Numbers IV and V

They’d never been able to explain it – your parents that is – why you have the roman numeral IV on the back of your hand. It seems they’d tried everything too, taking you to doctors, psychologists, even a psychic, before eventually realising it was something they’d need to accept if you were going to. They’d done a good job of implementing that decision too, for it’d never bothered you. Sure you’d been a little curious, but that was it.

Until the day you’d spotted him that is. OK, not so much him, but the roman numeral V on the back of his hand. You’d tried to engage with him, but there’d been a queue and both he and the people waiting in line were seriously unhappy; some even started yelling abuse, so you’d taken your coffee over to the corner, and sat there watching him work.

Now the morning rush was over and you were still there. Why hadn’t you rushed back to talk to him? Well, because what on earth were you going to say? “Cute tattoo!” “Is it a tattoo?” “Were you born with it?” Or the question you discover to your surprise is the one you really want to ask “Do you know what it means?”

Problem is, you’re not sure what you’d like the answer to your question to be. If he says “yes” do you want to know? I mean, what if it’s something awful – I dunno, like that’s the order in which the city make sacrifices should one ever be demanded. OK, that’s a tad extreme, but you know what I mean. And if he says “no”, what then? Perhaps he’ll be all “so what?” about it, and you’ll have to slink away feeling like a real dork … and he’s pretty cute, truth be told. But if he’s curious, do you want to join him in some big old quest to find out? I mean, yes, he’s cute ‘n all, but what if it turns out to be dangerous? There’s just too darn many questions – and you don’t have the answers.

In all honesty, you were beginning to wish you had some sort of magic wand and you could chose to go back to your days of ignorant bliss.

© Debra Carey, 2019


#FlashFiction – Enough

The man slumped against a tree, propping himself up, preventing a slide to the ground.  Bone weary, he looked back down the hill, peering through the trees.  He was almost too tired to strain his ears: where were his pursuers?  Enough was enough, he could do no more.  He caught the sound of water tumbling over stones, away to the left.  More than a rill, less than a river: exhausted, he filled his canteen, drained it, filled it again.  The toddler in the papoose stirred but did not cry out. With new hope, new strength, he continued with their escape.

© David Jesson, 2019


“I’m done” Jess spoke quietly.
“But you said …”
“I would give it 6 months – yes. But you were only prepared to give it 6 weeks. That told me all I needed to know about your level of commitment.  I’ve tried, I’ve worked hard – really hard – and now you think … No, no more. I’ve done enough, I’ve given enough. And you haven’t.”
“But …” Tim’s voice cracked.
“It’s time you left Tim. I’ve changed the locks and booked movers for your stuff. It goes into storage unless you give them a new address by Friday. Goodbye.”

© Debra Carey, 2019


Her ma loved her, but born with a voice of crow-song, Naomi roams the forest alone, eating as she can and cawing her plaint. A fine young knight home victorious from the Holy Land hunts each dawn, his aim ever true until a harsh song causes his arrow to fly wild. It punctures Naomi’s throat and, salt tears spilling, he removes the barb and salves her wound with a kiss. The lovely lass arises to speak with human voice, and he vows his eternal love. Is love enough? How she yearns to fly off and rob a sparrow nest.

© Cecily Winter, 2019

#secondthoughts – co-authoring

Good grief.  How is it April again already?  It’s a year since we joined forces to write what is starting to turn into ‘The November Deadline”, a full length novel based on the story that we presented over the course of April, as part of the AtoZ challenge.  We’ve been running this website for a while, but this was our first co-writing project, our first, shared world-building exercise.  As a bit of a throwback, we thought it would be fun to write a little bit about our experience of co-authoring…

Debs writes:

I remember reading an article by Neil Gaiman about his experience of writing “Good Omens” with Terry Pratchett, in which he talked more about the “how” than the decisions around the “what”. And whilst the exchanging of floppy disks featured heavily in the article, I have to admit that our process in co-writing our A2Z Challenge tale wasn’t greatly different.

I felt there were four aspects which made this work …

  1. Despite having very differing tastes and voices, we selected a genre we both enjoy reading.
  2. The chosen time and place were known well enough to us both and we were interested in researching further.
  3. Four primary characters were clearly defined before we started writing (for which kudos to David).
  4. We had a ready-made structure and had chosen 26 word prompts around which to weave our story.

This list is formed totally with the benefit of hindsight by the way. For example, we didn’t start out with the realisation that it would be a good idea to chose a genre where our tastes converged – it just happened that way, seemingly in an organic fashion. Selecting the NATO phonetic alphabet as the theme also led to our decision on time-frame – it couldn’t be earlier than its inception and anything later than Cold War felt dated. Additionally, the fun we’d had playing with the idea of the cockney rhyming slang alphabet before discarding it surely influenced our decision to base the story in London’s East End.

As for the four primary characters, I’ll leave David to elaborate, but from my perspective, it meant I could dive straight in to the story telling, leaving the development of minor characters to come along as and when needed. Although many might consider the structure restrictive, for me it provided the bones on which to plan, to prompt what direction the story could take and what minor characters might be needed to flesh out the story. For example, Juliet started out as a simple device to meet the prompt for J, but ended up being a character who demanded more than the originally planned bit part.

But any thoughts you may be conjuring up of multiple lengthy discussions and detailed planning sessions have to go right out of the window. There was a fair bit of talking, although perhaps not as much as you might imagine. We had one or two face-to-face sessions before we started, but thereafter it was snatched moments during the working day to exchange thoughts and ideas (Twitter DMs in the main), with a few evening phone calls for more substantive discussions.

The big question was always would our different writing styles and pool of ideas blend into something coherent, or end up as a horrible mess? Aside from the four key points I listed, David really has to take the plaudits for getting the ball rolling and putting the first words down on paper. Whilst I was having hysterics over learning new software, he wrote the opening section of Alpha, together with the initial drafts of Bravo and Echo. So, with the scene set, all I had to do was pick up the baton and get writing. There’s also no doubt in my mind that having our primary characters so well defined allowed us to write in their voices, rendering our own less noticeable.

With the beginning written, and an ending in mind, the story development was addressed in chunks. Keeping the detailed planning down to sections allowed the story to develop, to hit minor targets, all while keeping the known ending in mind. This suggestion from David was a real winner as, despite being a planner in life, I’m a writing pantser. It successfully averted that overwhelmed feeling I’m inclined to get when looking at 26 unplanned prompts.

The other thing that Gaiman described in his article was the discussion process. How the exchange usually involved either a “I’ve had this great idea” or a “I really love the direction that new bit of writing you’ve done has taken”. There was genuine to and fro, with some ideas taking shape and flying, whilst others withered naturally under new or better ones. But it sounded like they had huge fun with it all, a feeling I definitely shared.

In short, if you’re going to co-write, you need to plan and to talk. But you must also respect your partner, so that ideas which don’t spark for you both are stepped over without fuss, while you trust that new and better ones will emerge from the process.

David writes:

I can’t remember the context now, but I remember a joke (perhaps that should be with bunny-ears) where there are two children praying.  One really goes to town, asking for blessings on parents and friends, world peace – the. whole. nine. yards.  The other one waits until the first has finished and says “Ditto!”.  It would be easy just to  say “what she said”.  Easy, but not entirely fair, given that Debs has been so kind to me, and also that it’s my fault that I dragged her into this co-writing malarky.  (Although Debs got me started on the AtoZ thing, so I think that we are probably even).

It’s probably a good thing that we didn’t have to manage this via the sharing of floppy disks, although we’d have probably managed.  Maybe.

Back to saying nice things about Debs.  I really couldn’t have done this without her.  Like most writing projects, we’d anticipated writing about 1000 words per letter of the alphabet, but by the end of the month we’d actually wracked up more than 40,000 – there is no way that I would have been able to get that written in the time available, nor would I have been able to edit them.  But a problem shared truly is a problem halved.  Debs also provided a huge amount of motivation, both directly and indirectly: directly by saying nice things about what I’d written, and indirectly by turning up with a blog-post or three and making me feel like I wasn’t pulling my weight.  I’m trying to avoid words like ‘goad’ and ‘annoy’, because there was never any malevolence to this, and I never took it badly, but it still kept me to the straight and narrow path of getting words out of my head and onto ‘paper’.   There were a couple of times when the added pressure of not wanting to let Debs down kept me at a writing session longer than I would have done if it had just been for myself.

Debs has picked up on the characters: initially Jack and Billy were sort of one character.  There were a few ideas floating around in my head, one of which was to do with Bert from Mary Poppins – what if he really did have magic powers?  What if he wasn’t quite human?  What if…?  Debs had mentioned something about a lob-lie-by-the-fire, and we had a conversation about that, and this led to Billy in due course, while Jack went down a different route.  As was shown in due course, Jack is very much the man of action, in some respects the heart and soul of the operation.  I thought that the Echo team should be a triumvirate at the top, and a planner and a tinkerer rounded things out.

The other thing that I thought worth mentioning was our approach to getting the posts written.  Our styles seemed to merge quite convincingly, and I’m not entirely sure how that happened except that we both batted ideas back and forth and we both edited the whole thing (multiple times).  More importantly, whilst we were a bit tight on some of our scheduling of posts, we had a plan.  We divided the alphabet into thirds and roughed out what needed to happen in each third.  Some things ended up being moved about a bit, especially with a couple of posts which really were overly long, but on the whole this worked very well.  We also divided up the month fairly evenly – intially on straightforward basis, but there was some horsetrading.  It became obvious that certain posts needed to do certain things, and some ideas meant allocating a post to one or the other.

But to close: what she said.


© 2019, David Jesson & Debra Carey

Commitment to Care

That bag really bothered her. Just lying there as it was by the footbridge over the railway tracks. It wasn’t that she hadn’t seen abandoned rubbish or fly tipping before. In fact this area was so renowned for it there were big posters up and a newly erected CCTV camera on the wall nearby. It was because it was a child’s school bag, maths books, homework diary and pencil case spilling out all over the pavement. You could even see the boys name written on all his books. Sahil Majornia. Who was he, this Sahil? Why was his bag there? Why hadn’t he come to collect it?

In the absence of answers she made up stories about him. The most intrusive and persistent was that Sahil was being mercilessly bullied by a group of boys from his school, or perhaps another school. They had either stolen his bag and abandoned it or pounced on him in that very spot, and in his terror or whilst making his escape, he had prioritised his personal integrity over a bunch of books.

Or perhaps things were going badly for Sahil at school. He was angry and disaffected and stormed out of school one day, vowing never to return. As if to prove his intent he dumped his whole school bag, abandoning his books to the elements. She wondered if he had subsequently regretted this but unable to lose face, he had to stick with his decision. Or perhaps he did try to rectify his impulsivity, only to find that the November weather had damaged his books rendering them useless for studying or homework or even for lighting a decent fire.

And what were his teachers saying to him, if he even was in school. It seemed unlikely that they would not question his need for a new book for every subject. And equally unlikely was that no one had given Sahil a hard time about it all. How was that for him, coping with the displeasure of the adults around him at a time when life was clearly already throwing a good deal of challenge his way?

The stories were always hopelessly negative. Trauma layered upon trauma. How could they be anything other – what child would abandon their school bag for a positive or happy reason? It seemed an unlikely place to have lost the bag by accident. It wasn’t near a bus stop or a congregation point, where a bag might be forgotten in the midst of youthful high spirits. And when the child had lost all their school books and utensils, why hadn’t a parent come to rescue the objects and support the child to rectify their mistake? This seemed the biggest blow of all.

And then one day, after weeks of watching Sahil’s chance of a decent education slowly degrade it was all gone. The bag. The books. The pencil case. Where had it gone? And why? It seemed unlikely that the council had cleared it away, given that the old mattress and the abandoned fridge were still there. Had the parent finally come through for Sahil? Had he finally searched in the right place for the bag taken by the bullies?

And what now for him? This boy she had never met. With whom she had no connection, save for the fact she walked past his bag every day and thought about him, and wondered who else was holding him in mind and caring about what had happened and would happen to him.

And she vowed. No more children bullied, taunted or disaffected. Not at my school. Not on my watch.

© Saffron Foam, 2019

Experimental Writing: Part 3

On the homeworld, the pilot would have just bounced down the side of the mountain; the tough, flexible ‘skin’ would have protected it from the bumps, and even accommodated the sharp stones that occasionally peeked through the soil and scrubby grass to catch the unwary foot.  Instead, there were these strange things – legs in the local parlance – to get used to.

The AI embedded in the computer was constantly chattering over the commlink providing information on the locality, mission updates, and health status.  Thankfully it had quit with the reprimands for leaving the sidearm behind.

This was the worst part of these rushed missions: an on the move briefing into the local culture, which kept on being updated as the AI interrogated available information and tried to work out what was significant and what was not.  Not always as easy as it might seem.  There seemed to be a lot about political events half a world away, which was important if you lived here permanently, but which was of no significance at all if you were an alien looking to do a job and skedaddle before anyone found out about.  And there was so much information to sift through, although the AI had already clocked something significant in the local lore and had dedicated a sub-routine to focus on that alone.

The Client had picked up the signal of the thing to be recovered, but considering that it had been missing for more than 2000 years, it wasn’t entirely clear what the rush was about.  At this point, there was no cover story, credible or otherwise.  The local population would just have to be avoided as best as possible.

The creature gave something approaching a sigh combined with a gallic shrug as another sub-routine decided to give it an update: information flowed.  This world had more than 6,500 languages in use…so far, so primitive…and the local indigenous population used two different ones and…yes, oh perfect.  The dominant one was used more widely, and indeed was used world-wide, but would be the mark of an outsider, especially if the accent was wrong.  The minority language was even spoken by the whole population, but the ability to speak even a little would be helpful – still that could be dealt with.  Another sub-routine was assigned to the problem of languages: it was one thing to know the lexicography, but another to use it in an idiomatic fashion.  The AI studied the problem, with an electronic weather-eye, on the mores associated with using either of the two languages.

Various things came to light as the AI tried to deal with the languages.  Further sub-routines were added to deal with issues as they came to light.  Pronouns…that required a significant chunk of processing power to unravel.  Different pronouns for gender…a sub-routine that was starting to develop its own personality chipped in with  an apposite home-grown phrase translated into the local idiom: not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Gendered pronouns! And for that matter only two genders!  The same helpful sub-routine started pushing through information on gender politics, equal rights, LGBTQ+, before it was suppressed by the AI.  The subroutine was allowed to continue collecting information, but an edit was made to prevent the sub-routine pushing through information without checking with the AI first.

What to do? What. To. Do…? The alien was neither male nor female as these…(quick check)…as these ‘humans’ defined them.  A choice would need to be made.  From the creature’s perspective there was little to choose between the two options.  Reviewing the notes on gender politics suggested that this was something to steer well clear of: alien undercover operatives are by definition and inclination averse to becoming involved in public debates prone to descending into acrimony.  Still, on balance, it appeared to be easier if you were ‘a man’ rather than ‘ a woman’.  For the most part it shouldn’t matter, but the pilot knew that it was important to commit to a part and be ready for the worst. This only happened if you got comfortable in the role.

The pilot, decided that it was time to start building a cover. Firstly, a name…  The sub-routine put up a metaphorical hand.  The AI reviewed the sub-routine’s work.  It was pointing out that it might be possible to build a certain amount of ambiguity by selecting a name that was both masculine and femine.  It put forward a few suggestions…

© 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.  At various points, I’ll be asking questions with a choice of answers.  I’ll be polling on Twitter, or you can add a comment below.  So for example, you’ve helped me to decide that the story is science fiction, our protagonist, who is a rogue with a dash of ranger,  is an alien, but the story is set on Earth.  Now is the time to choose a name for our MC.

Option 1: Enfys (“Rainbow”)

Option 2: Meredith (“great/sea lord”)

Option 3: Eirian (“bright, beuatiful”)

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: Bridge of Spies

One weekend a while back, Himself put on the film “Bridge of Spies” telling me he was interested to see how they handled this piece of Cold War history. Now Himself being a military history buff and the Cold War being his specialist area, I’m entirely used to being less knowledgeable than he, so I watched the film as just another spy thriller. Tom Hanks puts in a good turn – doesn’t he always – and I thought no more about it.

To be honest, there’s long been a large vacuum around the Cold War for me as, having spent my childhood in the third world where we had actual conflicts to deal with, the Cold War mostly whooshed by. But a person can’t spend as much time as I do around Himself without that Cold War knowledge rubbing off and, bit-by-bit, it did just that.

There were two recent triggers …

For the last few years, Himself and I have visited a Nuclear Bunker in Cheshire where they hold a Cold War themed re-enactor event. I’ve had a brief wander around indoors but – for me – it’s mostly been about keeping warm and dry. This year the owners invited the re-enactors to set up stall indoors … and the bunker was brought to life. For the first time it was clear how it would’ve looked should the worst have happened. The owners asked those re-enactors who were young (and so looked realistic) to pose wearing their historically accurate uniforms at the sensors and monitors. That – combined with the large images lining the corridors depicting recreations of city streets before, during and after ‘the blast’ – had a somewhat chilling impact.

Attending that same event was a podcaster – Ian Sanders from Cold War Conversations. I’ll not pretend otherwise, I initially engaged with him to pick his brain on podcasting and the equipment which would be necessary and/or recommended, as it’s something I’m considering getting involved in. But then we got talking, exchanging cards (as you do), when he mentioned “Bridge of Spies”, Gary Powers and the downing of the U2 spy plane in the same breath. Naturally, I nodded knowledgeably, only admitting to Himself later that I’d not really remembered the Gary Powers bit at all. So, we listened to Ian’s interview of Gary Powers Jr – son of the downed pilot who now runs a Cold War museum in the US – and then watched the film again …

There is no way I’ll have the same feelings as someone who grew up in the UK during the Cold War, who lived through the fear, the warning leaflets, the everyday stocism, CND, the Aldermaston marches, the cuban military crisis – for all those cast a shadow that I never got to feel. But the second time I watched “Bridge of Spies”, I looked at it with a new set of eyes – as something that had happened to real people and not just characters in a spy novel, as a time my contemporaries had experienced first-hand while they were growing up.

It’s still a good film, but now it’s also a film I’ll remember … for I’ve had a chance to take a walk around in their shoes.

© Debra Carey, 2019

Confined to barracks

confined to barracks

(Featured Photograph: By Karen Knoff – from her book “Gentlemen”)

“Well gentlemen, nearly lunchtime: can I confirm the names we’ve shortlisted for the 1-6 positions?”

There were vigorous nods, and the kind of murmuring that extras mimic with phrases such as ‘rhubarb rhubarb’ and ‘soda water bottles’.

“Excellent.  Before we break, Carstairs would like to suggest a controversial addition to the line-up.  I we should at least look at the Paper.”

Document packs were riffled.

“He can’t bat!”

“He can’t bowl!”

“He dropped that easy catch!”

Carstairs looked every one of them in the eye before saying “All true – but he’s even better than Aussie when it comes to heckling!”

© David Jesson, 2019