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Hello!  Thanks for stopping by!  Fiction Can Be Fun is a writing project run by David (@breakerofthings) and Debs (@debsdespatches).   We each post a piece of fiction every month, run a writing prompt once a month and are the originators of #secondthoughts. #secondthoughts are reflections on writing, responses to writing and…well, take a look and you’ll see!

If you’d like to find out more/get involved, please do take a look at the ‘About’ page.

 

Our regular schedule

1st Sunday : #FF Prompt – submission deadline the Friday following @ 2 pm GMT
(or use our #TortoiseFlashFiction page if the deadline is too tight)

2nd Sunday : An original Short story from David or Debs

3rd Sunday : A #SecondThoughts piece from David or Debs
(except for those occasions when we’ve been able to persuade a guest to write one for us!)

4th Sunday : Another Short Story from David or Debs

5th Sunday : on the occasion when these occur, we’ll provide details as early as possible (but typically we’d hope to host a guest post, so do get in touch if you could be interested!)

Two characters in search of a coffee

“You look rough!”

“Thanks, I don’t think. You’d look rough too, if your author was editing.”

“Let’s get a drink, and you can tell me all about – woah! You’ve gone green!”

“Let’s get a coffee, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

*****

“OK, what’s this all about then?”

“My author’s editing -”

“Yes, you already said.  Mine does that from time to time.  He keeps on trying to strip out all the adverbs, but it’s not that bad really.”

“It’s rude to interrupt. My author’s editing, and they’ve decided that I drink. A lot.”

“But you’re tee-total!”

“I KNOW! Ooh, I should not have shouted…my head.”

“You should sue.”

“That’s not the half of it. My author’s publisher wants more diversity, so now I’m gay.”

“Oh…but aren’t you asexual?”

“Yep.  But what’s a character to do when a publisher makes demands and a writer starts getting creative?”

© David Jesson, 2018

#FF: Photoprompt

Winners and Losers

Le Coq walked up and down the route.  There would be no repeat of last year’s debacle.  Or, if it came to it, that of the before before.  This year, the race would be conclusive.  He strutted to the start line.

“Où sont les coureurs?”

The two teams brought their champions forward.  There was much checking of laces.  Legs were stretched.   Sporting behaviour was called for.

“Un…deux…trois…” the starting pistol cracked flatly in the crisp, frosty air.

A nice, clean race was never seriously on the cards.  This was a grudge match, and they’d barely gone 10 metres before the shoving started – neither party was blameless, neither party gave any quarter.  They pelted down the narrow snowy path side by side, each trying to gain some advantage.  If I can only get a little ahead, each thought, I can fly, I can win this.

Afterwards, each would blame the other, but in truth it was all but impossible to tell who stumbled first, who tripped the other.  The result was the same in either case.

Le Coq strutted up and demanded of the officials on the finish line “Qui est arrivé en premier? Qui a gagné?”

The worthy gave an expressive Gallic shrug and indicated the heap astride the finish line like a collapsed colossus. Le Coq stared. Le Coq berated. Le Coq walked off in high dudgeon, gesticulating wildly and talking to himself.  Once again, the chicken and the egg had managed to mess up this simplest of races.  Once again, there would be no answer to the age old question.

© David Jesson, 2018



Cockerel in the snow

They’d been following him for hours, first through the busy traffic of the city, then at high speed down the highway. When they’d finally followed him onto the smaller roads, it’d been tricky driving. The snow had fallen heavily and the roads hadn’t been cleared yet, Matthew wasn’t sure they’d even been gritted.

That family car pulling suddenly out of a driveway in front of them had caused havoc. In order to avoid them, his driver had spun off the road. The mother had spun too and managed to completely block the road with her estate car, chock full of kids. She’d been hysterical, even though they were all OK, so Matthew had to send one of his men running back up the driveway to fetch her husband, while the rest of them pushed her car aside. As soon as he could see the husband coming, Matthew and his team had jumped back in their car to continue the pursuit.

But they’d lost him. They’d spent too much time messing around with that blasted woman and her kids. She’d driven straight out in front of them and all she could manage to say was “but there’s never any traffic on these roads” over and over again. Everyone was alright – no bumps, no bruises, and frankly the kids were calmer than she was. Thank goodness the husband had been home, or he’d have been stuck there all night while they waited for a female police officer to relieve them.

They came across his car suddenly. It was stopped in the road, for no obvious reason. The driver’s door was wide open and one of Matthew’s men jumped in to check. “Run out of petrol” he heard announced, as the rest of the team scanned the road around the car. Yes, there were the footprints leading away from the car. The team grabbed their coats, torches and thermoses from the boot and headed into the snow. They followed carefully, for they knew he was armed.

Until, that is, they heard shots and some shouting, when they threw caution to the wind and ran. The sounds had come from the direction of a rather run-down outbuilding and Matthew rapidly deployed his team around it to ensure both exits were covered. Having called ‘Silent Running’ to his team as they’d set off after the footprints, each member had put their phones onto silent and inserted an earbud, before moving off. All had voice-activated dialling enabled and Matthew was able to quietly check in with the other team “Anything?” “Nope boss, not a peep”.

Having waited a few minutes without further sound or movement, Matthew quietly announced “I’m going for a closer look.” As Matthew approached, he could see that the door was very slightly ajar, the lock having been smashed – they were clearly in the right place. Taking out his handgun, Matthew muttered quietly “I’m going in”. Pulling the door open, he winced as the old hinges creaked. Ever so carefully, Matthew put first his gun hand, then the rest of himself into the opening when he heard an unexpected noise. Stepping back quickly, he waited, for he could hear – very faintly – the sound of something moving. Then with a rush and a small flurry of feathers, a cockerel strutted out through the open door, and Matthew had to hold in the laughter.

Their man must be still inside. Breathing carefully, he started to make his way slowly back through the open door, when there was a quiet voice in his ear “Skip, that cockerel is leaving a bloody trail in the snow, but I don’t think he’s been shot.” Moving in with rather more confidence, Matthew found his man – slumped in the corner, bleeding heavily and drifting in and out of consciousness. Matthew relieved him of his gun which caused him to stir and say “bloody chicken … startled me … and my gun went off. I only bloody shot myself!”

This time Matthew didn’t even attempt to hold back – he laughed out loud. How could he not? A cockerel had gotten the better of their man – one of the most wanted in the country.

© Debra Carey, 2018

 

#FF Photo Prompt

chicken in the snow

I couldn’t resist this cockerel striding through the snow and thought he’d make a fun prompt. Of course, you might be inspired to write something deeply sinister, that’s what’s so fun about this writing malarkey!

 

Word count: say 500-750 words
Deadline: 2pm GMT on Friday 9th November 2018

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page


Post your story on your site and link to it here in the comments below, or drop us a line via the contact us page and we’ll post it for you.

 

Maggie’s garden

Tommy crept round the corner till he could see her. He’d been dared, but he was still going to be real careful. No need to be getting on the wrong side of old Maggie. Hell, even his father was real careful round old Maggie. The funny thing was that his mother and his aunts seemed to really like her. Talking about old Maggie always made them smile, but Tommy decided on caution being the best approach.

Maggie always wore black – long, flowing dresses, with those funny lace up boots and gloves without fingers. Even in the summer. In the winter she had this big old cloak she wore. It had a huge hood – kinda like the one little red riding hood had in the fairy stories, only it was black of course.

Folks said they heard her be talking to herself as she walked into town and so kept a wide berth. Animals seemed to like her well enough though – dogs would walk over to her all quiet-like for a pet on the nose and cats would rub themselves against her legs. The boys’d heard tales of her helping out with horses who’d gone crazy too.

Each year at the village fair, Maggie’s pies were the stars of the baking stall. All the women bought raffle tickets in the hope of winning one. Tommy noticed that when they got a winning ticket. his pa seemed to push the pie round his plate with his fork. Usually his ma would get all riled up about wasted food, but she’d just laugh and split it between the rest of them, afore shooing his pa away from the table.

Today was the day before the village fair and Maggie’d been baking pies. They were set out on her kitchen table right by the big screen doors. He’d been dared to grab one and make a run for it. The prize was being allowed into the secret club with the older boys. If he brought one of Maggie’s pies to the clubhouse, that’d be his ticket in.

Tommy hadn’t been worried till the night before. He’d overheard his pa talking to his ma on the porch after he’d gone to bed. His pa was asking her not to buy tickets for one of Maggie’s pies this year. Turns out all of Maggie’s husbands had died after eating one of her pies. Rumour was that half her herb garden was for cooking and the other half would kill you. Seems her husbands didn’t know which was which.

And now Tommy was worried, ‘cos neither did he …


© Debra Carey, 2018

#secondthoughts: Banned Topics

You’ll probably be unsurprised to learn that Debs and I talk to each other quite a lot about writing: the main focus of this is the story that we wrote together back in April, and of course this website.  For the most part though, we don’t usually talk about specific stories or essays.

In the commentaries of one of his collections, Gary Larson mentions that every so often he used to get a phone call from an acquaintance who’d say “I really liked that cartoon today”.  At that point Larson would start to wonder if maybe he’d gone a bit too far… Every now and again I write something that I think needs writing, but I want to get a second opinion before it goes out into the world.  Debs is my second opinion.

The first version of the following essay was one that I thought needed writing, but which I thought needed some critique.  It turned out that Debs had already written last month’s #secondthoughts, which was also prompted by some WorldCon shenanigans.  We had a bit of chat about whether we needed both of these essays, but we decided that we should give you both, because they deal with two separate, albeit related issues.  We also thought you might like our joint response to this, and even if you don’t, it’s included at the end of the post.

curly cue

One of the things I struggle with as a writer is how to deal with certain topics. There are some things that I just don’t want to write about, but I know that at some stage I might have to: avoiding the subject will leave an elephant in the room that might be more than the story can bear. Luckily I’ve not reached that point yet, and I’ll just have to burn that bridge when I get to it.

One of the things that worries me about such topics is the effect that it has on a reader. For example, what if writing about a suicide encouraged a reader to go through with it? What if I did come up with the perfect, undetectable murder and someone followed through on it? What if writing about an act of terrorism begat that act in real life?

The general view, I think, is that you’d have to look at the presentation of the topic: is the writer actively inciting a particular (negative) activity, or does the event follow as a logical consequence from the preceding events? Is it a meaningful contribution to the story being laid out or is it just being included to shock? These are not always easy questions to answer. Some people will regard an entire genre as being inappropriate (some would like to remove horror from the shelves completely, others would see romantic fiction as ripe for a cull); looking more broadly, one has only to look at awards given to modern art to wonder what the judges, let alone the artists, were on.

Recently, I saw a tweet that called for a blanket ban on a particular topic across all SF literature. I’m not going to specify the topic or the person because I think that it is a question that has a broader applicability to both other topics and other genres. I also don’t have all the information regarding the context, although apparently it stemmed from events/discussion occurring at WorldCon. (Given the stuff that Debs wrote about stemming from other events occurring during WorldCon, I wonder if I’ll ever go, even if I get the opportunity).  The author of the tweet had a particular view on this, being directly affected by the implications.  Their tweet (or rather tweets, as it became a longish thread), and the response from the community, warrants scrutiny, however.

The key tweet has not gone viral, but this is someone with a reasonable number of followers, and the tweet was liked and retweeted thousands and hundreds of times respectively.  A number of people replied.  Initially there was only support; after a time, a few people responded less positively and some of these were hounded, more or less aggressively, not by the original poster, but by supporters.  What’s surprising is that this ban is being touted by someone who wants more representation of people other than white males in fiction: there was also an implication that anyone who isn’t writing more about others and less about white males is deliberately setting out to keep everyone else down.  You could argue that it’s worse than that: lots of people just haven’t woken up to the fact that there is a problem.  On the other hand, sometimes certain topics aren’t addressed in a book because it makes no sense to talk about them.  They don’t fit.  It’s not that the author is avoiding the situation, or that they’re lazy, it is just something that would disrupt the flow of the story, or it doesn’t fit right.  Adding Morgan Freeman to Robin Hood sort of works, is sort of justifiable if you spin the narrative that way, but it does feel like a diversity tickbox.

It’s something that I’ve been thinking a bit about as I’ve been working on revising the AtoZ posts from earlier in the year, that I wrote with Debs.  We have at least three different species in play, possibly four, although all of these are basically humanoid.  We have a mix of male and female characters.  In all honesty, though our diversity comes more from the fact that whilst the novel is set in the East End of London, the characters are drawn from all over the British Isles.  We probably need to take a look at that.  On the other hand, time and place provide some limitations to the levels of diversity that can be achieved and on the other, some of it comes from the prejudices of the reader – after all, if JK can declare retrospectively that Hermione is actually black, then there are a few characters that are actually black and I didn’t realise at the time…

Where do we go from here?  Writers have to do better in the diversity stakes.  It is pretty much as simple as that.  Except it isn’t quite that simple.  Yes, we do need to do better, but we also need to think about what is appropriate for the story, and the time and place that it is set.  There is a reason that Shardlake has more than a few problems going about his business. OK, if you’re writing SF and you’re having problems with diversity then that might be an issue.  You can’t, for example, claim that in the future we only use stairs as a way of foiling the daleks. On the other hand, you shouldn’t not write something because the action can only be carried out by someone who isn’t in a wheelchair.  I was going to say ‘confined to a wheelchair’, but that is the sort of change that we can make.  There are all sorts of things that were a problem – a hundred or more years ago.  Today, they really shouldn’t be.

There’s a quote that I’m quite fond of, although I have no idea who said it, and I haven’t been able to find an attribution:

“We don’t want a seat at the table. We want a new table.”

Don’t let’s ban topics: lets engage, challenge ourselves and each other to do better, and make sure that our writing is as diverse as the communities we live in.

curly cue

What can we do as writers to make things better?  Here’s a few thoughts to get us started, please do add more ideas in the comments section:

  1. When you send a story out to beta, remember to ask people to think about diversity within the story.  Do you have any?
  2. For that matter, don’t just send the story to betas that look like you, broaden your input.
  3. When you are editing, reflect on the people that you have in your story.  Do they have any Genuine Occupational Traits? You’d be surprised how few things actually warrant specifying a particular kind of person.  John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy, Bad Day at Black Rock, 1955) did a pretty good job of sorting out the bad guys, with only one good arm to work with.
  4. Don’t overdo the diversity stuff: adding a black, trans, gay woman with a lisp just to tick the boxes doesn’t help anyone, including the writer.
  5. Don’t force situations.
  6. Don’t perpetuate stereotypes.
  7. Do add flavour and texture – a few words here and there to describe a person in the background can make all the difference, and giving some lines to a normally invisible person isn’t going to make your word count suffer too much.  Perhaps your MC can chat to the person ahead of them in a queue, who happens to be ___[fill in the blank]____.
  8. If you have a character with a particular trait, do take the time to do research and talk to people with that trait.  Writers are going to come to something like this with all sorts of baggage: don’t be the person that ends up explaining what it’s like to be [x] when you have no life experience in that area.

 


© 2018, David Jesson

Hector

“I’m going to have to put Hector on ice.”

#####

Hattie had long thought there was something dubious about her friend’s father.  It wasn’t quite that she’d gone out of her way to maintain the friendship with Eneida, but in terms of parents who might be interesting for the wrong reasons – well, she forgave her friend the fixation with My Little Pony that had continued for longer than for anyone else they knew.

Her parents thought her intelligent, interesting, unconventional – unique, of course. Hattie’s parents had encouraged her to read all the stories that they had loved as children. She read widely. As happens, she mentioned how much she enjoyed certain books and suddenly everyone was getting her other volumes, or similar things that she might enjoy. Consequently, she fancied herself as Harriet the Spy, Anne and George, Hazel and Daisy, Nancy Drew, Lady Molly, and half a dozen others all rolled into one (good points only, of course).

The sleepover had been in the planning for a little over six weeks.  When it became obvious that they weren’t going to be able to meet up during half-term, Hattie and Eneida talked of a fun start to the summer.  The plans grew and grew until there were to be half a dozen meeting at Enieda’s straight after school on the last day of the summer term.  They didn’t quite plan things down to the number of kernels of corn to be popped for the snacks which they watched films and boxsets, but in other respects almost all the time was accounted for, including some spare activities in the (unlikely) event that the board-games under-ran.  Ice cream flavours were discussed: the three that made the final cut were “All the Chocolate”, “Salted Caramel Surprise”, and “Raspberry Pavlova”.  (Jessica’s dairy intolerance was catered for with mango sorbet).

It had been during the board games, early on the first evening, that she’d head the incriminating conversation.  She’d popped out of the Den (a second living room, given over to Eneida and her brothers, and placed firmly out of bounds to the latter for the weekend), to go to the loo.  The kitchen door was half open.  She was not sure who Eneida’s father was talking to, nor did she have any clue who Hector might be.  Eneida’s father spoke English with the lack of an accent that spoke of an expensive, or at least heavily invested in, second language: the casual way that he spoke of putting Hector “on ice” was almost as chilling as the statement itself.

Putting Hector on ice sounded like something that she should try and prevent.

She went back to the Den, mind whirling: who could she talk to about this? No one.  What could she do? No idea.

#####

She tried to pay attention, tried to have fun.   She’d tried to join in the excitement as Eneida talked about her family’s plans for the summer.  They were going to be going away for nearly a month.  There was a lot to do, much to prepare: they’d done a house swap with friends of friends who lived in Australia.  She’d spent the whole afternoon trying to think about how to save Hector and had taken in nothing of what was going on around her.  Which film had they even watched?  She couldn’t even remember the schedule that they’d spent so long perfecting.

Eneida’s father called them into the kitchen-diner for tea: originally, they’d planned to have takeaway pizza, but Eneida’s mother had insisted that they have home-made.  Hattie preferred thin crust, but Eneida’s father was a sour dough king and had made the dough for them.  He helped them to roll it out, and once they had assembled the pizzas from the selection of toppings that had been laid out, he skilfully slid the peel under them and then flicked them into the pizza oven that he’d set up on the patio.

Hattie’s was one of the last to be baked, not counting the ones that Eneida’s parents made for themselves.  Whilst she was waiting, Eneida’s mother came up and put her hand on her husband’s arm.

“Did you get rid of Hector?” she asked in a low voice.  Hattie’s ears pricked up and her tired mind was suddenly alert.

“As we discussed, my love.  I saved a bit in the freezer.”

Was Eneida’s mother in on this killing too?

#####

Hattie looked at her phone.  2.37 am.  From all around her, there was gentle snoring and the soft breathing of five people tucked up in sleeping bags.  Gently she unzipped her own bag, found her torch and her dressing gown and stole out of the room on tiptoe.  There was enough light coming through the big picture window that formed one side of the landing for her to be able to see that the way to the stairs was clear.  She shrugged on the dark red terry-cloth dressing grown and crept down the stairs, avoiding the third tread from the top, which she knew creaked.  As she descended to the ground floor, the light faded away until she reached the bottom, where it was pitch black.  She turned the tip of the torch (a miniature Maglite) until the bulb just flickered into life, and then cupped the light to reduce the light still further, to the barest minimum.  With this, she made her way to the kitchen.

Hattie opened the freezer draw.  She hadn’t been able to save Hector, but perhaps she could secure the evidence that would bring his killers to justice.  She couldn’t understand how Eneida’s father could be so brazen: not only had he kept a souvenir, but here it was in his own home freezer, carefully labelled with Hector’s name and the date.   Wasn’t he worried that Eneida might find it?

She opened the box to see what had been saved.  She was expecting a finger (for opening a biometric lock, perhaps).  Or perhaps an ear: ears were a classic souvenir.  What she was not expecting was a block of porridge-coloured – what? What on Earth was it?  It had clearly been some kind of liquid, with a certain amount of water, given that the block had conformed perfectly to the shape of the Tupperware, and there were little ice-crystals on the surface.

There was a click and the kitchen was bathed in lights: she froze as solid as whatever was in the Tupperware.  Eneida’s father stood in the doorway.

“What are you doing with Hector?” he asked, sleepily shocked.

He shuffled over.  Gently he took the Tupperware, closed it, and put it back in the freezer, closed the drawer, closed the door.

“If you wanted some sour dough starter, you only had to ask.”

© David Jesson, 2018

#FF – Conflict Resolution

Willoughby and the dragon

Willoughby was a final year at St George’s School for Knights.  His family was very much of the “with your shield or on it” persuasion, and in this respect, Willoughby was considered the black sheep of the family.  In the normal course of things, being a third son, he would have been destined for the church, which would have suited him down to the ground.  It was not so much that he was bookish, which the family could have tolerated, no, it was the continuous parade of animals large and small that were nursed back to health after being extracted from the jaws of a cat or dog, or found at the bottom of a tree with a broken wing, or – well the opportunities were endless really.

So, at the tender of age of eight, Willoughby was packed off to train to become a knight.  The chivalry bit came easily, and he was always near the top when it came to the theory – and always at the bottom when it came to the practical knighting (except for ‘Care of Your Horse’).

Willoughby looked out of the Library window and sighed.  He was completing an assignment for Heraldry, which he normally quite enjoyed; most of friends were off on a field trip for “Advanced Questing” though, and he was feeling quite blue.  (It wasn’t that he envied them the time away, but he’d all but failed the pre-requisite General Questing course, and this was a reminder of his general inadequacy as a knight).  He sighed again and then turned as first year coughed politely and said, in a piping treble:

“Excuse me, sir, but Sir Edric would like to see you.” The youngster turned away, and then turned back “Right away”, he added apologetically.

Sir Edric was Willoughby’s Personal Tutor, and the school’s Exams Officer.  He was relatively new to the school, having joined the teaching staff the year before (hence having been handed the less than plum job of Exams Officer).   Sir Edric was berry-brown from twenty years of crusades in hot climes; settling back into the damp weather of home had made him rather irascible.

“AH! Willoughby!” Sir Edric boomed. “Sit down, sit down, don’t stand on ceremony!”

Willoughby sat.

Not one for pleasantries, Sir Edric came straight to the point: “We have a problem, Willoughby.  Your overall exam grades mean that you can’t graduate, even if you ace your finals.”

“Oh…that’s certainly a problem for me, but I don’t see that it’s a problem for anyone else.”

“You’ve been here long enough to know that schools such as ours are reviewed every five years, if we want to keep our licence.  This year is a quinquennial, and it is also the centenary of the school: we are expecting the King to come and visit and perhaps even to present us with an ‘Honour’.

“That sounds like a great…honour?”

“It is indeed.  However, that will not happen if we don’t have a licence, and our licence will not be renewed if do not maintain certain standards.  Suffice it to say I have several difficult conversations to endure today, but yours is perhaps the most challenging.”

“I’m sorry to have put you to such trouble, Sir Edric.” Willoughby said this without a trace of irony or resentment, the old knight waved the comment away.

“Part of the problem is our completion rate, and you Willoughby put us just on the wrong side of the threshold.  Therefore, there are two options.  The first is that you leave the school, now, forever, and forsake the chilvaric arts; the second is that you undertake a quest of sufficient magnitude to allow us to compensate your grades in other courses.”

“Well, of course, I’d be very happy to oblige you if I could, but I don’t think my family would be very happy if I just left the school.”

“No, I don’t believe they would, and of course one of your uncles is on the Board of Governors – it would look bad for him if you left.”

“What sort of task will I have to do?”

“Well there’s a look-up table for this sort of thing.  Just review this for me would you and check that you agree as to the aggregate shortfall.  Shortfall did not actually do the underperformance in key areas due credit.  Long plunge might do better.  They looked at tables and subtables and tried to assess what would need to be done.  Clearly assisting a pilgrim across the road would not cut the mustard in this situation.  Sir Edric looked over his half-moon spectacles at the lad before him.

“Well Willoughby, it looks as though you’ll have to take on a dragon.  I’d let you do ten rounds with Fizzlewick, but it needs to be a category 3 beast, and the school mascot is definitely passed his best these days.”

Willoughby looked pale, but not actually sick.  Still a category 3 dragon for an untested, and, by his grades, poor knight was tantamount to murder.

“I suppose that if I fail, the school would still be off the hook?”

“Only if you die, or are so badly injured that you could not continue to attend the school” said the old knight, not unkindly.

At that moment the duty squire ran in and with a lack of decorum breathlessly spilled out his message:

“There’s a peasant in the courtyard, Sir Edric, he say’s that a huge dragon has settled on the slopes of Mount Orison!”

“Well!” Sir Edric rubbed his hands together.  “No time like the present!”

“No sir.”  The reply was less enthusiastic.

It takes a little time to get that sort of expedition together, but as quickly as they could the small cavalcade set out: Willoughby, the overeager first year as his squire, a couple of yeomen to do the heavy lifting, Sir Edric and a few others as observers.  They made good time to Mount Orison, set up a small camp at the base.  The next morning,  Willoughby and his squire set out.

Edric and his cronies knew that nothing would happen for a while, but the youngsters in the party kept their ears open, hoping to hear the sounds of battle joined.  It was something of a surprise then, when the squire came crashing back into camp in the late morning.

“What…what… was the…ex-act wording of the task?” he stammered breathlessly.

“What?” Sir Edric exploded.  “What’s that got to do with anything?  Isn’t one of them dead yet?”

“Please, Sir Edric,” the boy said, unapologetic in his excitement.  “Willoughby says it’s very important.”

Sir Edric pulled out the parchment, huffing as he did so, muttering.  “Hmmm…it says that the candidate needs to defeat a category 3 dragon.”

“That’s all it says, sir?  No caveats?”

“Defeat a dragon, I said, and defeat a dragon is what is written here!”

“Oh, that is good news!”  The squire ran off and rummaged in some saddle bags, and sprinted off back up the mountainside with something clutched in his hands.

“O, to be young again” Sir Edric said, to no one in particular.

Some of the younger knights wanted to see what was going on straight away, but more experienced heads prevailed, and they actually set off once luncheon had time to settle.  They walked cautiously up the wooded hillside, but a party of knights, squires and all the rest do not walk quietly, and so Willoughby’s assistant had ample warning of their arrival.  He met them, at the edge of a clearing and put his fingers to his lips.

“It’s a very delicate stage” he whispered, “two games each, one to play.”

They stared out into the clearing where a large, winged dragon lay sprawled on the ground, looking for all the world like a tapestry rendition of a hunting hound.  Close enough to feel the dragon’s exhalation from the cavernous nostrils, which, incidentally continually plumed thin tendrils of steam, Willoughby sat awkwardly in his armour.  Between the two combatants was a board.  A nine mens morris board.  Each contemplated a move, placed a stone and waited for the other.  occasionally a piece was knocked off the board.

“It was incredible, ” the first year exclaimed to Sir Edric, “Willoughby challenged the dragon, and then offered to parley.  The dragon agreed, said he’d not had a decent conversation in twenty years.  They chatted and the dragon said that he was an undefeated champion at stones, so I ran back to check about the wording.  They agreed to a five game tourney.  If Willoughby loses, the dragon eats him.  If the dragon loses, he has to come and be the new school mascot!”

Speechless, Sir Edric gaped at the scene, his jaw dropping even lower as the dragon suddenly rolled over its back, paws over its muzzle.  Willoughby got stiffly to his feet and started as he saw the crowd at the edge of the clearing.

“I’m not sure what your father would say, but you have completed the letter of the quest which you have undertaken, and that’s good enough for me.  Mind you, I’m not sure wha the Board of Governors will make of it either – that dragon is going to be a lot more expensive to feed than Fizzlewick.  It was at that moment, that they realised that several of the part were down on one knee.  They turned: the King had arrived unnoticed, and so they joined the rest of their group in obeisance.

The King’s clenched armoured fists bashed down on Willoughby’s pauldrons – first the right shoulder and then the left.  “Well done, Sir Willoughby” His Majesty said as he handed the new knight a sheathed sword.

© David Jesson, 2018


Coolio

It was killing me. My Ma had made me promise I’d not get into any fights, and I didn’t know what else I could do. Finally storming out, I threw dirty looks at them villans as I went, before slamming the door behind me. It still killed me for I knew they was doing wrong, and that poor kid … how must he’ve been feeling? Still steaming, I raged round the playground, kicking an old coke can as I went – but it didn’t help. Problem was, there was no pleading with my Ma that I’d good reason to defend a kid being bullied, she’d just tell me “there’s always another way Sean, now be off with you.”

Thing is, when I was smaller, I was that kid. Small, skinny, spotty – the only thing I was missing was a pair of specs. They’d picked on me mercilessly. There were no broken bones to point to, only a bit of pushing ‘n shoving and loads of tripping me up as I walked past – it was more what they said. They were pretty nasty. They made me feel an outcast, that nobody liked me. It was lonely and miserable, and I hated coming to school because of them. The thing I didn’t understand was that they weren’t secretive about it, most times they made sure they had an audience for their nasty work. And that’s what really hurt – ‘cos when nobody helps, when nobody stands up for you or beside you, then what’s a lad to believe other than they don’t like you? You don’t get they’re relieved they aren’t the target for the bullies and if they say anything at all, they’ll be next. It’s not nice, very not nice.

The teachers and the headmaster, they did nothing either, ‘cept shrug and say “chin up” or “you’ve got to stand up to bullies”. Yeah, loads of help that sort of advice. So I went to see my Uncle Stan. He runs a gym. I knew My Ma wouldn’t be happy but, what’s a lad to do? You can’t allow ’em to get away with it, can ya? He helped me get fit, build up some strength, get some muscles … then he taught me to box. It didn’t take long to put that lot flat on their backsides. They learned to leave me alone soon enough.

But there’s always another victim just waiting in the wings ain’t there, and soon they had another target for their nasty behaviour. ‘Course, I couldn’t stand by, could I? I had to weigh in, tell ’em to be off ‘n all that malarkey. They were grateful, the erstwhile victims, and soon they were all trooping into Uncle Stan’s gym too. Then the bullies upped their game by recruiting from the local gangs. That’s when the fights started … and they quickly got out of hand.

Those of us who was caught got suspended from school, and my Ma – well, she hit the roof. She’d never liked my Da’s brother Stan and now she banned me from going to the gym. I begged her – I’d no shame at all – I just all out begged. It took a good long while but by the time my suspension was over, I was allowed my gym visits. It’d cost the strict promise that I’d stop fighting and it didn’t take long for that to get round at school … so the bullies started up again. As my Uncle Stan would say “it’s enough to break a geezer’s bleedin’ heart”.

A week or so later and I’d almost decided to start bunking off school ‘cos I couldn’t stand watching the bullies wrecking havoc again, when Uncle Stan popped round. I’d spilled the beans to him about how not being able to do something about the bullying was doing my head in, and he’d had an idea. Much to my surprise, my Ma thought it was a good idea too – never been seen before, my Ma and Uncle Stan on the same side. They both went to see the headmaster and he’d agreed to give it a go. They wouldn’t tell me what it was, just persuaded me to give school another go from the next Monday.

Monday dawned and I saw the usual picking on smaller kids happening on the bus, so I got off and walked. Still couldn’t get away from it, ‘cos different bullies were pushing ‘n shoving kids on their bikes so that drivers were shouting at the kids too. By the time I got to class, I felt like my head was exploding. Doing the register was the usual zoo, so it took me a while to notice him. He was stood next to Mr D, wearing a good suit and a great watch. He didn’t smile, just his eyes went round the room, taking in all the nonsense that went on every day. As Mr D was asking for quiet to introduce him, he held his hand up and strode to the back of the classroom. It was then I noticed they had one of the littlest kids in the corner and that he was crying. “Enough!” He didn’t shout, but the classroom went silent immediately – even Mr D! “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked the bullies. “Think this makes you a big man do you?” A couple of them had the sense to look uncomfortable, the rest shrugged, but Moz – ever the ringleader – said “so, what of it?” The man drew the little kid to his side “come sit at the front by me” and “you!” pointing to Moz, “you’re going to be the first in my lesson.” He’d never raised his voice throughout, yet he’d sounded gentle to the little kid and deathly serious to Moz. That’s when he caught my eye “alright Sean?” and with a nod and a smile like you’d never believe you’d see from a hard geezer like him, he sat down. That’s when it hit me – he was Uncle Stan’s solution.

The rest of the morning passed peacefully. If Moz or any of his lot started with the smart remarks, one look from him was all it took to shut ’em up. We learned more in that half day than in weeks. In the last lesson before lunch, Mr D introduced our visitor “This is Charles and he’s here to talk to us about making choices.” Moz had started with his usual jabber when our visitor said “excellent, a volunteer, up you come then.” He then proceeded to tell us a story. A story about a young man who thought he was the business. A young man who was physically strong and learned that he could get his own way by using that strength. A young man who found the kind of people who wanted to be his mates were as he put it “the kind of geezers you wanted beside you in a fight”. This geezer made a good name for himself as a cage fighter and had lots of money to splash about. You could see Moz nodding – he liked the sound of that, even better, he thought Charles was telling him he could be just like that geezer. Till Charles told him how the day came when that geezer’s friends didn’t stand beside him. When he lost a fight ‘cos of too much hard living and not enough training, when he kept losing and had no money to splash about. His mates didn’t want to know no more. They wouldn’t even offer him their sofa for a night after he lost his place. Like he said, he could take care of himself on the street, but … what a come down, what a life, what a miserable existence.

Then one day, someone whose face he vaguely recognised from school spotted him huddled in a doorway. This guy took him home, ran him a hot bath, gave him some spare clothes and shared his evening meal with him. Then he gave him pillows, a duvet and blankets, even a spare pair of pyjamas and wished him a good night’s sleep on the sofa. And he’d had one. Probably the first one in ages. In the morning, the guy cooked breakfast for them both and then invited him to stay while he was out at work. Told him to help himself to food, to watch TV, to rest, to read, just asked that he leave his daughter’s room alone as she’d be staying at the weekend. Amazed, Charles had asked him “why?” to which the guy had answered “because you needed it.”

Charles stayed that day, then the weekend, watching his friend spend time with his young daughter, joining in when he felt it was right. The next Monday, he asked his friend if he could use his address to apply for some jobs. His friend had simply nodded and smiled. Clean and smart, he got the first job he applied for. It wasn’t anything special, but he’d done it to the best of his ability. He kept getting work, he gave his friend money for rent and food, and watched his friend put the money into a big pink pig moneybank. As time went on, it struck him that he liked knowing he was contributing to the future of his friend’s daughter. The jobs he was offered got better, for he was getting good references. He kept his nose clean, he worked hard, he listened and learned.

One day someone recognised him and offered him a fight. He said no. But he did return to a gym – my Uncle Stan’s gym – and he started to train. This time round he started to encourage the other gym users, to teach them what he knew. In no time at all, Stan saw he had the potential to become a coach and suggested he get proper qualifications. While he was looking at courses, he spotted some about self-development and life coaching. And he’d done those too.

He lived in his own small place now, but he still spent time with his friend, he still put money into that pink moneybank which his friend had accepted reluctantly, but now did with a smile. Then he met someone – a fiesty, intelligent woman – and they got married, having two children quickly. All this time, he was working as a coach – developing young people both physically and mentally. He started to give talks, to tell people about his life, and about the choices he’d made – both bad and good. These days he was what was called a Motivational Speaker. “And guess what?” he asked them, “I earn more money doing that than I ever did fighting.” The classroom was abuzz, before he made his closing remark “Make good choices. If you’re strong, help those who are not. If you have plenty, share with those who have nothing. Moz, the first lesson is yours, the rest of you, put your name on the sign up sheet.”

Someone from Moz’s gang raised their hand – a first – “what you going to teach us Sir?” He smiled that huge smile again “technically it’ll be martial arts, but you’ll also be learning discipline, hard work, patience … and how to make good choices.”

As we all filed out into the corridor, Moz sought me out “How come you never said you knew such a cool geezer?” I grinned. For there was no doubt that Charles had physical presence, but they were all listening because he was cool.

© Debra Carey, 2018