You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘stories’ tag.

One of the things about futuristic stories is that so many of them are written in the hope that the real future won’t pan out that way! Here’s another BHD micro-peek into the gloom….

Trading Nations

Clearing out the redundant barn he came across a pile of hardboard placards nailed to old fence-posts, netted with cobwebs, padded with mats of dead leaves blown in from the yard. They dated from a time when his father had been young and radical, and had campaigned against air-miles. ‘Support Your Local Farms’ they said in carefully stencilled black letters which had not faded in the cool dry gloom of the old building.

He gathered them up and carried them awkwardly out to where the old man was using the front-loader to push mounds of rubbish and junk into the heart of a huge bonfire.

I guess we won’t be needing these again, he said.

His father, up there in the cab, couldn’t have heard, what with the roaring of the fire and the crackling of the burning timber, but he grimaced momentarily, recognising what his son was throwing to the flames. Old tyres that really should have been taken to the tip were sending up tornados of thick black smoke and orange sparks were flying out and dying against the pale concrete of the yard.

They had just signed over the farm to a company that would take their whole milk production for sale solely overseas, and which had already contracted both the neighbouring farms.  It was a once in a life-time chance, and would make the family secure for a generation.

Advertisements

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!

Tidbit

 

The man stepped back from the door and shook his head. Then he stepped across to the next door down and knocked on that. The front doors in that part of town all open directly onto the pavement. The sound of barking came from within, and the man smiled.

Joe opened the door.

Shut it, he snapped at the dog, which was behind his legs. He kicked back with one foot and it fell silent and looked up at him. It was a dark, heavily built dog, perhaps a Rotweiler. Well? He said to the man, who was waiting patiently.

Can I take a moment of your time? The man asked. He was a small, nondescript man in a navy suit that hadn’t been smart for a long time. He had greyish hair, brushed back.

You selling something?

No. I’m going round the neighbourhood. Something happened last night, in the area. I think everyone needs to know about it.

What are you talking about?

Could I step inside?

What’s wrong with here?

It’s…The man glanced from side to side. It’s a private matter. It’ll only a take a minute, he said.

Go on, then. Joe stepped back into the corridor and held the door open. The man looked down at the dog, which looked back at him. He won’t hurt you, Joe said, unless I tell him to.  He pointed to a door on the left. In there, he said.

The man went into the little sitting room and stood waiting. Joe followed him in and pointed to the sofa, which the man sat down on. Joe sat in the armchair opposite. The dog eased itself down onto the carpet beside him.

So what is it?

There was an animal loose last night, a big animal. It came into the garden belonging to a friend of mine.

So what’s that got to do with me? Joe lazed back into his chair and picked his teeth. The man sat forward on the edge of the sofa with his knees together.

It was a dog, maybe, he said. A dog like that, perhaps. He pointed at the Rotweiler.

What do you want?

A dog like that, any animal that big…

Yes?

If it attacked you, you would have to consider it a life threatening event, wouldn’t you say?

So who got attacked?

Nobody that I know of.

So what the fuck do you want?

I just thought people should know, in the vicinity, should be warned, the man said. If it took you by surprise, you wouldn’t stand much of a chance.

You wouldn’t stand much of a chance whether you were surprised or not, Joe said, if Tebbit had a go.

Is that his name? Tebbit? The man smiled and glanced at the dog. Clever.

The man at the kennel gave it to him, the name. After some politician.

Yes, I guessed that. The man made a shrug. You wouldn’t have many options, I think, if Tebbit was on the loose and chose to have a go, as you call it.

Tebbit wasn’t on the loose.

The dog, the animal, looked very like him, the man said.

You saw it?

Oh, yes.

So, what’s the problem? Nobody got hurt, you said.

The dog, the animal, shat on my friend’s lawn.

Joe grinned and leaned forward. Do you want to borrow a shovel, is that it?

No. The man laughed softly. That isn’t it. You see, I often get called in to clear up shit for my friends. He put a hand in his trouser pocket and leaned back. Tebbit yawned.

You must have lots of friends, Joe said. He put his hands on the arms of the chair and said, is that it?

But then a fat woman in brown slacks and wearing a loose grey blouse in which her breasts swilled like blancmanges in a bag stepped into the room.

Who’s this? She asked. The man glanced up at her, but she was already looking to Joe.

He came to see us about the dog.

What’s the dog done now?

He says it shat on his friend’s lawn. The woman looked at the man, who smiled. She looked down at the dog. Joe looked up at her. I offered him a shovel, he said.

Shit, Tebbit, the woman said. She looked back at the man and he wondered for a moment if she were about to ask him for something, but she stepped back out into the corridor and out of sight. Joe and the man looked at each other. Tebbit rested his snout on his paws.

We’re done, the man said. I said it wouldn’t take long. He stood, and Joe got up too, and Tebbit looked from one to the other. I shouldn’t let him go out on his own, nights, the man said. Tebbit. You never know what trouble he might get into, especially if there’s some animal on the loose.

Tebbit can look after himself, Joe said.

They went out of the room and into the corridor, and Joe opened the door and the man stepped over the threshold. Tebbit had followed them out and stood behind his master again. Then the man turned on the pavement and drew his hand out of his pocket and threw something small to the dog, which it caught and swallowed.

I’d train him not to accept tidbits from strangers, if I were you, the man said. Especially if he’s out on his own.

Then he turned away and walked off, and Joe and Tebbit watched him go, all the way down the street.

 

 

Postface to ‘Tidbit’. This story came to me while I was weeding a garden. At Mawbray as it happens. It was probably a four or five hundred word story as I heard it in my head. I only heard the dialogue, I guess. The narrative was filled in later, and incrementally. The story, at 874 words, is some fifty words longer than the first written draft. Stephen King, being a ‘taker-out’ suggest a 10% reduction will always help, but as a ‘putter-in’, I’m always aiming to strengthen the context in which my final scene will take place. If the density of the story can be deepened, the weight it brings to bear, then I’m happy.

Late in this story, came the third sentence, for example – in order to clarify the location. There were also additions at the turning point after the woman speaks. I still wondered if she should say more, and after a comment by Nick Dowson, gave her some more ‘business’. This didn’t involve any additional dialogue, but merely looks exchanged between her and the man, and a speculation by him that she might be about to speak. The reader, I hoped, might wonder what she would have to say. The woman was there early on, while I was still weeding, and I knew she was overweight. Originally she was more bluntly rude: ‘Who the fuck’s this?’, but that didn’t make it on to the computer. I dressed her later, and the man, come to that. ‘Tebbit’ and ‘tidbit’ came late in the process. They came separately, but I liked the resonance between them, the echo. The ‘rotweiler’ came before either of them, and it was only after they arrived that I recalled the ‘real’ Tebbit had been described that way.

As happens sometimes, writing it was more an exercise of finding out what it was saying, than creating it. Having heard the two men go and having stumbled on that final exchange, I wrote it down to see more clearly what I’d got.

The question in my head, and not just in relation to this ‘story’, is what are stories, and how do we know when we’ve got one? Do we, in fact, ever know for sure? I’m always conscious of that distinction between writers – how is it done? – and readers – what’s it about? And I’m pretty sure that, however excited we, as writers and readers, get about the way stories are written, the key element that makes us want to read them, or hear them, again, is what they have to say – and that’s more to do with what they are about.

This story is about two men who have a conversation that I hope tells us more than the actual words say; and that final scene, in which the man energises the title by throwing the ‘tidbit’, and giving his warning, I hope carries a threat that we recognise. I hope too that we recognise that Joe will understand also, but perhaps not so clearly.

One small element that intrigues me, is why I write this story from ‘behind’ the man, yet give the name to Joe. Perhaps the story is more about Joe, and how he might react, or not, and perhaps even about what sort of relationship he might have with the woman. I’m conscious too, that, as a short story writer, my focus should be, and was, on the situation, rather than on the characters – as a reader of short stories, the writer poses a question about you, rather than answering ones about them.

Pritchett writes about the short story ‘revealing’ what real life only ‘implies’, but there is a temptation to make that revelation as subtle and unobtrusive, almost invisible, as we can; even to ourselves as its creators.

[I originally wrote this piece, and the story it postfaces, a couple of years ago. When I came to re-read both, I noticed the word ‘fat’, a prejudicial word. I changed it in the postface, but felt that in the story it had to stay in. When the woman is introduced to us, it needs to be prejudicially. When the narrator tells us what she says the reader’s view might change. In fact, the view of her and of Joe might change as the story progresses – if I’ve got it right, and so might that of ‘the man’. A story is a view from/of a perspective. Tebbit, I think, is the same throughout.] 

There’s a story by H.E.Bates, A Great Day for Bonzo, which you can find in the collection The Watercress Girl, first published in 1959. The clue is in the title, if you read it with the emphasis on Bonzo! Dog stories can be irritating, I find, but this one is deeply satisfying, and of course, isn’t really about the dog.

I’ve been going back through files of my own stories. I always find it difficult to send stuff out. There’s a resistance. It exhausts me, even in these days of filling in a form online, uploading and clicking a couple of times. The act of making submissions is heavier work than rolling boulders uphill (something my cardiologist warned me against years ago). Since then I’ve rolled more boulders than I have sent out stories, and I know which is easier.

Consequently my annual folders of short stories all have several that I intended to send out, but never got around to. SO, here’s the first of a handful from 2017. It too is a dog story that’s not really about the dog.

 

The Dog’s Bollocks

We’d gone walking between the Yorkshire Dales and the English Lake District, leaving the car at a friendly farm and sketching out a circular route that would take us no more than three days. We carried one-man tents, and on the first afternoon, for the last mile, one tired Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

The pub was a mile from the campsite, but that evening the dog had recovered enough to waddle down under his own steam, though he flaked out under the little round table and slept the sleep of the guileless from the moment we arrived till the time came to leave.

He was always a cute dog. We called him the bachelor’s friend because on the street women would come over and say hello and begin stroking him. The pub was crowded that night, and a couple sat down at our table. She was about our age, but older, and he was about her age, but younger.

Do you mind? She asked, and we piled our supper plates, and you took them to the bar to make room for their drinks. I’m not really a breast man, but sometimes I can see what those eighteenth century writers were getting at when they used the plump bird metaphor. Besides, anything nestled in lace looks inviting. Her skirt came to the knee and her free hand kept it in disorder and constant movement: a red rag to a bull.

Whatever our likes and dislikes, ignoring her partner, she was keen to engage.

Ah, she said, looking down at the dog, he’s worn out, poor lamb. Then she looked up at us and asked, have you come far?

All the way to here, you said, which was as good a way as kicking it off as any.

And how far will you go? she asked.

As far as we can, you said. The boyfriend, or whatever he was, looked uncomfortable.

She reached down, leaning forward, and tickled the dog’s underbelly. He was lying on his side with his legs stretched out in front and behind. He shifted slightly and whiffled in his sleep. Anybody would have, in the circumstances.

We were getting to the end of our first pints, and might have gone back to the tents, being as tired as the dog was, but she said, is there anything you’d like, boys? And she knew we were thinking, anything you can spare, all of it, yes, please!

Get them a drink, Jack, she said, and her partner, rising to his feet, said, a couple of pints, lads?

Poor sod, I thought.

She stroked the dog again with her fingertips, on the bare skin above his haunch. Look at his little dangly-do, she said. He whiffled and shuddered, and his dangly-do twitched. Oh, she said, he likes that.

Me too, I thought.

Walking back to the tents, you asked, did you get a hard on when she was doing all that dangly-do stuff?

What do you think? I said, and added, I wonder what Jack thought.

You grinned and said, Jack was looking forward to getting home.

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!

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.

Despite having written some masterpiece short stories, even the mature Rudyard Kipling could turn out some impenetrable ones. The Village That Voted The Earth Was Flat I found particularly non-negotiable – though it made it through to the almost recent Hensher’s ‘Penguin’ collection of the allegedly best that ‘Britain’ has produced. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a few fat porkers in amongst the eighty or so ‘uncollected prose fictions’ – why not call them short stories? Even the included fragments, surely, are fragments of short stories? – very recently published by Cambridge.

I also found one that made me laugh out loud, and which seemed to have the hallmarks of what I have found so likeable in many of the later works that were collected.

On Signatures (By——-*) – and that asterisk draws us to the ‘note’ that kicks-off the story – is cited as having been published first in November 1887, with an Attribution in ‘Scrapbook 4’. All that editor Prof.Thomas Pinney can say about it is that it is ‘unrecorded and unreprinted.’ Written in the first person (even that asterisked note is in an ‘our’ voice, introducing the narrator: ‘Our correspondent…), the tale is in the form of a rant, sent, presumably, to the Civil and Military Gazette, in which it was published. The rant, is about the illegibility of the signatures that ‘greets me at the end of most of the letters which I daily receive..’

Kipling has his proxy single out several for our examination, and tells us a little about each of the people he speculates they might belong to. Not merely ‘hieroglyphs’, they resemble ‘three snakes’ tails and a set of triangles’, or ‘a felled fir-tree with a shower of chips about the stump.’ Others include ‘a big black fuzzy caterpillar on a boundless prairie’, and one is signed ‘Bd.Conar Cold Pork’, which the narrator interprets as a Lieutenant Colonel, of an unidentifiable regiment, referred to thereafter as the ‘Cold Porks’.

Kipling is playing on, and with words, and I got the joke, chuckling aloud at several places. Thumbnail sketches of the senders fill out, and perhaps inform, the perceived illustrations. Our narrator’s point though, that the signatures can’t be read, rings true, and especially so to someone of my generation, whose working life was spent mostly in the world of hand-signed, if not hand-written letters. My own signature has attracted attention, of the sarcastic variety, but rarely, to my knowledge, such inventive descriptions. The extent to which any of these particulars might resonate with individuals among his readership, we can only speculate on, but the general resonance is there for those of us who can remember signatures that we recognised, but couldn’t actually read.

Kipling rounds the story off, with the arrival of a letter to which a cut-out example of his narrator’s own signature has been affixed. It has passed through several offices’ from ‘Cherrapunji’ to ‘Aden’ – nine locations are listed – before arriving, and the letter within describes it as ‘the section of a fly’s thorax under the microscope’.

Technically a ‘flash fiction’ – if like me you take the definition of such to be a story that has the flash of only one turned page – the story is built not only around a commonplace frustration of communications before the e-mail,  but also on that very human foible of motes and beams in the way we see ourselves and others. It also has, in that ending, what becomes, to my way of thinking, the very Kiplingesque technique of undermining his own narrators, and by doing so, telling us something it’s worth us finding out about ourselves.

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

The cover picture for this collection of 49 short stories, flash fictions and monologues was the last photograph I took with my Olympus digital camera. It was taken on Lindisfarne, and after I’d taken it I put the camera in the pocket of my waterproof jacket, because, as you can see from the picture, it was threatening rain. The rain came, heavily, and the jacket was waterproof! So was the pocket.

But the zipper wasn’t and let the rain in. When I came to retrieve camera it was sitting in about an inch of cold water. So much for my Olympus; but at least the SD card came out with the pictures intact, and I thought this one might resonate with the story Haven, one of the flash fictions inside. It might even have nudged (rather than inspired) me towards the story.

The title story, full title, Eight Frames for Rosie Wreay, is one of those compilation stories, in this case of eight parts, which unwind in reverse order the life of the eponymous heroine. There are also two sets of ten flash fictions, grouped as Final Accounts, and Men. Readers of the blog might have picked up on the fact that I don’t view the ‘flash fiction’ as a particular type of story, but rather a story that just happens to fit into whatever word count has been decided on. These flashes, I think, all worked within a 500 word limit! Two of them marked a change point for me, in the way I tackled stories, though it might not show from a reader’s perspective!

Ten longer stories follow, comic ghosts stories, stories of isolation and reconciliation: stories I’m passing on rather than inventing, but many years after they came to me.

The collection also includes a half dozen Kowalski stories, but these, not in the old grump’s own voice, but those of his exasperated spouse, Mildred. Completing the collection are three separate tales under the heading, Anomalies, because I don’t know where else to put ’em!

OS&RW was published in 2016, the third in an ongoing series of collected short stories.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD