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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.

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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.

 

 

A friend of mine used to tell a story of his late father who worked for a time as a photographer for a company that produced postcards of English beauty spots. This was in the days of roll film, when after a dozen or three shots the film would have to be removed from the camera (in absolute darkness) and replaced with a new one. Sometimes this led to a tricky operation under awkward circumstances, such as happened, allegedly, in a public park somewhere in the south of England. To protect the two films my friend’s father took to a park-bench and threw his overcoat over his lap, upon which he planned to carry out the changeover.

As you might guess, he was observed in this by a public, or rather pubic, spirited policeman who crept up on him, and at what must have seemed the right moment – perhaps as he was tightening his spool – leapt forward and threw back the overcoat. We could pause here for the old joke about three afficianados passing by, one who screamed, one who fainted and one who had a stroke – but perhaps we shouldn’t!

I carry a notebook and pencil almost everywhere I go, and when I get a moment, and a thought, I whip them out, and scribble away happily. It’s a practice H.E.Bates took exception to, at least in the case of his contemporary and literary rival, A.E.Coppard, who was also a prolific notebook carrier. Sometimes I do it in the car, on town centre car-parks, perhaps while waiting for my wife to come back (don’t read too much into that). Of course, when I’m there, scribbling, the notebook on my lap, I’m looking down and neither of my hands can be seen above the level of the door or dashboard. So far I’ve only had a few odd looks, and no one has stepped forward to offer me a hand …. and the policemen…well, they are driving past just too fast, I guess.

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?

BHD’s little story, Ex ended up on the shortlist in the Strands International Flash Fiction Competition: a six horse finish, with three prizes! At 499 words, excluding the title, it only just squeezes into the competition’s max word count.

I wrote it as a sample piece while teaching a Ghost Story course for Darren Harper’s Phil & Lit Society in Carlisle (England, just). It wasn’t a course I expected to teach, and wouldn’t have thought of doing, but when I looked into the back catalogue I did find I had written several in the genre, some of which had been published.

There was a rub. All of them had turned, irretrievably, and seemingly of their own accords, into comic pieces. Liars League took two: First Foot, which was rather Gothly dark, but not Grand Guignol by any means, and The Hotel Entrance, the heavy emphasis to underline the joke on the last syllable. That title came out of the weak joke, that on the basis of signage, Hotel Entrance is the most popular hotel name in the country! Insubstantiality (with a long sub-title), is just plain silly, and all three pop-up, or materialise perhaps, in the 2016 collection, Other Stories & Rosie Wreay.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

A comic ghost story, though, isn’t to my mind, really a ghost story. It’s a comic story. So I thought I ought to have a go at one that didn’t go the way of the others. I’d been reading Kipling (as you may have gathered from recent posts on this blog), and one story that I particularly liked was ‘They’. The speech marks are his. Whether or not it had any influence I’ll leave others to decide, but one of the elements about that story which I rather liked, was the ghostliness of the children, and in particular, the way that they haunted, rather than actually appeared in the story. There was also something about the back-story. It too was ghostly, and even more so than the children. So much so, that I’ve devoted a couple of thousand words to it elsewhere.

Another Ghost story that I’d been reading, and in fact read to the workshop group, was Matt Plass’s Next to Godliness, which appeared in The Fiction Desk New Ghost Stories II. If you get the chance to read it, do! I’ll not do a spoiler here, but it carries a surprise, and builds to a powerfully poignant ending on the back of it. I’ve written about that story too, in The Silent Life Within.

In my little ghost story, Ex, the intention was to get some of that Kiplingesque ghostliness into it: to make what is never explicitly stated the core of the story, with only two or three words to hint at the back-story, the hints, if taken, giving the explanation to what is actually going on. Of course, authorial intent, as I’ve often pointed out, has only a tenuous connection to the actual reading of a piece.

Curiously, perhaps, it seems that the stories of mine that get anywhere, are often the ones that have been written to find out if I can do something specific in the writing, rather than the ones that are centred on actually trying to say something….which might seem to undermine my generally held belief that what readers are interested in is what stories are about, rather than how they are written. (of course, competitions are usually judged by writers, rather than readers….)

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.

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