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One of the pleasures of finding a writer of whom you’ve never heard is that you get to read them without prejudice, or at least without the prejudice of other’s opinions on them.

I had such good fortune at the weekend, picking up a copy of a short story collection, Among The Quiet Folks, by John Moore. Moore (1907-1967) was an English writer who achieved widespread publication and, well, fame, in his lifetime, but who has faded into obscurity in the forty years since his death. There are articles about him on the web though, by the Independent, Bloomsbury, and of course Wikipedia among others.

He was known as a writer of rural England, which for me, demands comparison with writers like Bates, Pritchard, and Mann. Among The Quiet Folks was first published in America in the year of his death, and seems to be a ‘catch-all’ collection, drawing on short stories published, and written over several decades of his writing life. It’s not given in the Wicki bibliography, but one of the stories within, is the title story of a 1953 collection. Other stories draw their ideas from WWI, and at least one story is set at a time when ‘even’ factory workers get ‘twelve pounds a week’ and have television… which must put it in the early sixties for a guess!

My uninfluenced first impressions were that the stories were good, but that his attitudes were quite reactionary, especially in respect of war, psychology, and, curiously enough, organics. Consistently though, reading about him, I was told not to think he was ‘nostalgic’, which hadn’t crossed my mind. He does have that survival of the reddest in tooth and claw, which isn’t the sort of ‘fittest’, I think, that Darwin actually meant, but which tars writers of rural England from time to time (and rural Britain, come to that).

Reddest and clawiest is the story Elehog, about an orphaned baby hedgehog that ‘reminded one somewhat of a miniature elephant’.  Brought up by the narrator, this innocent is spoiled, but not taught to look out for itself, with fatal consequences, which the same narrator (ignoring, or overlooking the lack of a hedgehoggy education) then uses as a metaphor for ‘the gentle creatures who practise the philosophy of live and let live’. Set towards the end of the collection, I wonder if this reflects the author’s view of the post-war Britain I grew up in? The very last story, Vive la Difference’ is a faux risqué tale about a prudish woman chopping off the relevant protuberances on two pieces of topiary, representing nudes, male and female, in her neighbour’s garden. Of all the stories, it seemed to me the most dated, a pale reflection of the swinging sixties, in which I presume it was written.

There is one story that I found strikingly good. This was that title story from the 1953 collection: Tiger, Tiger. Echoing Blake’s title, but not his spelling, it’s an epic, archetypal story, set in Andalusia, where a young boy, stolen by a gypsy almost at birth, is sent on a mission by a dying man. As an eight year old child, Emilio must cross the city to Baldomero’s wine-shop and buy the ageing and sick Jose a bottle of ‘his second best rioja’. He has never before left the security of the gypsy woman’s back yard, but feels bound to the old man, who has told him many stories of the Malayan jungle.

Emilio’s adventures – being robbed, beaten, put to work as a pimp by the girls in a brothel – lead to him eventually stealing a bottle, and surviving a political riot. The bottle turns out to be brandy, not Rioja, and revives the old storyteller. What makes this story more than just its events, is the way the boy’s adventures parallel, and are seen by him to parallel, the dangers of the jungle in the old man’s stories. The men, and women, in the story, he sees, are animals in a jungle of their own.

The sentiments expressed is similar to that of other stories, but the handling of them lifts the tale above the mere assertion of the author’s beliefs. Another story makes assertion of the narrator’s beliefs so strongly that I wonder if the author is gently satirizing him – and even on a second reading I’m not convinced he is! This is Non compost mentis, where the narrator rants about his late aunt’s obsession with compost, and ridicules her organic principles. Written at a time when the organic movement was seen as cranky, it’s hard to judge how we are meant to take it, but the story is funny enough either way. As is Mr Catesby Brings it Off, in which a country vet flirts with a client’s much younger partner, who has been passed off as his daughter, but finds himself being manoeuvred by the old man into marrying her (so that he can leave his estate to his actual daughter!). It’s a clever, convoluted little tale.

Stark, sparse and chillingly believable, though, is The Proof, where a woman under interrogation in a witch trial, is watched for the arrival of her ‘familiar’. She is innocent, but her cat has not been fed for hours, and hears her voice….

Many writers fall into obscurity after their deaths. Some are discovered decades later, and win fame (usually again), but I would be surprised if this happened to Moore, and, to be honest, disappointed. His stories are well written and quite readable, but so are many others not worth a third reading. It’s what he has to say, it seemed to me, that leaves this writer in obscurity. The Alan Sutton collection was reprinted in 1984, and 1986. Perhaps that was the attempt at his revival. That was a low point for short stories, I suspect, when even the concept of ‘story’ was being fashionably dismissed and stories were becoming, for the ‘ordinary’ – whatever that means – reader, as boring as poetry had become a little earlier. Now that the short story is booming again, Moore might catch our interest for a while, but the limits of his vision make me wonder if he will, or should, hold it.

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BHD recently had a story accepted for an online magazine. They’ve taken a few of his over the last couple of years (.Cent was the magazine by the way, and when you go looking for it, remember that prefatory .!) This one, just before submission, was given a last-minute trim, or rather, a last minute change. It was only one word, but it was close to the last word, and it was changed from ‘said’ to ‘thought’.

The line, in its final version, went: ‘Me too, I thought’. The actual ending continues ‘and I knew the game was on again.’

The difference is profound.

The story is a first person reminiscence of a conversation, about literature, and sex. That conclusive line, a spoken line in the original version, a thought one in the published, is supposed to reveal something about the narrator that has not been revealed in the rest of the story. In fact, the story is the context for that revelation. But if spoken it is revealed not only to the reader, but to the other character in the conversation. By making it a thought the reader is invited to speculate about whether or not that other character has an inkling of the thought, and if they do, what is their reaction to it.

Other options have subsequently occurred to me. What, for example, might be the difference if the story ended: ‘Me too, I might have said.’

The key is in that ‘might’. Does it imply that ‘Me too’ wasn’t said, but could have been – which implies also that it was still thought. And what if it had ended, ‘Me too, I may have said.’? Doesn’t that add the further possibility that it had been said, but that the narrator has become vague in his admission, perhaps reluctant even?

Four options, and I’m still not sure which would be the best one, but the fact that there are four – and probably more – reminds me how important every single word is, and perhaps more so the closer it is to the end! It reminds me too, that the nuances of writing are dependant for their success not only on the finesse of the writer, but also on the discrimination of the reader.

You can read more BHD stories in Other Stories and Rosie Wreay.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

I first read John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down about a decade ago, in one of the guest rooms of a posh hotel near Salisbury. It was a slim volume, dated to 1942, the year of first publication, and I suspect it had sat on the shelf unread for many of those years.

I’d never heard of the book, having got no further into Steinbeck than seeing the movie versions of Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Those opening lines, though, did the job that all opening lines are supposed to do, and hooked me from the beginning. It’s the directness, and the simplicity I think, that compels:

 

‘By ten forty-five it was all over. The town was occupied, the defenders defeated, and the war finished.’

 

The story stayed in my mind for years, though I forgot the title, until, that is, I was recently given a copy of the Penguin The Short Novels of John Steinbeck. A second read proved to be as enthralling as the first had been, but a lot of reading, and a lot of thinking about the short story form had passed under my bridge by then.

The story is as simple as the telling, and, considering the date of publication, so, perhaps, is the intention behind the book. The un-named town, in the un-named country, experiences occupation by a foreign invader, and far from being ‘over’, the story is only just beginning. Betrayed by a prominent businessman, the local Mayor and his entourage, along with a few named locals are put through the trials that Americans already knew were being suffered on Continental Europe. Similar, in some ways to Cavalcanti’s Went The Day Well – based on a Graham Greene short story – or the later SS GB and The Eagle Has Landed, it’s a story that can be seen as part of a genre stretching back into the nineteenth century and The Battle of Dorking and beyond. These are stories that warn not only of the new ways that wars might be fought, but of the consequences that will follow from defeat. Steinbeck’s tale though is not merely a warning to those at risk of invasion, but more specifically than in similar stories, to those who are doing the invading.

While the Mayor’s party suffers suppression, execution, forced labour and starvation, his invaders too suffer. The fight they think is ‘all over’ has only just begun. Resistance builds slowly, and they learn that chopping off the head of a ‘free’ people, increases, rather than ends it. They learn too, that what they have been told about being ‘victors’ is lies, and the truth of their ultimate defeat sinks in slowly and surely as the story unfolds. Its ending has the Doctor, who has acted as a sort of commentator throughout, and who is about to be executed, saying ‘the debt will be paid’. He is answering the Mayor’s quoting of Socrates’ reported last words, which were that a debt was owed to the God Asclepius. It is a promise that we know will be kept. (Mind you, it didn’t work after 1066). Steinbeck was sending a message to the Germans as well as warning his fellow Americans.

What struck me on this second reading was how like a short story, rather than a novel, it is. The collection’s introduction refers to it as a ‘novelette’, another of those vague terms like ‘novella’, that reveals a doubt rather than expresses a certainty. At ninety pages it seems too long to be a short story, but I ‘perused it in an hour or two’, which Poe said was the hallmark of the short story. There have been much shorter stories, and I’m thinking of D.H.Lawrence ones, that I have felt were more like novels even though they are in his Collected Short Stories. But wordage is not the key. Steinbeck’s tale has that directness, and drive, the focus, and unity that we associate with short stories. There are sub-plots and minor characters, but they are bound closely to the main story, and linked to the main characters so tightly that we never experience the diffusion or the breadth of vision that the novel demands. The town and its hinterland are never a world in which the characters can move in different directions, but always remain the pool of light thrown by a spotlight and around which the rest of the world stays in deepest shadow. The story runs like a tank, along its own tracks, laid down before it. Its ending too has the quality of a short story ending. There is no tying up of loose ends, nor the telling of what happened to other characters, but only the Doctor’s grim quotation as he and the Mayor prepare for their fate.

Definitions are often impossible – try ‘mug’ and ‘cup’ and I guarantee that whatever you come up with you’ll still eventually find a clear example of ‘the other’ that exactly fits it! But they are useful attempts to know what it is we think we are doing when we make whatever it is we are trying to define. My definition of the short story evolves as I read, and write, more of them. Currently it has more to do with how they work, than what they say: ‘a story that gives context to its own ending, enabling us to recognise in that ending a future, present or past state of being’ might be close to it! But Poe’s hour or two of perusal hasn’t gone away.

There are more essays on short stories and their writers in Love and Nothing Else.

It might surprise you to learn that I think of Arthur Miller (the playwright) as one of the best short story writers of his time.

It’s an opinion based on two stories in his 2009 Presence, Collected Stories. The volume was put together after Miller’s death incorporating earlier publications with as then unpublished extras. Of the sixteen stories the two that stand out for me are The Misfits and Fitters Night. Both are from the earliest collection (I don’t need you any more, of 1967).

The Misfits is better known for the film version, for which Miller wrote the screenplay. It was the last film made by Marilyn Monroe, then Miller’s wife in what was a disintegrating marriage. It was the last for Clark Gable too, who died only a couple weeks after filming finished. He did, though, see the rushes, and thought it the best thing he had ever done.

Compared to the originating story though, the film is lightweight. The difference is encapsulated in who gets to ride off into the sunset, and with whom, and why. I wrote about it in Love and Nothing Else, the second in my series of readings for writers.

Fitters Night, so far as I know, hasn’t been made into a film, though I suspect it could be. It’s the story of a man who finds his sense of self-worth. It’s a coming of age story really, because even though its hero, Tony, is a grown man, he is not a fully matured one. Set in a wartime shipyard, Tony, schemer, idler, adulterer, dreamer and malcontent, finds himself risking his life to repair the submarine defences of a naval escort vessel, due out on the next tide. The work is arduous and risky, and despite having and knowing all the wrinkles and scams that would let him off the hook of having to do it, Tony finds that he has an integrity that enables, perhaps demands, that he should fulfil his role in the war effort.

What lifts this story above a simple personal victory for me though, is that it seems also to be a story about what, presumably, Miller thought about America. Tony’s self respect grows out of the recognition that the young captain whose ship it is, is prepared to go to sea unprotected to do his duty, and that he takes Tony’s initial prevarications as the simple truth. The captain extends to Tony the respect that he assumes he is due, and by doing so calls that self-respect into existence.

It seemed to me that this was a story that could not have been written about English, or even British men in a similar position. There is no equivalence, that I am aware of, in the equalities between Tony and his Captain. I can imagine a situation in which a British Captain could confer something similar on a British fitter, but not one in which he would assume it to be inherently within him.

As so often happens, for me, Fitters Night is one of those stories that makes me want to re-write it, for my own culture, just to find out if I could make it work. So. There’s a project!

There’s a new essay by Me on Rudyard Kipling’s philosophical story The Eye Of Allah now showing on the Thresholds website.

 Other essays on short stories and their writers can be found here (or by clicking on the image).

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

 BHD had a story accepted recently. He’d given it up, as far as that particular competition was concerned, but then the e-mail popped in. Long-listed, and to be included in the forthcoming anthology! Well, whadya know, as Kowalski might have said, as BHD might have made him say.

So I re-read it…

Yeah! That’s OK. I remember the story. I remember the little moment that impelled it…one of those ‘poetic impulses’ I might try to convince you, which V.S.Pritchett cited as being the starting point for short stories. For some – including the intending publishers, it might be a ‘Flash Fiction’, but I find it impossible, and unnecessary to make the distinction. A short story is a short story, however short – or even long – it is. It’s a sequence of events that bring us to a statement, or question, or suggestion, what-have-you, that gains its significance from what has gone before.

But that’s not what I’m writing about. It was re-reading it, looking for improvements that might be made (which, though, the would-be publishers might not accept – competition rules often disallow a tinker or two, an edit!).

I found one word, repeated in the same sentence. Clumsy, I thought, particularly when there was a perfectly good alternative. I switched it in my copy. They can do what the hell they like, I thought. It was a minor change.

Then I thought some more. Actually, the repetition, using the same word but in a slightly different context, might actually be drawing attention to that context. It certainly draws attention to itself. My change might make it look neater, smoother, but when that slightly rough repetition snags your reader’s mind maybe it adds something to the texture of the story, rather than merely interrupting it. Sometimes it’s better to leave the thorn to snag the palm of the hand that strokes! (or the reader, to you and me).

When it comes down to single words it might not be so easy, or even possible to see which way the balance tips between two choices.

Robert Frost famously, well, perhaps not famously but certainly reportedly, in the biography of him that I read a few years ago, advised his students not to write ‘unless you have something to say.’ I’ve cited the quotation before, but I come back to it again and again. It has a rider that changes what you might have thought of as its rather unhelpful finality: if you haven’t got something, he would, apparently, add, ‘go and get it’.

Having something to say seems to me to be an entirely laudable reason for writing, and trying to get it said might well be a long job, involving many attempts that either end up saying not quite what was intended, or failing completely. But there comes a time, I’ve found, when, only occasionally, one finds oneself, or to put it more bluntly, when I’ve found myself feeling that I have said what I had to say, and that consequently the tank is dry, the larder empty, the cupboard bare, and all other similar metaphors.

It’s an unpleasant place to find yourself, especially after that moment of euphoria when you first begin to think that you’ve nailed something (other than your literary thumb). I’ve experienced it in a couple of genres, I think – one can never be sure about these things – and certainly in poetry. It hasn’t stopped me writing poems, but it sure did slow me down. It was nearly ten years ago when the drowning of three boys in Ullswater challenged me to be a poet who wrote about something that mattered, or not. The Ullswater Requiem took several months to evolve, and I’m sure I’ve told the story elsewhere. But after it was finished, far from being the spur to a flurry of other poems, it created a sort of hiatus. I came to a stop. What else was there to say that I could say that would stand up to comparison with it?

To feel like that didn’t require anybody else to endorse my assessment of UR. It was, I knew, whatever reception it got, or whatever anybody else thought about it, simply the best thing I had written; the best thing that I had conceived of writing. I still feel like that about it, whatever level the poem stands at in relation to other people’s best or worst. It took some time to recover any sense that it was worth me trying to write anything else.

A similar thing happened to me on the way to this blog post. Nearly two years ago now, I wrote a couple of flash fictions, and then a short story (short enough to be regarded as flash fiction by some definitions) which had a similar resonance for me. One of the flash fictions (perhaps the starting point, and the least developed) has been published. The other pieces still have not, and, I suspect, might be impossible to place for a variety of reasons. A good friend and valued critic panned absolutely the one that I see as the pinnacle of the trio, yet, yet, for me it remains a high point: the high point when it comes to what I might have to say.

I’ve suggested to students before now that success as a writer is something that has, or has not, already happened when you put down the pen, or close the keyboard. Public, or private approbation, publication, is only the recognition of that already accomplished success. Success in sales, or celebrity is an entirely different matter, as Gerard Manley Hopkins or Nathaniel West might testify.

So.

At the moment I’m wondering what to write that will advance what I perceive as my writing trajectory. I’d be tempted to say that it is ‘no easy place’, but I said that back in 2004, in a poem that provided the title of a now out-of-print 2005 collection (the poem, In My Claude Glass, was included in the Maryport Writers anthology New Stories for Old Stones).

I’ve just finished reading Karen Blixen’s short stories, The Diver, and The Ring, two of the five stories in Babette’s Feast & Other Stories in the Penguin Modern Classics series. The back-cover blurb tells me that they were among her late stories.

They have the assuredness of stories by a writer who knows what is being done. Mythical, magical is a word that both the blurb and foreword use, and complex the stories, like the woodland glade in The Ring seem at the same time specific and diffuse.

A heightened, perhaps archaic voice, though it’s hard to tell with translations, if that’s what they are, emphasises the mythic, medieval quality, creating a sense of timelessness though, rather than of any time in particular.

There was no good reason to read these two side by side. One opens, and the other ends the collection, and I’d read Babette’s Feast much earlier. Perhaps, yes, certainly, it was because of the remaining four these two were the shorter, and more suited to a snatched half hour.

Yet, as stories by the same writer, at the same period of their writing life might be expected to do, they resonated with each other, despite the superficial differences. The Diver purports to be a Persian tale, beginning in Shiraz and reading like a folk tale, until it reaches a line break, just before which a first person narrator is revealed, and in which the statement ‘ “This,” said Mira Jama, “is the first part of my story.”

The sudden presence of the narrator surprises, though the story opened with ‘Mira Jama told this story:’ Which does not make explicit that he is actually telling it in the present moment of the reader reading!

That first part has concerned a young man of religious fervour who has created wings by which men might fly among and meet with angels. This has frightened the old men of the city, who have contrived a trap for him: the beautiful dancer Thusmu, who seduces him, passing herself off as an angel, but who then falls in love with him and confesses her deceit.

The second part of the story is not directly about the young man, but about Mira Jama himself, who finds him in later years, a happy man, who has come to great wealth, though he has lost his faith, at least in angels. He tells Mira the story of his life, and of his wealth, gained as the eponymous diver.

Whereas the first part of the story has concerned birds, and flight, this part concerns fish, and the idea that they are the perfect expression of God’s work, for they are ‘supported’ in all the dimensions of their environment. The story ends on the ‘maxim’ ‘apres nous le deluge’, which some of us will surely recognise from our school-days’ history as the prophecy of a French king. I confess to finding this a weak joke at the end of a strong story.

That strength, in part, lies in the conversation between Mira and the man, which touches on stories, and myths, and in particular on the shock that Mira experiences on discovering who the man, the diver not so much is, as had been. For Mira has sought him out as a source of story, not knowing that he is the same man who made the wings in what Mira thought was a story he had made up. This conundrum, like the impossible tangle in a time-traveller’s tale, where past meets future, is a knot at the heart of The Diver, and just before that final quotation it has been touched upon as the core of the fish’s philosophy, which has been told to the man telling the story to Mira: ‘Man, in the end, is alarmed by the idea of time, and unbalanced by incessant wanderings between past and future. The inhabitants of a liquid world have brought past and future together…’

Had Blixen ended her story there, might it, I wonder, have been the stronger story for it?

In The Ring there is no such false note.

Shorter by a half this is a simpler story, but it still has that segmented structure. A young, newly married couple stroll through their farmland to see the sheep. All seems idyllic, but ‘all the time one knew one was playing’. The husband is a farmer and ‘had studied sheep-breeding’, but his young wife thinks ‘what an absurd person he is, with his sheep!’

The cracks appear swiftly, after the opening page of married bliss! Worse to come, the two hear a story of sheep-stealing by a wolf-like thief, and Blixen makes sure we jump to the right image: ‘She remembered Red Ridinghood’s wolf.’ While the farmer and his shepherd discuss the sheep, and that savage thief, Lise walks slowly home, and looks for a secret place in the woods that she has stumbled on before. More than that, she is conscious of being alone for the first time, and when she thinks of that wolf ‘a pleasant little thrill’ runs ‘down her spine.’

She of course encounters the man: filthy, desperate, armed, injured, and having made himself at home in her special, secret place. His right arm, the hand holding his unsheathed knife ‘hung down straight between his legs’, and when he sees her ‘he bent the wrist and slowly raised the point of the knife till it pointed at her throat.’ The sexual symbolism may be implicit, but it is unmistakeable.

She drops her handkerchief which he wraps around the knife blade before re-sheathing it. Blixen makes a feast of this, ending with ‘it went in’. By this time Lise has taken off and dropped her wedding ring, and he has kicked it away. When she leaves the dell to re-join her husband her marriage is over, at least in her mind.

She tells him, rather than confesses, that she has lost her ring, and he, in a sort of denial, babbles on about replacing it, but it is the ending of the story that strikes the most powerful note. Asked if she has ‘any idea’ where she lost it, she replies ‘I have no idea at all.’

In contrast to The Diver this story takes place over what is in effect only a few minutes, certainly within an hour or two, yet it has the same mythical reach, and her answer implies a length of time that stretches back long before the week of their initially idyllic marriage.

Time is one of the elements, it is said, that short stories writers are, and perhaps have to be, adept at manipulating, and we see Blixen doing that in both these stories. In the first, it is the long time of a man’s life encapsulated in the space of the telling of a story, itself held within a story. In the second it is the decision of a lifetime, or rather a realisation, experienced within the moments of a chance meeting.

And both have that touch of certainty about them, not only in the characters presented, but in the voices of the storyteller. There is an assuredness that comes across in the telling, that asserts the truth of the stories. They are not told as speculations as to what might have happened, but, despite their logical absurdities – in The Diver it is a fish with horn-rimmed spectacles that tells the man who tells the story to Mira about the truth of God and fishes – both have the tone of absolute conviction. They are not doubted by their teller, nor, perhaps, by us.

Writing about stories written by someone else is a curious business. What is worth saying? Writing about our own stories, the answer is obvious. Nothing is worth saying. But with other people’s stories there’s a more complex answer. Should we tell readers what the story ‘is about’? After all, that’s the question we’re likely to be asked when somebody catches us reading a story. Should we try to say how it has been written? That’s what interests other writers, perhaps. And if we do either of those things, aren’t we actually getting in between the story and a potential reader, rather than helping that reader get closer to the story? And is getting someone closer to a story something we should be trying to do anyway?

What we can do is point out what has caught our attention in a story, and by doing so strike a chord of recognition – of similarity or difference, it doesn’t matter – in another reader, in another human being.

What caught my attention in The Ring was Blixen’s portrayal of the fragility, and falseness, and the spontaneous potency of the relationships that can be entered into, managed, mismanaged and lost between individuals.

Children don’t ask for their favourite bedtime story because they’ve forgotten what happened in it, but rather the opposite. The same is true with the films they like to watch over and over again.

But there are those who can’t read a book twice, or watch film a second time. It’s similar with places to visit. Some like always to go somewhere new; others like to go back to where they’ve been.

I’m a re-visiter, a re-reader, and a re-viewer. To not want to take another look at a film, or a book that I’ve enjoyed, or a place that I’ve only scratched the surface of, would be like not wanting to meet someone again whom I’d taken a liking to.

But re-telling stories is not the same as re-reading them. Re-making films is not the same as watching them for a second or subsequent time. Our favourite stories can sometimes be the ones that have been not only read, or watched over and again, but re-told, and re-made, and often, in the case of told stories, adapted for showing.

I’m thinking of stories like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. There’s only one told version so far as I am aware, but there are many shown versions, beginning with Scrooge, from the turn of the century and leading to the Muppets and beyond. Such adaptations are rarely quite the same as the original – and when they are, it can be, perhaps surprisingly, quite a disappointment: a re-telling that seems only to save you the bother of imagining. More usually they are specific interpretations, sometimes so far from the original as to seem like high-jackings!

Told stories, when they are re-told rather than adapted to shown stories, might undergo similar changes, but that becomes less likely as they move from the oral to the written tradition. The printing press seemed to set a story, not only in letters but also, at least metaphorically, in concrete. Digital technologies may be breaking that down to an extent, but we’ll not see many trying to re-write Dickens’ Christmas story in their own words.

What I can imagine, and have done myself, is the taking of a story as a point of inspiration for, not so much an adaptation, as a transposition in time and place, form the world – and world-view – of the original writer to that of the re-writer. As an exercise in examining what has remained constant and what has evolved in the human experience this can offer insights to writer and readers, but even if the original story is not known to the reader the transposed version can still be a good story in its own right.

Preface

Perhaps it’s the heat, or the pressure of work, or that I’m just running out of ideas, but I don’t have a rant or speculation, response or investigation for you this week. So I’m putting up a short story, a votre service, instead:

 

 

 

 

Eau de cologne, nescafé?

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

By the time I realised that John Bee was a thief he had graduated from packets of soup and small items of tinned food. He had gone beyond hand tools and other household goods. Indeed, he could have set up a modest home on the basis of all he had acquired. Don’t let me mislead you though, into believing that it was for money that he embarked upon his shoplifting sprees. He had no intention of profiting financially from them.

It was Yvette who drew me to John Bee. It was because of her I became, before, to and after the fact, an accessory.

The first of these occasions may well have been when John Bee gave me the contents of a bottle of hair shampoo. The curious fact that he did this by decanting the pale and viscous liquid into a half pint beer glass, rather than simply passing over the plastic bottle, should, in hindsight, have alerted me to the possibility that more was going on than might have got into the eyes. However, I was somewhat distracted by his comment as he read from the empty bottle.

There’s good advice to be had these days, he said, from the packaging of consumer goods.

I gazed at him quizzically.

Seek Help, he read aloud, for healthy looking hair.

I took the empty container from him.

Sea Kelp, I read silently, for healthy looking hair.

The best of course, he added, is on shirt packets.

I looked at him quizzically again.

Keep away from babies and small children. He said.

I could see the sense in that.

“Pret a manger.” John Bee said, holding up the film of plastic from a supermarket quiche.

“Pret a manger.” I corrected, in my best Grammar School accent. “Ready to eat.” I told him.

“Ready to be eaten.” He corrected.

Then again perhaps that had been when the seed was sown and the shampoo was purely co-incidental.

Yvette was small, dark-haired and boyish. She was on secondment to the college from a French university as Assistant, that is assistante you understand, to the French department.

John Bee was not a student of that department, but had, for some reason, decided that he would learn her language. This is what had led to the shoplifting.

John Bee, I always thought, was an original man. Whereas you or I would have transferred to a course in the language department, John Bee decided that he would teach himself. To this end he withdrew from all lectures and tutorials to which he was assigned so that he might devote himself totally to his unofficial linguistic development.

Perhaps he intended to forge more intimate links with Yvette. Or maybe he used her in pursuance of his studies. I am still undecided. Whatever the explanation, I am sure that Yvette was a purely innocent party: a victim of circumstance. A petite filou caught in the machinations of a deranged man in a foreign country.

The first time I saw her, she was wearing a little black dress, upon the shoulder of which she had sewn, quite neatly, the famous circular icon of the nineteen sixties peace movement. C’est tres chic, n’est ce pas? She said, sensing my curiosity.

One of the great innovations brought about by the rapid and progressive globalisation of our economies has been the necessity for labelling goods in several languages. It was in this practice that John Bee saw his opportunity.

John Bee had resolved to teach himself French from the multi-lingual labels of everyday consumer products. This began, innocently enough, with items already in his possession. John Bee was mis en bouteille a la propriété. He learned to Tirez ici, pour ouvrir. He cooked with Tomates peléés entieres au jus de tomates

But the consumer products that he regularly purchased could not bear the weight of his researches. He must have realised, almost from the beginning, that he would need to acquire a far greater range of domestic items than any normal household would require: more, certainly, than he could afford to buy. We were all students at the time, even Yvette.

One wonders when that fateful moment came in which he recognised that felony would be his only practical answer to this problem. Was it an instant of inspiration? The allure of some Gallic label overwhelming his Anglo-Saxon sense of propriety? Or was it a long thought out strategy, a grim decision, taken at length, all other alternatives having been weighed and judged impossible?

He began simply enough: slipping the extra can of this, packet of that, into the deep inner pockets of his anorak. He took to shopping at the smaller, street corner grocers, where security was patchy, and was focussed on younger men in hooded tops. He branched out into independent department stores where bored sales girls in heavy make-up discussed arcane sexual acts, and nail varnish shades in preference to paying attention to their customers. He learned the hard way that market traders had eagle eyes, and looked out for each other across the jostling crowds in the alleyways between their stalls.

Then he had the problem of what to do with what were, when all was said and done, unusual items, in both type and quantity, for a man in his position to have in his possession.

His dustbins had all the mad inexplicability of Modern Art. Instead of discarded boxes, cartons and torn wrappers, John Bee’s bins, don’t you love that alliteration, overflowed with the unused goods that he had neither needed nor been able to give away. Whereas other people sneaked their rubbish into neighbourhood skips, filched second hand goods from them, John Bee sneaked torn packaging from them, slipped unobtrusive unused items in.

A shift of emphasis, the need to acquire simple instructions, led him towards clothing that carried the grimly puritanical exhortation to “laver seulement” or needed to be “laver a main”.

He began to take Yvette with him on his expeditions.

Armed with a cavernous holdall each, they would take the bus and do the malls and supermarkets of the nearby towns. They carried a small toolkit, which enabled electronic devices to be removed surreptitiously from within the folds of hanging garments.

How, one wonders, did the counter staff explain the discovery of the various abandoned tags, each still attached to a neat square or circle of cloth? Who would want to steal a garment with such a disfiguring hole within it?  How, one wonders, did the eventual recipients of these garments, explain them away? How did they disguise them? Why did we not suspect their origin?

For a time John Bee considered taking only the labels. They were, after all, the major interest in his eyes, but, having a practical cast of mind, and abhorring waste Yvette persuaded him to go the cochon entiere. She did not fully understand, I’m sure, what she had become involved in, for as you would imagine, his grasp upon her language remained tenuous, to say the least.

I met them once, unsuspectingly, after one of their ventures, in a bookshop coffee bar. John Bee was reading the label on a can of some chemical concoction: if swallowed, seek immediate medical advice, he said. I thought of Jonah.

Yvette showed me a garment in cerise with a lacy hem, and warned me that it might inflame. John Bee glanced across. Catch fire, he said, is what she means. She had meant what she said, I thought.

Hence, innocently, no doubt, Yvette acquired several items of clothing that would have been quite useless to John Bee, and I received a pullover into which he would have fitted three times over. Other garments followed. But there was a limit to washing and ironing instructions. Soon he was on the lookout for more complex processes.

Small electrical items offered a brief introduction to the language of wiring plugs and the excitement of “danger de mort ou de blessure grave”. John Bee’s ambition soon outgrew them.

Something that must be assembled, as well as cared for, John Bee decided, was what he needed. White goods and furniture, he reasoned, must be his next objective: but they do not fit into a holdall. Not even into two.

I had a car.

Take us to Ikea. He begged.

Pour moi, cherie. Yvette said.

Well? Why not, I thought. It would be a day out.

Back at the halls of residence he stacked the flat packs in the corridor and set off eagerly into the assembly instructions. Don’t ask me how he’d got it all out past security. I’d gone across the car park to a Computer World, come back with a laptop. I’d needed a new one, and it was one of those offers you really can’t refuse. When he came in to tell me how well he was getting on I was still struggling with the instruction book, trying to set it up.

His eyes lit up. The book was in about a dozen languages, but even so, the French section must have been a quarter inch thick.

Security’s much better at Computer World. They got him about four paces from the front door. Yvette too. I’d just pulled up, like he’d asked me to, at the kerbside, and swung the passenger door open. When you looked at it on the CCTV footage, you had to admit, it did look just like the classic getaway car.

That was the first time I realised John Bee was a thief. Beware of theft, it had warned me, on the back of the parking ticket I’d taken at the machine.

Ne jamais mettre a l’avant un siege pour enfant oriente vers l’arriere*, as they say.

 

[*never put a rear facing child seat on the front seat.]

 

Postface

This story was published in Second Time Around, a short collection from 2006. Surprisingly, perhaps, it was based on actual events, and actual confessions, and ‘real’ people…. but then they all are….. Apart from Turnip Farm Number Three, which was entirely made up, and can be found in Departures.