Tuesday 21 December 2010

To mark National Short Story Day...

Today, apparently, is National Short Story Day - if you don't believe me, check out www.nationalshortstoryday.co.uk. See? Told you. To mark the occasion, here's a short story I wrote back in January. I should point out that it was, in part, inspired by a screenplay called The Zapruder Party by my friend, Mark K. Oh, and I know it needs a bit of a polish, but anyway, see what you think.

Near death experience

He watches the girl as she runs across the park.

She must be about eight or nine, he thinks – any older and she would not be towing the helium balloon along behind her in quite such a carefree manner. She’s still at that age when she is not self-conscious about being a child, or the trappings of childhood. In a year or two she would cringe if her school friends saw her running around in the park with a party balloon, but for now she is still a child.

Her hair is a black scrawl that suggests she doesn’t like having it brushed – that would change in a couple of years too. Her coat is a candy-pink confection with a fur-trimmed hood that bobs lightly as she runs. Her leggings are a little on the short side – she has nearly outgrown them. There are red LEDs on her trainers that flash with each footfall.

It doesn’t take long for him to locate the girl’s mother. She is walking some way behind, talking animatedly into the mobile phone that is clamped to her ear. Her other hand is thrust deep into the pocket of her heavy wool overcoat. Her hair is the same colour as her daughter’s, he notes, but unlike the girl’s it is immaculately groomed. The mother is walking slowly – sauntering, even – and is falling further behind the girl with every pace. Some maternal instinct surfaces enough to recognise this, and he watches as she pulls the mobile’s mouthpiece away enough to call after her daughter. He can’t hear what she says, but can guess. “Don’t go too far, darling,” perhaps. Or, “Wait when you get to the gate.” He doubts that the girl can hear her either.

He checks the clock – it’s almost time.

The mother’s phone conversation must have become more serious, he thinks, because she has stopped walking altogether now, her head dipped in thought. Then she begins to turn slowly on the spot, as if this will help her focus on the phone call in some way. He wonders if she will regret this later. Meanwhile, the little girl runs on, in loops and spirals, each stride she takes causing the balloon to lurch after her in a series of halting leaps; each stride she takes bringing her closer to the gate where she is supposed to wait, and closer to the road beyond it.

He pauses long enough to consider the chain of events that has brought the girl to this point, and to wonder – not for the first time – whether they might be random or somehow pre-ordained. Is there such a thing as fate, he thinks? Is the girl destined to slip on the muddy grass near the park gate, causing her to put out her hands as she falls forwards? Is it karma that she should let go of her balloon so near to a busy road? And is it some higher being’s divine will that causes all this to happen to the girl at an age when she stills care enough to chase after a stupid, silver balloon with Disney’s Little Mermaid on one side?

Or is it just bad luck?

He watches as the girl jumps up, unhurt, and, after giving her muddy hands a surprised look that is almost comic, looks up to see where her balloon is. It has been caught by the lightest of breezes and is drifting lazily away. Inevitably, it starts to gain height, but only slowly – its vaguely crumpled look suggests that the balloon has already lost a little helium. After a second’s consideration, the girl seems to decide that she can catch the balloon if she runs fast enough, jumps high enough. And so she sets off, her eyes fixed on the length of ribbon that dangles temptingly just out of her reach.

He looks back across the park, seeking out the mother. She is still deep in conversation; the previously pocketed hand is now out and making expressive gestures, despite the fact that the person on the other end of the mobile cannot see them. She is wearing black gloves with a fur trim around the cuff. Her long black boots say that she is a serious businesswoman, a hard-arsed, tough-nosed businesswoman that you just don’t mess with. He imagines the clip-clop that these boots would make as he watches her pivot one foot on a pin-heel. He watches as she throws her head back in apparent exasperation.

But back to the main action. The girl is running, arms out-stretched, eyes aloft, straight towards the gate. Her mother’s warning, even if she had heard it, is forgotten now. In a freeze-frame moment, he can see that she is smiling – laughing, probably – and that she looks optimistic; even as the balloon continues to rise, she somehow thinks that she can get it, if she can only run fast enough, jump high enough.

The car is a small, blue Ford. The registration plate suggests that it is a good deal older than the girl, and the flowers of rust that are blooming around its wheel-arches confirm this. The driver is young though, surely only in his late teens. He is wearing a baseball hat that proclaims his support of Manchester United, and sunglasses, even though it is not sunny. His window is wound down, presumably for the sole purpose of broadcasting the unfeasibly loud hip-hop he is listening to as he drives. He is speeding too, the tiny Ford’s engine revving enthusiastically. That and the hip-hop might have drowned out any shouts of warning, but there are none.

He watches the girl as she runs into the road.

There is a single precious moment of calm, between her sudden appearance in the road and the car’s impact. In that moment, the girl realises what she has done, perhaps hears the engine. In that instant, she turns her face sharply away from the balloon and just has time to look directly at the car. Adrenalin, speed and the vitality of her youth give her time to fling open her eyes impossibly wide, to open her mouth in a perfect O. But there is no time for her to scream.

The Ford hits her before the driver has even had time to brake. In slow-motion, the bonnet (barely crumpling) seems to sweep her off her feet, and then she is spinning, a pink and black cartwheel, up and over. Her head thumps into the windscreen, creating a perfect splintered bullseye in the glass where, later, strands of the girl’s bloodied hair will be found. As she tumbles over the roof of the car, she flattens its aerial. He watches it springs back up again as the Ford, fishtailing slightly as it screeches to a halt, deposits her in an unnatural heap.

At first glance, she doesn’t look hurt, her coat perhaps disguising the extent of her injuries. There is something unnatural about the angle of her right arm, the way it is bending like that, like someone has moved the elbow, and looking closely, he can see blood creeping around the girl’s hairline. Her mouth still forms an O but her eyes are half closed and without focus. She has lost one of her trainers – he sees it lying in the gutter further up the road, its red LEDs still flashing, and wonders what it must be like to be hit so hard it knocks you out of your shoes.

It is the screech of brakes that attracts the mother. He watches as she turns to locate the noise and then, finally taking the mobile away from her ear, she is running as fast as she can in those boots, shouting something that might be the girl’s name but is hard to make out because it is becoming a scream.

The driver of the Ford is ashen-faced, staring blankly at the steering wheel, trying to comprehend what has just happened. Something – perhaps the mother’s scream – gets him going again and, after a moment in which he perhaps contemplates driving away, the Manchester United fan instead removes one shaking hand from the steering wheel and turns the ignition key back, silencing the engine.

He watches the girl as she dies in her mother’s arms.

Then he presses stop and ejects the tape. The hand-written label on its spine reads ‘RTC - CHILD’. He puts the tape carefully back into its slipcase, then files it neatly away on the shelf above his desk, where it sits in a long line of matching hand-written labels, between ‘LEVEL CROSSING CRASH’ and ‘AIR SHOW DISASTER’. When his hands have stopped shaking, he fishes the last Marlboro Light from the packet by the television, and sits back in his chair to smoke.

So... what do you think?

The quarterly review IV

Back in March I documented all the books I'd read during the first quarter of the year; in June I did the same thing for the second quarter and in September I did it again for Q3. Exciting, no? So exciting, in fact, that it's time to do it again for, you've guessed it, the last quarter of the year. Don't worry, I won't do all this again in 2011, I promise...

As before, you can hover over the thumbnails for my three-line reviews, should you be so inclined.

Friday 17 December 2010

Happy 40th birthday, The Man Of Cheese

Today is the 40th birthday of my oldest friend, The Man Of Cheese. To honour the occasion, let me play a bit of a musical tribute. Now there's no way I could package this up as a Clandestine Classic and I should probably point out, for the sake of my credibility and that of TMOC, this is in no way representative of our normal musical tastes. But it is a special song, and one that we still quote lyrics from to this day, more than twenty years later.

Happy birthday, mate. You can't play bass...

Wednesday 15 December 2010

On the shelf... but in a good way

Launch event poster for Unthology No. 1If you are one of the three Constant Readers of this blog, you'll probably already know that I have recently been published for the first time. In a real book, by a real publisher. I was quite excited about this, and remain so.

Anyway. Earlier this month I was feeling a bit down, and questioning the value of the blog, with its tiny readership and so-small-as-to-be-immeasurable impact on the wider world. But the always-readable Mark K over at Kilner-Jarred made the point that, being published, now was the time to ramp things up, not scale them down. And I guess he's right, so on we go. Mark also asked that I write about the book launch, and who am I to deny a Constant Reader?

The launch itself took place on the 2nd of December, in the upstairs function room of The York Tavern in Norwich. The original intention was to hold it at the excellent Norwich Arts Centre but they had double-booked themselves... a shame, I would like to have "played" such an established arts venue, but never mind, The York is a nice pub and besides, I used to live just around the corner from there, so it felt comfortable.

That's more than could be said for me, of course. Public speaking is not high on my list of favourite activities and before the event I was, in 1980s schoolboy parlance, bricking it. Pulling out was never an option though - after all, my name was on the poster (left)... even so, my nerves were not helped by the fact that the inclement weather (snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures, slippery roads and mirror-polished pavements) meant that, just minutes before the advertised start time there was no-one else there other than the organisers from Unthank Books and three of the other reading authors. So not only was I nervous in the extreme, I was also worried that the event would be a total flop.

As luck would have it, I needn't have worried. All of a sudden there was a sudden influx of people, all rosy-cheeked and swathed in coats hats, scarves and gloves. My personal mini-cheer-squad of friends and family arrived too and, whilst this was reassuring in some respects, they added the possibility that I could screw up royally in front of family and friends. Consider "it" comprehensively "bricked"...

I was third to read, after C.D. Rose and the wonderful Lora Stimson (more of whom later). The compere introduced me by saying that one of the objectives of the book was to give new writers a voice, and so it gave him great pleasure to welcome a previously unpublished author to the stage. The irrepressible paranoid spark at the back of my mind burned a little brighter at that - it felt a little like "ladies and gentlemen, please lower your expectations!" but that's just negative old me being me. It wasn't like that at all.

The first two readers gave little pre-ambles before their readings, so I decided to do the same. My anecdote, if that's not stretching things, concerned seeing Paul Torday give a reading a Latitude a couple of years ago, and specifically how he had looked petrified. I wondered why he had looked so nervous - after all, he is a very successful writer and must do this all the time, I thought. I gave the crowd now filling The York's function room what I hoped was a wry smile and delivered my "now I understand" punchline. This got a laugh, despite not being in the least funny. It was at that point I had the same Damascene revelation that Best Men must have been having for years as they begin their wedding reception speeches - at times like these, the audience wants you to do well. They want you to succeed. It's a nice feeling, and one that made the nerves subside... a bit...

I stood before the crowd, with only a microphone and speakers to hide behind, and read the first thousand words or so of my story. It's only a very short story, so that was about half of it, but if left the narrative at a nice mini-cliffhanger, and brought me in just on the "please only read for five minutes" deadline. Cue warm applause... and then, blessed relief, I was followed by the interval. A friend bought me a pint of bitter, and I could relax.

What happened next was the biggest and, in some ways, nicest, surprise of the night. People bought the book, and then asked me to sign it! I found myself saying things like "who should I make it out to?" and then realising that I had given no thought to what I would write should this eventuality occur. So it was that I found myself writing things like "To Anna, thanks for coming" and then scrawling half a signature. This didn't diminsh the weird and slightly heady thrill of signing books though - it's not something I had ever imagined would happen, so I enjoyed every second whilst it lasted.

After the interval, there were three more readings, from Deborah Arnander (who was lovely and, like me, very nervous), Melinda Moore and Ashley Stokes. And then the evening concluded with live music from Lora Stimson. Yes, the same Lora who'd read earlier! An accomplished writer and, it transpired, equally accomplished singer-songwriter. She played acoustic guitar and sang with the most amazing, soaring voice. It was a nice way to end the evening.... although there was just time to sign a couple more books before I left.

So all in all, it was a memorable occasion, if slightly surreal at times. It might never happen for me again (though there is talk of a London launch event, so you never know), so I'm pleased that I was able to enjoy it and, as you might have guessed, I'm happy to report that being asked to sign copies of your work is every bit as exciting as you might imagine. A couple of days later, the Eastern Daily Press (Britain's best-selling regional daily, no less) reviewed the Unthology; though it didn't give explicit mention to all the stories in the book (there are 17, after all), my little story, written in 24 hours just because I needed something, did get a mention. This is what it said:

...Waiting Room is an intriguing and mysterious Brave New World-type tale set in the near future which keeps the reader guessing right to the end...
Eastern Daily Press, 4th December 2010

That'll do for me.

Unthology No. 1 on the shelf in Waterstone's

Oh, and an epilogue for you: I went into Waterstone's last weekend, and there it was, Unthology No. 1, on their shelf. As I said before, this might never happen for me again... so I felt no embarrassment in taking a picture (right).

Right, I've got a taste for this now - anyone want to publish Drawn To The Deep End?

Friday 10 December 2010

More street art

More pointed street art/graffiti spotted on the walls of my adopted home town, this time on the outside of HSBC, appropriately enough. Other posts in this series can be found here, here and here.

Banks In Need

Sorry for the poor image quality. It was dark, and my camera phone isn't up to much...

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Comment away!

Hmm. I traced the problem to a PHP script that was working perfectly until yesterday, yet now does not work, despite throwing no errors and despite not being changed in any way. My web host protests its innocence. Whatever. In the meantime, I've added in a third-party solution to take my host out of the equation and guess what? It works perfectly...

Abnormal service resumed...

See that little "Comment" link beneath this post? Well, that takes you to a feedback form you can use to send me messages about these blog posts... except it's not working at the moment. It appears to - you get a nice message saying thanks for your feedback, and that I'll respond and everything... but I'm not getting your messages. I'm investigating, so watch this space. In the meantime, if you've commented this week (and I think that means YOU, Rol and The Man Of Cheese) sorry but I haven't received your words of wisdom.

I'll post again when I've fixed whatever the problem is.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Does there have to be a reason?

I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside.


Oh, and P.S. My web-stats tell me that on the 6th of December, at around 11.34am, someone sent me a comment on the post below, but I didn't get it, sorry; my over-zealous email program marked it as spam and the over-zealous me emptied the spam folder without checking. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Didn't want you to think I was being rude or anything. Please feel free to re-send, and I'll be a bit less zealous...

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Things I haven't blogged about

If you're one of the three people that regularly read this blog, you'll know that I haven't written anything here for very nearly three weeks. It's not that I haven't had things to say, far from it. Some of the things I nearly blogged about, but didn't, include:
  • The 30th anniversary of Children In Need, and the incredible fact that it has raised half a billion pounds in that time. More specifically, I almost blogged about my first Children In Need memory, from 1983, when Joanna Lumley's selfless act of charity had a profound effect on 13-year-old me.
  • I almost wrote about the tie-in between WeRead4You.com and The Big Issue whereby you can download a free audiobook of Lifeless by Mark Billingham. It's a pretty good crime story with a great lead character in Tom Thorne. And it's being given away free here because, as a story, it highlights homelessness very effectively.
  • Oh, and I was going to bring SoleCreator.com to your attention, since it enables you to design and then buy your own customised trainers. You can choose from Converse, Ethletic, Vans, Dunlop and more besides. It's a very cool idea, is it not?
So, I was going to write about all these things in the last three weeks but didn't, and do you want to know why? Because, with the exception of my three Constant Readers (step forward Mark K, Rol and The Man Of Cheese), no-one seems too bothered about what I have to say, regardless of how amusing, entertaining or thought-provoking I try to make it. So I've started to wonder... is blogging like this just a massive vanity project? The worst kind of self-publishing? A hopeless case, and a waste of my time and yours? Or is there some value?

More to the point, should I carry on with this PipSpeak blog? Or call time on the whole charade?

I'd really welcome your thoughts... though I'm willing to bet no more than three people comment.