#Secondthoughts: Five Gold Stars

Despite various inflationary issues, economic and otherwise, we all know that something that has been given a gold star – or indeed a gold anything has done pretty well.  Even a gold raspberry from the Razzies suggests that you have reached a pinnacle, even if it is one that you would prefer not to be acknowledged for… There is a surprising amount of research done into the best way to collect data on peoples preferences and the cogniscenti are able to take one look at a survey and assess whether it has been designed by an expert or an amatuer – perhaps an intern given a job that no-one else wanted to do, or a trainee not being given enough support.  What must be obvious to anyone though is that you can’t really wrap up a range of issues into one rating, even if you let someone have a range of five stars to work with.  For one thing, the majority of people will say “you can always do better” and avoid giving 5*, but by the same token, they won’t want to completely damn someone’s hard work by giving only 1* – although there are exceptions.

(Side note: I find it worthwhile checking out the 1* ratings to see if the comments actually make sense.  Looking at something recently, I found that the 1* ratings all related to the supplier/format rather than the book itself.  On the whole, I’m usually less than impressed with 1* reviews, because they tend not to explain what was wrong, but just say that the reviewer didn’t like it, which is not entirely helpful).

This year I’ve decided to give the Goodreads challenge a go.  I’ve committed to reading a book a week, although as I writethis, I am behind schedule, partly because of time constraints and partly because I’ve been working through a couple of really chunky books.  I’ve slipped in a couple of very thin books to try and get me back on track…  One of the side effects of getting more involved with Goodreads is that I’ve been writing more reviews and reading more of other peoples reviews.  One of the chunky books that I’m reading is a non-fiction book, and it has been interesting to read the reviews of people who can be considered interested amatuers, those who’ve read the book beacuse they thought they should, and those who work in the same field(ish).  This is a book outside my normal interests, but was a gift: it has been hard work, but I am enjoying it, and the author makes a lot of sense.  One of the reviews has been a bit of a rabbit hole though and one that I keep returning to.

The review, which is quite damning in many ways, suggests that the author has made too much use of a particular theory and that anyone who really knows the area wouldn’t use that theory, debunking the whole book.  What has been interesting is the follow up to this.  There are a lot of comments that support or refute the review, and a few more extended commentary-conversations between the reviewer and people who have read it.  For my 2p, the reviewer is factually incorrect, but it’s not my area and I may have missed something in both the book and the point of the review.  Hold that thought.

The other thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially prompted by my difficulties with keeping up with the challenge, is how many books I’ve got left in me to read.  I find my time under a lot of pressure at the moment, and that will change, but I keep returning to a story that Kathryn Harkup (@RotwangsRobot) told me about two little old ladies going into a bookshop and asking for 20 recomendations for books to read: “We know how fast we read and how much time we’ve likely got left, and we’ve done the maths”. *Gulp*.  Assuming I can sort myself out and keep up with the challenge, that’s 52 books a year, for perhaps 40 years, if I’m lucky.  One of these days I might be able to up the pace a bit, but still, we’re talking of the order of 2000 books left to read.  That sounds a lot, but my TBR probably runs to a couple of hundred with more being added all the time.  And what about re-reads of old favourites?

Debs has a very hard-line policy on awarding 5*, a policy which stands out amongst those that seem to throw them out like sweets.  It’s a tricky world, especially when there are so many books out there, all relying on (good) reviews.  Sarina Langer has an excellent policy on writing reviews which I wish would become the gold standard that people writing reviews worked to – although I admit that I am still learning how to put this into practice, especially for a review written on the hoof.    But the fundamental point is that the 5* system is not particularly useful.  There are books and films that deserve high ratings not because they are the best ever, but because they have some feature that is great.  Not everyone will enjoy a cozy mystery, even if it gets five stars.  Not everyone likes black and white films, or thrillers or… fill in the gap.

OK, so lets tie all this together.  If we think of those 2000 books as literary meals, not all of them are going to be Michelin-class – and nor would I want them to be.  There’s going to be a mix of things in there, including, yes, junk food.  But what I’m hoping for in a review is that it goes beyond those 5*  – which I’m actually beginning to become suspicious of – and gives me a reason to look beyond the cover and the blurb.

© David Jesson, 2019

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#FF – Photo Prompt

prompt 4 abandoned ships

Skillet topped the rise and looked down across the dead sea bottom. He knew from prior trips that the three stranded cargo vessels were farther off than might be expected.  The sun was still high, but in this latitude it would drop quickly: there might be enough time to make it across the drained land.  And then and again, there might not…

Press on or not?  Make camp here, in sight, or strike out across the flats?  A decision made more difficult by the straggling group that he had guided across kilometres of blighted wilderness.  Skillet knew that he would would be able to traverse the difficult terrain that had once been covered by deep water, but the score or so of people in this little band were a mix of rugged adventurers, who still seemed reasonably fresh despite a difficult day, and those who hadn’t yet made it to the top of the hill.

Facial contortions marked the progress of his thoughts as he worried at the problem: lips pursed, cheeks were sucked in and blown out, the long thin nose twitched.  Coming to a decision, Skillet called his to apprentices to his side.

“Right, here’s the plan” he pitched his voice low so as not be overheard, but still managed to sound decisive.  “We’re going to split into three groups.  Beanpole: you’ll take the first group and set off as soon as we’ve redistributed the packs a bit.  In your group, let Bench set the pace, everyone else will be able to keep up whether they think they can or not, but the sight of the ships will spur them on.”

Beanpole nodded, and cast a sidelong look at the middle-aged Bench where he sat on his pack and tried to stretch out a cramp in his leg.  A tough beggar he was, but clearly in some discomfort.  In every way that counted he was by no means the weak link on this journey, but he would definitely be the slowest in her group, although he’d push himself hard.

“Bucket: you’ll have the second group.  I don’t think you’ll have any trouble with them, although they might grumble a bit at the extra load they’re going to have to carry.  Tell them how tough they are and how glad we are to have them along and all that sort of thing.  You know the drill.  And tell them about that time when we had to portage around those rapids and we spent two days going back and forth with all that equipment – but maybe save that one for if they start to flag.”

Bucket answered with his big tomb-stone grin.

Skillet looked over at the two people, young but unfit, who had just got to the top, the last in this disparate and rag-tag group.  They found somewhere to slump down, too exhausted from the climb to even groan about how tired they were.  “I’ll make sure the rest get there before we lose the light.”

*****

Skillet pulled out a little pair of binoculars and checked the progress of Beanpole and Bucket.  Bucket had the pros and the experienced amateurs, who had taken on the burden of carrying some extra weight to enable the others to make it to the ships tonight.  Even so, they were making good time, although it looked like Beanpole and the fitter of the newbies would still make it first.  Hopefully they’d get the kettle on.  Skillet’s group, the walking wounded as he thought of them, still had a couple of kilometres to go.  These people really had no business to be making this journey – unprepared, physically and mentally flabby, but then what choice did they have?

*****

Some thought of it as a pilgrimage, something that they should do, a secular penance to atone for ignoring the environment.  For others, it was simply a challenge, something to be done, to say that they had done it: badge-collecting.  For the rest, it was part of the new way of life.  Everything considered, humanity had done surprisingly well.  World-wide, there had been fewer deaths than in the second world war, and the panic and looting had been surprisingly limited.  There had been the usual fantasists talking about the Earth trying to rid itself of the plague of Humanity, but it was really just a case of wrong place, wrong time.  The wrong place being the whole planet, and the wrong time being an infinitesimal sliver of geological time.

Some things are just too big to think about.  It’s tricky to keep a whole planet in mind, without turning it into a marble, floating in space.  It’s hard to remember that the bit we walk around in is just a load of rocky islands, floating on a world-spanning ocean of liquid fire.  Why would you?  Why would you want to? Geologists look at a boiled egg, and bringing down their spoon create their view of the globe all over again.

The world shrugged.  The cracked crust of the Earth moved past itself, up and over, down and under, scraping side by side.  The movement was unprecedented, not so much in magnitude, but in extent – more plates moved in one moment than had ever been seen before.  The usual earthquakes had been joined by stranger occurrences.  Here an entire section of seabed had risen up, there an island had sunk beneath the waves. The devastation had been widespread.

*****

Skillet herded the last of the group towards the ship.  The sun was beginning to set, and in the process set lowering cotton-candy clouds aflame.  He tried to fix the pinks and oranges shading to reds and purples in his mind, together with the dark shapes of the boats.  One of these days, perhaps he’d get his art supplies sorted out and put this scene on paper with his paints.  Maybe,

Beanpole and Bucket were seeing about getting the volunteers up on to the deck above, with all their kit.  Some on the boat would be leaving soon, going home, moving on, replaced by those who had just arrived.  The stranded vessels, wedged and propped had become a strange little community.  Equipment on board was used to process the polymetallic nodules that littered the ground here abouts.  At one time these ship were part of a fleet that had been sent to harvest them from beneath the sea.  Now, they could be taken for the picking.  The volunteers also collected plastics that created a layer like some polluted manna, and processed these.  A small farm was beginning to make the community self sufficient.

Skillet was the last to make his way up; as he reached the deck, Bucket passed him a cup of tea.  They leaned against the rail.  Beanpole joined them and together they looked back at this last leg of journey.  Night shadowed the wilderness of the sea-bottom, and you’d almost think the ships were at sea.

© David Jesson, 2019


 

 

 


And you should also check out the amazing Stuart Nager’s story based on this photo-prompt, over at Tale Spinning.

 

 

 

Experimental Writing: Part 6

Meredith hopped into the back of the Landrover.  Bunter chipped in with a prompt to put on the seat belt: clunk click every trip [smiley face].  There was also a social cue:

“This is so kind of you – thank you.”

“Oh, no trouble, bach, we’re heading that way anyway.”  This from the driver.  A sub-routine of the AI – one that hadn’t achieved sentience and independence – tagged this individual as male.  A warning flag appeared: the driver was adolescent, albeit coming to the end of this development age, and hence prone to naturally occurring chemical fluctuations that could cause risk-taking.

“I’m Owain, by the way, and this is my sister Esther.”  Meredith could see Owain using some kind of primitive mirror to look into the back of the car.  The boy had his attention on the road, but he couldn’t help being intrigued by his passenger’s outfit.

“We’re going to pick up my sister.  She went to a party there.”  The sub-routine labelled the person in the passenger seat as an adolescent girl, but just coming into this stage.  “Why are you heading there?”

“Oh, I’m just doing some walking around here.  I camped up on the mountain last night and when I came down this morning I realised that I’d gone a bit off course.  There’s no where to get anything to eat in Llangynidr, and Crickhowell looked to be the closest place to sit down and have a bit of a think.  Is there anywhere you’d recommend?”

“Hm. Well, I quite like Number 18 –

“Oh, you would!  Trying to be trendy!”

“You be quiet, or I’ll not give you a lift again!”  The boy’s words sounded serious , but Meredith was beginning to get a feel for tone, and accompanying facial expressions and realised this was not the case.  “I suppose you’d recommend Bookish!”

“Nothing wrong with having a read at the same time as getting a drink – you should try it sometime.”

“Courtyard Café?”

“That’s always so busy – lots of families with little ones.”

“How about that new one – down by the art centre.  I know it’s a bit out of the town, but it would put us in the right place for picking up Nerys.”

“I don’t want to put you to any trouble.” Meredith tried to decide if it would be better to part company sooner, and avoid the complication of an extended contact, or to stick with the encounter and gather further information.

“Oh, no trouble.  We’ve got a little bit of shopping to do, but that’ll keep.  Be nice to check out the new place.”

They drove through the town centre, passing a mix of shops that seemed like they’d been there forever, or that they’d popped up yesterday.  It was still quite early really, but the town was definitely waking up, and starting to get busy.  On through the town centre and out the other side.  The road took on a more residential feel, and after only a minute or two they came upon a stone building that looked old, but not ancient.  It was a large, single story building, with gabled rooves.  It was set back slightly from the road and had its own small car park.  Bunter informed Meredith that it was an old school, approximately 150 Earth cycles old.

No one noticed as a CCTV camera followed the small group across from the Landrover to the front door.

They entered the building: to the left was the gallery and a sign pointed to studios and the café to the right.  Owain opened the door and led the way into a short corridor.  Here there was one door at the far end and a couple of doors on the left.  The door into the café was open and they walked straight in.  The space was light and airy: the walls were painted white and pictures for sale hung on three of the four walls.  The high ceiling had a couple of skylights that let in lots of natural light.  Sturdy tables made of a light-coloured wood and of various sizes were scattered around in no particular pattern, grouped with chairs in twos and fours.  Subtly, Meredith tried to steer them to one of the larger tables which was as much in the shadow as it was possible to be – at least it wasn’t in the direct light coming from above.

A cheery soul was behind the counter and welcomed them in; she was alone, and the party were clearly her first three customers of the day.

“What can I get you my dears?”

Owain started the proceedings by ordering a large latte and a large slice of bara brith, complete with butter and marmalde.

“Oh! You are greedy Owain,” Esther exclaimed, “you’ve only just had breakfast!”

“Breakfast was hours ago, and I’ve been working on the car for Nerys.  Unlike you, I spend more time doing things than with my nose in a book.”

Esther gave him a nudge in the ribs with the boney of elbow of gangly 12 year old.  She went for a fruit tea and piece of short bread.

“It looks so good, I don’t know what to go for,” said Meredith, gazing at the counter and trying to work out what everything was.  Bunter immediately popped up with several suggestions, including one for a drink with a big pile of sculpted white stuff, topped off by a scattering of multicoloured strands and a small red sphere.  Meredith muted the programme.

“I’ll think I’ll just have a filter coffee, please, and a piece of the toffee blondie.”  Meredith saw that Owain was pulling out his wallet.  There was no need for the cue here: “No, please let me get this, as a thank you for the lift.”

There was gentle back and forth as Owain accepted, with grace, but not too easily.

“I’ll bring everything over to you, cywion” said the lady behind the counter, the term of endearment clearly an automatic reflex.

They sat down at the table and started talking about life in the valleys and rebuilding the car and so on.  Neither Owain nor Esther noticed that Meredith was adept at steering the conversation away from anything to do with their purpose here.  The drinks and cakes were brought over with a “there you my dears” and “have you got everything you need?” and “just shout if you need anything”.  They tucked in: Meredith had never tasted anything like this before and was wondering about the feasibility of getting some coffee plants to take back home.  And a cook book…

“So where are you heading next then, bach?” Owain asked.

“I’d quite like to see Llyn-y-Fan Fach, but I don’t know if I’ve got enough time.”

“Hm.  Well, it’s about an hour’s drive from here, I guess, depending which way you go, but I don’t think that you could walk it in a day.  I’d be tempted to get the bus from here to Brecon, stay in the youth hostel or something and then walk up to the lake from there.  Are you planning to camp there?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it.  I’d like to do some…sketching there.”

“Have you got a map?  I’ll show you the roads.”

It was at this point that Meredith started to feel uncomfortable.  The AI hadn’t flagged there being a problem with any of the food and drink, but it was not settling lightly on what a medical person would describe as Meredith’s stomach.  Things were taking a decided turn for the worse, and rapidly.  Meredith was just about to excuse himself when a group of men burst through the door.  They did not look friendly.  They threaded their way through the tables raising pistols to point at the three at the table.  Owain’s chair scraped back; Esther looked on with open mouth.  By chance the lady behind the counter had stepped out to a back room, so it was just Meredith and friends surrounded by half a dozen gunsels.

“Just stay where you are sonny, and no ones gonna get hurt.” It was not a local accent.  He pointed at Meredith “You’re coming with us.  Now.”

Meredith stood.  The term ‘technicolour yawn’ was unfamiliar to Owain and Esther; it was a phrase that was more familiar to their grandparents.  But if they had known it, it would have been perfect for the current situation as rainbow coloured liquid burst from Meredith’s mouth and sprayed over the gunmen.  Unknown to Meredith, the coffee contained trace amounts of dimethyl disulphide and butanediamine, and it was these that had reacted unexpectedly with the alien’s digestive system. Even AIs make mistakes.  Still, every cloud has a silver lining: the spectacular outcome of this natural chemistry was the perfect distraction.  Fighting to overcome the effects of losing everything consumed in the last 24 hours, Meredith jumped and simultaneously changed shape, shedding clothes in the process.  Initially the shape became a long thin cylinder, but as the tip of the cylinder touched the ceiling, Meredith’s body contracted into a sphere: from here it was a question of playing the angles.  At this point the gunmen were still concerned over the vomit that had landed on them, and were discovering that the liquid was starting to eat holes in clothes.  Incipient panic boiled over as they tried to react to the sudden movement through the fog that fear of chemical burns and disgust of wearing someone else’s stomach contents had created in their minds.  Before they could start stringing coherent thoughts together, the men were bowled over by what appeared to be an oversized basketball.  Somehow the alien managed to miss all of the works of art and all of the other furniture, bouncing off wall, ceiling, and heavies, to create a highly localised zone of carnage.

The sphere rolled to a stop by the small pile of clothes that had crumpled to the floor during the unconventional disrobing; Meredith put the clothes back on as he had the first time, shaping the body to suit the clothes from the inside.

Adjusting the glasses, hat, and scarf, there was a realisation that the boy and girl were staring at him.  With the men on the floor beginning to groan, Meredith said “Thank you for your help this morning, I really appreciate it, and I’m sorry if I’ve got you into any trouble.  I’d better get going, and I think you should find some where to lie low too.”

© David Jesson, 2019


 

During 2019, I’m going to be undertaking a writing experiment, as described here.

The shape of story was formed through a four-part prologue: the first part of the prologue is here, if you want to start right at the beginning.  All through, I’m hoping that you’ll help me shape the story.  Every month there is a poll on some feature or another. Now we need to work out whether Meredith is going to get some assistance from Owain and Esther, or whether it’s time to part company.

Option 1: Head for the hills!

Option 2: Head for somewhere busy!

Option 3: Part company – Meredith should get a bus out of town or something.

Option 4: Plan B  (Please comment on what you think Plan B is!).

 

I‘ll leave the Twitter poll open for one week, and will add in any votes on here that come in during that time.  Feel free to expand on the options in the comments!  I’m not promising to incorporate anything but always good to hear where you think this is heading!

See you next month!

#Secondthoughts: The Next [Insert Name]

“Where were you when…?”
There are some things that stick in your mind: the dates are indelibly imprinted on your memory, together with what you were doing when they happended.  In some respects you can define a generation by the memory.  “Where were you when JFK was shot?” “What were you doing when they landed on the Moon?”

One of the ones for me is the London bombings of the 7th July, 2005.  That summer I was writing up my thesis, ready to defend it later in the year.  I was returning from a supervisory meeting.  I must have had my phone turned off or something, because it was only when I was on the bus on my way home that someone got through to me to say that my girlfriend at the time was ok.  Why wouldn’t she be ok?  I hadn’t heard anything about the coordinated terrorist attacks so I hadn’t had any reason to be worried.  She was working in London, and had been caught up in the subsequent problems facing the transport system.  I don’t think she even made it to work, but instead came straight home – although even that took several hours longer than it should have done.

I’m not going to go off on one about encoding memories or anything like that, but I find it interesting that there are few things that I remember in quite that much detail.  One of the other ones is more interesting for me on a personal level because it marked a major watershed for me in how and what I read.

I was in my early teens and had been reading Terry Pratchett books for a few years, and absolutely loving them.  When this anecdote takes place, some of my very favourites had been published, and when we were given the opportunity to study one of our own choices for English, I chose Reaper Man, which retains a special affection.  Given the title of this #secondthoughts, you can probably see where this is going…

I went to the library one day and I picked up “Colin the Librarian” by Rich Parsons and Tony Keaveney.  I had a passing knowldege of Conan etc, aware of their existance, but I hadn’t read any of the Robert E Howard classics (and now that I think about it, I still haven’t).  Anyway.  I was browsing the shelves for some stuff to take out, and I came across this book, obvious pun for the title, which for me was a selling point.  Pick it up, on the back was a a blurb, which included the phrase “the next Terry Pratchett”.  Sold!

It was bound to happen sooner or later, but this was the first book that I did not finish – I use this term loosley.  If we’re more precise, then it is the first book that I skipped to the end to see if it was worth reading, and that I skipped through to find any good bits.  I did not find any.

Work progresses on the shared project with Debs and on a couple of other projects, to the point that selling them is becoming an increasingly important factor.  When you are writing to agents or publishers or editors or whoever, you are supposed to provide some examples of what your work is like.  You can understand the rationale: on the one hand particular people specialise in particular genres and they want to have an idea about whether than can be passionate about it and sell it, whether that be to the publisher or the general public.  On the other, is there a market for this book?  Are there people who will buy it just because it is like something that they’ve enjoyed previously?  If it is not like anything else, is it too niche?  How will you get the word out about the book?

But I can’t help feeling that being compared to someone is a bit of a poisoned chalice: there are authors who are a bit derivative, but it feels unfair to compare any author to someone who might be considered a giant in their field.  And then of course, what if you don’t like a top author, but might have liked the new person, but were put off.   Unpopular opinion, perhaps, but I’ve been put off a lot of Dickens by the sheer size of his work, which is ironic given the epic fantasy novels that I’ve worked my way through.  I’ve not read all of Agatha Christie’s stuff, because some of the ones that I have read have been a bit repetitive – although there are some stories that I love immensly.

A closing thought, because I’m not sure that there is an answer to the paradox, but on the back of Reaper Man is a quote:

I’m beginning to think that Terry Pratchett is the best humorist this country has seen since P. G. Wodehouse – less coarse than Tom Sharpe, less cynical than Douglas Adams, simply a pure joy.’

David Pringle, White Dwarf
Perhaps comparisons are inevitable, a link in the chain.  Still, caveat emptor.
© David Jesson, 2019

#FlashFiction: Project Gutenberg inspired stories

A day with Ludwig Beethoven

Bob was a writer.  One of these days he was going to make it with his own stuff, under his own name.  Any day now.  Any day.  But for now, and indeed for the last couple of years, he’d made his living as a ghost writer.  Or, to be strictly accurate, as a ghost composer.  Ghost writers were two a penny, even the best of them, but Bob really was in a league of his own.  We’re not talking about the in-house composers who delivered up jingles or incidental music or, Heavens preserve us, muzak.  No, Bob provided high-class material that would blend seamlessly with existing scores.  Perhaps a last minute edit needed a whole new piece of music and the original composer was no longer available, or someone wanted a piece of music that sounded like it could have been by someone famous, albeit an obscure and forgotten one, but couldn’t afford the fees to get something kosher: Bob would be there to help you out, via the dozen or so people who knew how to get hold of him.  And then of course there were the people who thought they could compose music, but really couldn’t, or who were a genius in one genre, but were about to lose a hard-won reputation by attempting something completely, as they say, different.  Bob would be there.  It didn’t matter if it was as simple as a spit-polish to a piece that was nearly there, but not quite, or starting from scratch on something that was never going to work otherwise.

Bob was also unusual in that he was a ‘method composer’.  When working in the style of one of the greats, he would adopt their practices in order to help him enter the spirit in which they wrote their original pieces.  There were several jobs that he had on hand at the moment, but the most pressing was that of one to be completed in the style of Beethoven.  Normally Bob would have allowed himself a week to acclimatise, but there really was not enough time: he threw himself into things whole heartedly. He finished off the piece that he was working on with a flourish and set it aside to review once the new ‘Beethoven’ was safely away to the client.

Properly he should have a housekeeper to truly emulate the great man, but that was out of the question in the modern world, and so he would just have to prepare his meal himself as usual.  Supposedly Beethoven favoured something akin to macaroni cheese, and whilst Bob fretted slightly that his recipe was not truly authentic, his own recipe was more than acceptable, and so he got on with it, and ate it with some grilled sardines and some runnerbeans picked from the garden.  This he ate accompanied by a generous flagon of – cold water.  Supposedly his desire for water in copious quantities bordered on a mania.

Bob checked his notes, and allowed himself a brief pause, before setting out on a brisk walk into the country.   Living on the outskirts of Milton Keynes in the 21st Century was…different to what late 17th/early 18th Century Vienna and the rural environs must have been like, but a country walk is a country walk.

A light supper, a philosophical treatise, vaguely related to the commission,  and he felt equal to the task.  As he headed to bed rather earlier than usual, his last job of the day was to count out exactly sixty coffee-beans.

He woke at dawn, ground the coffee beans, made coffee, and picked up his pen.

© David Jesson, 2019


 

The Englishwoman in Egypt

“Blast!” Jonathan swore under his breath. Freshly back from a period of home leave, he’d been about to pop over to Tristan’s, only to find a messenger from the Consulate at his door. Seems they’d had an urgent chit about an Englishwoman said to be in some distress who lived just a couple of roads over from him, so could he look into it … sharpish.

Hastening to the address given, Jonathan could hear the commotion as he approached, and broke into a run. He had to push through a number of weeping and wailing women before he could reach the door where two men were struggling; it appeared one was attempting to gain entry while the other was holding him back.

Using his best parade ground bark, Jonathan shouted for silence. Much to his surprise, the noise did reduce, and the men stopped fighting … if only for a moment. Sadly, their attention was only re-directed, as each and every one started shouting at the top of their voices … this time, at him. A few more barked out commands and the shouting subsided to a muttering.

Deciding that he would hear what they had to say in strict order of age seniority, Jonathan briskly introduced himself and instructed the most elderly woman present have her say, having first sternly instructed all, especially the two men, to hold their tongues and wait their turn.

It didn’t take long to hear the sorry tale. They were members of the same family; the family of the man attempting to gain entry to the house who, they all insisted, was having an affair with the Englishwoman within. The man in question repeatedly and with increasing desperation, declared otherwise. Jonathan took notes, obtaining full names and addresses of each person (information which was reluctantly given) before assuring them the matter would be dealt with by the British Consulate. He then firmly escorted them off the property.

When all but the man in question had moved into the street, the door opened and Jonathan got his first sight of the Englishwoman. Valerie stood framed in the doorway, her long honey-coloured hair tied back with a vibrant scarf. Tall and broad, she shook his hand firmly before shoo-ing them both into the living room. Jonathan introduced himself and briefly explained his mission. Using surprisingly colourful language, Valerie expressed her frustration with busybodies, do-gooders, and people who leapt to conclusions, all in rapid succession.

“My husband … he died … after a short illness a few months ago” Valerie took a deep breath and surreptitiously wiped away a tear “and I’ve not known what to do with myself, especially as I’ve been unable to paint since it happened. Then I had a letter from Tristan – you know Tristan Dawes, right? He’s an old friend who’s been terribly kind. When I told him about being unable to paint, he suggested a change of scene might help and invited me to stay. He was right, I took to Egypt like a duck to water, so he helped me find this place soon afterwards.”

“And …?” Jonathan, waved his hand casually in the direction of the other man.

“Ah yes, of course as a lone Englishwoman in Egypt, I can’t wander freely as Tristan does, so he introduced me to his friend Nasser to act my chaperone. Sadly, Nasser had a road accident a little while back which left him with a brain injury and has struggled to return to his old job, so this seemed to be the ideal solution for us both, until …” Valerie’s voice tailed away as she gestured to the front door.

Nasser started to apologise over and over again about the behaviour of his family. He was clearly deeply distressed by what had happened and Jonathan could see by their body language that while both were grateful the arrangement worked, there was no inappropriate relationship there. Jonathan believed them and promised to intervene on their behalf.

Having instructed Nasser’s family to attend a meeting the following day at the Consulate, and after issuing a stern warning they would be held responsible for Nasser’s physical safety, Jonathan returned Nasser to the bosom of his family and went back to Valerie.

Pouring them both a gin, Valerie tucked her legs up underneath her on a comfortable divan and started to talk. She’d arrived during the three months Jonathan had been on leave. At first she’d sketched a lot, figures mostly. She showed Jonathan some of her work, and he made a mental note to enquire if any were for sale as soon as was polite. Sketching in charcoal, her strokes gave that same impression of movement contained in Tristan’s watercolours. Jonathan commented as much, which caused her to clap her hands “oh goody, that’s exactly what I was trying to achieve, but I’m useless with watercolour!”

Uncurling, she invited him into her studio. The room was dominated by a large figure in oil which had the same sense of movement and vibrancy as contained in her sketches, and this time Jonathan didn’t hesitate … “Can I buy it?”

© Debra Carey, 2018

Experimental Writing: Part 5

Meredith began the shlep to Crickhowell by leaving Llangynidr on Cyffredyn Lane, which at this point was wide enough for traffic to flow easily in both directions.  The road was bounded by high hedge on both sides, with a decent verge.  A little further on one of the verges petered out and the other narrowed.  People travelling the road  began to feel hemmed in as trees grew up behind the hedge on one side and the river narrowed; traffic still flowed in both directions but two large things, such as a bus and a lorry had a ticklish time passing.

Meredith groaned.  The sub-routine had indeed developed proto-sentience and had started referring to itself as Bunter for some reason.  Words would be had with the mission controllers and with the AI programmers when all this was over… Still (groan) Bunter was doing a decent enough job.  Whilst the road was not perfect for pedestrians, Bunter advised that the verge on this side did not get narrow; stay on this road, it becomes Cwm Crawnon Road; up head there is a bridge over a small stream, the road kinks, but there is a footpath.  Hang on…recalculating…find a break in the hedge on the left, the stream is the other side and the footpath will be there…

The intermittant sounds of sporadic traffic were dulled by the shielding vegetation.  Meredith made reasonably good progress along the foot path and the traffic noises were muted still further as the stream parted company with the road for a while.  It was surprisingly reassuring when the noise of these backward vehicles increased again: still on track.  The two finally came together at the thing that Bunter had described as a kink. Here, for some reason, the road crossed over the river on a small, rather primitive stone bridge.  The path by the river continued under the bridge and Meredith was confronted by a choice: stay on the path beside the river and head further into the countryside, or stay closer to the road on an uncertain verge.  The river path was certainly the more scenic, and would perhaps provide better cover- the moment of indecision was ended by a large green car pulling over.  Meredith thought the driver looked a bit too young to be allowed out, but he was leaning out of the window and shouting something.  Meredith couldn’t quite make out what it was, but a (thankfully) non-sentient routine picked up the sound and ran a translation.

“Bore da!  Going to Crickhowell are you?  Need a lift?

*****

The Land Rover was a long-wheel base Series I dating from 1957 – late in the production run, but one of the first to be fitted with a diesel engine.  Mostly loving care over the last 62 years meant that it was in surprisingly good condition.  Owain had found it after a relatively brief period of neglect.  A farmer had died, his feckless son had come home from his towny job and tried to make a go of it, but really hadn’t had the first clue about farming.  In then end he’d sold the farm to one of his neighbours for, if not a fraction of its real worth then certainly not full whack.  The neighbour had then proceeded to make quite a lot of that money back by selling off the ancient farmhouse and a small parcel of land to Owain and his family.  They’d moved in when Owain was fifteen, and he’d quickly found the vehicle, quietly mouldering in one of the barns.

His first emotion had been one of delight, and then he’d wondered where the keys might be.  They’d found them a couple of days later when sorting through various detritus clogging up a lovely antique oak dresser in the kitchen.  His da had let him try the engine which spluttered in a rather sick way, but did start, albeit with various unhealthy sounds as the engine cycled. They’d turned it off again, but both had been caught by the dream: despite the inevitable tensions that arise between a teenager and their parents, they commited to the joint project of restoring it.  Neither had any previous experience in this regard, but YouTube had been a great teacher.  On and off it had taken the best part of two years to get it back up and running smoothly.  It had been left muddy in the damp shed and this had done the body no good at all.  It had been left standing for several years and the tyres had perished.

The final job had been to repaint the Land Rover: everyone else in the family had felt they had the right to a say in what colour it should be.  Ma said Canary Yellow; Nerys, two years younger, and drifting towards becoming a goth wanted black; Esther, his youngest sister, pink; even Dylan, the youngest and shyest of the siblings, put forward an opinion – Dragon Red.  Owain and his da refused to listen though, united in a belief that there was only one colour suitable for a car – British Racing Green (although they’d never call it that in front of the neighbours).

Owain spent many happy hours learning to drive in the Land Rover: because he had access to the farmyard, and permission from Mr Kendrick, the farmer who had sold them the farmhouse to use his land, Owain was ready to take his test on his 17th birthday – which he passed with three minor faults.  When he returned home the house was festooned with streamers and balloons and there was a big party.  Afterwards, when his friends had gone home, his da took him aside and had handed him the keys to the Landie.

“It’s yours,” he said, simply, “you’ve earned it.  Now, we’ll have to think about what we can do for your sister.”

*****

Crickhowell was a small town as such conurbations go, but decidedly larger than Llangynidr, and indeed one of the larger communities within the boundaries of the Brecon National Park.  It was something of a focus for tourists, despite the less than imppresive remains of a castle.  There were excellent B&Bs and other hostelries.  Owain was headed that way to pick up Nerys who had been at a sleep over, and since he was going Esther tagged along to go to the book shop (although truth be told she needed little excuse to tag along with Owain, especially if a drive in the Landie was on offer).  Ma, too, had pressed a shopping list into his hand as he picked up the keys, ‘since you’re going, love’.

Esther was carefully pecking out a message to Nerys on Owain’s mobile, to let her know they were coming, when they spotted the strange figure at the side of the road.

“That poor soul looks lost, Owain.”

“Yeah…shall offer him a lift?”

“I’m not sure what Ma would think” Esther said doubtfully, “but they’re only little!”

They pulled over.

© David Jesson, 2019


 

During 2019, I’m going to be undertaking a writing experiment, as described here.

The shape of story was formed through a four-part prologue: the first part of the prologue is here, if you want to start right at the beginning.  All through, I’m hoping that you’ll help me shape the story.  Every month there is a poll on some feature or another.  Last month’s did not come to a clear decision, but I promise coffee features in the future, I just got a bit carried away with the back story to the random encounter.

Moving on; this moths poll:

Option 1: Aliens love coffee!  Who knew?

Option 2: Coffee does not love aliens – ew!

Option 3: What is all this caffeine nonsense anyway?

Also, if you’re in favour of coffee, let me know what you think Meredith should try in the comments.

I‘ll leave the Twitter poll open for one week, and will add in any votes on here that come in during that time.  Feel free to expand on the options in the comments!  I’m not promising to incorporate anything but always good to hear where you think this is heading!

See you next month!

#Flashfiction: Fingerprints

The prompt:  Imagine one morning you woke up and your fingerprints weren’t your own anymore. Why not? What happens next?


Steve woke up slowly, one bit at a time.  Outside his window, a blackbird was singing its little heart out.  Normally Steve loved this achingly beautiful start to the day, but after the night just gone, it was his head that was aching, and not in a beautiful way.  Whilst his ears were most certainly awake, his eyes were categorically on strike and his brain was trying to pull a pillow over itself and was pretenfing not to be in.  He didn’t have the energy to actually pull the pillow over his head though.  A foot, the one sticking out from under the covers and decidedly chilly, twitched.

He was clearly not going to be able to get back to sleep, and given the bright sunlight streaming through the gap in the curtains, it was clearly later than he would normally get up.

With an exhalation that was part sigh and part grunt, he pulled his face away from the pillow: this was easier said than done because his sleep-drool was in the process of setting like superglue.  In the same motion he reached out, grabbed his phone and flicked it open.  Back in the day, he’d used to carry a zippo lighter, not beacuse he smoked, but beacause it had been useful to have one on him, and he’d learned the trick of opening the lighter and sparking it, so that it seemed to be alight as it opened: a neat little optical illusion that had impressed more than one girl.  Back in the day.  These days, he didn’t bother too much with the lighter, but he’d translated the skill to his phone, sort of.  The cover flicked open and his thumb sought the fingerprint scanner.  Nothing.  It was a good trick, but the scanner could be flakey.  He tried again.  Still nothing.  Another deep sigh and he unlocked the phone with the passcode instead.  There might be some follow up from the operation of the night before, thhe one that had required three fingers of bourbon before he crawled into bed at 3.37 am.  Nothing.  He could afford to take it slow. There’d be a de-briefing in the afternoon, no doubt.

He looked down at his fingertips and recalled the time when some joker had tried to remove them.  They didn’t look unsual.  They weren’t even clogged with adhesive as sometimes happened.

Shower.

Half dressed.

Coffee.

Toast.

Finish dressing.

Shoes…in need of polishing.

Curse.

Polish shoes.  Not a proper polish of course, but a quick wipe with a damp cloth and then the liquid stuff with a sponge on the end of the bottle that he kept for emergencies.

Check the phone again.  Curious, it’s still not opening to the thumb applied to the reader.

An hour later and Steve was parking in the underground garage.  Two minutes after that he is at the Security Checkpoint, and the first real misgivings start – the hand applied to the never-fails, impossible-for-it-to-go-wrong scannerhas tripped a red-warning light. The man on the desk invites him to have another go, and the same thing happens again. Not good.

“If you’ll step into the office, sir, we’ll try the retina scan.  A bit old fashioned, bit it does the job, sir.”  In speech, the man has the mannerisms of that funny old man from the old TV show about the Home Guard and Steve is almost surprised that he has not said “Don’t Panic”.  In looks, he somewhere between an old teacher of Steve’s, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The mixture of too many large white teeth in an overly tanned face, balding with a fringe of startlingly jet-black hair has always seemed comic to Steve.  Until today.

A thin sheen of sweat formed on his brow.  He ran the fingers and palm of one hand together, and this too appeared to be slick with fear.   He bent forward and placed his eye to the proffered reader.  This too flashed a red warning.

“I’m sorry, sir” the Security man seems to be genuinely apologetic as he handcuffs Steve and presses the button for the guard to come and take him away.  “I’m sure it’s just a mistake sir, easily sorted.  Don’t panic!”

©David Jesson, 2019


 

Rowena had been having one of those mornings. Despite waking up before her alarm went off, somehow everything seemed to have gone wrong.

She was clutching her third mug of coffee, having spilt the first two. The first had gone all over her bed, forcing her to rip off the sheets to save spoiling her mattress. The second had gone all over the kitchen floor, but she’d only had time for a cursory mop up, so she didn’t slip and fall. To top it all, she’d have to drop into the cleaners on her way to work and shell out for their expensive same day service on her duvet – it was her only one and it was way too cold to go without.

An important part of Rowena’s morning routine was a leisurely hot shower and hair wash. But this morning, she’d dropped her soap and her shampoo innumerable times, forcing her to slow down even more, as she was afraid the bath surface had become extra slippery and she’d fall. The last time that happened, it had been spectacular. She’d managed to do a complete flip over and end up spreadeagled on the bathroom floor, missing – more by luck than judgement – both the toilet and the basin. Still, there’d been some very colourful bruising and more than one or two aching muscles for a week after.

Despite needing to get dressed while having breakfast so she’d make up some time, Rowena hadn’t dared do so in case she spilt that third mug. So she’d forced herself to sit down at the kitchen counter while eating her granola and yoghurt. Her coffee being still too hot to drink, she’d grabbed her phone out of her handbag, and promptly spilt the contents all over the floor.

Having managed to hold back tears, Rowena had shovelled the spilled items back into her bag. Unfortunately, her ID card slipped under the cupboard unoticed. Before she’d a chance to go through the contents carefully as she’d planned to do, she was distracted by the fact that her phone wasn’t opening in its usual manner. No matter how many times she’d pressed her thumb against the button, it wasn’t budging, and now it was demanding her passcode. That had caused the tears to flow. It was a new phone and she’d taken the risk to go without insurance. Had one of those mugs of coffee splashed it?

Tears done, Rowena’d stopped to take a few deep breaths in an attempt to calm down. Remembering her passcode, her relief when it worked almost caused the tears to return. Deciding against that third mug of coffee, Rowena’d focussed on dressing for work. Suited and booted, make-up carefully applied to hide the blotchy complextion from the morning’s tears, she’d stopped for a moment in the kitchen. Lucky she had – for that’s when she’d caught sight of her ID card.

Sadly for Rowena, there’d be more mornings like this one; so many it’d caused her to doubt her sanity. She’d see a doctor who, after running a battery of tests to no avail, suggested she see “someone”.  Nothing had helped, nothing that is, until the night she’d sat drinking in a bar. Drinking till she was so drunk, she’d fallen over and been arrested.

Then it had started to make sense. Well, to Rowena anyway, although everyone looked at her as if she were a specimen in a jar … for someone else’s fingerprints had been grafted over her own. They still didn’t know why, but now Rowena understood how come her fingers had felt like strangers.

And they’d promised to remove the strangers, so she could have her own back. Not yet, but someday soon.

© Debra Carey, 2019


You can find a characteristically macabre take on the prompt by Stuart Nager over at Tale Spinning…