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Today, he was going to die.
His eyes tightened as the beating grew fiercer and faster. His head hung while each punch hit his chest with a thud that echoed in his ears. Clenching his jaw, his mind pleaded for a quick end to the hellish nightmare. His hollow stomach pushed upward and he swallowed hard, resisting the bubbling bile that suffocated his insides. The relentless thumps against his chest pressed the air from his lungs, forcing deep breaths and extended exhalations. He clutched his neck, scrunching his eyes as the pummelling intensified. The inside of his head stabbed into the dome of his skull with an unsympathetic persistence and his limbs lay across the floor, limp and heavy.
Please. Just stop, his mind begged.
A black haze blurred his vision like the sky’s clouds cruelly eclipsing the sun - this really was the end.
They had both been standing there for a while, watching as his face sagged.
“Don’t worry Sleth. You’ll be fine,” one of them said.
The vicious punishment of his own body turning against him continued as Sleth endured another hard punch in his chest - his heartbeat’s instant rejection of the man’s words, followed by the trembling of his hands. He rubbed one finger along the cold ground and raised his shaking hand in front of him, glaring at it as if a telepathic suggestion would stop it.
He took a long drag of musty air in his nostrils and blew into his cupped hands. His dark skin was itching, aggravating his anxiety as he gazed at the three brick walls of his prison. Behind the metal bars of the entrance to his cell, the pulsing flame of the torch on the wall allowed sufficient light to see.
He looked at the smeared soles of his naked feet and his blood stained trousers and shirt, which were crisp white a few days ago. Torn and tattered, they hung off him barely concealing his bruised body.
“What’s going to happen now?” he said, looking at the two men outside his cell. One of them combed his wide, white beard with his fingers and the other faced the floor, letting his charcoal black hair hang over his eyes like the drapes of household in mourning.
“I’m telling you Sleth,” said the man with the white beard. “You’ll be fine – I’m sure of it.”
Sleth stared at the red dirt that lined his finger nails and his heart thumped his chest louder, beating his facial expression into sombre submission. His extreme anxiety amplified the crackling sound of the torch on the wall and bouncing silhouettes of vermin, insistently squeaking.
He watched a rat scamper into his cell and all three men witnessed the rumoured disease in all its brazen honesty. The rat rolled on to its back and struggled as if pinned by an invisible predator. It released an ear-piercing shriek, before its legs and arms shuddered to a slow stop. The two men outside the cell turned away with their lips arched down and Sleth buried his chin in his chest.
“Will it be a vote?” said Sleth.
“Just him,” said the man with the white beard.
“Vretil,” said Sleth as he examined them both. “Why are you wearing black?”
Vretil touched the fabric of his robe and looked at the other man who was dressed identically. “We were asked to, but don’t let that bother you. It’s just a formality, I’m sure. You’ll be alright.”
Sleth’s long sigh appeared as if he was trying to empty his body of air. He looked at the man with black hair and pointed.
“Michael – what do you think’s going to happen?”
Michael nodded his head. “It’ll work out,” he said. “It has to.”
“What about the Seraphim? What’ll happen to them?”
“They’ll be cross-examined as well, but stop thinking like this. You’re all young and have impeccable character references. This will end today. Trust me.”
Sleth clenched his jaw and hauled his body up, provoking the cracking of his knee joints. With large rusty chains cuffed to his wrists and ankles, scraping the floor, he dragged his feet from one side of the cell to the other.
Lack of a good meal deepened the emptiness of his stomach, but seeing the full bowl of oats sitting in the corner of his cell, provoked a frown.
“You should eat something,” said Vretil.
“I can’t. Can’t eat or sleep. It just feels like everything we worked for is coming to an end. Everything we did to repair the damage. Gone.”
Another rat darted into his cell. It stared at Sleth as if finding amusement in his helplessness. It then began chewing on the corpse of its companion, inducing Sleth’s firm, slow breaths and a vengeful glare.
“That arrogant git,” he muttered. “How could he put me through this?”
“Sleth,” said Vretil pointing his finger. “Don’t let it happen again – calm down.”
Michael looked up to see Sleth’s eyes creasing.
A scalding heat travelled from the centre of Sleth's torso and rushed over him, whilst a blaring red shrouded his vision.
“Stay in control Sleth,” Vretil repeated as Michael pushed his robe aside, revealing a holstered knife on his waist.
Sleth’s muscles locked up, his breathing pattern fell irregular, and his cocked hands were quaking.
Vretil’s eyes widened. “Sleth!” he shouted as if he was trying to reach someone at a great distance. The bearded man grabbed the bars of the prison cell that morphed from rusty iron to gleaming gold.
As the rat crept closer to Sleth’s foot, he reached down and swept it up in his palm. Bringing the creature to eye level, he glared at it. “Why have you done this?” he said.
He began to tighten his grip around its bristly hairs, feeling his fingers embedded in the soft flesh.
“Sleth! Get control of yourself!” said Vretil as Michael’s mouth fell ajar.
Sleth smiled at the rat’s screaming as his fingers devoured its little body. He twisted his head to the side, mesmerised by the rat’s bulging eyes as they splashed out of its tiny head. Purple blood squirted from every part as if a water balloon burst and its bones crunched to dust.
“I’ll kill you for this,” mumbled Sleth, letting the mound of flesh slip through the gaps between his fingers.
Vretil stepped back from the cell as Sleth—whose eyes were now void black—reached out a bloody hand and gripped the bars of his prison. The gold bars dimmed, returning to rusty iron then glowed red, forcing Sleth’s hasty jump back into his cell.
Then, the fury was gone. The white of Sleth’s eyes returned and he gasped for air as if he had been relinquished from strangulation. His eyes widened at the rat’s blood dripping from his shaking hand and his mouth gaped.
“What’s happening to me?” he said. Vretil and Michael bowed their heads. Sleth gulped and did the same.
Found several of these on a mem stick and thought I would inflict them on you lot before deleting them.
With profound apologies.... :
The Rucksack Chronicles
Los Abrigos, Ilas Cannarias.
Dreams for Sale.
Agents Bloodsucker, Robyn and Buzzard are delighted to invite offers for:
appointed Cafe Wine Bar on a quiet commercial location with year
round footfall. This property offers the owner a steady income
without having to work flat out the entire day. The business is
offered freehold and offers are invited in the region of E
I set my beer down and looked at the accompanying photograph in the property newspaper I was reading. I finally realized that the photo was taken in the corner behind me. This bar was for sale.
Andy and Amy were selling up. Amy’s Winehouse.... officially known as the Sea Lion, was for sale. There is no man alive in Western civilization who has not contemplated the idea of running a pub in some tropical climate. The dream of dreams. A pub in the sun. Cheers on sea...
A full English breakfast, euro 2.40 including an instant coffee, washed down with a pint of Dorada at 95 cents was the start to my Saturday while Her-indoors perused the local market stalls and shops. There were about six more guys my age doing the same.
In the corner, a telly pushed out Sky Sports’ Football Morning Report. I watched bloated and dentally challenged ‘has-beens-with-headsets’, trade clichés about the upcoming footy matches with female presenters apparently selected by the producers for their smiles and breasts. As the sound was turned up, it wasn’t difficult to determine the greatest tits.
After some considerable consideration, ex Middlesborough manager, M. T. Cranium, beat out a mediocre ex Liverpool defender with an American accent, Mac Berger, and the chest of a delightful and unnecessarily knowledgeable young woman presenter as Tit of the Day by informing us that “If history repeats itself, we’re probably gonna get the same result”... If you bothered to listen, the women made far more sense than the men.
My attention waned and I considered another pint. The beer, served in frozen mugs, seemed to hit surprisingly hard and although I had absolutely nothing else planned for the day, I had no intention of indulging in a session at 10 AM...again.
I stood up, walked to the bar and left a five euro note. Four quid for breakfast and a pint. In Bristol it would be twice that. In London, even more. I knew, in time, I would not leave a tip of such proportions as inevitably I would become economically acclimatized.
I strolled around the Centro Commercial. About half of the premises were vacant. Times were tough. Economic recovery was a long way from here. A small supermercado occupied the largest corner of it. At least three charity shops held the former possessions of people who had lived here and now didn’t, their relatives giving the every-day remnants of their existence to the Lions shops.
I stopped in one. Two elderly ladies occupied the space behind the counter and continued to rattle away happily to each other about someone. I was drawn first to the book shelf. A good mix of readable material was present ranging from Deighton to Ryan to Pratchet to Wilber Smith as well as unknown types like Robert Harris, Dan Brown, Andy McNabb, Tom Clancy and some guy called Hemingway.
My reading list is full and interesting at the moment so I moved on. At least ten full sets of golf clubs stood in a row in the corner like forlorn tombstones of their former owners, likely the work of widows quick to remove any sign of their greatest rivals. A full set of well worn Taylor Made Pro clubs was on offer for 25 ickkies... They would bring £400 easily on Ebay, back home but the ‘buyer collects’ option may put some off. I moved on, leaving the dream of spending my days on sunny fairways behind me in the shop.
Her-indoors had complained that my face had caught a bit of a Nagasaki suntan when I fell asleep in a chair in the garden of our digs one afternoon last week so I explored a dust bin full of used hats. I ignored anything of bright colour or anything which attempted to label sexual preferences of the wearer or the saucepan style baseball caps which carried a sports team logo so popular with young rap aware males.
There were several designer camo hats in patterns I didn’t recognized. My days of wearing camouflage clothing are long gone and the idea of buying any of it strikes me as absurd. Oddly, Her-indoors often wears my old shemauge desert scarf and desert bush hat from my military days when she goes to the beach. I have never asked her why she does that.
I left without buying anything. Further on in the commercial square, I window shopped at the ubiquitous Immobliaria, or estate agent. This one doubled as a tour excursion booking station and a money changer. I noticed the strength of the British pound sterling was increasing against the euro. Prices of a flat in a residential complex seemed absurdly low. Distressed sales and repossessions were in significant number. The fruits of global recession...
I contemplated living our remaining years on a windblown, sun dried rock, miles away from anywhere and I quickly entered the shop. One person’s ‘distressed sale’ was another’s opportunity.
I looked at several more adverts showing flats and fincas for sale and determined that if I sold one of Her-indoors’ kidneys to the Arabs on Dark Star, we could probably swing it. I took a sales pamphlet and thought I would go over our options with Her-indoors after a few sangrias and see if her works Bupa had a mortgage division relating to organ sales.
As I left the estate agent, I contemplated my next move. I looked at the time, 13:45, and figured that I had at least another hour and probably several days before Her-indoors finished her perusal of the local market stalls.
I took out my phone and tried to call Her-indoors to explain that I was no longer at the bar where we had planned to meet. As I did, an Asian looking guy came out of his electronics shop and interrupted me while I was speaking on the phone to try to get me into his shop.
I shouted “FUCK OFF YOU IGNORANT PRICK”.... but as I had the handset near my mouth, I knew by the accompanying click over the phone, that Her-indoors would now be fuming...
I reverted to training and followed the old military protocol, “when in trouble, go for beer” and I decided to return to the scene of the crime, where I had breakfasted, for additional libations.
Amy was still behind the bar and was combining the roles of relationship counsellor, short order cook, bar tender, psychiatrist and bouncer with a seamless effort. She must have worked until at least 3 AM the previous morning and was up early to open at 8 for the Saturday breakfast offering. Andy had just arrived to run the afternoon and evening shift of probably more than twelve hours. In between living their dream and working their shifts, they were raising a daughter.
The regular punters had arrived and were settled into their regular places. With two footy matches on, one Bundes Liga and one English Prem, the pub demographics quickly became the battle of the Somme, with the Germans on one side of the room and the Brits on the other side.
I found a place on the terrace with an excellent view of neither telly. I smiled to myself at the tribal aspects of the scene on front of me. A guy with more than a passing resemblance to George Galloway was sitting at the next table. He was wearing a Celtic shirt. His mate was wearing a Rangers one.
George was pissed and he was baiting Ranger; “See if Andy gets the cartoon channel so you kin watch yer bluddy Rangers tripe, Ben.”
Ranger Ben replied, “ Yer talkin shite again, Carl. Whyn’t you do everyone a favour an have yerself a fuckin heart attack? That fuckin shirt looks like a woman’s bra on ya, ya fat prick.”
‘George’ half-blinked his eyes with his face in neutral as he digested the words. He shook his head as a horse will do to shed flies and he straightened his shirt front and made an effort at inebriated dignity.
Andy, meanwhile, was working flat out behind the bar. At 95 cents for a pint, he had to shift a small lake of beer to earn any money. In the middle of the rush, Andy shouted and gestured to a short fat guy at the bar that his custom was not welcome. The guy departed and all of the Germans watched with interest.
The guy across from me, a Belgian called Von Kraut by the Brits, explained, in Hoch Deutsche, that the offending character was a well known and disliked Russian, nicknamed ‘Putain’ by a Frenchman. It seems that Putain was trying to shift dodgy US dollars. He further explained that the Russian currency, the Rouble was in the toilet with recent oil price movements and political developments.
I denoted no small measure of contempt in Von Kraut’s voice as he explained that Russians did not act properly and how it was a good thing that their currency was worth shit as that meant that not as many of them travelled abroad. I nodded as if I understood his words and his mindset. Global politics in a microcosm...
I drank up and went off to find Her-indoors, hoping she would not tell me about a great deal she had made on swapping currency. I would need to stop at a cash point and I would need time to explain that the $50 bill I had acquired at a great rate that morning was not going to work out.
Dreams. You can bring your own or buy the remains of someone else’s when you get here.
The remnants of dreams are all around you and they can be broken or fulfilled. A failing bar for sale at a pittance by two people who chased their dream and found a nightmare, or a set of very well worn golf clubs in a charity shop which seems to tell the story of someone who may have found his place in the sun and spent their last years as they had wanted.
And us, perhaps a wine bar and currency exchange, special offer on US Dollars this week....
Prop’s Place ... The Pipefitter’s Arms .... The Scrum .... or maybe The Last Resort ... how about The Writer’s Block? ... The Elipsis ... The Write Place .... The Kepi Blanc ... The Zinderneuf ... The Pipe and Flange... The Library.... The Migrating Duck... The Elba Arms...
Not sure if anyone else is watching Are Our Kids Tough Enough? on BBC 2, but I have fallen into watching it even though it is giving me mid-summer stress about work (not that I have written those three schemes of work, yet, mind, so not exactly getting a holiday mode chance this year...oh, well), but it is really making me think, again, about being fit for purpose.
Strangely, and I know this will shock you all, Uk kids are not taking brilliantly well to sitting in rows and having notes dictated to them as a way of learning Science or Maths.
The headteacher who has gone round the lessons is rather...well. He was clearly expecting that this would not work for the kids in his school, which irritates me, though I would also not suggest it as an accross the board teaching method in modern British schools. It is more the way he said this, despite some of the students saying they understand a concept that they did not get before, is not suitable at ANY level (he may have phrased it a tiny bit differently) and talked about engaging the kids. Again.
Some people on the show seem to be wanting to sell this as the difference between entirely teacher-centric and entirely student-centric (which they seem to think means assuming the kids will be bored as the default) method. Mention has been made of adapting to each student in the UK and how it is okay not to be the best at everything in the UK, as though we are so supportive.
In contrast, China is being presented as not caring at all and 'you cope or you die'.
Anyone who buys the UK version as being, in reality, actually adapted to each child is dreaming. Or else in a wonderful school and I want the name of it, please. Or else the staff are all dying of stress. I suspect a mix of options 1 and 3, myself.
We hear a LOT about adapting, and meeting each student's needs, and we do try, but a lot of it is conflicting. And they are all judged and measured and weighed almost constantly in a lot (if not all - I have not been in all schools!) establishments.
Also, we are going to one English exam for all, meaning lowest ability students having to read and analyse the structure in what could be a 19th Century novel in the exam - and this will be a previously unseen extract, by the way. Does not seem all that different to the 'cope or die' strategy mentioned by one of the Chinese teachers.
What has this to do with writing?
Well, it does seem to me to be all tied up with various ideas that spread more broadly through our society. Whether we should stick to older methods, trying to fit one way of doing things, how much to adapt...
The idea of writing for an audience or to be published, the idea that there can be a right or a wrong way, these are not a million miles from some of the ways people in this show have been looking at education.
There are other issues, too, such as wehther we SHOULD be able to expect students to behave the way they would need to in order to get anything out of this Chinese way of teaching (and I am saying Chinese because that was all that was said in the 20 min I just watched - no mention was made of area), whether schools are about content or skills or nurturing or what. Or all of it AT ONCE... But I digress.
A blog a short while ago (apologies for my terrible memory as to whose - I am sure if you comment I will instantly yell, 'Of course!') asked about how much to trust the reader. How much to spoon-feed, or entertain, or engage or anything else is very much part of the education debate. It is part of our writerly debate, as well.
Of course, we often end up going almost the other way to the general trend in UK teaching. Instead of saying we should somehow write one book which meets every reader's needs, we write what meets our needs, but if we only meet our needs, and those needs don't meet what agents or publishers or readers want, then we really are JUST meeting our needs. Which is fine, as long as you are fine with having a readership of one.
Clearly, there is more nuance to the issue than 'one reader or ALL the readers!', but where each of us draws the line on how much to consider other people's needs is one which interests me.
I don't just mean in terms of style or speech tags or structure, either. I mean in terms of how issues are handled and how the diverse reality of the world is represented, something I also think about when constructing worksheets and powerpoints in the classroom (one student was very happy I used a gender neutral term about someone braiding their hair - it is nice to have little touches noticed, and to make someone's day).
I find myself wondering what the 'stand at the front and dictate notes' style of teaching is when mapped onto writing. Which type of book would that be?
You may remember that the Random Writers, or RASSSA (because why not make your group name into something that sounds like it should work with S.H.I.E.L.D. or The Man from U.N.C.L.E.?), put out an anthology a while back.
A Seeming Glass was fun, albeit the kind of fun where it is hard and tiring and Daeds and JB both wailed 'Never again!' many, many times. So, naturally, our next anthology should be out at the end of this month.
This one is called Something Rich and Strange and the cover reveal is up on the site now. It has been painted by Mat Sadler, a wonderful artist who JB and I met and befriended at Uni in Welshy Wales, amongst drinking and karate and wondering how one place could contain so much rain.
It's been marvellous seeing the painting come along, and Mat has created a video of the process. Even more exciting for me is the fact that it is based on my story for the anthology, 'Walls'.
You can even buy a signed print. I'm certainly getting one. Given that when I asked Mat to illustrate my last anthology story for me it set him off on the process of buying new painting tablets and changing his career officially to 'illustrator', I feel I should tell everyone about this. Also, it is a great painting. (And if I am claiming too much responsibility for Mat being so active with his illustration work these days, don't tell me. Just let me feel smug...)
In any case, this anthology is based around the idea that the ending of a fairy tale is really just the beginning. Or of an historical event. Or of a legend. Or of... Well, anything is really just a beginning, so we have taken various examples and written what happens later.
Did I mention I'm excited? Because I am. :)
UPDATE: We are running a flash-fast competition to name our painting. Follow the link to suggest a title for us. :) (If you do not want to play hunt-the-link, it is in the word 'title'.)
One Ant Left
The ant scampers to and fro across the fake brick lines on the patio slabs then dissappears into the dirt filled crack.
A bee buzzes by, homing in on the violet petals of the leggy plant in the larg pot.
Further along, a centrepede weaves its way at high speed until he dissappears under the safety of the shed.
A siren is heard above the gentle hum of the traffic on the trunk road far away.
The toot of the train whistle far off into the distance anounces its arrival at the platform.
Bruce Lee huddles against the dividing wall and closes his eyes.
Here in the garden all is quiet. All is at peace.
A New Home for Bruce Lee - the Japanese Chin
Brucy Bruce Lee sits in his upstairs window seat watching as the sun begins to dawn, magically bringing to life the world outside.
Mrs Jones vigorously swishes open her curtains and pecks away at the invisible dust on her pristine-crisp clean-like new curtains as she ties them back in a strangle hold.
Mr Evans next door is already up and frowning moodily at the TV news reporter. Bombarded by depressing scenes and stories he switches off at the end music and vows to watch no more. Innevitably like an addict he will switch back on for the 1pm update.
Mrs Morris the other side who never seems to sleep is spotted deep inside her living room swishing a magic duster as she flits to and fro.
Mr Morgan, who, to himself he keeps, never reveals his home to the world outside.
Rachel Hughes next along the row has finally gone to bed by 6am after having arrived home 10 minutes earlier in her usual minimalist apparel.
Brucy Bruce Lee nestles his blanket and finally cwtches down. He dosely watches through half closed eyes a flock of birds in a cloud filled sky.
One bird leaves the flock and settles on the sky dish next to Brue Lee's window and survey's Bruce Lee with an unblinking stare. He squarks once, then twice.
But a thoroughly contented Brucy simply closes his eyes. zzzzzz...
The helicopter hovered back and forth, back and forth over my back yard.
‘Fuck off, copper.’ I waved my fist. ‘Why won’t they leave us alone,’ I cried.
My wife rushed from the kitchen, flashed her bosoms at the policemen for the seventeenth time.
‘Now that’s enough,’ I said, asserted yard authority, settled back down to my sun-tanning, beer, and bass thumping from the gay pride in the park festival, not half a mile from our front door.
‘But, why won’t they leave me alone?’
‘No, gays,’ I said. ‘If I see another Marilyn Monroe down that corner shop, I’ll punch her, him.’
‘He must work somewhere,’ said my wife.
‘Tulip, you know I love gays,’ I said, ‘am practically gay myself, asides from our marriage, our three or four children.’
‘That time round Rob’s place. You did sleep in his bed.’
‘Bed or corridor was his offer, I am no fool.’
‘Yes, “give us a cuddle,” he said, in the morning. Like staring into a reflection – of myself.’
‘You’re so right,’ said my wife. ‘Did you?’
‘Of course not, I simply toasted croissants, served them on a platter, with his coffee and a rose.’
‘And did he?’
‘No, butter dribbled across the pillow, I had to straddle the pillow, wipe it off. Remember I told you at the time.’
‘You were quite a sight. Rob helped you, I recall.’
‘Enough, where is my Daily Telegraph?’
I've noticed that the average age on WW is way above that of most social forums. (I hear that it's barely in double figures on facebook! Only joking.) But the over fifty bracket is more than amply represented here, and most of them are self declared 'unpublished writer (so far)' myself included. So how long have we (50+ not yets) been writing? and how long have we been seriously trying to get published? I started 'agent hunting' less than two years ago, but my writing goes back to my student days – some surrealistic short stories for a close circle of freinds. But now at the tender age of 53, I step out into the inforgiving solar wind of interstellar space that is publishing. And what do I find? An internet full of lost souls like myself buffeted and tossed about on an ocean of immeasurable compexity. And they all look and sound pretty much like me. Write like me. Moan and groan like me, too. Young writers – those who decide they are going to be writers somewhere between 5 and twenty-five years old – go at it with an enviable abandon that we old hacks can't begin to understand. Chapter after chapter of Y/A vampires and fantasy etc. flood on their pages with an ease that makes my arthritic bones creak in awe. Am I then just a burnt out old hack? Well, the answer has to be 'no' or else I'm in big trouble. But how can I convince myself (and my fellow sufferers) that we are not wrong? Quality, depth perhaps? Certainly not quantity. My own feeling is that life experience plays a big role in how we 'age-chalenged' writers transcribe our thoughts onto paper. I couldn't write about half the pain and suffering that goes into my work twenty years ago, or some of the joy, for that matter. We also seem to handle critical suggestions better and have a more tempered approach to learning. If only we knew this when we were in our teens! I don't pretend to speak for all the over fifties here and I know there are many who my disagree entirely with these thoughts, but I just wanted to prove to myself that I am 'so far' not a burnt out old hack.
Back in the mists of time (at school), I remember having the difference between ‘owing to’ and ‘due to’ explained quite clearly. I raise the distinction because the shorter-to-print and quicker-to-say ’due to’ seems to be driving ‘owing to’ close to extinction. Have you seen many signs using ‘owing to’ recently?
My English teacher said that one way of helping decide which one to use is to substitute ‘owing to’ with ‘because of’ and to replace ‘due to’ with ‘caused by’.
The train was late owing to (because of) rain. Quite nice.
The train was late due to (caused by) rain. Not so nice.
The late arrival was due to (caused by) rain. Quite nice.
The late arrival was owing to (because of) rain. Not quite so nice.
Owing to (because of ) rain, the match was cancelled. Quite nice.
Due to (caused by) rain, the match was cancelled. Not nice.
Does it matter any more now that the expressions seem interchangeable? After all, using ‘due to’ doesn’t materially change the meaning. And as long as everyone knows what is meant, why go on about it?
I do so for the sake of a little more variety, a tad more elegance – and owing to my abiding affection for a great English teacher.