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Here’s a nice little bedtime story for you from BHD.

Moko The Monkey (and the iron collar)

 

When Moko heard the chicken squawking and saw it hanging upside down, its wings flapping wildly, he was terrified. But when his Master reached down and gently took its head in his hand and twisted and pulled, the squawking stopped immediately. Then there was only the intermittent beating of its wings as they remembered briefly what it had been like to be alive.

Poor Moko. He was so frightened, even when Master smiled at him. How could he be sure, he wondered, that the same would not happen to him? Master said softly, do not be afraid, little Moko, I shall not hurt you. But Moko whimpered and chattered his teeth together – which were big enough and sharp enough to bite off Master’s hand in one snap – because he was so afraid.

Then Master lifted up a dark circlet that hinged open and shut and said, little Moko, if you wear this silk scarf around your neck like all the other monkeys do, I will know never to hurt you, even by mistake. And he clamped the heavy circlet around Moko’s neck, and Moko lived happily, more or less, ever after.

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Of Mice and Men: the Short Fiction of John Steinbeck

I’m playing hooky this weekend, so here’s a Sunday short story from about five years ago, that I’m not sure what I ever did with, if anything, or what I might do….

 

Backstories

 

Rose put down the tea cup and reassured herself that they were alone.

The fact is dear, she said, Sylvia needs to be put in her place from time to time.

Marjorie flushed.

Does she?

Well, you must notice, being….Rose stopped herself in time. She had been about to say uneducated, but that wasn’t quite what she meant, besides, it wasn’t entirely true. Unimportant  might seem  rude, and that wasn’t true either, entirely . I mean, she added, she does bang on a bit, doesn’t she?

About what?

Her academic career, that’s what. She’s always reminiscing about her students.

I think she liked them.

Well, perhaps she did. Rose picked up the tea cup, raised it to her lips and realised it was empty. She put it down again.

I shouldn’t have thought that would worry you, Rose, considering.

That me… that Charles and I met at Cambridge?

Yes.

Well. But one doesn’t want to pull rank, does one? Rose delicately pushed her cup and saucer forward a little, and Marjorie poured more tea.

There had been an exchange, in the community shop, between Sylvia and Rose, in which the word ‘redbrick’ had been used. Marjorie hadn’t entirely understood, but she could recognise a put down as well as the next person, even when it didn’t involve home baking. She had poured oil on troubled waters, almost literally, dropping a bottle of extra virgin, which luckily had not smashed.

She had resolved to make sure that Rose and Sylvia did not share stints unless absolutely unavoidable, and she would put Bob in with them as she knew he liked the attendant flirting. Generally, of course, it was not necessary to have two in the shop at the same time, and three was always a pinch, but Bob organised the stock control. He had been an executive and knew about that sort of thing. He was awkward with the actual customers, but with him in the stock room at the back Rose would be reduced to simpering rather than sniping.

I don’t think Sylvia would be upset if you talked more about your old students, Marjorie offered. Rose was remarkably reticent to talk about her university days.

I don’t expect she would, she said.

Milk? Rose nodded a thank you, and Marjorie topped her up. Rose drank daintily, her little finger crooked.

It was surprising, Marjorie thought, how easily Rose had picked up the operations of the till, which all the other volunteers, including Sylvia, had struggled with. She put that down to Cambridge, which, coincidentally, was correct. Yet the image of a younger Rose, seated at the checkout of a supermarket, her bony knees protruding from beneath the hem of a blue overall, her name badge tilted at an acute angle on her prominent bosom, had, unaccountably, popped into Marjorie’s mind from time to time.

We met when Charles and I were both at Cambridge, Rose had announced soon after arriving in the village.

What were you doing there? Marjorie had asked.

Of course, Charles had left school before me and was in his second year when I arrived, she had replied, and then she passed on to complimenting Marjorie on the Dundee cake. Did you make it yourself? Delightful.

Sylvia had taken a different approach.

I used to work with young people, wonderful young people, from all over the world.

What sort of work?

Oh, teaching, you know, that sort of thing.

It had been months before the word university had popped out, and shortly after that Marjorie’s husband had walked in with a battered old textbook he’d found in a local second-hand bookshop, saying, our Sylvia’s a doctor, would you believe?

A doctor?

Not a medical one. She’s a doctor of philosophy. He had handed over the book, splayed open at the front page, with a black and white photograph of a much younger Sylvia peering out.

What a sly old thing you are, Marjorie had said next time they met.

Not as sly as some, Sylvia had replied.

 

 

Here’s me writing on the TSS site, about Rudyard Kipling’s short story, Mary Postgate.

Stanley Baldwin’s son, apparently, described this as the wickedest story ever written, but was he reading it carefully enough?

I’d just spent about an hour tidying up a story. It was written a couple of years ago, and it struck me it might be good enough to try on a particular magazine. It was the right length. It seemed to have a punch, or at least the implication of one. It was almost word perfect I thought (which, of course, is almost good enough). Being a putter in, I put in…three words to make something a little clearer. I changed a word, to close a little loophole I hadn’t spotted before, about who the first person narrator was talking to, when he was reporting what he’d said to someone else in the story he was telling (as opposed to the one I was).

Then I looked it up on my Submissions Log, to add the date of sending out, and where I was sending it, and when I might expect a response. That’s when I saw that it had been published in that particular magazine a couple of years ago. Sheesh!

Here’s another BHD tale from 2017. A couple of elements within it were told to me, one way or another, miles, and years apart. The narrator’s accent is, well, almost wholly spurious…..

 

 

The Sixteen Foot Drain

 Come it old George died, who was Brenda’s cousin on her father’s side, Maisie Wannup rang to let her av the bad news, and to bring her up to date with all as ud bin gowin’ on the family them twenty years past. Maisie always was a precocious beggar.

She’d gone down south long afore that mind, ‘ad Brenda, and then moved herself out west almost as far as Wales, seemed like to Maisie. When George come to the end of his rode, it weren’t on account, as you might be expectin’, of the drink, though he’d been on two bottles a day of Johnny Walker since his dad had died and left him farm, which ‘is missus run, she being the trousers and the brains of the outfit all along.

A course, she was still alive when George put his car, it were only an old Ford Anglia or summat like that in them days, put his car nose first into Sixteen Foot Drain on his way to the Ring o’ Bells, which were his local. How he survived that crash I don’t know, and neither does no-one else I reckon, but he did, and clawed his way up outta water and up bank onto tarmac, and then he walked a mile to Sam Davies’ place who died these ten years gone of cancer of the larynx on account of him smoking. He said to Sam, call you the AA up to come and pull my car out of the Sixteen Foot, which they did, though he’d ‘a bin better off if’n they’d ‘a called t’other AA and got poor bugger dried out. As t’was they took’s licence off him, and arter that he must pedal old push bike three miles each way ‘tween home and Ring o’ Bells, which he must ha’ done best part a twenty years, but he still got his two bottles a Johnny Walker ever’ day.

When his missus passed on he went in a home, though not soon enough some said, and they gev him a bath, and another ever’ week after, aye, and a ‘ot meal too, more an’ one a day. Like a pig in it he were, last couple years o’s life, but he had to do without whisky, and maybe that’s what killed ‘im in end.

Maisie said, well, at least whisky kept ‘im happy all them years, but Brenda, who knew story well enough, she said, don’t it never did, and ‘ad a quaver like in her voice, which Maisie oughta a took notice of. Well, maybe it numbed pain a while, Maisie said, which were like a red rag to a bull, and Brenda said, what pain? He never lost his daddy at four year’s old, no! Nor saw his mother broken hearted for rest of her life.

Brenda’s mum took to drinkin’ too, which Maisie shoulda remembered, but Brenda’s mum were Pimms and Champagne, and she didn’t put no cars in that Sixteen Foot Drain neither.

 

 

I blogged a little while ago about the endings of stories, and my favourite metaphor for trying to understand what they do and how they do it.

Since then I’ve written a few stories of my own, and one in particular, longer for me than usual and coming in at just over eighteen hundred words. It didn’t start that way, but as I’ve mentioned (endlessly), I’m a putter-in by nature.

The struggle with this one was getting the ending right. I tinkered with it repeatedly, but it got no better. It said what I wanted it to say, or rather, what I wanted the reader to confront. What it didn’t do gave me the image of another metaphor, for what a short story is and how it ends. My ending didn’t move the reader on. It didn’t push them forward, send them back, or turn them around on the spot to see more clearly where they were.

I tinkered with the middle. I tinkered with the beginning. I asked myself what I was doing, and what I was trying to do, and it struck me that a short story can also be seen as a sort of lever. The beginning and the middle of the story are the shaft of the lever, the ending is the point where the fulcrum sits. The reader, of course, is what you are trying to move! From a putter-in’s perspective it’s a good metaphor, because if the reader isn’t moving, you need to make the lever longer, heavier, or, to be more literary, weightier.

Somewhere in the four volume ‘Paris Review’ collection of interviews, published a few years back, a prose writer – and I can’t remember which one – talks about fixing problems at the end of a story by going back to the beginning and working there.

In the case of my story, if I did succeed in fixing it, my guess is it was the work I did at the beginning that did the job. Of course, what I don’t know yet, is whether or not anyone else will think it is fixed, and whether or not if they appeared to, or didn’t, I’d believe ‘em.

And a quotation (possibly from Kipling): ‘…the British Public (….) is deeply tinctured with sentimentalism, and mostly takes its facts the wrong way.’

And a short story (definitely by BHD):

Farmed Out

Fenton sniffed the champagne and frowned. English Champagne from the Heart of Suffolk, it said on the label.

They weren’t serving this one because it was especially good – it wasn’t – but the vineyard was owned by the same company as the farm. He could see the sense in that.

You have to look after your own, he said. He hadn’t meant to speak out loud.

Eh?

Fenton shook his head.

This were Wannop’s farm once ower, Charlie Gaterigg said. All t’way down to Stirkbeck on this side a’t’river.  Awkward bloody shape fer a farm.

Fenton turned to face him, raising an eyebrow.

Well, it were old man Wannop’s. His dowter worked it fer last few years, but ‘e left to t’son. She were fer organic like. That were all t’rage back then. She were a bit o’an awld hippie were Sarah. Wannop were avin’ none of it, so ‘e left to t’boy. Son ‘ad no interest in farmin’. He were already out in t’far east. He wus t’wan browt ‘em in. Charlie Gaterigg nodded towards the raised dias at the end of the fold yard, where the dignitaries were gathering under the multi-coloured awning. He slung ‘er aat when he cum back, and leased it to t’present lot.

Fenton nodded.

Then they bowt farms either side, an’ two yon side a t’ village. They’s after avin’ Bransty’s next. That’ll give ‘em biggest farm in t’county, they ses.

It’s happening all over, Fenton said, sipping his champagne. Good business, he added.

Aye, like as not. Dun’t bring in ower many jobs though.

Fenton skewed his head and grimaced. Well, he said, maybe not here, but those robots don’t make themselves. They don’t programme themselves, well, not to begin with. He knew it was sensitive in the locality. They’re good jobs for someone, he said.

All them cattle, Charlie Gaterigg said, but thee canna buy owt but imported milk; not rahnd ‘ere. What’s good a that to folk?

It’s cheaper, Fenton reminded himself. And those dividends, well, you didn’t get them in the old days. Charlie Gaterigg didn’t know when he was well off. Where did he think his pension came from? Not from family farms selling milk to the locals. He finished the champagne and put his recyclable glass under the chair.

It was a pity about the footpaths though. When he was kid you could walk from one end of the parish to the other, and from side to side too. It was obvious the paths would have to go though, with the rationalisation of the fields, the robot labourers, the new owners. Not that it had been much easier arguing with some of the original landowners, if they didn’t like having them across their land.

A ripple of polite applause signalled the start of the speeches. Speakers had been rigged in the corners of the farmyard. The MD, smiling broadly, seemed to be giving an upbeat assessment. Fenton waited patiently for the translation.

 

A chap on Radio 4 this morning was telling of reading bedtime stories to his little boy. They’d have two from books, and one that dad had to make up. Sometimes, he said, the boy, needing to go to sleep, would ask, of the third story…Dad, can we just have the end?

Now there’s a boy knows all you need to know about the short story form!

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

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!