even call the small hovel that she was in a cell.
Her head was swimming from the blow she had received, but in the gloom she could make out the cell door. She could also hear activity behind it.
The sound of metal scraping against metal floated in to the room as the door was unlocked. It creaked open, probably for dramatic effect, she noted. That was El Presidente’s style.
She was surprised to see that it was El Presidente himself who entered the room, flanked by two of his larger lackeys. She wondered if it was the same two that accosted her last night, but they all looked the same.
El Presidente was grinning in a manner that wouldn’t be offended if it was described as maniacally, and he was holding a wooden cudgel.
“I suppose you are wondering why you are not already dead,” El Presidente said.
“Not really,” she replied, ambivalently.
“Hah! Such impudence.” Without another word he swung the cudgel at her face, stopping a mere millimetre away. She did not flinch.
Still smiling, the leader of the country turned to his …assosicates. ” Ruben, Ricardo. You can leave THIS one to me. Do shut the door on your way out.”
The two men shared an apprehensive glance, but reluctantly obeyed. They had not risen to the role of executive lackey by questioning the decisions of their glorious leader. The door repeated its creak as it swung shut behind them.
“You can beat me all you want, I will not reveal anything to you!” the Assassin said, defiantly spitting at the man she loathed so much.
Making sure to show no outer fear she closed her eyes and flinched internally as she expected a swift and painful retort from the business end of the cudgel, but none was forthcoming.
After a few seconds, in which no beating materialised, she thought she could hear a sobbing noise. Slowly and very carefully she opened her eyes, and sure enough it seemed to her that El Presidente was …crying.
He sat hunched in the corner of the cell, wiping her spit from his face with a silk scarf embroidered with his coat of arms, something she understood that he had spent a significant amount of taxpayers money designing.
“Why?” he asked, meekly. His voice was so quiet that she could barely hear him. “Why did you try and kill me?”
The assassin sat in silence for a few seconds, trying to take in what she was seeing. She wondered if she was hallucinating after the bump on the head, and rearranged her hands in their bonds behind the chair to pinch herself on the arm. It was definitely not a dream or a hallucination.
“I…do not think I understand?” she managed, finally.
“You tried to kill me last night, yes? You did not sneak in to my private chambers and kill one of my best servants to deliver me a kiss-o-gram, correct?”
“Well, no. I mean yes. I did try and kill you.” This was all a bit too much for her in her already confused state. She wondered if he was trying to trick her in to giving up information, but she didn’t trust the man to be that smart. Ducking to push a button under a table was about the limit to this man’s cunning.
“Then why?” he remonstrated. “What have I ever done wrong?!”
At that the Assassin accidentally let out an audible “HA!”
“What?” the man continued. “I genuinely don’t know. The people are happy, the country is prospering. I am universally adored!”
“Are you listening to yourself?” she answered. “None of those things are true. The people are dying. Unemployment has reached 35%. Poverty is everywhere! How can you not see this?”
“Lies! My advisors tell me that everyone has a job, everyone is gaining wealth by the day. Disease and poverty are at an all time low!”
“It is your so called ‘advisors’ that are lying to you, Presidente. Not I. When did you last take a trip around the city, to see your people?”
“Why only last week! The people were smiling and waving. They all looked delighted to see me!”
“You fool, they are actors. Paid by your cronies to convince you everything is ok! How many decisions do you actually make yourself?”
El Presidente thought for a moment. “I…” he began. “But I tell…” he stuttered. “I asked…” His train of thought clearly reached its terminus as he trailed off. “It is they who run the country, isn’t it?” he said, a hint of sadness and terrible realisation creeping over his voice.
“You are a puppet, Presidente. A figurehead. Those bastards run the country in to the ground and make it look like your fault. You take the blame and they get away scot free! They make sure you see only good things to keep you in the dark and perpetrate crimes in your name!”
“I thought things were going so well! I thought I was doing right by the people,” he replied, slumping back in to the corner. “What can I do? I must make this right!”
“Presidente, you were having people taken away and killed by the army. You are still complicit in this.”
“I know what I have done, and I will pay the appropriate price. But we must remove these men from office immediately. And then preferably remove their heads from their shoulders soon afterwards. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, makes a fool of Juan Carlos!”
“Uh, wrong sentiment but that is certainly what we must do,” the Assassin replied.
“I still have friends in the army from when I was an officer,” El Presidente said, thinking aloud. “One of them is now a Field Marshall. I had hoped to never call on his…services but it is evident that the time is right. I must go. There are arrangements to make.”
“And what of me?” the Assassin wondered aloud.
“Answer me one question and I will let you go,” he replied.
“Gonzala. Gonzala Alonso.”
El Presidente moved towards her and drew a knife from his belt, cutting her bonds. “Stay here for 30 minutes after I am gone. Then, tap the smooth brick on the back wall three times, and you will be free. It is down in the corner.”
He banged on the door. “I am done with this miscreant!” he yelled to the waiting guards, who opened the door a fraction to let him out. He winked at her as he left.
Two days later she reached a safe house. It was as far away from the capital city as she could get in a short time, and she was pleased to see a number of her friends were there.
“Gonzala!” one shouted as she came through the door. “Where have you been?! We gave you up for dead!”
“I was…tied up.” she replied.
“You’ve got to see the news!” her comrade said. “Something amazing has happened!”
They turned on the television to the state owned channel. The news ticker stated ‘PRESIDENTE JUAN CARLOS STANDS DOWN, FLEES COUNTRY. GOVERNMENT HIGH COMMAND IMPRISONED BY ARMY AND SCHEDULED FOR EXECUTION.’
Behind the ticker a man was being interviewed. According to the television he was Field Marshall Mikel Acuna.
“Field Marshall, is this a coup?” the reporter asked.
“No, I am operating on behalf of our now ex-Presidente, who ordered that the army seize the country’s high command on grounds of treason and execute them without trial. Democratic elections are to be held imminently to elect a new leader.”
“Do you have any idea who will run for office?” the reporter asked, shellshocked.
“It was El Presidente’s last request that a Gonzala Alonso be found and asked to run. He believed she would make an excellent leader.”
Gonzala switched the television off.
“Congratulations,” her comrade said with a smile. “Do you want to be our next Presidente?”
Two weeks later Juan Carlos emerged on to the balcony and sipped at a Daiquiri. The weather here in the Netherlands was not as forgiving as it was in his own country, but the Daiquiri reminded him of home.
Tomorrow he would hand himself over to the European Court of Human Rights, as his country was technically still a protectorate of Spain. There he would petition to be put on trial for the actions of his government, but for one last night he sipped at his drink and enjoyed the cool breeze on his face.