Monday, 10 December 2018

The Knife by Gemma Allen

There were noises  coming from the house. Loud, manic laughter and pulsing music. The sort that could get on your nerves if you weren’t in the right mood. And she wasn’t. She walked towards the building at a slow pace, each step dragging her in.

There were flashing lights. She hated flashing lights; they made her eyes go funny.

A car shot past, screeching to a halt. Two men got out but didn’t see her, standing in the dark as she was. They rang the doorbell and were greeted enthusiastically, Music spilled out, some sort of dance music, she supposed. Not her sort of thing at all. She was too old for that sort of nonsense. The door slammed shut and peace was relatively restored.

The level of irritation and annoyance swelled inside her, and she could no longer stay still. The house was calling to her and she quietly let herself in through the unlocked door. Everyone appeared to be in the room to the left, so she made her way over to the right. The kitchen was a place of solitude, a place she could take a breath for a moment.

The grating music and laughter continued to drift across from the other room. She began opening drawers, searching for one elusive item. Eventually she lay her hands on what she was looking for – a long, sharp, gleaming knife. She ran her finger along the edge to check the sharpness, and winced as a tiny droplet of blood ran down the surface. It hovered for a moment, elongating, and then dropped down onto the gleaming white tiled floor.

The tiny pool of blood bothered her, and she grabbed a piece of kitchen towel, deftly wiping it up. The she turned her attention back to the other room, knife in hand.

Another knock at the door and she froze. More people came in, were welcomed, and made their way to the centre of the action. More cheers and whoops. Everyone is so happy, she thought bitterly. It’s so nice for them all to have fun. She held the knife in front of her face, checking it was spotless enough to view her own reflection. The overhead lights glinted as she moved the knife around. A cheer focused her mind on the task she had ahead. Now. This was the time.

Swallowing hard, her earlier confidence gone, she pushed open the kitchen door and stood in the hall. The front door and the outside were calling to her, but she knew she had no choice anymore. She held the knife behind her, her hand becoming sweaty and her grip loosening.

Her fingers on the door handle, she went through the door and into the room. Everyone turned to look, and a man scurried over, beaming.

“Honey, finally you’re here! Happy birthday!”

He kissed her and then waved towards the cake, with the dreaded 40 emblazoned on the top in pink icing. So it was real, she thought.

Producing the knife from behind her back, she plunged it into the heart of the numbers, and repeated it until they were no longer clear.

There, that was better.

Monday, 3 December 2018

The Dog-Walker Stalker by Juliet Thomas

It’s happened before of course, but never at this time of year and unfortunately, in his elder years, he doesn’t seem to have the intelligence or compassion to even try and hide it. Something has to be done.

Take this morning for example, it’s the Tuesday before Christmas and because of the holidays her routine has changed, so of course his has too. He’s agitated and doesn’t know what to do with himself, claiming he had a ‘headache’ and that’s why he got up early.

He’s written a letter to his brother, fiddled with his phone and is now pretending to read the paper. When he thinks I can’t see, he stretches up, uncurling the folds in his neck, meerkat-like to survey the field and path to the woods that we overlook from the dining room window. I follow his gaze, the path is empty, I can almost feel the disappointment seeping from his fingertips as he drums the table. He’s been sat there all day, waiting, watching.

I tut to myself and return to the lunch dishes. What an old fool he is, lusting after a woman young enough to be his grandchild, let alone his daughter. The problem with this one is that she’s a red-head, he always did have a thing for a fiery head of hair.

I smooth down the now gunmetal-grey locks behind my ear, remembering I once dyed it a similar shade after our sons were born. I was craving his attention at the time, desperate to make him notice me as his wife once more, not just the dogsbody that cleaned up and fed everyone. I don’t bother with that silliness anymore, I’ve realised over the decades how easily his head is turned.

‘I’m just nipping out to get some wood dear,’ he calls, hurriedly standing and shaking on his coat. I sigh and grip the sink; it’s the naivety I can’t stand, does he really think I’m that stupid? I look out of the kitchen window and there she is; slim, tall, striding purposefully in boots down the path with that crazy springer spaniel of hers bounding down the field, sniffing out trails. She has a nice pink and purple striped bobble hat on today, to keep her warm in the biting wind, her copper hair flowing out from it like lava, dangerous to the touch.

In the distance the trees beckon to her in the wind, inviting her into the warm embrace of their branches and away from the wanton stare of the strange man trying his best to be noticed at the gate. I inwardly cringe for him, despite his treachery, as he waves desperately and even calls out ‘Hello!’ but the wind carries it away, back into the house, where he should be, or he’ll catch his death. When she disappears over the stile, he finally turns, shoulders heavier and slopes back into the house. 
‘Cup of tea?’ I smile, knowing that we’re though this ridiculous routine for another day.
‘Yes please,’ he whispers, despondent, his cheeks flushed from rejection.

The next morning, it’s Christmas Eve and he sleeps deeply, as planned, thanks to a little sleeping pill I crushed into his hot cocoa last night. I tiptoe in my pyjamas and wellies and slowly open the back door, willing it not to creek. Dawn hasn’t even broken yet as I walk carefully down the path in the darkness, trying not to slip on the mud, even I would not know how to explain this if I fell. The wind has gone and it’s eerily quiet as I pull my coat collar up and shiver. The stars are still bright as I lay down the chopped-up steak with its deadly powder seasoning, just by the gate that leads to the path to the woods. I feel better knowing that at least he will enjoy his last meal.

Not very charitable I know at Christmas time but I can’t have Harry jumping up from our family Christmas dinner to get out there, embarrassing me in front of my nosey sister, and the boys wondering what on earth their Dad is doing. No, not when I’ve poured everyone a cheery glass of champagne, complete with award-winning smile and a welcoming hug.

And most definitely not when I’ve slaved over Christmas dinner all morning, perfecting his favourite roast potatoes, fingers stiff and raw from peeling, my hair all over the place, coated in sprout-smelling steam.

No, I don’t think so.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Writing Life by Vivien Teasdale

Most of us have heard of National Novel Writing Month, but how many have actually tried it? The first time I did it, I was writing on my own – didn’t belong to any groups – so I just got my head down and went for it. I had the sense to try a fantasy, which wasn’t really my ‘thing’ but I’ve found it’s certainly the easiest way to reach that target of 50,000 words in 30 days. This year I’ve done a second novel to follow on from my first ‘turn-of-the-century (nineteenth) detective novel. Lots of encouragement to put it all together, but difficult to sustain over 30 days because of the minor detail of historical accuracy and the need for continual research. In one chapter, my heroine went into town on half-day closing. Except that as soon as I typed it, I realised that half-day closing didn’t become general until the 1912 law was passed – my book is set in 1899. Think again!
This time round I do belong to writing groups and others in those groups are also tackling NaNoWriMo. We support each other, commiserate when we miss the required number of words, which is great. It also gives it a more competitive edge – we know the people who are with us in this, we like to keep up with others’ production rate. We also become more aware of the difficulties people have, those who miss targets because of personal or family glitches, or those who just don’t get around to doing it for all sorts of other reasons. We not only sympathise, we stop berating ourselves quite so much – just thankful we don’t have the same problem to deal with.
So, is it worth it? Well, you may prefer to have a 500 or 1000 word a day deadline which works very well for you already and don’t want the sudden pressure of producing almost 2000 words a day. And if you’re a very organised writer, always setting your own deadlines, and meeting them, you’ll probably want to give it a miss. You don’t need that kind of support or pressure, unless you’re a masochist.
For the rest of us, it focusses your brain on the act of writing and it does it on a daily basis. Normally, we can sit at the computer, then realise we have to ring xxx before we start; then we make a cup of tea, put the washing in, let the dog on the garden, check emails etc, etc before we really start to think about what we are going to write – probably just as we realise it’s lunchtime.
But for the whole of November, you write. You get up early in the morning to be sure to doing your 2000 words before work or sit up at night, missing or recording your favourite programmes, just so you can see that little bar graph on the NaNo website shoot up a little further. And then they pat you on the back by giving you a little badge that says you’ve typed your first NaNo words. You get another one when you’ve hit 10,000 words and so on to the end. You can get badges for having done the whole rigmarole in previous years, for having writing buddies and for attending local write-ins. We feel better for all this and start to act like Pavlov’s dogs, salivating at the thought of a little picture on our screen that says we’ve been good today.
Then they send you emails too. Incessantly. Every day. Encouraging you, reminding you that you’ve not updated yet, asking for donations, confirming how worthwhile it all is, how worthwhile you are. We believe them (unless you’re as ‘bah, humbug’ as I am about all that and simply delete the emails).  But the support works. We don’t want to let ourselves down, we don’t want to let them down.
By the end of November, you not only have 50,000 towards your next book, you have a brain that is half-way trained to produce words at the sight of a computer (or notepad, as appropriate). And that is the point of it all. But, like passing your driving test, we have a tendency to slip back into old habits. So perhaps we should all set ourselves our own personal NaNoWriMo every month. If we wrote just 1000 words of our novel every day, in one year we would have a 350,000 word book (allowing time off for Christmas!) or three full novels or a trilogy.
But a word of warning: if you join the merry throng next year, don’t agree to do a YWL Blog in November, otherwise you’ll have to produce 3000 on one day. Pass the double brandy, someone!

Monday, 19 November 2018

The Return of Mummy by John Emms

It was on his fiftieth birthday that Frank’s mother began to haunt him. Which seemed a coincidence as it had been on her fiftieth birthday that she had died.
Frank had just undressed and got into bed. Which is the truth but doesn’t really portray the way in which he’d ripped his clothes off and leaped on the naked girl who was the latest in a long line of similar ladies who had been attracted to his bed by a combination of his money and his…well, just his money, to be honest. She screamed and sat up, shivering with fright. Not from Frank’s actions, though they had somewhat startled her, but from his mother’s ghostly appearance by the window. And Frank found her arrival a little disconcerting too.
“Hello, Frank.”
The girl gasped.
“Is that your mother?”
“I’m afraid it appears to be, yes.”
“But she’s a…”
“Well, she would be. She’s been dead quite a few years.”
The girl screamed again, scrambled out of bed and, gathering her clothes, while avoiding going near the spectral apparition, scurried out of the bedroom and down the stairs. A short while later the front door slammed.
Frank pouted.
“See what you’ve done?” he said. “I was looking forward to her.”
“Totally unsuitable,” said his mother. “Did you see her things?”
“Those were what I was most looking forward to.”
“I meant her clothes. No dress sense.”
“You never did have any care for me or my wants, did you?”
“Well, why should I? I never wanted you in the first place. As you well know.”
“Yes, you were always honest about that. Wedded to your career, you told me when I was four that you’d be happy if I left home. It wasn’t until I was ten, I think, that I learned about your night of passion with that other interior designer and the forgotten pill.”
“He was wonderful. Such a sense of colour. Or so I thought.”
She mused, reminiscing.
“We would have become business partners. The money we’d have made.”
“You made plenty without him. Thank you very much.”
Strictly speaking it was his mother’s money rather than Frank’s which had been attracting the girls.
“Yes, but…It was only that design in pastel blue and pale lemon which made me realise he was unsuitable.”
“You always did have an irrationally pathological aversion to any combination of blue and yellow.”
“It was not irrational.”
“Many of your fellow designers thought it was.”
“Yes, but none of them were as successful as I was. I could have conquered the interior design world if I hadn’t had you round my neck.”
“I’m sorry.”
“No, you’re not.”
“That’s true.”
The slightly awkward silence which followed was broken by Frank.
“So – have you come back for anything in particular?”
“Only to disrupt your life.”
“I see. Well, as you may have noticed, you’ve already succeeded in doing that.”
“And I’m going to continue. Every time you have a girl here. It’ll actually be more of a pleasure than I anticipated. This room is very tastefully decorated. Congratulations.”
“Nothing to do with me. I used some of your money to pay someone to do out the whole place. Nigel Stansfield.”
“Really? Dear Nigel. He often ran a close second to me.”
There was another silence.
“It isn’t a coincidence, is it?” said Frank.
“What isn’t?”
“That this happens to be my fiftieth birthday?”
“Of course not. You brought my life to an end on my fiftieth. I thought I’d do something similar for you.”
“You know about that then?”
Frank was puzzled. His trip wire at the top of the stairs had, he thought, been undetectable. It had certainly succeeded in its purpose. Its subsequent removal had fooled both the police and the coroner. He had been enjoying the money ever since.
“How do you know?”
“You can find out anything on the other side. Recording angels and whatnot.”
Frank had a momentary frisson of apprehension about what might be awaiting him when he finally passed over. Then his mind returned to more immediate issues.
“Well, you’ve accomplished what you came for. You might as well go now and I’ll have the sleep I wasn’t planning for.”
“OK. Until the next time.”
She disappeared.
Frank mused, then murmured to himself. “Possibly…Or possibly not.”
The next day he visited a DIY shop and came home with a set of paint brushes, a large tin of royal blue paint and another of golden yellow.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

One Hundred Years and Still by Virginia Hainsworth

The sound of the last cannon
echoes into infinity
and dies.
War is over.

‘Peace is declared,’ they have said.
The guns at the front, they are still.
But this song in my head
has a drumbeat to kill.
I am consumed, not by peace, but by dread.

Politicians congratulate themselves.
Negotiators sign,
and recede into the shadows.

‘Peace is declared,’ they have said.
The guns at the front, they are still.
But this song in my head
has a drumbeat to kill.
It runs through my days like a thread.

The world grows bright,
breathes sighs of relief.
Normal lives,
for some, are resumed.

‘Peace is declared,’ they have said.
The guns at the front, they are still.
But this song in my head
has a drumbeat to kill.
I yearn for some calm times ahead.

The loss is weighed
on balance sheets,
in lives.
But the ultimate price is unknown.

‘Peace is declared,’ they have said.
The guns at the front, they are still.
But this song in my head
has a drumbeat to kill.
Still, time will bring healing instead.

For all of those, from WW1 onwards, whose internal conflict continues, long after the battle has ended.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Forks by Owen Townend

            Linda needed help getting the guy out the back of her Landrover.
            "Grab the head," she told me, "I've got the feet."
            The Guy Fawkes effigy was still wrapped up in an old bed sheet except for the black papier-mâché hat. It fell off and I caught a glimpse inside the sheet. I turned back to Linda.
            "I thought you were joking!"

            Linda ran the local chippy. It was a small place in an especially dull corner of the village. The most excitement that had happened recently was the massive order of wooden forks that had come through in early October.
            Linda set the delivery men straight about the mistake immediately but they didn't want to hear about it. The paperwork said that she would either receive the whole delivery or the lot would just be taken back. She gritted her teeth and signed on the dotted line.
            "I swear," she told everyone that day, "I'll find some use for these bloody things."

            And she did. This year Guy Fawkes was entirely composed of those forks. Linda had glued them all together into a large, thin, hunched body.
            Linda shrugged. "Thought it would be different."
             "It is," I replied, helping her sit him up on the float. "Still, couldn't you have used the forks as, you know...forks?"
            Linda plucked one of them from the effigy's shoulder. She held it between thumb and forefinger and applied a small amount of pressure. The fork splintered in two.
            "Flimsy as anything."
            I frowned. "Couldn't you have got the money back instead?"
            She shook her head. "Company went bust about a week after that delivery."
            "Bloody typical."
            "Yeah," Linda said, sitting the black hat atop the lined face of the guy, "Still, even the flimsiest wood burns."
            Now there was profundity. Nevertheless the crooked painted eyes of this strange wooden effigy remained more than a little unsettling.
            "So then," Linda said, "Shall we tell them we're ready?"

            Everyone else in the village took to the idea of a literal Guy Forks right away. It appeared that I was the only one who had had any doubts and even then, as the effigy was flung onto the roaring bonfire, they just as quickly went up in smoke.
            Linda and I leaned back in our deckchairs. There was a sudden bursting sound and a flash of violet brightened the rising flames.
            "Another thing about those forks," she told me, "Some of them had a weird lacquer."
            I thought about responding but then that would have meant taking my eyes off the bonfire. After the violet, its glow seemed to have intensified.
            I heard a new snap and hiss: Linda had pulled out two cans of Dandelion and Burdock, one of which she passed to me.
            "It'll do," she muttered.
            Somewhere within the heart of the bonfire, the tines of Guy Forks were cracking and crackling.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Underground by Andrew Shephard

A boy studies the live rail
at Tooting Broadway
picturing death and electricity.

                Mind the gap, doors closing.

Sits opposite a straggly beard
riding the world’s longest tunnel
to keep warm. Headlines
shout on seats, a bottle rolls
across the floor impeded
by cigarette ends.

A beige mouse occupies
the seat beside the boy,
rattling round a metal wheel
in time with the train.

The tramp stares past the boy and noise
to the dark mirror doubling his soul.
Crescendo subsides for Colliers Wood.

Speeding through blackness
to South Wimbledon, brakes
squeak loud as a million mice.
Tramp exits, crosses to the Northbound.

Coasting to Morden town
soft bulbs flicker across points.
The carriage flips from tunnel night
to instant dawn.

                  All change. This service terminates here.

Clutching ticket and cage,
the boy counts twenty steps
to heaven above.