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Another of Mike’s essays on the short stories of Rudyard Kipling joins those already published (in Southlight 23 on his story Preface, in Thresholds’ archive on The Eye of Allah) with the publication of The Burden – The Gardener, by Rudyard Kipling, in Issue 37, to be published in March 2019 by The Blue Nib literary journal. You’ll find a few references to the writer here on the blog too!

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At the end of a short story the reader is likely to be left thinking about one – or more-  of three things. These are the situation at the end of the story, the circumstances that created the story, and what might be expected to follow the story. If story is a journey, we might say that at our arrival we discover where we are, where we’ve come from, or where we’re going next.

Alternatively, those endings could be categorised as the present, the past and the future. In some stories it is quite clear which, and which only, is the outcome. An obvious example is Ambrose Bierce’s The Coup de Grace, in which at the very end of the story the name is revealed of a superior officer who is approaching, and has witnessed a subordinate against whom he has a grudge ‘mercy killing’ the terribly wounded brother of the former, and best friend of the latter. We cannot help but speculate on how it will play out.

In a story like Hemingway’s A Canary For One, a revelation in the last, short sentence  casts all that has gone before into a shocking new light which sends us back through the story, to re-evaluate and re-interpret all that we have read. Is this a case of a story that invokes the past? Or is it one that drives us to a deeper understanding of the present?

In Rudyard Kipling’s ‘They’ much is left unrevealed. This pseudo-ghost story, is one in which the narrator encounters the spirits of dead children, and of one in particular whose coded message, communicated by a ‘little brushing kiss’, brings him to a long, drawn –out moment of reflection and decision, and invites us to consider a back story that we have not at all been told. Only the fact that the ‘mute code’ by which this ghostly visitor communicates is understood by both of them and was ‘devised long ago’ gives us a clue to that story, but it is sufficient for us to wonder at it, and to question what events before those of the story might have led to the story.

Yet this powerful moment is not at the end of the story. More than a page of writing follows, in which the narrator understands what has happened, discusses it with his hostess, the blind woman whose home is visited by these dead children, and comes to the decision about how he must respond to what has happened to him.

The story ends on ‘’She left me to sit a little longer by the screen, and I heard the sound of her feet die out along the gallery.’

This, surely, is another of those powerful ‘minor key’ endings that George Moore said ‘all great stories’ end on. We are held to the narrator’s side, abiding with him as he resolves to put into practice what he knows he must: ‘never (to) come here again.’ This is the profound heart of the story, the image that we leave it on; the image that the story has brought us to. Yet it is not the great emotional climax of the story. That must be the moment of the ‘little brushing kiss’, and the tumble to understanding of whose lips must be delivering it.

Many short stories have this structure, in which the climax of actions is followed, diminuendo, by the anticlimax of reflection, or, as in another case, description.

I’m thinking of A.E.Coppard’s Weep Not My Wanton, a four page gem in which almost nothing happens, save that the family of an itinerant farm-labourer walks across an English landscape. There is a moment of high drama though, where the boy-child of the family, who has been remorselessly bullied throughout the story by his drunken father, for losing a sixpence, takes advantage of that father’s distraction, to pass the sixpence in question to his mother.

The moment arrives without foreshadow, a startling and heartbreaking revelation of the boy’s desperate bravery. Rebuked, beaten and bloodied, he nevertheless holds on to his secret until the chance comes to pass the coin to one who will not squander it on drink. It’s a rural tale, with all the bitter harshness of Arthur Morrison’s East End ‘Mean Streets’.

Yet the tale does not end there, but passes on, through the crisis, returning us to our almost Art Gallery view of the beautiful landscape that Coppard began the story with. Perhaps we remember his caveat to that opening description, in which he warns us that it is a surface illusion of calm and beauty. Again, as in the Kipling, we are asked to contemplate in tranquillity, but in the aftermath of a dramatic crisis.

The ending here might be described as a Post Crisis re-Contextualisation, but in the case of Coppard’s story the climax of events has served as an example of his first undermining of the idyllic picture he presented of Sack Down, not a refutation of it. The story is not really about the family, but about the England in which the stories of such families will be played out against such illusory landscapes. His is an ending that has us thinking about the here and now, in which, as the light fades, we ‘hear dimly men’s voices and the rattle of their gear.’

I’ve long thought of short stories as being, metaphorically, crossings, and of novels as being cruises. In the latter we have many beginnings and endings, and at those intermediate endings we think about the last port of call, the present one and the next. The short story has only one beginning and one ending, but it will enable us to consider one, two, or perhaps all three of those realities.

V.S.Pritchett describes the short story as springing from a ‘poetic impulse’, which might, of course, be no more than the vaguest of hints that prompts a writer to make a start. Elsewhere he suggested that fiction ‘reveals’ what life only hints at.

C.S.Lewis in his writing on story says something similar. He compares the story to a net in which the writer tries to catch a bird, but in which he can only hope that the reader will see only a ‘flash of wings.’

Hemingway writes of a story needing only a single statement of truth to validate itself – and implying perhaps that without one, it can’t!

The three snippets, as far as I know, were written in isolation, yet for me they resonate. However interesting the events we recall or imagine when writing a story, what will be needed, to give that story traction and value for the reader, will be something within that resonates with their sense of what reality is like. They will be alerted to, or reminded of something that is hinted at, true, or flying in the perceptual skies of their own lives.

The writer might not know exactly which is Hemingway’s ‘one true sentence’, or Pritchett’s revelation, or Lewis’s flash of wings, and neither might the reader, but the contention must be that if it is not there the story will be fatally lacking – though it might fool a generation of readers (and writers); and if it is there, it will be sensed, even if not identified.

Hemingway also wrote about ‘holes’ in stories. He was referring what the writer knew, or didn’t know about the story he was telling. What the writer knows, but does not share with the reader, Hemingway seems to be saying, adds to the story, but what the writer doesn’t know, he is most definitely saying, will be leave a hole in the story that the reader will feel, even if unconsciously.

What is revealed is not necessarily perceived, nor is that flash of wings necessarily glimpsed, and Hemingway’s one truth might not be appreciated – but those three writers, and, I suspect many others that I have not encountered, are telling us that the revelation, and the flash, and the truth, are fundamentally what make our stories worth reading, and worth writing.

Not a Christmas story, but a this time of year story, at least for those of us in this northern hemisphere! Salt was written several years ago, and tinkered with…mostly with regards to the title, which it took me ages to get right (it being so simple and obvious). It appeared in Southlight #24. Autumn 2018, which is available via their website, here.

Salt

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

Rav had watched through the window of his shop all morning, putting down his book every few paragraphs, and staring across the road. It was a beautiful day. The sun was blazing down, making the snow and ice sparkle, like Christmas decorations. Curves of frost stuck to the corners of the glass, like the ones he’d sprayed on from a can in previous years.

He was watching pedestrians come round the corner from Market Street into Bank Street. It was as they made the turn they slipped, and as each one did so Rav felt his muscles tighten, as if he were the one who might be about to fall. Of course, they didn’t all fall. Most of them just wobbled, threw out an arm to one side, two arms, one to either side, and righted themselves, and his muscles would relax again; but every now then one would go down, and Rav’s muscles would contract, and he’d grit his teeth, almost feeling the impact as they hit the pavement.

He had watched four already this morning fail to make the turn, crashing down onto their sides, feet briefly showing above the snow, shopping bags spilling their contents. People came to help them of course, seemingly able to run across the very ice that they had slipped on. They had helped them to their feet, picked up their fallen shopping, repacked their bags, and sent them on their way. At least no-one had been seriously injured yet, although the day before, when it had not been sunny and the snow had still been falling, an ambulance had been called to take one victim away.

They really ought to get these pavements sorted out, Rav said.

I know, Bev said, examining her nails.

Rav was picturing the shovel they kept at the back of the shop. Not really a shovel, more of a scoop. They used it for the ornamental gravels. But it was made of metal, and was the size of one of those old fashioned shovels you’d use for coal. If you got down to it, and put a bit of shoulder behind it, you could quite well clear a few yards of pavement without too much trouble.

In fact the pavements had been cleared already, technically. The council workers had been around and had shovelled a person-wide gully through the snow down the centre line, with offshoots to one side where there were shop doorways, and the other where there were pedestrian crossings. But since then there had been a slight thaw, and melt-water had run out from the piles of snow and had frozen again, leaving a thin and very slippery coating of ice.

I should go across and clear it, he said. Obviously, it was that patch on the corner that was causing all the problems. People were managing perfectly well on the straight. It was when they came to change direction that they experienced difficulties.

It’s not your pavement, Bev said, looking up.

That was true. It was the pavement outside the sports shop. Quite clearly so. Anybody could see that. Rav could see it; but he could also see the people falling over on it.

But I can see it, Bev, he said. In fact he doubted whether his motives were entirely altruistic. The tension of watching, his heart thumping in his chest as people made the perilous crossing around the sports shop corner out of Market Street was doing him no good. He wondered if perhaps it was for his own benefit that he felt the need to take responsibility.

An old lady jerked and jolted around the corner, making him wince. She steadied again and walked on safely. Rav blew out a long breath and sucked in another.

I cannot take much more of this, he said.

Don’t look, Bev suggested, peering at her nails again.

Don’t look? How can I not look, when I know it is going on outside my own front door?

I bet they’re not looking at the sports shop, Bev said, prodding carefully at a cuticle.

That was true too. She was undoubtedly right. In the sports shop they would not be looking. They would be watching their large television screens, upon which they showed endless films of people climbing mountains, and surfing, and hang gliding, and sliding down steep slopes on toboggans and skis, in the snow and ice. Why would they want to look out of their window? Besides, the sun did not favour them the way it favoured Rav, when it came to looking out.

Perhaps, he reasoned, if they did look out, and saw what was going on they too would want to do something about it. He weighed up the situation. To go over there and to tell them what was happening would be presumptuous. It would imply that he believed there was a fault on their part. They would be either insulted or embarrassed, and he had no wish to cause either embarrassment or offence. Yet, to carry over the small shovel and to begin clearing the pavement under their very noses would be an equal insult, an equal embarrassment.

What if, seeing him work, they came to a sudden realisation of the situation, and of their failure to react to it? Mortification. He would be giving them no chance to rehabilitate the situation. Every time thereafter that he saw one of them unlocking the shutters in the early morning or locking them up again at night or passing on the street on some errand they would feel an unspoken reproach that he did not bear towards them, yet which he could not mention, as that would in itself imply that he had cause to.

Yet, he thought, as another spasm of splaying arms attracted his attention, there was an accident waiting to happen, an accident that would happen outside their shop, and within sight of his own. A further thought occurred. People would say of him, Rav, that he had stood and watched and done nothing. They would be thinking that he had watched in the hope of seeing someone fall, much as people are said to watch car racing in the hope of seeing a crash. What sort of person would that make him?

Resolve hardened in him, and he turned away from the window.

Bev, who like Rav, thought more than she spoke, had the little shovel in her hand already and offered it to him.

I have a better idea, he said, waving a finger at her, one that will save all embarrassments.

He had been reading a wartime escape story, in which a secret tunnel had been dug, out under the wire of a prison camp.

I am going out for a moment, he said, and he helped himself to a five-pound note from the till.

 

Rav emptied his trouser pockets into his jacket, and made sure he had the little penknife with him. Then he set off at a careful pace, across the road, past the sports shop and taking great care at the corner, into Market Street.

Good deeds, he believed, should be done unostentatiously. The merits within them were lessened, he thought, by the discomforts they brought to others, who might have perfectly understandable reasons for their own inactions. He would clear away the ice and the people in the sports shop would not even know it had been done.

He bought two small bags of salt from the mini-market on Market Street, pierced them with the penknife, stuffed one, slit down, into each of his trouser pockets and set off back towards Bank Street. In his book the escapees had been faced with the problem of what to do with the soil that they had dug out of their tunnels. Clearly they could not leave piles of it lying around for the guards to see. So, they had distributed it all over the sports ground at the camp, by dribbling it from the pockets of their trousers.

Rav was thinking with pleasure of this when he arrived at the corner and realised that he had not cut holes in his pockets through which to dribble his ice-busting salt. Perhaps that was why, when he reached the corner, he was struggling with both hands in his trouser pockets. The people in the sports shop saw him wobble briefly and then disappear from view below the level of the window-sill.

 

Ay up, mate. You all right?

Yes, thank you. I am fine, Rav said, looking up at the sports shop manager.

You’ve dropped something, the man said, bending down beside him.  The two bags, from which the salt dribbled slowly, had slipped out onto the ice.  They’ve split, the man said, trying to stop the flow.

Salt, Rav said, fearing the man might think it something worse.

We could do with some of that out here, mate, the man said.

 

[Author note: This story has the rare quality of being entirely imaginary. None of it has been transposed from memory or report: neither characters, location, or events bear any relation to anything that has happened to me, or to anyone I know of. I like Rav and Bev though, him especially with his over-thinking, good-natured angst. There are more stories by BHD in

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD ]

 

While on my trip to New Zealand I took the chance to read at one of Auckland’s Open Mic sessions. Inside-Out at Cafe One2One on Ponsonby Road is a well established monthly reading slot for local writers, and musicians. On the 14th of November 2018, as usual, I suspect, the room was packed and buzzing.

It’s quite alarming, I found, to contemplate reading to an audience as far round the world as you can get without starting on the journey home. What do they care about? What will they understand? What will amuse them? Rile them? Wind them up? Move them? And will it do it for the right reasons? How the hell does one choose just what to fill that five minute slot with? It was unnerving too, to find how similar the event was to  the Carlisle (Cumbria, UK) Speakeasy and Litcaff events I’ve been familiar with over the last dozen or so years. And amid those similarities, of course, the startling differences, of expectation, attitude, and perception, like the explosions of palm leaves that force their way through the canopies of ‘ordinary’ looking trees in what might be an English countryside. Walking on a turf headland forty minutes drive from the city, was like being on the coast near Whithorn. Crossing the fence line on the usual sort of stile, we stepped into what seemed a sub-tropical forest. Difference, and similarity in life, as in Art.

So, I’d taken a fistful of books to read from, made a dozen plans that I tore up, ended up reading one story, and one poem. The story, A Last Visit, taken from Talking To Owls (published by the excellent, but now retired Pewter Rose Press in 2012 – I have a couple of dozen copies left: Paypal me £6 GBpounds, and your address and I’ll send you one), but previously unpublished, and rarely read in public. The poem, All Things Are Connected, from Acumen‘s 60th anniversary anthology, and before that in #56 from 2006. In both cases, they seemed to understand what I was getting at. I should put that poem in a collection, if I do another.

Reading old work gets more enjoyable as I age with it, and reading new work less so! I had a new ‘work’ to read on the 14th, though, for a game they play here is to give you a fistful of words on a printed form, and ask for a piece of micro-fiction or poetry to go into the draw. Hell, I thought, why not? All Things itself came  out of a not wholly different exercise. Five of these raw pieces would be picked out of a hat, and guess what, mine was one of them! We each got a prize too…in my case Ivy Alvarez’s poetry collection Disturbance (Seren Books,2013),about which more perhaps after I’ve re-read it.

There isn’t, in my possession, an image from the reading, but if one turns up, I’ll post it! As an alternative, here’s a Kiwi forest, familiar, and unfamiliar.

This will probably be the last blog post I write before going to New Zealand to visit my daughter… so it may be some time before the next one pops up.

It’s easier, I suspect, to write about what you find in what you’ve read, than to write about what you think you’ve put into what you write. And rare, in my experience, to get a written response from a reader that clarifies what you think you might have found in what you wrote, if you had been a reader of it!

A few months before he died, the much missed Nick Pemberton, got hold of a copy of my sequence of poems, Martin? Extinct?, and read it in what I realise now might be the ‘proper’ way (at a sitting). He took the trouble to tell me what he found. I have been thinking of sending the collection for review, but after reading Nick’s comments, I wondered if I needed to!

‘This is deep and mysterious work. Full of pithy wisdom, raw ache, love, loss, the mystery of – as so often in a poem – who is talking to who(m). Thanks old pal, a true tonic.’

 

            I’ll take that!

Working my way through Ladies in Lavender man, William J. Locke’s short story collection, Far Away Stories, I came to the two last tales: The Heart at Twenty is a simple story, and opens with a girl waiting on a French pier for, as it turns out, her long lost English lover. You might wonder. I certainly did!

The other story is The “Scourge”, a sentimental and melodramatic story of atonement and redemption. Sir Hildebrand Oates, the protagonist, is an upright, uptight martinet, who rules his roost – mostly his wife and children – with the least display of emotion or care that he can manage. A stickler for just about everything, not a glimmer of human feeling ever passes from him. He is proper, and I suppose, these days, we’d think him ‘right wing’. He doesn’t do charity, affection, or forgiveness, and imposes the sort of control that would now verge into the illegal.

When his wife dies, her will stuns him into reassessing how he has behaved, with its single, unexpected bequest: I will and bequeath to my husband, Sir Hildebrand Oates, Knight, the sum of fifteen shillings to buy himself a scourge to do penance for the arrogance, uncharitableness and cruelty with which he has treated myself and my beloved children for the last thirty years.

He is, of course, reduced to penury, for his wife’s fortune is what has kept the family afloat. Shocked, at first by her action, but then by the accusation itself, he withdraws to an unfashionable quarter of Venice, where he examines, in minute almost forensic detail, the minutiae of their past lives together, and writes a report, a judgement on himself.

Bit by bit, he meets lower-class people whom previously he would have dismissed without thinking , their children, the poor and the destitute, and living among them learns to be human. It is dreadfully sentimental, yet, has an undoubted power. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the most powerful story in the collection. Unrealistic, but unarguably a close look at the little ways in which we can, and perhaps ought, to behave towards each other.

As one might imagine in this sort of story – late nineteenth/early twentieth century – with all the sugary sweetness of a Hollywood movie, his estranged children track him down, find him dying, and read his manuscript, in which he finds, I am of the opinion that my wife had ample justification for the terms she employed…

            In true Hollywood (and Edwardian) style, he is, of course, rescued and allowed to live out his life redeemed and rehabilitated.

The story is not of the gritty Cinema Verite type, yet it carries the truth, and holds the mirror for us, that if we looked into our own lives we might be sorry for what we found there. Like Scrooge half a century before him, Sir Hildebrand offers us a chance to rehabilitate ourselves. You can’t knock that.

The hardest thing to write, I sometimes think, is a story with a happy ending, which is a good reason to have a go. Here’s one I wrote earlier, brilliantly performed by Mushtaq, at Liars League Hong Kong’s September 2018 bash….

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

Adaptation often, and perhaps usually, involves cutting out elements of the told in text story for conversion to the shown in sound and visuals one. Streamlining is a word that has been used for the process. Yet every now and then a novel or short story is adapted that doesn’t quite fit the minimum time period felt necessary for a movie, or whole pages of such a story are filled with thoughts, speculations and reflections that can, and must be reduced to a few seconds of what Joey, in Friends, famously called ‘sniff the fart’ acting.

That old favourite novel (or novella? One day I’ll get those two successfully differentiated in my mind) The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate is an example of a story where a little bit needed to be, tastefully, added. And I can recall, on the ‘specials’ CD of a collector’s set of Blade Runner, I think, a movie-maker saying how difficult it would be to convey the thoughts of Deckard when they can’t be translated into actions that will show how he feels!

William J. Locke’s story Ladies in Lavender, which I mentioned but didn’t explore in an earlier blog-post, is another that had to be filled out to make the full-cut of a film. The film sticks remarkable closely to the characters, actions, and situation of the short story. Andrea, the Polish virtuoso violinist is washed up on the beach of Ursula and Janet, and is taken to their house where he is looked after. Even small details of the story crop up in the film – their attempts to learn his language, his theirs; the dressing of him, the buying of the suit, the discovery of his musical talent.

Even the storyline follows the same path. The foreign young lady hears his music, and has a brother who is big in the business, and who will offer Andrea a new, and successful career. The comedy, the pathos of the two maiden ladies and their delicate, suppressed lust, the desire for love, the jealousies between them and the jealousy they both have for the young women, which they fight against for his sake: all are in the film as they are in the short story. Yet there is significant difference too, and it’s a difference that highlights the differences of the two media, and brings us back to that issue, mentioned before, of how the internal life of characters can be ‘shown’, when telling is no longer desirable. The voice over is said to kill the ‘movie’ story, and it remains a source of glee to me, I confess, whenever I see it having to be resorted to (in an episode of Bridehead Revisited, and at the end of Strick’s Ulysses, for example, and at the end of John Huston’s earnest adaptation of The Dead).

There’s more though, for there are many scenes in the film of Ladies in Lavender, and especially towards and including the ending, where what the characters, or narrator only refer to (leaving it to our perfectly well developed imaginations to create) is played out before our astonished, and unimaginative gazes.

In particular, there is the ending of the film, and the ending of the short story, which fall quite differently, not only in time and place, but in intent. The film takes us on beyond the written story’s ending, to that successful career, which is only hinted at, and not even promised in the told version, and to a reconciliation between the sisters and the wonderful boy that is entirely absent.

The short story ends with Ursula looking out to sea – where the sea air, no doubt, rather than the fart, would have to be sniffed – and realising that a subtle change has taken place in the relationship between her and her sister; thinking that she, the previously weaker of the two, must now be the one strong enough to help the other come to terms with their mutual loss. The film’s pat reconciliations are cruder, perhaps to the point of triteness, and they are accompanied by another difference, for the sisters in the story nurse not only the boy, but the photograph of the father who has bequeathed them their seaside nunnery and its lonely life. In the film, the photograph is of a younger man, lost the more to one of them, in a war that hadn’t taken place when the original story was written (Wickipedia dates it to 1908), and which is certainly not referred to in it. In fact the film explicitly dates the story to 1936, adding a whole agenda of suspicion and undercurrent to the story, turning it from a study of two specific personalities under stress in an Edwardian ambience, to one with a historical consciousness of a later period, as held in 2004.

The agenda of the film is not that of the short story, and perhaps could not have been.

I suffer from what I think of as a Groucho Marx syndrome. He famously asserted that he wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would accept him as a member! I have only a small touch of the malady, tempered with a dollop of common sense. (laughter off). But publications that regularly accept my writing lead to me wondering if it they who are ‘bad’ rather me who is ‘good’!

Two things mitigate the symptom. The first is, that it isn’t (I’m sure) simply a matter of being good or bad, but rather one of editors either valuing or otherwise, the writing I have sent them.

The other, of course, is that when I get into that way of feeling, it’s usually not long before a rejection slip arrives, to restore my faith in them, and shake it in me!

Curiously, and not wholly irrelevantly, whenever I get really down about my writing, an acceptance, like the Seventh Cavalry, rides over my literarily aspirational horizon to bring rescue.