June Cruelty

Held to the brink, the mouth gapes its film of saliva. There is no more than the gossamer gorge of all those Skittles, crackling up between the teeth. We let go of his neck to see what would happen next. We watched as he scaled the red brick walls. Shouts from a football match. The air aglow with cut grass, laughter, nesting birds. The coming summer.

He got stuck and they watched him for hours from the safety of concrete. They came back after class had finished; no teacher noticed his absence. He was shaking now; it was visible even though he kept his hands stuffed in his pockets. People were crying, Chicken, Chicken, but maybe it wasn’t a game anymore. I told ‘Manda I was going for a walk and she shrugged. She wants in with Liam and won’t leave his side.

Scaling the circumference of a field, the image of that mouth wouldn’t get out my mind. All those teeth! Who knew wee Neil had all those teeth! Pecking like that at the sweets! The stickiness dripping down his chin and all the rainbow colours spilling out, coagulating on the playground. I thought he was going to choke.

The shouts got louder, even though I was now two fields away from the school. Stepped in fucking cow pat. Stopped at a burn to wash my shoes, the patent ones with the gold heart buckle, my favourites. The highness of the shouting modulates, like the tracks we had to listen to in Music Theory to understand what they called octaves and  pitch shifts. Maybe you could say it was a scream. I glanced in the water and saw among the rocks and silt the slow spread of a jellyish blood. A sheep’s? The breeze blew and I opened my mouth for a yawn the shape of a semibreve. There was silence then, a pause.

/ Maria Sledmere

(fff prompts: iridescence, inconceivable)

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A Hidden Spirit

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The children were always making wild claims for the magic of the garden.

“Look, we found fairies!” they gasp, brandishing handfuls of glitter that bounce of the sparks in their eyes. Feigning amusement at such games is one aspect of parenthood I don’t think I’ll ever perfect.

“I wish you wouldn’t come in with muddy boots on,” I hear myself echoing my mother, her voice querulous and knackered, coming from long ago; a dusk-lit kitchen, the smell of shepherd’s pie.

“But Daddy, fairies!”

Samantha is tugging on Tim’s arm so hard it’s difficult to tell if he’s enthusiastic or just wincing. I concede to the whole performance and find myself led up the path to the back of the garden, noting the places where serious weeding needs to be done. When was the last time I ventured in this far? Ever since Emma left there seemed no point to mowing the lawn; the children love the grass when it’s long. Sometimes, washing the dishes at the window I’ll watch them, pushing each other and laughing. Tim’ll come in like clockwork, ten minutes later, eyes streaming with hay-fever.

“Right kids what is it I’m supposed to be seeing?”

“Fairies, you big oaf.”

“Fairies, huh? What do fairies look like then?” Wearily, I crouch to their level, the old knees stiff from last night’s squash match (Michael swamped me with that backhand of his).

This time, Tim pipes up. “Lights. They’re lights.” It’s dusk and the garden is full of shadows. When they were tiny, I used to take them up here, hand in hand with the torch. We’d have a fire and tell ghost stories till Emma called us inside, pronouncing it too chilly to just sit. She wouldn’t even try the fire.

“What kind of lights?” It’s cold enough now. Summer almost over, the promise of autumn frost, school uniforms to iron…

“You have to take a picture.”

“Come on, Daddy’s getting tired now.” I straighten up.

“No really. You take a picture and then the photo shows them up. They’re ever so tiny.” Samantha with her matter-of-fact tone, a hallmark of Emma’s.

Tim scrambles up the ash tree and whips a polaroid camera out of the birdhouse. I marvel at the way he leaps down and lands like a cat on both feet.

“Where’d you get that?” They exchange a glance which I take as suspicious, significant.

“You have to be very still,” Samantha warns me. Obediently I stand there in the dusk, straining my eyes to see. Beyond the garden fence, beyond the slope and the rooftops and chimneys, Emma and I are up at the top of Kildoon Hill, a blanket stretched before us, her face bathed in violet starlight. Or maybe it was the town that was bathed, the way the bluish dusk mixed with all the flickers of those amber streetlamps. We’re eating sugared strawberries, because it’s summer and everything’s ahead of us.

“Daddy! You’re not paying attention!” Samantha snaps.

“OK OK I am now. I’m watching.” After a nod from his sister, Tim creeps forward. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be looking at. There’s a swarm of midges clustering around the nettles, whose ominous stalks are taller than Tim himself. Tim lunges forward at once and takes a snap. The flash floats briefly in the air, like a white glowstick spilt underwater, slowly melting away into nothing. The darkness rearranges. Jackdaws rustle in the leaves above us.

Excitedly, Tim shuffles over to me and holds out the polaroid while the picture develops.

“We saw something about this in a book,” Samantha explains, “how cameras can capture a hidden spirit. Who knew we had fairies right here, in our garden? It’s a remarkable discovery.”

The picture pulls out fully. Tim hands it to me and watches, nose dripping eagerly, while I examine it. There’s the sinuous shapes of the shrubbery, the black slant of the shed. Most of the image, however, is taken up by a cloud of tiny lights, pulsing in my shaky vision like silver orbs, millioning gleefully. I’m not sure if it disappoints me that the children are enraptured by a throng of glowing midges, caught momentarily as fairies in their camera flash. I think about what Emma would say, anxious about the questionable origins of the camera itself, about Samantha’s magpie-eye for shiny things out of reach in shops. Isn’t there a film about this, two girls faking photos of fairies in their garden? What are they trying to prove?

“Well?” The kids are impatient. I’m impatient too, waiting for my own reaction. Samantha rolls her eyes.

“Look, if you’re worried about the camera, it’s just a present from Mum.”

“Oh.” The force of this blow is surprising. I glance over at the midges, still humming away beside us, indifferent to the available flesh of our faces. Tim’s expression was devastating.

“You don’t care,” he whimpered. I tuck the polaroid photo in the breast-pocket of my shirt.

“Aw kids, of course I do.” I draw him towards me, folding him tight the way I’ve seen him hugging the neighbour’s dog, craving that sense of what I’d forgotten. His hair smells of grass and it needs a wash. Samantha looks bemused at our clumsy embrace. She’s pretending to play with the camera now, but I catch her eye without meaning to. There’s a spark there, a flash of something I know is mine. We both smile and I think she half believes me.

Maybe that’s the magic of the garden.

/ Maria Sledmere

(fff prompts: exposure, <photo>)

Liminal Preparations

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There are cracks where the light breaks down and all the darkness left is nougat for shadow. I devour all I have; which is just this small room, a cabin that sways all night and day. When the sad hours come I fold into a question mark, hoping for nothing but sleep. The sea will rock me to sleep. This is less being than breathing.

As the hours pass, the honey crystallises in the jar on the window. I am always in water and yet the memories are hard and congealed. A lump of obsidian brought back from disaster. Black glass, hardened felsic lava. It’s smooth and slick enough to lick, a sliver of very dark chocolate. Bittersweet howl of the elements.

Sunshine feeds me nothing. The moonlight on the decking is lovely. My skin is like frosting, covered in crystals, white and shining. Gulls come in from the west on the thrust of the wind and we hear in our sleep their shouting. I live in the thin space, the evening whisky, the wafer of salty obsidian. I dream of a firth where the seaweed clogs the gorge of the sea and all is a dark, gelatinous, bottle green. You could float and not drown and the world would have you like that, microbial.

These hexagons dripping with golden honey, these desolate soundscapes of gun-coloured grey. If I close my eyes, close my eyes…If I am adrift like this for long, the mariner I’m sure will come for me. He knows these waves, these tides, like I know my childhood streets. He is still in his own way alive; still fighting for that acrid day, the old promise of solid concrete. Until then, I must blow this skin into glass, glow molten for a dawn that may not arrive.

/Maria Sledmere

Kernel

Kernel 

You would have given anything to trade these white walls for the impossible depths of the forest. Sometimes, when time refused its submission to the laws of physics, you applied your third eye to the blankness, trying to conjure the trees and the passages of mosses and curious flowers. The child who found comfort in the smells of peat and fern, the pollen of trees.

“Water?” The voice at the door. Sometimes, reflections shifted along the metal grate and you mistook them for rats. There was a reason for the nibble marks at the corner of your bed sheet.

Back in the summer of your most significant year, you spent all your days in the forest. She taught you it all: how to use moss to squeeze out drinking water, how to make garlands from branches of ivy, how to select edible mushrooms, to pick special berries which made you sick for days in a wild coma. Nobody cared where either of you were. The first time with the berries you had tangled yourselves in a fall of leaves and lay there for what felt like a week. The changes from dawn to dusk, twilight to midnight, startled your heightened senses. Dark lashes upon gold would gorge your eyeballs. She found you endlessly hilarious in a way nobody has since. Her limbs around you like tree roots, securing. She was three years older; she knew everything. She would talk about the early days when the country was ravished by conflicts. It was a fairy tale, a terrible fiction cloaked in the dust of her accent, its gravel, its distance. Impossible to predict that such a thing could happen again.

“Water?” The door banged open, a bowl was set down. A shadow turned and left.

Sometimes in dreams you’re under a waterfall. The deepest grove in the forest. The sun from above refracts and sparkles in the downward surge, which you see from beneath as a converging spiral of quartz-bright light. When you wake the white of the walls is blinding. The water tastes metallic. The bruise round your eyes never heals; its permanence is the nightshade power of poisoned safflower, a strong red tint that blurs your vision. He comes in the morning to beat it again, beating the sight out of you. You focus on the white, on the waterfall, the shimmering distance of the forest.

Your ribs have been cracked. Your spine twisted like a thread of rope pulled tight in a coil, each knot clicking out of place, screech after scratch. The searing quality of this pain you have channelled back into the white. The edges shiver. Your skull has been cracked against the cistern. He holds your hair in a fist, calls it torture. You have no answers. You are only white.

There is a hollow inside you. A child inside you. She is cold and quivers in the bowers of pines, her skin scored raw by the coarsest hide. She listens for the girl who would tell her the secrets. She has not been broken; she lives in the hollow like the seed of an oak tree, her breathing remembering a dream of eternity.

One thing he cannot crack.

She taught her how to tie a necklace from dark elastications of pitch and sap. The little acorn pendant hidden in the crest of her neck, a bead between two chest bones. How she relished those chest bones, the unbroken curves, the bead of the acorn, impeccably shelled. The child inside her, cold, quivering, alone?

/ Maria Sledmere

(fff prompt: acorn)

Starlight Smoke

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Starlight Smoke

Six packs. He slips them neatly in his pockets, stubs a cigarette out on the concrete, orange tip entering a galaxy of gum and gravel. Stars are incongruous tonight, too much warmth in the air; there’s something about a star that suggests silvery shivers and winter. Pieces of ice, dead shards of light.

No less than ten minutes till the bus comes, but for whatever reason he lets it pass when it does, trundling by in hot dark smog.

He wanders all the way up the high street, cuts down two alleys, across the park and up to the close along near Tesco’s. Takes twice as long. Ash stains on the buttons where folk have stubbed out fags. He can feel the crinkle of their fingerprints as he pushes the buzzer for flat 6/3. There’s always a delay; he pictures her listening to music under the sheets with her legs swinging long in the air. Smell of burnt pizza and marijuana. Sweat. Such a walk up the stairs.

– Hey.

– Hey yourself.

They kiss so casual now. He’s perfected it on the stage of street corners; the quick nip before she twirls away.

The flat’s in total shadow. She hovers in the doorway like a moth, briefly attracted to the light in the hall, before ushering him in. This is the moment he’d like to melt his tongue in the heat of her throat, but they don’t do that anymore. The walls don’t bear their bodies like before. They’re fixed to the ground, a distance between them.

Some kind of lo-fi dub thrums from her room. The vibrations stir in his gut.

– Kitchen?

– Sure.

Whir of kettle steam. Dirt-rich grounds of coffee. He watches her fuss in the cupboards, looking for mugs. Pulls out Silk Cuts.

– Want one?

– I thought you were gonna quit.

– Six more. Packs that is. Jason bought them in duty-free, seemed a shame to waste.

– I wish you wouldn’t in here. The landlady…

He lights it anyway, then lights another one on the glow of the first. Passes it to her. Electric twitch as they brush fingertips. She takes the longer drag.

– Damn.

– It’s been some day.

– I’ll say.

He watches her float by the cooker. There’s a 27% chance she’ll cook rice and chilli if he sits tight long enough. The smoke swirls up in wispish clouds from her mouth as she fingers a bottle of wine in lieu of the forgotten coffee. In ten minutes, the lipstick will dry with a reddish stain and the soft skin will peel and crackle, plastic. She’s prettier that way, a bit of a bee-sting. Later, her hair will drape over the sheets, tobacco scent gleamed with grease. In the morning, by the window, she’ll comb out the aroma. The nicotine mist comes off her as he reads her aura. Under her nails, skin flakes and fridge crystals. Suddenly, he wants to kiss her.

Steam from the kettle. Shuffling of slippers; the flatmate practicing speeches next door.

– Can’t keep her grounded, that one.

– I’ll say.

Her mouth breathes out greyish vapours when she talks. Soon, he’s feeling his hand in her hair, its sticky rivulets. His vision slipping out of focus. Somehow she’s with him on the chair and the candlelight flickers. Tiny particles spill like glitter against the window. There’s a sign on the wine saying ‘Recipe for Lust’. Together, entwined like this, they can only combust.

/ Maria Sledmere

(FFF prompts: galaxy, cigarette)

 

White Tulips

White Tulips 

I’m half in love with the man who comes with the flowers. Every Wednesday afternoon he’s here, when the coffee cups are cleared and we’re waiting in limbo for five o’clock and the changeover and the evening folk. He wears grubby fleeces that my ma would sniff at, sometimes a baseball cap; but it’s okay, it’s turned the right way. He doesn’t speak much. Actually I was scared he was English or something, but then one day I took the tulips off him (they were white tulips, they lasted longer than a week so I took a few home when nobody was looking). When our hands brushed he looked up and said, all Glaswegian like, Will I just get the payment at the bar? like he’d not been here a million times before and like maybe he just wanted something to say. I looked back and smiled and I was still smiling when I realised I should reply and so said Aye.

It’s his last day today. I’m hiding in back of house because I don’t want to see him and be sad. J is texting me asking if I want to come over to his tonight cos he has a waterbed now and a new Xbox game, like I care about either of those things. Go on, speak to him. My manager’s taking glee in my discomfort as always but it’s only cos she loves me. Just ask him for his number. She brushes my hair through to make it shiny.

I’ve never asked a boy for his number in my life. Like, I’ve never needed to. It’s never occurred to me. Guys watch me like I’m something on the screen and they can’t draw their eyes away. Creeps are everywhere, you just have to pick the good ones. They’re always nice at first but then it’s boring. I never think of what comes next, just what’s on offer the now. All those WhatsApp notifications and the dirty pictures they send me—like a girl wants to look at a thing like that, mushrooming in darkness and ugliness. My manager calls it Ego.

There’s never enough time to sort through the messages, to sift out the good ones. I could have a man for every night of the week if I wanted. But who would?

I don’t even know his name. I used to have this daydream where we’d be walking around B&Q together—you know the outdoor garden bit—and every now and then he’d stop to tell me what things were called. He knew the names of all the flowers and shrubs and sometimes the trees. He’d say words like cascades and ovals and crescents, gesturing to the jungle of stuff around us. I didn’t care about the names but I liked that he wasn’t quiet or awkward like other boys and that he would just talk and talk so I could listen. We’d go for hot chocolates afterwards and maybe he’d meet my granny who would like him a lot cos he always says Thanks and Take Care. He’d bring her tulips, white ones, like the ones he gave me.

He’s leaving out the door now with the other girl from the florist whose fleece matches his. They’re carrying the boxes of last week’s flowers, with the shrivelled tips and the silver gravel and that weird green thing they call oasis. The bell for the kitchen is ringing but I wait till he’s all the way out the door.

Take Care, I whisper, hating myself.  I enter the kitchen and my manager pulls me aside.

Here.

What is it?

I flip open the card and there’s a clipart picture of Robert Burns roses in a vase. The name of the florist, an email, a number.

Never too late, she says, brushing past me with the confidence I want.

/ Maria Sledmere

(fff prompts: vase)

Group Micro-Narrative: The Orange



By Maria, Ailsa, Caroline, Kat, Ross, Heather

The diary said that she’d poisoned the orange.

But Jason never saw that detail as he flicked through the pages, he had so little time.

She was waiting for him downstairs.

He was there to seduce her.

He was not successful.

She punched him in the face.

Slowly the nose sank down into the carpet, and out of the sea of blood a dragon emerged.

It roared,flexing its mighty wings and challenged her to a duel.

She asked if he would rather have tea instead.

He agreed and she offered him an orange.

Jason began to question the wisdom of taking LSD

But then, he thought “screw it, dragons are cool”

This is what he wrote on the feedback form supplied by the government, who were conducting experiments on mind control.

So he bit into the orange, including the peel, and at least he found that to be real.

In the government control room, Jason’s body began to spasm and his jaw cracked.

“Increase the dose,” said the scientist.

The dial was turned up and everything exploded.   

Week Nine: Micro Narratives and The Art of Re-writing

We’ve spent a whole month having a crack at writing flash fiction, and so now that we’ve mastered this ‘in-between’ approach to writing (shorter than a novel but not quite a Tweet), I thought we could look at how to write really short writing. It’s especially relevant for the digital age, where we spend so much time reading very short articles and flicking between pages of different information, so that our brains get used to digesting stories quickly.

We’ll be looking at some of the shortest stories ever written, and what sort of effects they achieve. We’ll be having a go at condensing our own micro stories as well as using existing ones for prompts. We’ll also consider how you might put together a ‘Twitter-length’ narrative using 25 words or less, and also writing this way in collaboration.

As well as all this emphasis on writing short short stories, we’ll be looking at the art of re-writing, as in, how you might go about rewriting some of your favourite prose fiction. For this you need to bring in one of your favourite novels and pick a particular page that’s relevant somehow – but there’ll be more info on this on the night.

As always, be sure to have a go at writing some flash fiction from February’s prompts for the ebook anthology we’ll eventually collate, as it will also be a good warm-up for this week’s session! Also in case you haven’t seen, there’s now a ‘Prompt’ page on the blog where you can access a weekly prompt for use in any form of writing (remember to send us what you create!).

For now, check out this selection of authors’ Twitter stories:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/12/twitter-fiction-140-character-novels

See you soon!

Maria

*** Word of warning: our block booking at the GUU Elliot Library has sadly come to a close, however we are working on getting a replacement room for the remaining workshops, so stay tuned to find out where it will be! ***

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