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.
Well now, this week certainly proved to be an interesting one. For the third round of my yearly challenge I was given what, it has to be said, is probably one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. At least, within the realm of putting words down on paper anyway. I had to write a children’s story.
I think it’s fair to say that the majority of my writing isn’t catered for children. I’ve got a lot of friends who write/read young adult novels, and I think that would be sort of OK to write because at least you aren’t having to use drastically different language. But a proper children’s story? That’s a different matter.
Anyway, a brief is a brief, and like I said in week one I’m not in this for an easy ride. The whole point of this exercise is to develop my skills as a writer, and one way of doing that is embracing other styles of writing than I am used to. And I certainly had to do that this week. The brief, from my uncle Haydn, was as follows: ‘A story suitable for a 4 year old called Rosie and a 2 year old called Sam, set in Muswell Hill and featuring Rosie, Sam, Highgate Woods and pain au chocolat.’
So without further ado, I hope you all enjoy ‘The Mouse of Muswell Hill and the Hedgehog of Highgate Wood’.
2014 – A Year In Stories
The Mouse of Muswell Hill and the Hedgehog of Highgate Wood
One sunny Saturday afternoon a little girl called Rosie and a little boy called Sam were playing in their garden in Muswell Hill. They had been runnng around and laughing all morning playing a game of tag and now they were thirsty.
They sat down on a bench and just at that moment their mummy came outside and brought them each a nice glass of cold lemonade.
“That was a very fun morning, wasn’t it Sam?” said Rosie as she sipped her lemonade.
“Yes it was,” Sam replied. “But what are we going to do this afternoon? I want to have even MORE fun this afternoon!”
Rosie thought for a moment. “I don’t know. Playing tag is a very fun way to spend time! Why don’t we see if we can think of anything more fun?”
So Rosie and Sam sat there for a few minutes trying to think of some more fun things to do. All the time they were sipping at their lemonade and feeling more refreshed and ready to play.
Just as they both finished their lemonade they heard a noise coming form behind the bench. It was very quiet but if they listened very hard they could just about hear something.
“Can you hear that, Rosie?” Sam asked.
“Yes, it sounds like someone crying!” Rosie replied.
“But they’re very quiet!” Sam said. “I wonder where they are.”
Sam and Rosie both started to look around to try and find out who was crying. They searched and searched, but they simply could not work out where the noise was coming from.
As they were about to give up, Rosie had an idea.
“I know, Sam!” she said, excitedly. “If they are very quiet it must mean that they are very small!”
“And if they’re very small,” Sam replied, “then they must be on the ground.
They both dropped to their knees, and right there behind the bench they could see a little mouse. The mouse was sat on its own and she was crying.
“Hello, little mouse,” Sam said. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, hello. I didn’t think anyone could hear me crying,” the mouse said.
“Well we heard you!” Rosie said. “My name is Rosie, and this is my brother Sam.”
“Hello Rosie and Sam, my name is Molly the Mouse.”
“Why are you sad, Molly?” Rosie asked.
“I was on my way home to my mouse hole to have a lovely lunch of pain au chocolat when I saw a horrid hedgehog stealing them all from my garden. You see, I have some pain au chocolat trees, and they were just ripe enough to eat.”
“Oh no!” Rosie and Sam both said together. “Stealing pain au chocolat is not a very nice thing to do!”
“No it isn’t!” Molly agreed. And now I don’t have anything to eat for lunch!”
Rosie smiled and said to Molly “Don’t be sad. What if we helped you get your pain au chocolat back?”
“You would do that?” said Molly, who straight away felt a lot happier.
“Of course!” Sam replied. “We’ve been looking for something fun to do this afternoon, and what is more fun than helping people?”
“Thank you. That is very kind of you both!” Molly said.
“Let’s go have an adventure!” Rosie said.
As they were leaving the garden Molly said “I saw the hedgehog going towards Highgate Wood. Maybe we can find him in there?”
So they set off in the direction of Highgate Wood. Once they got in to the wood they started to look around for a hedgehog with some pain au chocolat. “Hedgehog!” the three took turns calling. “Hedgehog, are you there?”
After a few moments they heard a rustling in some leaves and a little hedgehog poked his head out.
“Hello?” he said. “I am a hedgehog.”
“Did you take some pain au chocolat from a pain au chocolat tree a while ago?” Rosie asked.
“No,” the hedgehog replied. “I don’t like pain au chocolat. Sorry.”
“That’s OK!” Sam replied, and the hedgehog disappeared back in to the leaves.
So they moved on further in to the wood, looking around for hedgehogs, and again taking turns calling out “Hedgehog! Hedgehog, are you there?”
After another couple of moments a second hedgehog poked his head up through the leaves.
“Is everything OK?” the hedgehog asked. She was much smaller than the first hedgehog.
“Did you take some pain au chocolat from a nearby tree earlier on?” Rosie asked.
“No,” the hedgehog replied. “I LOVE pain au chocolat, but as you can see I am much to small to reach it in a tree!”
A bit further in to the woods again Sam spotted something.
“Molly, Rosie! Look!” he said, pointing at a pile of pain au chocolat next to a hole in the trunk of a very big tree.
The three ran over to the tree and knocked on the trunk.
“Excuse me!” Rosie said, poking her head inside the dark hole. “Is there anybody home?”
Sure enough a hedgehog poked its head out of the hole.
“I see you have lots of pain au chocolat!” Sam said.
“I do!” the hedgehog answered. “Isn’t it delicious?”
“Where did you get it?” Rosie asked. “Our friend Molly the Mouse has had some stolen!”
“Oh gosh!” the hedgehog said. “I would never steal it. Stealing other people’s things is wrong! I grew it all on my pain au chocolat tree!”
And so he showed them the small tree behind his house, that looked much like the one outside Molly’s mouse hole. “I hope you find your pain au chocolat!” the hedgehog said to them as they left.
So Rosie, Sam and Molly searched on and on, and they spoke to a great many hedgehogs in the woods. But none of the hedgehogs had taken Molly’s pain au chocolat.
They had been looking for what felt like hours, and they were about to give up, when suddenly they all caught smell of something delicious. They all looked at each other and straight away they knew what the smell was. “Pain au chocolat!” they cried out together.
They followed the smell until they came to some bushes. Behind the bushes they could hear someone whistling a very cheerful tune to themselves. As they pushed the bushes aside, sure enough they saw a hedgehog cooking some pain au chocolat over a small fire.
“Oh, hello!” the hedgehog said to them cheerily. “My name is Henry! What’s yours?”
Rosie stepped forward. “I am Rosie, this is my brother, Sam and this is our friend Molly the Mouse.”
“Well it is lovely to meet you all,” Henry said. “Is everything alright? Molly looks sad.”
“Somebody stole my pain au chocolat!” Molly said, glumly. “I was just on my way home to have a delicious lunch and I saw someone stealing them.”
“Where did you get those pain au chocolat?” Sam asked.
“I found them on a pain au chocolat tree in Muswell Hill a little while ago!” Henry said, smiling.
“Those are my pain au chocolat!” Molly said. “That was my tree outside my mouse hole!”
Henry stopped smiling and looked very sad. “Oh gosh,” he said. “I am very sorry. I didn’t think the tree belonged to anyone. I didn’t see your mouse hole.”
“I only need a very small hole, because I am only a very small mouse,” Molly replied.
“I am so very sorry!” Henry apologised again. “If I had known the tree belonged to someone I would not have taken them. They are cooking at the moment but when they are done please take them all back and enjoy your lunch. I will find something else to eat.”
The whole time the pain au chocolat were finishing cooking, Henry looked very glum, so Rosie took Sam over to one side.
“Henry looks very sad. Now he doesn’t have anything delicious to eat for lunch!” Rosie said.
“Poor Henry,” Sam replied. He didn’t know they were Molly’s or he wouldn’t have taken them.”
“Look Sam,” Rosie said, pointing at the pain au chocolat cooking over the fire. “There is plenty of pain au chocolat for both of them.”
“You’re right,” Sam agreed.
So Rosie and Sam went over to where Molly was sitting and waiting for the delicious lunch to cook.
“Molly,” Sam said. “We think it would be very nice if you shared your pain au chocolat with Henry. He didn’t mean to steal them from you and he is very sorry for making a mistake.”
“Yes,” Rosie added. “And there is plenty of pain au chocolat for both of you, and there will still be some spare!”
“I know!” Molly said. “Why don’t we ALL have pain au chocolat for lunch? You must be very hungry having helped me search all that time, and I really want to say thank you for helping me! Like you say, there is plenty to go around!”
“That is a wonderful idea!” Rosie said.
A few moments later and the pain au chocolat were ready. “Here you go,” said Henry, picking one up and offering it to Molly. “Enjoy your pain au chocolat,” he added, with a deep, sad sigh.
“The first one is for you!” Molly said, and straight away they all saw Henry’s face brighten up.
“Really? Do you mean it?” he said.
“Yes,” Molly replied. “After all, you cooked them for us!”
And so they passed out the pain au chocolat and the four of them had a delicious lunch.
When they had finished Rosie stood up and said “We should go home. Our mummy and daddy will start to worry if we’re not home soon.”
“Thank you Sam and Rosie for all your help,” Molly said. “I couldn’t have found my pain au chocolat without you.”
“You’re welcome, Molly,” Sam said.
“Rememeber, Henry,” Rosie added. “You should always ask before you take something, because it might belong to someone else.”
“I will always ask from now on!” Henry replied.
So Rosie and Sam walked back home, and Molly came with them. When they got to the garden Molly said “Thanks again Rosie and Sam. If you ever want some pain au chocolat just look for the little mouse hole with the little pain au chocolat tree outside and come and say hello. We can have a delicious lunch together.”
“That would be lovely!” Rosie said.
“I told Henry that he can come by any time and have lunch with me as well, as long as he lets me know this time!” Molly added.
“Goodbye Molly, thanks for taking us on an adventure!” Sam said as they both waved to their new friend.
“Goodbye, Rosie and Sam. See you soon!” and with that Molly disappeared in to her mouse hole, and Rosie and Sam went back in to their garden.
When they got back in to the garden their mummy was sat outside on the same bench where they had started their adventure.
“And where have you two little rascals been?” she asked.
“We’ve been on an adventure!” they both shouted.
Well, that is, as they say, that. I’ve got to do a fairy tale somewhere around April but until then that seems to be my lot for the children’s fiction market for the moment. Of course this is blatantly just going to end up with people making me write 10 kids’ stories in a row now, but so be it. Bring it on I say. BRING. IT. ON.
Next week we have a delightful tale about a dictator who realises the error of his ways, kindly suggested by mein dear papa. So a bit of a change of pace, then.
The second story in my challenge to write a short story a week in 2014 was, it has to be said, a lot easier to write than the first. It came from my good friend Edward Murphy on Facebook, and the brief was as follows: ‘a story of someone who goes into the wilds on a geocaching expedition but runs into trouble as night descends. Inadequately prepared, with no food, they half-slide down a very steep valley only to realise that they can’t get across the river and even if they could there’s no way out. And then the fat one (you can call him Ed, if you like) goes hypoglycaemic from lack of food.’
Very, err, thorough. I took some liberties with a couple of details, simply because it wouldn’t have been a very nice ending to have them stuck on the mountain for the night, but otherwise I hope I’ve managed to stick true to the brief. I’m sure I’m legally obligated to tell you that this is ABSOLUTELY NOT based on a true story HONEST and that character names have DEFINITELY NOT been only slightly modified to make it completely obvious who the story is about. Enjoy.
2014 – A Year In Stories
“Will you just admit it already? We are LOST!” Lillian said, folding her arms across her chest.
“We’re not lost as long as we have this!” Edwin replied, holding up his GPS device and waving it at her demonstratively.
“Well where the bloody hell are we then?”
Edwin fiddled with the device for a few seconds. He squinted at the screen in the fading light, cursing that he had not shelled out the extra £40 for the model that was backlit.
“Well?” Her tone of voice was becoming more and more impatient.
“I, uh,” Edwin began. “I don’t know.”
“So we ARE lost?”
Lowering his head in defeat, Edwin replied “Yes, I suppose we are…”
“Well this is just bloody MARVELLOUS, isn’t it? I didn’t even want to come on this stupid Geocaching trip with you in the first place, and now here I am lost halfway up a bloody mountain in the middle of nowhere with fading light and no idea how to get back down.”
“We could go back the way we came…” Edwin suggested, rather feebly.
“And do you have a torch with which to guide us back along this path?” Lillian enquired. She took her fiancé’s lack of response to indicate the negative. “We’ve been walking for hours. We would need a bloodhound to find our way back to where we started!”
Lillian paused and took a deep breath in an attempt to calm herself down. “There will be plenty of time for me to shout at you later. What are we going to do?”
Edwin furrowed his brow and began to scan around, looking for a way back to civilisation. There were no towns or villages in sight, but in the gloom he could just about see a country road winding its way through the fields some distance away at the bottom of the mountain.
“Down there,” he said, pointing so Lillian could see. “There’s a road. That has to lead SOMEWHERE.”
“That’s bloody miles away!” Lillian pointed out, and then remembered that the alternative was spending a pleasant night asleep on this godforsaken mountain and realised that they had no choice. “…let’s go” she added, resignedly.
About twenty minutes in to their trek they began to lose the light.
“I can’t see a bloody thing,” Edwin declared loudly, “And I think I’m going to pass out.” The last part was said with more than a hint of defiance in the voice, and Lillian rolled her eyes. “I think I’m becoming hypoglycaemic.”
At this, Lillian rounded on him. “Oh is that so?!” she replied, angrily. “Well if we hadn’t come up here on some search for some bloody stupid lost treasure we could be filling our faces presently. Anyway, I saw you scoffing those three Snickers on the way up the mountain. You’ve got enough blood sugar to last five people for a month. There’s a Mars Bar in your rucksack. Eat that and shut up.”
Realising that this was not the time for impudence, Edwin did as he was told.
“Look,” he said after they had trudged on for a few moments. “I’m sorry. We need to stop bickering. We have to work together.”
“What do you mean?” Lillian asked, genuinely puzzled.
“Because,” he replied, pointing ahead of them, “of that.”
Directly in front of them, and comprehensively blocking their further descent, was a scree slope.
“We’re going to have to go down that, aren’t we?” Lillian asked.
“Yep, ” Edwin replied.
“And there’s no way around?”
“Doesn’t look like it, and I don’t fancy doing it when it’s any darker if we don’t find another way.”
“Good point. Shall we?”
They turned their heads to look at each other, and their hands met. All arguments were on hold for the moment.
“Together?” Lillian suggested.
“Together,” Edwin agreed.
They made their way gingerly to the edge of the slope, hands still clasped together.
They both took a tentative first step on to the loose rocks. Several skidded away at the slightest touch, and Lillian winced at the sound of slate moving against itself below her.
“I have an idea,” she said.
A minute later they were sat at the top of the slope.
“Remember,” she said, “edge down slowly and you should be fine. it’ll be much easier to control our descent this way.”
They nodded at each other resolutely, and pushed off. The going wasn’t easy, but they inched their way forwards slowly, until finally they were at the bottom. They leapt to their feet.
“We made it!” Lillian exclaimed, and they shared an embrace.
“I wish I could say the same for my trousers…” Edwin said, lamenting the now thoroughly ripped seat of his cargo pants.
“They gallantly offered their life to protect their commanding officer,” Lillian responded, in a questionable American accent. The pair laughed for the first time since they began their descent.
The going became a lot easier the further they got down the mountainside, and for a while they walked hand in hand as the darkness grew all around them. Soon they had to rely on the camera lights from their mobile phones to see, and they could no longer tell how far they were from the road, or even really if they were going in the right direction, but still they soldiered on.
After some time of ploughing on in the darkness, Edwin heard a splash as he put his foot down.
“Oh, my bloody foot is soaking!” he shouted, hopping about in an effort to dry his foot off that would have appeared vain and absurd had anyone but Lillian, whose phone was pointing dead ahead, been around to witness it. They stopped.
“A river?” Lillian asked in disbelief. “Why didn’t you mention that there was a bloody river?”
“I didn’t see it!” Edwin replied, defensively.
“How could you not see it? It’s a bloody river! It looks like a road except it’s made of water, they’re not exactly known for their stealth capabilities!”
“I wasn’t looking for rivers, was I?!” he protested.
They were interrupted by one of the sounds of civilisation. A car was approaching from somewhere out of the night. After a few seconds, as the engine sounds grew louder, headlight beams appeared just across the river, briefly illuminating it and the hedged boundaries of the road they had been questing toward.
They saw the vehicle speed past a gap in the hedges that was occupied by a gate.
“There it is!” Lillian cried. That’s our way out!”
“But how do we get there?” Edwin wondered.
“There must be a bridge around here somewhere. Use your GPS. That must be able to tell us if there’s a bridge nearby.”
Edwin rummaged around in his pocket and found the device. “Shine your light on the screen,” he suggested. He pressed the power button and prepared to search around the local maps, when he was briefly confronted with the Low Battery symbol, before the screen went blank. No amount of yelling or coercion would bring it back to life again.
“Stupid thing,” he declared. “I only put fresh batteries in this morning. What are we going to do now?”
“Did you see how deep the river was?”
“Not really,” he replied, “but it looked quite wide, and it’s getting chilly. I don’t want to risk hypothermia by wading across it.
“Then I suppose we’re stuck. We were so close as well!” Lillian sat down on the ground, defeated. After a moment Edwin joined her. “I don’t want to have to spend a night in the wilderness!” she lamented.
Edwin put his arm around her shoulders and drew her in closer to him. “Neither do I, but the only other choice is to wade through that river, and it’s too dangerous.”
For a few minutes they sat in silent contemplation of the night ahead, when they heard a low rumbling sound somewhere in the distance.
“Edwin, can you hear that?” Lillian asked, lifting her head from her fiancé’s shoulder. The noise got progressively louder.
“It sounds like it’s coming from the road, but that’s not a car.” Edwin replied, wondering what could possibly make a noise like that.
Eventually a set of high beam headlights swung around the corner and the culprit, an old tractor, came in to view.
The powerful engine was emitting a much lower rumble than the car had previously. But even the might of the engine was struggling to propel the vehicle, which was moving along very sluggishly.
The pair leapt to their feet and began jumping up and down and shouting at the tractor to try and attract the driver’s attention. As the headlights swung ponderously around the bend, they swept across the animated couple, and they heard the engine slow down and eventually cut out altogether as the tractor came to a halt.
“Is everything ok?” the driver asked, getting down from the cab. He was an old, wiry man with a grey beard. He wore a tweed jacket and flat cap, and looked as though he would himself have been made of tweed had he been given the option.
“We’re stuck,” Lillian replied. “We’re trying to get back to a village or a town but we can’t get across this river.”
“Well, there’s a village a couple of miles down the road with a nice guesthouse. I can take you there, no problem. First of all though we need to get you over here.”
“Is there anywhere we can cross?”
The farmer stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Not for miles,” he replied eventually. “But you may be in luck.”
He disappeared out of the glare of the headlights, fading away in to the gloom. The only indication of his continuing presence was the cacophony of noise that was coming from behind the tractor.
After a couple of minutes he reappeared clutching a long ladder.
“Had a problem with one of the barn roofs earlier, so it was lucky I had this with me.” He lowered the ladder to the ground and extended it to its full length. He began edging it across the river slowly, until it finally reached the other bank. “It’ll only hold one of you at a time, and you’ll have to be careful.”
It took some time but eventually both Edwin and Lillian reached the other side of the river. They were cold, exhausted and a little shaken, but at least they hadn’t taken a dip in the river to boot.
The ladder was withdrawn and stored back in the trailer, and they prepared to head to the village.
“There’s only space for two in the cab, I’m afraid,” the farmer said as he started the tractor’s engine. “One of you will have to ride in the trailer.”
“You go in the cab, Lil,” Edwin said, climbing in to the back. “This whole mess is my fault.”
When they were finally on their way back to civilisation, Lillian felt that she had recovered enough energy to strike up a conversation with the farmer.
“I’m so glad you found us,” she said. “We could have been out there all night.”
“Yes, it was a stroke of luck,” the man replied. “Were you up on the mountain?”
“Yeah, looking for treasure,” she laughed.
The farmer furrowed his brow. “Well then why didn’t you just come down the other side of the mountain? The village is just down there.”
Lillian’s eyes widened as she thought of everything that they had just been through, and how it all could have been avoided. She thought about what she was going to do to the stupid idiot when they got to the guest house, and if they had any sharp implements available.
But when she turned to look at him sat, asleep in the trailer she couldn’t bring herself to be angry with him anymore. They were both here and in one piece, and at the end of the day that was all that mattered.
Anyway, this would provide YEARS of excellent future blackmail material.
Up next I have to write a children’s story suitable for a 2 year old and a 4 year old. Right on my intellectual level, then.
So, the first full week of 2014 is drawing to a close and as such I am due to be up one story for my ‘2014: A Year In Stories’ challenge. And what do you know, I AM up one story.
My first brief came from John Muskett on Facebook, and was as follows. ‘A story about a circus Monkey suffering from ennui induced alcoholism, learning to love life again.’ Because apparently, despite being my friend, he hates me. Well, I never thought that any of this was going to be a walk in the park, so why not start out with a hard one, eh? So, please read on for the story of Barnabus the monkey. I present to you, Ennui.
2014 – A Year in Stories
Barnabus puffed contemplatively at his cigarette. In the background the dull repetition of the train running over the tracks was the only sound. In the dark carriage he was alone with his thoughts.
5 years now he had been living this life. No one place to call home and nobody he could really call his family. He pawed around on the floor for the bottle, and eventually he felt its cold, glassy exterior. He smiled, such as it was possible for him to do, and lifted the bottle to his lips.
A solitary drop fell from the neck on to his waiting tongue, but no more. It seemed he was out of luck. He shrieked in anger and hurled the empty vessel, sending it crashing in to the opposite wall of the carriage.
The loud crash raised a cacophony from the next carriage over. The corrugated sheet metal walls were thin after all. Excited hoots, hollers, whoops and whines flittered across the air for a fleeting moment before dying down again.
Turning his mind to his fellow passengers he considered how much they bored him. He was so much better than they. He knew it, his employers knew it, and even they probably knew it; those that had the capacity for rational thought at least.
It was pitch black and the cabin was stiflingly hot. He knew they had recently passed in to South America and the heat had been unbearable.
A light shone briefly through a gap in the sheet metal and tantalisingly illuminated the liquid that covered the spot on the wall that had so recently borne the brunt of his frustration. Perhaps there had been more of the sweet nectar in the bottle after all.
Barnabus picked himself up from the floor, stubbing his cigarette out on the wall, being careful to avoid letting any ash drop on to the dry straw that lined the floor. He definitely did not want a repeat of THAT incident.
Edging his way closer, trying not to be thrown from his feet by the bouncing train, he could not quite reach the wall. He strained harder, but the chain shackled around his ankle simply would not allow him to get any closer. “Eeeeek,” he uttered, soulfully, and was then thrown to the floor by a particularly bumpy section of track.
Rolling around the carriage, unable to right himself until, in desperation he cast his tail upwards.
He felt it catch on a metal bar and, using it to pull himself up, he got to his feet, before climbing up on to the bar. He breathed a sigh of relief, though he was no closer to the delicious whiskey that painted the wall of his mobile home.
Fortune was on his side, as moments later, disturbed by the jolt, a heavy metal box containing costumes wrestled free from its moorings on a high shelf and came smashing down to the carriage floor. He stared in disbelief. A few seconds earlier and he would have been killed. Those idiots. Didn’t they know how to secure their supplies? They could have lost their star attraction.
He felt a breeze on his face. It was almost imperceptible, but in the stuffy carriage it was a welcome change. It took him a moment to realise where it was coming from. He looked down at the floor of the carriage. The crate had dented the wall just enough to create a little gap, but still big enough for him to crawl through.
He could be free. Free from this life that he had loathed for so long. Free from the other animals, whom he found so intolerable. He could get his life back.
Barnabus made to go out of the hole, but stopped, suddenly arrested by memories of the good old days. He hadn’t always hated this life. Back when he was first purchased from the zoo he knew he had been destined for greatness.
The circus owners had spent a whole day pondering over the entire litter of infants the zoo had available to sell, and after a series of tests, Barnabus had been the lucky monkey selected above his peers to be trained for the circus.
He had been the star of the show, and still was, but the circus was a dying concept. Where’s once he had wowed audiences across the globe with acrobatic feats that even a highly skilled human could not hope to reproduce, now thanks to the rise of MTV and the apathy of Generation X audience numbers were dwindling. Nobody came to the circus anymore.
He felt a debt of loyalty to the circus that had given him everything, but he could not deny his misery. The decline in attendance over the last couple of years had contributed to a decline in his performances, and ultimately his descent in to alcoholism.
Suddenly he remembered vividly the day that, seeing the flap of the ringmaster’s tent open and unguarded, he stole in curiously. He saw what he thought was the apple juice they used to give him in an open bottle on the table. It had been a particularly hot day and he felt the need to quench his thirst. He had never looked back. Now the keepers knew to leave a bottle in his carriage on the longer journeys if they didn’t want to be mauled on arrival at the next destination.
Barnabus sighed. He had made up his mind. This life had given him so much but it was no longer giving him what he needed, and he reasoned that he may never get another opportunity.
Rummaging through the straw on the floor of the carriage he dug out his battered Fez and waistcoat, and donned them for the last time. He edged closer and closer to the hole in the carriage, nearly changing his mind when he saw the speed at which the ground was passing below him.
Steeling his resolve, he pushed through the gap and clung to the outside of the carriage. He tried to move off down the side of the metal sheet, using whatever hand holds he could find, but his progress was impeded. He had forgotten about one thing; he was still chained to the floor.
The scenery rushed by him as he wondered what he could do. And then it came to him. The wheels of the train would cut the chain. It was dangerous, but it was the only way. If he didn’t cut the chain and escape they would find him at the next station, clinging to the car still, and he had come too far to go back now.
Barnabus took a deep breath and leaped in to action. Using his tail he swung underneath the train and made a grab for one of the cables that ran along the undercarriage.
For a brief, horrifying second the cable swung away with the undulations of the train, and the ground rushed towards him at a terrifying pace. At the last moment the cable swung back and Barnabus managed to grab hold, safely pulling himself up until his body was flush with the metal undercarriage.
Breathing heavily after his narrow escape he gathered as much of the chain as he could in his paws and began to let out the slack in the direction of the nearest wheel.
He tried his best to lower the chain on to the wheel itself, using it like a grinder to bore down through the metal, but a bump sent the links flying from his hands and on to the tracks. The wheel bounced over the chain with an audible screech, nearly knocking the carriage off course. He could hear the screeching of his former colleagues in the next carriage along as the train teetered briefly before righting itself.
The chain was cut. He was free. He braced himself and then let go of the undercarriage, dropping on to the ground. Upon landing he bounced and rolled hard, but somehow managed to avoid ending up on the rails in the path of the wheels that had just granted him his freedom.
When the train had passed over him and the dust had finally settled he stood up on his hind legs. He had lost his Fez in the near fall, and his already battered waistcoat had practically been ripped to shreds, so he discarded it by the side of the track. Finally he checked his body over for injuries, but excepting some bruising he seemed to have escaped the events unscathed.
Dusting himself off with his paws he checked the landscape around him. He was surrounded by fields, but off in the distance he could see the faintest glimmer of green trees. Without hesitation he was off.
Several hours later, after the train had pulled in to Lima station and all the carriages had been transported to the site where the circus was due to set up, Barnabus’ keepers approached his carriage. One produced a key and after removing the padlock, swung the the large door aside.
“Barney!” he yelled in to the carriage. “Where are you?” There was no response. Helped by his colleague, he clambered up in to the car and cast about, looking for his monkey charge. But Barnabus was nowhere to be found. Spotting the hole in the carriage and the broken chain dangling through it, he turned to his colleague in shock.
“Where’s Barnabus?” she asked.
The ringmaster approached the sign with a solemn look on his face. A group of small children were clustered around it, trying to get a glimpse of what the attractions would be at the circus that night.
With a heavy heart the ringmaster pushed his way through the group, and with a marker pen crossed out the words ‘The Magnificent Barnabus defies gravity with his deadly leaps and bounds!’
A chorus of disappointment rose from the group of children. “I know, children, I know,” the ringmaster said in reply. “I am sad too.”
After what felt like an age, Barnabus reached the forest. When he finally reached the cusp of the trees it looked dark and intimidating, and he began to wonder about what a mistake he had made. There would be no whiskey in this forest, and no one to come and feed him. He was on his own now, and would have to fend for himself.
But there was no going back now. Even if he wanted to he had lost the train and would likely never find it again. He steeled himself and took a step inside the dark forest.
He was greeted with a high pitched shrieking noise. He turned, startled, to see another monkey, clutching a piece of fruit. Barnabus was so astonished that his tiny jaw dropped. For the first time since he left the zoo all those years ago he was looking at another member of his own species.
Shocked in to silence by this discovery he merely stood there, mouth agape. At first he thought the other creature was going to try and hurt him in case he tried to steal its food, but after a prolonged silence the tension dissipated and the other monkey, who had clearly decided that Barnabus was not a threat, broke off a piece of the fruit and timidly extended its arm in his direction, offering the morsel to him.
Gingerly he took it and was greeted with a satisfied “EEK” from his new compatriot.
Perhaps I won’t be so lonely here after all, he thought, and with a smile on his face and a newfound enthusiasm for life he followed his new friend in to the depths of the jungle.
Well, that’s one down and 51 to go. Next week, tune in for the story of a mountain trek gone mildly wrong.
Looking back on 2013 one of the things I haven’t managed to do anywhere near as much as I would have liked to is write.
Of course I set up this website, and a number of the pieces featured in my links section were penned this year, but I really don’t have an awful lot in the way of output to show for my writing in 2013.
I did to write my first ever short story, and have had some excellent feedback on the first draft, but it is far from completion (and has been since summer), and even my attempt at NaNoWriMo, which usually yields 50,000 words every November regardless of my other efforts, was unsuccessful.
There are probably some perfectly legitimate reasons why I didn’t manage more than this. 2013 has been the first year I have spent continually in full time employment since I left university; I suffered from a rather debilitating bout of depression for a couple of months which made motivation to do almost anything non-existent. So on and so forth.
But I would love to write for a living, and almost nobody has had the luxury of being able to sit down at 18 with the certainty that they have a full career as a novelist ahead of them. Terry Pratchett was a journalist and a press officer for a power station before he hit it big with the Discworld series. Plus someone very wise once told me that the best way to fight depression is through action, as inaction only leaves more time to stew over your problems.
My point is that if I want to achieve this goal, and I do, I have to bloody well pull my finger out. I want to motivate myself to increase my writing output, because I’m not just going to become a better writer overnight. Like anything it takes practice, and 2014 is going to be the year I get that practice.
And I need your help. Yes, you, back there in the cravat.
What I want to do in 2014 is to write a short story every week. 52 short stories that at the end of the year I can put together in a compilation. The problem is that even creative minds like mine (one day I will patent my automatic sun tan lotion application booth) run out of ideas when faced with having to come up with that many stories, so I want the majority to be commissioned.
So, if you would like me to write you a short story on any subject then please let me know either by leaving a comment on this post, sending me a tweet, or through the Contact Me page.
I reserve the right to refuse a subject if I find it too offensive, so please don’t try to shock, but otherwise anything goes. I won’t refuse something because I don’t know how to write the genre or because it would be too hard. Be as vague or as detailed as you like!
Story lengths will obviously vary but I will try and make each one at least 1500-2000 words, and the more I’m enjoying writing it the longer the story will be. (Sentence carefully worded to avoid innuendo…) Stories will be written in order of the requests being received.
Well, that’s the crux of it, so if you want to get involved and help me come a bit closer to realising my dream whilst getting your own personalised short story out of it, then please drop me a line. I’d be glad to hear from you all!
I’ve been a busy bee and have a few things to tell you all about.
Firstly I was privileged enough to appear as a special guest on Episode 100 of the Oh No! Videogames! podcast by virtue of the fact that I happened to be in the room when they recorded it. You can find links for download and subscription here! ON!VG! know what they’re talking about and you should give them a listen, not least to hear my dulcet tones.
Next up I recently attended the relaunch of the Earl Derby pub on Kilburn High Road on behalf of London Larder. Please to be checking out my words at this location.
Last but not least I was lucky enough to get to review a copy of the new Adventure Time Encyclopaedia of Ooo for Many a True Nerd. If you visit the site you can find out how to win a copy, perfect just in time for Christmas! You know the drill by now.
Hopefully there will be more to keep you posted on soon!
Hello everyone. Apologies for the delay between updates. A number of factors have been getting in the way of my ability to write stuff to put up here recently, most notably National Novel Writing Month, which I intend to write about at greater length at some point.
One of the factors is that I have been going through a bit of a rough patch lately, and I have found it difficult to motivate myself to write anything at all, let alone blog posts.
I was given a piece of advice a while ago, and that if you are struggling with depression it can often help to look to the positives in your life as a means of beginning to drag yourself up out of the doldrums to help get you to a place where you can be happy about yourself again.
With this in mind a thought came to me the other day. Most of the people reading this will likely know that in 2005 I was diagnosed with and treated for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. I’ve never been one to use my illness as a crutch or an excuse except in circumstances where an after effect of the illness or treatment (which was, in many ways, worse than the condition) were genuinely the cause of my inability to meet a commitment.
In fact I’ve always tried to have the most positive attitude possible regarding the whole thing and, besides having joints that an 80 year old would be ashamed of, I’ve not come out of the whole thing too badly really. Honestly I am mostly just glad to be alive.
This wasn’t always necessarily guaranteed however, as, at some point at the end of June/beginning of July 2005 I was put under sedation, which is one or two steps short of being placed in an artificial coma.
The previous week I had undergone total body irradiation as the final major. part of my treatment programme. Nuking the whole body like that does rather put paid to the immune system, and I was warned that I would, while it recovered, be very susceptible to infection.
Despite the best efforts of the hospital staff I rather inevitably caught pneumonia. My temperature went well over 40 degrees, and let me tell you, when that happens you start to hallucinate some weird shit, like seven hour episodes of Emmerdale.
I don’t remember any of this, hence why I am a bit sketchy about the exact dates it all happened, but I can only assume I went full Exorcist, speaking in tongues, rotating my head 360 degrees and floating several feet above the bed, so they made the decision to sedate me for my own safety. Or so I didn’t possess any of the doctors or something. Let’s go with the second one.
Those of you that have had pneumonia, or know someone that has, will know that it can really just gut your body, so you can imagine how dangerous it is for someone whose natural defences have decided to do one. At some point during my two weeks of sedation my lungs failed and for a while stubbornly refused to get their shit together and work again.
A little known statistic that a doctor told me is that if one of your organs fails then you have a 95% chance of it recovering and surviving. If its compatriots start coming out in solidarity, however, your chances of pulling through drop to 5%.
At one point during this time my parents were told by one of the doctors in the ICU that if my lungs didn’t recover within two days it would pretty much be curtains, and no encore.
Obviously this didn’t happen as I am here to tell the tale, but waking up to be told that you had effectively been given two days to live is a bit of an eye opening moment in your life.
This fact came up in a conversation at work the other day (we’re a sickly bunch) and it got me wondering how long exactly it had been.
Well, I can’t be 100% certain due to the ambiguity of dates and the fact that I was basically in a coma when this call was made, but I can say with absolute certainty that within the last month it passed the 3000 day mark.
3000 odd days ago death came knocking, and rather than go along willingly I told him his shoe was untied and kicked him in the knackers when he wasn’t paying attention.
I recall someone once getting outraged at the suggestion that cancer is a ‘fight’ because it implied that the people that didn’t make it, the ones that just couldn’t beat the thing, hadn’t tried hard enough or something.
As anyone who has had cancer, or has seen someone they love go through cancer treatment will know, it is a fight. You have to fight every day because if you give up you can be damn certain that it will eat you alive, quite literally.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with giving up. Some people just do not have the energy to do it, or they feel that their lives are fulfilled enough that they can go to their end satisfied. For some people the horrors of going through radiotherapy or chemotherapy to potentially tack another couple of years of poor quality life isn’t worth it.
But fighting gives people a chance. Not everyone that fights will win, because after all no-one said it was a fair fight. But some will survive, against all the odds, and live on to fight another day. I am fortunate enough to be one of those people, but there are those who were close to me that weren’t, including my own mother.
So from now on when I can only see the negatives in life I’ll turn to the one positive that, as long as I am alive will only become more and more amazing. If you are in a similar situation I can only advise you to do the same. Because if death comes calling for me again, and he will, I’ll be ready this time, because I’ve already lived 1500 times longer than I should have. And he can fucking bring it.
Finally, I would like to finish this post with the words of Julian Dreyer of La Dispute:
“And sing for all your friends and family; sing for those who didn’t survive.
But sing not for their final outcome; sing a song of how they tried.
We live amidst a violent storm; leaves us unsatisfied at best,
So fill your heart with what’s important, and be done with all the rest.”
Delivering the speech.
Last weekend I was extremely privileged to see two of my best friends tie the knot. Even more so, I was asked to give a short speech at the reception, in conjunction with another very close friend.
It was, I have to say, a very nerve-wracking but enjoyable experience. The thing is, it really shouldn’t have been.
From the age of 10 right through to a year or so after I left university I was regularly involved in amateur dramatics, performing in front of crowds larger than that which was present at the wedding. I didn’t even have to learn lines for the speech!
Further to that I gave dozens of presentations at university. Almost all of them to people who knew their stuff but none of them came close to the nerves last Saturday.
I have actually spoken at a wedding once before, and rather less joyously at the funeral of my mother in 2007. And yes, I was extremely nervous before both of them, for completely different reasons.
At the first wedding, in 2010, I was convinced no-one would laugh, that my jokes would fall flat. It didn’t help that at the time I was struggling with very severe cataracts, which made reading the words a bit more of a challenge.
At the funeral, well, I just wanted to make sure that I gave mum an appropriate send off, which in hindsight I have no doubt that I did.
I’ve always said that standing up in front of those crowds, particularly the latter are two of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I thought this time would be different.
I read the speech out in front of a few friends who would be at the wedding, and my partner-in-speech did the same. No nerves at all. I absolutely nailed it.
‘I’ve done it all before, people laughed last time, anyway it’s a wedding, unless you’re being offensive people are legally obliged to laugh or something,’ I kept telling myself in the run up, and it worked to an extent. The several glasses of free Pimm’s I inhaled at the reception certainly helped too.
When the speeches were announced I was feeling OK, but then as the previous one finished and I was preparing to go, it all went to hell. All of the possible scenarios went through my head at once and I lost it.
But, of course the speech went off without a hitch like it did before, and, if I’m privileged enough to be asked a third time, it likely will again. So why the nerves? Given my history of getting up in front of crowds of people and talking this kind of thing should be my bread and butter.
The only answer I can think of is the personal nature of the words I was saying. A wedding is obviously a huge moment in the lives of two people and to screw that up by saying the wrong words is a momentously bad thing to do.
The words you say on stage are, unless you intend to pursue a career in acting, largely inconsequential. But the words you write and say about someone you love (platonically of course – that would be awkward) are much more meaningful than that.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that to anyone who is bricking it about delivering a speech like that, be it for a wedding, a funeral, a bar mitzvah, whatever, the nerves are there for a reason. They’re there to remind you that the words you are about to say actually mean something, that you care enough for the person you’re saying them about that you don’t want to screw up.
And that is why, despite the weeks of worrying I got it right, I would do it all again in a heartbeat. That and all the free alcohol.
Finally I would like to extend the heartiest possible congratulations to Llinos and Cara for taking the plunge, and wish you eternal happiness and lots of dragons.