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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!

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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!

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.

BHDandMe have been asked to talk about the short story to an informal Readers Group in Shropshire, so once again I find myself covering the familiar ground of trying to find out exactly what it is I want to say about this fascinating literary form.

It’s ground I’m happy to cover again and again, as any ground that means so much to us is worth covering. After all, such ground will cover us one day.

I went to the notebook (pencil and paper, manual, not digital, or at least, not electronically so) to begin with, and came up with the following outline. It might interest you too, and if you’re bot, you might really think it’s ‘awesome’. Then again, if you are a bot, I guess you wouldn’t know any better.

Firstly, I’d want to tell you that I could probably list a hundred short stories, and each with a good reason to praise it (and enjoy it), and if you were to say ‘that’s not many’, I’d have to agree. But I’d want to go on and tell you that in among that hundred the same dozen or so would usually come high in the list, and among them, these few would often feature:

Weep Not My Wanton, by A.E.Coppard. The Seal, by L.A.G.Strong, Little Brother, by Mary Mann, and Sorting Office, by my contemporary, Vivien Jones. They’d feature on the list for this talk, partly because they are all short, short stories…such as one might read out aloud to a small audience, but each has something else compelling, and satisfying about it.

I’d want to make several statements about the form in general though, before I read anything. I’d want to assert that the short story has nothing to do with the novel, even though both are fictions told in words. I’d want to say that I think of novels as being like ‘cruises’, and short stories as being like ‘crossings’. I’d say that the short story takes you somewhere – to its ending, in fact – where you focus anew on either the passage you have just made, or the place you have just arrived, or the place you must inevitably go next (or a combination of any two, or of all three!).

And then I’d tell you the stories. Now how about that?

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 ]

 

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.