Project Gutenberg #FlashFiction

The 1st of December is the birthday of Project Gutenberg, an online archive of out-of-copyright books that have been digitised and are made available to anyone who would like to read them.

A quick reminder that the prompt was to go to Project Gutenberg, have a look at the recent releases and pick a title that appeals: that is the prompt, and the title of your story…

An Engineer’s Sketchbook

There were probably only three people in the world who still called him Christopher, and one of those was his Grandmother.  At school, the custom was still to call the boys by their surnames, but some of the younger masters would buck the trend – if the Head or Bursar weren’t in earshot anyway.  And if you were going to go against what was practically a rule, you’d think you’d go al, sirl the way and use a chosen name.  But no.

Dr Hughes was young, earnest, and more than a little shy, all topped off with a generous helping of obliviousness.  As a relatively new master it was inevitable that he’d inherited the mantle of Career’s Advisor from a colleague who was retiring.

“Ah, Christopher, come in.  Have a seat.”

“Please call me Toph, sir.”

“Now then, lets see.  Well.  Are you enjoying being in the Sixth Form?”

“If I’m honest, sir, I don’t see very much difference to being in Year 11.”

“But you were paying attention in Assembley, when the Headmaster was talking about university?”

“Yes, sir, of course.  But I’m really not sure what I want to read.  Nothing really appeals.”

“Well then Christopher, lets take a look at your reports.”  Dr Hughes opened a manilla folder and riffled through the papers inside.

“Toph, sir.”

“Ummm?” Dr Hughes did not look up.  “Well, Captain of the First XI for Cricket and the First XV Rugby, so a sportsman. Good marks in French and Spanish.  Reasonable compositions in English…History is not your strength is it? With a little more effort in the Sciences you could probably have your choice of any Medical School…The world is not quite your oyster, although it could be, Christopher, it could be.  Have you decided whether it’s to be Oxford or Cambridge, yet?”

Toph was tempted to say that he’d been considering a Red Brick, but whilst History might not have been his best subject, People was something he excelled in.  It would do no good to give the master apoplexy.

And so the interview ground it’s slow but inexorable way to a conclusion that was unsatisfying for both parties.  Dr Hughes immediately put it out of his mind as he moved on to the next pupil in the Lower Sixth, reflexively making some marginal notes in Toph’s file, which he’d already forgotten before the closed folder was placed back on the stack on the table.

A few weeks passed, and then it was half term.  Following tradition, a trip to Town was organised, which would include a visit to the cinema.  Surprisingly, Tom, his youngest brother, had beeen desperate to go to the second hand bookshop that was one of his Father’s favourite haunts.  Jonno, the middle brother, had also been keen on the idea.  He was looking for some references for an art project on the one hand, and some old but not valuable books on the other for various pieces that he had in mind.  Toph could have gone off on his own somewhere, meeting up with the family at the cinema, but he decided that accompanying the rest to the bookshop might be quite fun.

On the way to Town, he was uncharacteristically withdrawn: Jonno was making notes and doodling in his sketch book, Tom was talking nineteen to the dozen about a book he’d found there on a previous visit.  Toph sat back and let it all wash over him as he thought about the mad man they’d been to see talk a few days before.  It had been a charity event,  something about closing down orphanages by getting the children homed with families, but the speaker was an explorer who’d travelled round the world by bike. He’d come into contact with the charity when he’d passed through Bosnia, and he’d stayed in contact.  Toph didn’t have many detractors, but there were one or two who thought him superficial.  They’d be surprised at how much he’d been affected by the talk.

Given the energy that Tom had been exhibiting earlier, he was quietly focussed in the shop, working his way through various departments in a methodical  and determined manner.  Jonno knew what he was after and wasted little time in finding it.  Toph browsed.   He nearly missed it: a little white haired old man moved a pile of books and exposed a blue-leather covered book, tooled with gold, upin which was emblazoned the legend “The Engineer’s Sketchbook”.  He picked it up, and leafed through it.

Toph was the kind of person who excelled at things because he wanted to.  He’d decided he wanted to be the best cricketer he could, for example, and he’d set out to make it happen. Without something to focus on, he had a tendency to drift.  As he looked at the book, two neurons in his brain fired together and he suddenly knew not only what he wanted to study at uni, but why, and what he was going to do afterwards.

He would read Mechanical Engineering, and travel the world, for a few years at least volunteering, his skills whereever they might be of use.

© David Jesson, 2018

Post Script: How could I not go with that title as my prompt?  I’ve written a few other stories about Toph, Jonno, and Tom, and you can find these via the Index page.  The charity mentioned in the story is a real one, and you can find more details about Hope and Homes for Children here.  Al Humphreys is also real, and not only that but an amazing and inspirational human being.  You can find out more about him here.  I firmly believe that everyone should be issued with a copy of his Microadventures book: you don’t need kit to have adventures and you don’t need to travel to far off climes.  (But that can be fun too).


An Artist in Egypt

There he went again. Shaking his head, Jonathan thought (and not for the first time) what a strange fellow his neighbour was. Up every morning shortly after dawn, he’d take breakfast on the verander, just as Jonathan did; but while Jonathan was having a cigarette with his coffee, he’d pack up an easel and a large bag, before heading off across the dunes.

Leaving for the Embassy, Jonathan would be back anything from teatime to late at night, depending what had blown up during the day. Tourists generally, especially the upper class ones, were the bane of his life. Oh, there were plenty of working and middle class tourists who got into trouble, but they were generally grateful for whatever assistance Jonathan and his team would give. But the upper crust … oh no. Always went their own way, ignored Foreign Office advice, and that given them by the Embassy. When they did get into trouble and needed fishing out – for they always did – they treated Jonathan and his team like a bunch of lackies. No gratitude, simply annoyance and ill manners.

The most recent lot had enquired after a chap they knew, who turned out to be Jonathan’s neighbour. For some reason, Jonathan felt a degree of kinship with this man he’d never spoken to and decided to check if he wanted this group to descend on him. Not that he’d done so yet, for it had been a long day yesterday and he’d only been home for a quick shower and change into dress uniform before that shindig at the French Embassy. He should have gone over this morning during breakfast, but it was his one moment of private peace – and he hated to give it up. Something told him that his neighbour would understand. He’d leave a note with his card on the way to work.

As he got home that evening, the sun was dropping low in the sky – his neighbour’s “lot” had already managed to get into trouble and, to divert attention from their idiocy, had complained to the Ambassador that Jonathan hadn’t located their friend. The Ambassador had not been pleased and had given Jonathan a very lively flea in his ear. Jonathan knew he’d have to speak to his neighbour that evening to obtain his wishes.

Changing into casual trousers and shirt, he accepted a long cool drink from his boy, before walking out onto the verander. Although still just a silhouette, he was confident he spied his neighbour returning over the dunes from a day’s painting. He decided to walk across the road to greet him. With luck he’d be able to raise the matter and get the chap’s decision, all before either of them would have to extend an invitation to the other. These damn tourists, upsetting a chap’s routines.

It didn’t go according to plan though. “Got your note” said his neighbour, handing his easel to Jonathan, before striding across the road. Reaching his front door, he passed his bag to his boy and then looked back across the road to where Jonathan was still standing – looking a touch gormless if he was entirely honest – and beckoned him over “you’d better come in for a drink while I clean up.”

Once inside, Jonathan was struck by how different the interiors of their houses were, especially considering their identical footprint. His neighbour’s house was cool and airy, whilst Jonathan’s was warm if not stuffy. Where Jonathan’s home was furnished like a typical British army batchelor – relatively spartan, with well-crafted pieces of furniture – this was lush and layered. There were colours and textures, comfort was clearly of prime import. There were also a number of paintings on the wall, all in watercolour – a mix of dhows on the river, and buffalos working the fields, to views of an entirely buccolic and decidedly English countryside. Jonathan had to admit that he was really rather taken with them – they had clean lines, and a slightly sketchy quality which suggested movement. He knew he’d buy one before he left.

His thoughts were interrupted by his neighbour’s return. Handing him a drink, he announced “Tristan Dawes – but you presumably already knew that from the contents of your note. So, who are these reprobates who’ve asked for my whereabouts?” Jonathan pulled his notebook out and read the names, noticing that Tristan’s facial expression wasn’t exactly one of delight as he did so. “What’s the drill then? You give them my whereabouts, and my peace is over?” Jonathan smiled “Not at all. If you’ve no wish to see them, I simply advise them that you’ve left instructions not to be disturbed … by anyone. They’ve no rights to your address and the Ambassador isn’t obliged to provide it to them.” Tristan nodded before holding out his hand to shake Jonathan’s  “Thank you, I didn’t expect that.”

He’d gained another flea in the ear from the Ambassador for not persuading his neighbour otherwise, but Jonathan stuck to his guns. The Ambassador would do anything for a quiet life, even if it was not strictly correct protocol.

He and Tristan took to having supper together, one night a week, alternating between homes. Jonathan arranged for him to join Embassy trips into the more far flung parts of the country, where he could paint new and different scenes. In return, Tristan had earmarked two paintings for him. Turned out Tristan had not only come to Egypt to escape his over-bearing family and family friends (like the lot who’d tried to track him down) he’d come to Egypt for the dry heat. Having been a bit of a speedster as a young man, the broken bones which came with the inevitable crashes had left him with arthritis. Cold and rainy England may have his heart – which it did, for he still painted it from his memories – but Egypt had provided him with the conditions to be able to continue wielding his brushes.

© Debra Carey, 2018

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#FlashFiction: Project Gutenberg Prompt

A quick reminder that the prompt was to go to Project Gutenberg, have a look at the recent releases and pick a title that appeals: that is the prompt, and the title of your story…

*****

The Owl Taxi

Jonno’s Show had been a huge success.  Every piece had sold, to the satisfaction of Headmaster, Bursar, and Art Master.  Whilst the extravagant prices normally seen in the gallery had not been applied to the fifteen-year old’s portfolio, the patrons at the exclusive event had dug deep in a good cause.  There was even talk of a new scholarship being created, based on artistic merit.

For Jonno though, the celebration had been tempered: everyone had agreed that he should take an Art GCSE early.  The stress of the show done with, he now needed to finish his coursework.  This needed some thought: there was much to consider.  Not only did he need to produce the pieces, he needed to demonstrate his thought processes throughout.  The examiners would not care why he chose a particular subject, but they would scrutinise his every step on the journey, from the materials he chose, to the refinements made to bring the piece to a successful conclusion.  He also had some vague notions that he would look to take a subsequent A-level early too; a further show, in due course, but not too soon, did not appear to be impossible either.  This might even contribute to the costs of university, perhaps.

But all of this was still very much in the future – first he need to get the portfolio for his GCSE sorted.  To seek inspiration, during the half-term break, he wandered into his father’s study. His father was a big fan of detective and mystery stories, which he collected.  His collection started with the early exemplars – Murder on the Rue Morgue, The Notting Hill Mystery, The Moonstone – and continued with examples from every decade thereafter.   There were a few other small collections, but his attention today was on the coffee-table books of art and artists that were neatly lined up on one bottom shelf.  He started rooting through them. He’d looked through these books hundreds of times: they were old friends, his first friends.  He’d been looking at these books since he was a toddler, and their benign influence had shaped him to this point, although he didn’t realise it.

As he flicked through a book on Dalí, it occurred to him that he’d never tried to do anything in the Surrealist style.  In fact, there was a lot that he’d never tried, which was rather humbling.  Turning the glossy, outsize pages, a plan unfolded in his mind.  Without really thinking about it or acknowledging it, he knew how he would shape and present the journal.  But he still needed a subject for the piece.  He picked up the book on surrealism and sat in his father’s chair – a high-backed, wheeled affair – and gently twisted back and forth, musing.  As he spun the chair, the book on his lap, he took in several of the shelves of detective books and one caught his eye: the Owl Taxi.  He reached for some paper and started sketching and making notes: tentative sketches of a taxi in flight, with the features of an owl, reminders of what paints to use, brushes and strokes.  He trialled iconic taxis: yellow cabs from New York, black cabs from London, brightly coloured tuk-tuks from Delhi.  He considered whether it should be a horse drawn Hackney carriage of yore.  He tried to decide whether the kind of owl would make a difference and essayed the classic heart-shaped face of the Barn Owl, and a more general owl shaped based on a Snowy Owl.  A picture of a thousand brush-strokes begins with a simple sketch: he was on his way.

© David Jesson, 2018

*****

We had two other people play along this month, both of whom got their stories in well ahead of the deadline.

Stu’s Story is called “A Dominie Dismissed” and Isa-Lee’s is “A Chronical of Jails“.

Project Gutenberg Writing Prompt Joker

The 1st of December is the birthday of Project Gutenberg, an online archive of out-of-copyright books that have been digitised and are made available to anyone who would like to read them.  Whilst there is some selectivity, this relates more to what particular people like to read in terms of genre and what is available for scanning than a particular desire to perform some kind of literary eugenics.

Hence, this month’s prompt was to take the title of a book recently logged and uploaded to Project Gutenberg and to use that as a starting point.  The pickings were surprisingly rich and it’s worth keeping this idea in mind if you’re ever short of an idea.

As well as our own stories arising from the prompt, we’re hosting someone else’s as well.  We’re very happy to do this, especially if you’d like to have a go but either don’t have a blog of your own to post to, or if you feel that the story wouldn’t fit with your normal posts.

Historical Characters in the Reign of Queen Anne

So there I was, walking quietly along the street and trying to avoid either being jostled by those walking faster than me and overtaking without due care and attention, or those coming the other way barrelling their way through the opposition. It’s not easy when you are shortish, lightish, and have no clue where you are.

Oh I knew I was in London alright, it was just that it was an unfamiliar part. I think I turned left instead of right when I came out of the subway, partly because of the press of the crowd and partly because of the disorientating din of the traffic. Anyway, here I am trying to find myself and the best way to get to my destination. Where can I find a bit of space, a bit of quiet so that I can think?

There’s a bench by the river, and I navigate towards it, carefully checking that I am not going to be mown down by a flying cyclist or one of the athletic people running along the path. I find an old newspaper and remove the latest evidence of pigeons and sit to contemplate the infinite variety of Old Father Thames. That, in case you missed it, was irony. There’s not much variety about the Thames these days, not one tenth of the boats that I remember as a boy. In those days it was exciting, hanging over the bridge looking at the names of the ships and the ports they came from, looking at the sheer range of cargoes being unloaded at every dock and jetty. Nowadays it’s just a few pleasure boats, the River Police and RNLI; the entrepreneurial ‘river bus’, and tugs taking lines of barges laden with the city’s detritus downriver to the sea.

I’ve sat here too long! That policeman, no, Community Officer has just came back from the other end of his beat and is too obviously not trying to notice me. I can almost hear his thoughts; “Strange bloke over there. Been sitting there a long time. Looks worried – is he going to jump?” Unhurriedly I get up and walk away.

The streets are quieter now so it is no problem to amble slowly along and take notice of things. There’s a small group of market stalls over there and I take a detour to have a look. Mostly street food or coffee; one old man selling stamps, another full of tools which have seen better days. Oh! A bookstall, now that’s interesting! Some quite nice items there amongst the tattered paperbacks and coverless folios. I pick up a few, just to kill time when underneath I find a copy of Mrs Oliphant’s Historical Characters in the Reign of Queen Anne. I freeze. I look around, nobody is watching.

Carefully I open the book to a page I know well. And there I am – and how I wish I could get back to my own time!

491 Words

© Alan Jesson, 2016

 

Précis writing for beginners

Only one word was required to summarise Tom’s stance, behaviour, attitude and philosophy at this moment: mooching.  They were in his least favourite shop, his father’s frequent and inevitable haunt on any trip to Town.  It was half-term and these trips had become almost ritualised.  The family would reconvene outside the cinema in three quarters of an hour: it was Tom’s turn to choose the film they would watch.  If he’d been as savvy as his older brother Jonno, he might have tempered his desire to watch the latest big blockbuster and gone with his second choice which started in just five minutes time.  If he’d been less annoying to Jonno and his oldest brother, the oh-so-cool Toph, he might have been allowed to go with them.  But he was nine, and sometimes that on its own is enough to be annoying, especially to cool 15 year olds.  He could have gone with his mother, to help her with her errands.  But as has been established, he was nine, and his dignity forbade it.  It was unlikely, but what would happen if he was seen by one of his school friends?  No, it did not bear thinking about, and so, instead, he was reduced to accompanying his father to a second-hand book shop.

When he was seven, he had loved this shop.  It was an Aladdin’s cave of books, with mingled scents of old books and wooden shelves, hidden nooks and strange dead-ends.  The layout never seemed to be the same two visits running.  His Father would say that “a good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read”, with the sly twinkle in his eye which meant it was a joke, but it was one that Tom had never got.  Now though, he was older and sophisticated.  He couldn’t understand what his Father saw in the shop, nor the inevitable purchase of a venerable leather-bound volume.

Tom mooched round the shop.  His mood the last few days had been very low.  He had received his first ever ‘C’ at school, and in the one subject that he felt truly comfortable with.  The master had handed back the homework with the murmured comment that a synopsis shouldn’t be longer than the document it was summarising.  He’d felt so ashamed, that he wanted the ground to open up beneath him.  Something welled up inside him: he felt fizzy and didn’t know what to do.  He could not see his Father.  He walked determinedly, ostensibly to find him, but with the purpose of knocking over a rickety bookcase (with a seemingly casual glancing blow) firmly fixed in his mind.

He could never quite remember what happened, even in abstract.  One moment he was going to create a mess and the next he was apologising for jostling an elderly gentleman with a crinkled face and flowing white hair.  The jostle had caused the mess he’d wanted but now he felt acute embarrassment.  He hurriedly tidied up the landslide of books that had slipped off an antique bureau.  The last was just the sort of book his Father would like. It had hard, green cloth covers embossed in black.  He blinked and read the title again. He stared at the book and felt a world of possibilities opening up once more.

“What have you got there kiddo?”

“Can I buy it Dad?  I don’t have any money on me, but I’ll pay you back”.

His Father looked at him, quickly summing up the change in mood, the lightening of the boy’s face and the suppressed eagerness.  “Précis writing for beginners” he read, “well if you’re sure?”.

© David Jesson, 2016

(606 words – ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.‘ – Mark Twain)

 

The Flying Girl and Her Chum

One morning, on her birthday, a box arrived, a very big box at that. Glenna signed for it, whilst wondering who’d sent her something from the Popcorn Store. For even in America, a box this size would contain a too huge amount of popcorn. Opening the box, she tore a hole in the plastic inner bag and that’s when she got the surprise of her life – she was greeted by the sound of a very loud and unmistakable belch. “Oops, sorry” called out a voice from within, “I really shouldn’t have drunk that Diet Coke before packing myself into the box with all this popcorn.” Glenna peered carefully in, but drew back sharply as a young man carefully uncurled himself and stepped out.

He held his hand out and said “Elden is me. You wished for a companion I think.” “Yes, but …” stammered Glenna, “how’d you know?” Elden shrugged, “is this your place?” he asked, looking with interest around Glenna’s small flat. “Mmm” Glenna nodded, still in shock, watching as Elden walked around, opening doors and having a good nose around. “Where will I sleep?” he asked “There is one small bed, and only armchairs, no sofa.” “You’re staying here?” managed Glenna. “Of course. If I am to be your Chum, where else would I go? For you must fly and I will keep you safe.”

You see, Glenna was special, for she had wings. But she’d learned at the Home that such things weren’t normal. She’d grown used to living in the shadows and to hiding them away. But oh, how she missed flying and to make it worse, she was terribly lonely – for how could she share her wings with anyone normal? Now here was Elden and he knew. And he wasn’t freaked out. And he was cute. Also, if she was not mistaken, those were pointy ears. “Are you an elf?” she asked. He nodded; that’s when Glenna found herself saying: “we’ll go shopping to buy a bed for you, there’s room for another one in the bedroom.”

Grabbing a bag, a spring in her step for the first time ever, she said: “Come on then. Put my beanie on to cover your ears and let’s go shopping …”

383 words

© Debra Carey, 2016