From Short Story to Short Story Collection (and all stops between)

An interview with Dan Powell

I’ve known Dan Powell since mid-2009. We stumbled across each other between Constantine Markide’s Fourth Fiction and the inception of #fridayflash. We were both relatively new to writing and wrote shoulder-to-shoulder through much of the second half of 2009. I greatly admired the scope and versatility of Dan’s writing. There seemed to be no style or genre he couldn’t turn his hand to with style and efficacy. In time we fell into a critiquing partnership that has endured the birth of children, moving countries, breakdowns, work pressures, time pressures, and all other things life can, and does, throw your way.

DanAuthorPicI’ve had the honour to publish three of Dan’s stories (‘This Be The Verse’, ‘Driver and the Beautiful Highway’, ‘Perfect Light’). He is an editor’s dream. In 2012 I had the opportunity to adapt ‘Driver and the Beautiful Highway’ for a short film script.

Behind the scenes I’ve had the joy of watching so many of Dan’s story grow and evolve and go on to find homes in magazines, anthologies and on prize lists. I tell in my editing seminars, in the section on beta reading, how Dan once sent me a story which was just an opening and closing. In the middle was a note: [something goes here. Do you have any ideas what it might be?] Those days are long past for Dan!

Dan’s work is uncompromising and at times uncomfortable in its exploration of taboo subjects or hidden ‘domestic’ situations. I have been disturbed and delighted by the characters and stories Dan has penned. In 2010 I (jokingly!) said to Dan: no more shit stories. Read ‘Soiled’ and ‘Did You Pack This Bag Yourself’ and you’ll understand the comment in context of a stay-at-home Dad going through toilet training!

Dan is one of my writing heroes: his dedication to the writing communities he belongs to (in the early days of the Friday Flash community he read and commented on every story, even when the list blew out to 70 odd stories), his dedication to the craft (his commitment to the Short Story a Day challenge back in 2010 was one of the catalyst in the evolution of his stories IMO), his dedication to Flash Fiction as a form (he has reviewed and shared countless stories from sites such as Metazen) and his work ethic (write, sub, and keeping subbing).

Then there is the huge investment Dan has made my work over the years as my crit partner. He knows my work inside-out and has consistently challenged me to write learner, harder and deeper. His editorial stamp is on so many of my stories, including Elyora/River of Bones.

Today it’s my pleasure to look across my desk and see copies of Looking Out of Broken Windows sitting there… and to grill him about the process of creating a short story collection.

Lou Reed said: I can’t do anything I want to. I mean, I can’t have my own TV show. I can’t have my own movie. But within my little world, no body tells me what to put on the album. It made me think of how writing stories is not too different to writing songs.

bookondeskThat is exactly what I love about writing. I write exactly the stories that I would love to read. That level of control is unique to the prose writer. Every other type of story-telling requires collaboration and as such means you relinquish some of that control, some of that freedom. I’ve written comic scripts and I love collaborating with artists and watching the words come to life in a kinetic fashion, but you cannot beat the raw freedom you get faced with a blank page about to be filled with prose.

I am genuinely excited by what I am writing about at any given time. You can’t beat that feeling of writing exactly what you want to write. Seeing that work go on to be accepted for publication and enjoyed by readers is particularly thrilling. It justifies all those choices, both conscious and unconscious, that you make during the crafting of the piece.

David Byrne said that sometimes there is an unconscious thread that runs through the songs on an album. The same could be said about writing short stories; that as writers we are drawn to tell certain types of stories and or give voice to certain types of characters. How indicative is Looking out of Broken Windows of the types of stories/characters you are drawn to and how did those stories influence the inception of the collection?

This collection is absolutely indicative of the kinds of stories and characters I was interested in exploring over the last four or five years.

I am drawn to the broken and damaged parts of people. In those aspects of character lie the real stories. All of the characters in these stories are a little broken, a little damaged and struggling to deal with the events and actions that have made them that way. This thread emerged in an unconscious process. Once I began filtering the stories during selection, it was very clear that a certain core group would provide the spine of the collection.

Being broken is a major part of the human experience. If you’re lucky you pick yourself up and carry on, hopefully with the help of others. This collection explores that side of being a person.

From that inception point, what was the process of creating Looking Out of Broken Windows? What was the hardest part and what was the easiest part of the process?

The short stories are the backbone of the collection. Once I had that group it was a matter of selecting the flash fictions that best complimented the stories.

The hardest part of the process was realising that certain stories just wouldn’t make the cut for the collection. I knew early on that a good few stories that I really loved, that I thought were good enough to include, just didn’t fit the overall theme and feel of the collection.

Looking at the collection now I can see that I absolutely made the right choices over what to include. And of those that it really hurt to cut, a good two or three have a firm place in the next collection, which they are perfect for, so it all worked out. Conversely, the easiest part was probably the removal of those stories that weren’t quite good enough.

LOoBW has 27 stories in it. How many stories did you have the pool and how did you choose what went in and what was held over?

I pulled the very best stories from the last five years or so of my writing to make up the collection. From a total pool of around 26 stories and 32 flash fictions I ended up with the 27 pieces in the collection. So by that reckoning, I trimmed away just over half of the stories that might have earned a place.

Most of those were cut because they simply weren’t good enough. Others were kept back for my next collection as they simply did not fit the emerging theme of this collection.

The real turning point for selection came with the writing of the title story (which was the last story to be completed in the collection). I knew as soon as I typed the final words that the collection had a story that would act as its figurehead. Once I had that, I had a title for the collection and the rest slotted into place.

Many of the stories in LOoBW were published previously in journals, magazines and anthologies. How does including previously published stories impact on the logistics of putting a collection together?

LOOBW lower res coverThat side of things was all very simple. All the stories were published at least a year ago and therefore out of any exclusivity that their previous publications claimed. For all of them I have copyright so that side of things was not an issue.

All of the stories that appeared previously elsewhere are mentioned in the acknowledgements of the collection, along with my sincere thanks to all the editors who championed my work by putting it online and in print. Their support was a crucial stepping-stone to this collection being accepted for publication.

Do the previously published stories appear as the fans of your work will remember them? Or did some require re-working to fit the overall feel of the anthology?

All the stories appear pretty much as they were originally published. The exception is ‘Did You Pack This Bag Yourself?’ which you will remember appeared in Chinese Whisperings interconnected short story anthology The Yin and Yang Book as ‘This Be The Verse.’

It was a story I absolutely needed to include, as no character of mine is more broken than poor old Calvinsweetheart. The rewriting was not about making the story fit the theme in this case, but taking the story back to its core, removing the elements that tied it in to the world of the Yin and Yang books, so the story could stand on its own two feet amidst my other work.

In the past when I’ve configured anthology ToCs I’ve been very mindful to place each story so it’s position amplifies the narrative but also builds the stories around it. Who decided on the final ToC order and how do you think your stories are altered/experienced differently in having them together in a single collection?

The final order of stories was totally my own decision. Salt are happy to trust their authors to shape their books. I think they believe that no-one knows the book better than the author and as such they give you a great deal of freedom regarding which stories you include and in what order.

I think my stories all stand up as separate pieces of fiction but hopefully, when read together like this, the reader will see the connections and resonances between the many narratives squeezed between the covers.

Hip hop artist Mos Def says all his albums are snapshots of where he is artistically. How is Looking Out of Broken Windows a snap shot of you are both as an artist and a person?

It is definitely a snapshot of me as a writer between 2008 and 2013.

All of the stories were written during that period and as such can’t help but reflect where I was at that time both as a writer and a human being. Many of the stories focus on the domestic, which is probably a direct result of my being a househusband and full-time-father during that time. It’s why there are so many stories about pregnancy and babies in the book, why there are so many stories about marriages, so many stories about parent and child relationships.

Are there any hints at what might be in your next collection?

My next collection is already taking shape. I have five or six stories for it already. This one is going to be all about the idea of masculinity in the 21st century.

It’s creative process is quite different as I have a clear idea of the general feel of this collection from the off and I am consciously writing stories that have something to say about that idea. Hopefully this will mean that this one won’t take so long to complete. The first of these stories, ‘Rip Rap’, has just been short listed for the Willesden Herald Short Story Prize. With luck some of the others will start appearing in publications and prize shortlists very soon.

– – –

Dan Powell is a prize winning author whose short fiction has appeared in the pages of Carve, Paraxis, Fleeting and The Best British Short Stories 2012. His debut collection of short fiction, Looking Out Of Broken Windows, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize in 2013 and is published by Salt. He procrastinates at danpowellfiction.com and on Twitter as @danpowfiction.

Dan is giving away a signed copy of Looking Out of Broken Windows to one reader of the blog tour; he will post to anywhere in the world. To win just leave a comment on this post or any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet during March 2014. The names of all commenters will be put in the hat for the draw, which will take place on April 6th.

Looking Out of Broken Windows (Salt Publishing) hits the shelves Saturday 15th March. You can pre-order at the following locations:

The Salt store
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Book Depository

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In Apology #fridayflash

Dear Jack,
I’m sorry you didn’t get laid for Valentines.

I’m sorry ‘Sexual Healing’ got stuck on your iPod, for two hours, without you knowing how to fix it. I’m sorry the champagne cork broke in the bottle. I’m sorry your elbow kissed my mouth when you tried to slip your arm around my shoulder and it interrupted your mojo.

I’m sorry you couldn’t get it up even though I tried every trick I knew to get you hard.

Most of all I am sorry your credit card was declined and my minder broke your leg. I did try to get him to go easy on you, after all it was Valentines Day and you hadn’t exactly got what you were paying for.

I hope Valentines Day is less painful next year.

Yours,
Susie

PS: I’m sorry for lying. Yes, Susie is a stage name. I’m sorry it’s also your mum’s.

BOFF2 Australian Blog Hop: Stacey Larner

To celebrate the launch of Best of Friday Flash Vol. 2 (or BOFF2), the tiny Aussie contingent is doing a Blog Hop (otherwise known as “the blop”). I’m hosting S.G Larner, who talks about her melancholic offering, “The House Cemetery”.

If you hop (skip or jump) over to Jason Coggin’s site you can read about my story “She-Hero”. But more importantly, stop in on the way and buy BOFF2 here and join the Facebook online release party.

“House Cemetery” – S. G. Larner
(Brisbane)

“Some handle it better than others. I tend to dwell on things, to make them seem much worse than they really are. Harold is an eternal optimist; it irritates me how he’s so cheerful all the time. Always putting a positive spin on it. Like there’s some good in being cut in half and abandoned on the side of the road.”

My memory of the inspiration for House Cemetery is a bit like a dream, all muddled and incoherent. There are fragments of the truth in what I remember though.

There is a memory of forlorn looking houses for sale in a lot by the motorway, somewhere north of Brisbane. I once lived in a house that was destined to be cut in half and taken to a place very much like that. I’ve seen houses on the backs of wide trucks that drove slowly with lights flashing and WIDE LOAD displayed. Cars banked up behind them, frustrated by the delay.

And finally, my partner saying something like, “Imagine if the houses were alive, and it was like a graveyard for them.”

Sentient houses abandoned in a used house sales lot, slowly rotting. Wow, what kind of torture would that be?

Friday Flash

House Cemetery was actually my first #fridayflash story, prior to that I was doing [Fiction] Friday, and then I took a bit of a hiatus to concentrate on other writing. I have to credit Jodi Cleghorn with getting me over to [Fiction Friday], the forum which prodded me to start writing regularly. I resisted Twitter for a long time because I am time poor, but when I joined I jumped into #fridayflash. After a while I decided to prioritise submission pieces but I still like to participate in #fridayflash where I can.

S. G. Larner (@StaceySarasvati) is an overachieving mother-of-three. Her sleep deprived haze isn’t enough to keep her away from the delights of the written word. A denizen of sunny Brisbane, Australia, she revels in exploring the dark underbelly of the world in her works. She has several stories published, has been called a proofreading goddess and grammar juggernaut, and contributes to a collaborative sound/image/text project called The Included Middle with her partner.

Aussie Blog Hop participants:

Adam Byatt
Tim Collard
S.G. Larner
Jason Coggins

Simeon

She surveyed the inside of the coffee house from the barista line. The informer assured her Simeon would be there, his morning coffee ritual, tucked invisibly in the corner, the only remnant of his former life. She located him easily, hunched over the table, a grey hoodie covering his head, back to the world,

“Which table?’ the barista asked, itching the side of a hooked nose, just above the silver piercing. His LED name badge said “Mickey”.

“The one right up the back. Up there on the right.”

“With Simeon?” he asked, dark brows colliding.

“I’m his sister.”

“Ahhh.” He tapped the table number into system.

“Is he always alone?”

The barista nodded and scanned the back of her hand, knocking a black finger nail against a crooked front tooth, while the system recognised the chip and transfered payment for the short black.

“All good,” barista said and looked around her to the next customer.

She untied the long red trench coat and moved slowly through the swarm of coffee drinkers and conversation, taking in the kaleidoscope of faces and body language as she did. When she arrived at Simeon’s table, she silently slipped into the bench seat opposite. He didn’t look up, his finger tapping the tablet, transforming the screen into an ever quickening blur of text and images.

Was he trying to out run the lead story of the hour?

“Simeon?”

He ignored her and kept tapping the screen. Her small, cool hand covered his and the frenetic movement stilled. They sat there like that, the café bustling around them, his untouched latté growing cold and oily between them.

“Mandatory Government testing…” he finally said, tremors starting in his shoulders and moving with insidious grace through his entire body, his pale blue eyes a slick of unshed tears.

“I know.”

“They don’t understand, Charlie. The act of testing alters the result. Shrodingers Cat,” he choked on the words and Charlie quietly observed his battle with the rising tide of grief. “Nat didn’t commit suicide. She was happy, she had the world at her feet, she… we…” he bowed his head, the tears falling like fat rain drops preceding a summer thunderstorm on the faux marble table top

A waitress placed the single shot of coffee in front of Charlie and melted into the background without a word.

Charlie pulled the tablet free from under Simeon’s hand, slid it across the tiny table separating them and placed it on the cushion beside her.

“It’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy, Simeon. It’s science.”

“How the hell do you know?” He bore his knuckles into his eyes, grinding away and Charlie wondered if he was trying to erase the lead pencil mistake which was Nat’s death. “She wasn’t suicidal.”

“Her work was stolen. Distorted. Commericalised. How do you think that made her feel?”

“Someone killed her and made it look like suicide.”

“You’re in denial.”

“The only thing I’m in denial about is how any of this is inevitable, like everyone thinks. A natural progression. Advancement. Bull shit!”

“Society sees something novel and shiny, a new piece of technology and thinks it is progress. The rich have access to it. Everyone lusts for it it. They lobby the Government for democratisation of it. The company sees an eternal stretch of profits if the Government takes it up… just like vaccines. Some bean counter in Treasury teams up with some bleeding heart on the front bench and next thing everyone has subsidised access to it. Win-win. Especially when it assures the Government will be returned in the next election.”

“No one wins. This wasn’t how Nat wanted her research used.”

“You think Einstein wanted the atom bomb or Simon Binet the IQ test?”

“This Test changes everything.”

“And the atom bomb didn’t. For Christ’s sake, Simeon.” She took the glass, blew into the contents and knock it back in one go. A tear ran down his flushed cheek. “She tested you, didn’t she?”

He looked away.

“You can tell me.”

“I don’t believe it. It’s not how I’m going to die.”

She squeezed his hand tighter. “It won’t be such a burden if you share it.” He pulled his hand free and crossed his arms over his chest.

“You’re not doing anyone any favours being like this. I want you to come and meet some friends. People who think Nat’s work was important as well. I think it will help you.”

“I’m not a fucking extremist.”

“I – ”

“Isn’t it enough I lost Nat?”

“You won’t like me for saying this, but…” she turned the minature cup on the carousel of the white saucer. “Have you considered if she was still alive, you wouldn’t be in this position. She’d be here to fight for her work.”

Simeon pushed his chair back, the screech of metal on tiles slicing through the buzz of voices, ending in an explosion of glass and ceramics when he collided with a waitress. He muttered an apology and hurtled around the tables, disappeared out the door and into the swelling pre-lunch crowd.

Charlie sighed and sat back, sinking into the worn velveteen cushions at her back. Several people stared at her and she forced colour to rise in her cheeks, tucked the new tablet into her satchel and walked out.

Several doors from the coffee house, she stepped into the door way of a formal hire shop and pressed her finger into the hollow where the line of her cheek boned met the top of her ear.

“Agent eleven-dash-eight,” she said, when the dull resonance in her skull settled and breathing was audible in her head. “Assignment complete. Test 132a is a success.”

Written as background exploration for a story I’m in the throes of writing, compliments of the [fiction] Friday prompt #212: “Your character is sick with sadness”.

Friday Flash: Lily Lillian

Mirror Ball Amsterdam
“I’ll have a Crownie,” John said when the bar tender finally moved to serve him. He’d been waiting for more than ten minutes, watching the young guy in the black and whites, flipping his ridiculous hair while he flirted with women old enough to be his mother.

Mr Ridiculous-Hair spun to open the fridge behind in a flurry of activity reminiscent of a scene from Cocktail and a voice chimed in, “Make that two.”

John glanced sideways, taking in the trendy black suit, red shirt opened a couple of buttons, hair full of product and the nonchalant lean. They both wore the pre-requisite name badges but it was impossible to tell if this guy was a graduating class member or like him, a bored husband.

“Toby Strunk,” the guy said, extending a hand.

“John Lewis.” Long cool fingers closed around his slightly sweaty stubby ones.

“Ah, Lily Grenville’s husband. Hi, great to meet you!”

“Lillian Lewis,” John corrected and pulled his hand away.

“Yeah well, she was Lily Grenville 20 years ago and that’s what we’re all about tonight.” Mr Too-Cool-For-School stuck the hand he’d just shook into the pocket of his trousers.

The Crownies landed on the bar and John reached into his suit jacket for his bill fold.

“No let me,” Toby said, handing over a fifty dollar bill. “So you married Lily.” He shook his head slightly, as though it were the most amazing fact.

“Lillian.” John took a long swing from the tall elegant bottle to avoid any chance Lillian’s classmate might want to clink bottles in some chummy sense of reunion camaraderie which seemed to have infected the entire room.

John searched the crowd of half-drunk middle aged people, cringing at the way they yelled into each others ears over the music and clamped over-friendly arms around shoulders. All that unnecessary body contact.

Lillan was gone. She’d promised to wait there by the table while he went to the bar, but just like her, she’d snuck off.

“I thought they’d be playing all that crap music from the late 80’s, you know Bon Jovi and Belinda Carlisle, all that stuff Lillian still likes. But it seems like they went all out to just find crap music.”

“You’re not a fan of Primal Scream?”

John shook his head. “I bet they paid someone a ridiculous amount of money to choose this moronic stuff .”

“Yeah, me. That’s one of my guys up there spinning the records.”

* * *

John wandered aimlessly looking for Lillian. Eventually he gave up and took up a spot by the dancefloor to watch the embarrassing displays of spasticity others called ‘dancing’.’  That’s when he saw her, with him. Lillian in the embrace of Mr Too-Cool0For-School.

The Crownie slammed down on the nearest table, startling the woman sitting there, saggy boobed, staring out through glazed eyes to the dance floor. For a second John wondered if Mrs-Pathetic was Toby’s wife, watching the two of them cavort on the dance floor, her heart torn apart by the display, dancing close, whispering in each other’s ear and laughing.

The skin tightened across his face and his heart hammered in his ears watching Lillian make her way through the other couples at the end of the song, her eyes sparkling, reluctant to relinquish Mr Too-Cool-For-School’s hand at the edge of the dance floor to make her way to where he stood storming. No wonder she’d made an effort not to be found. She didn’t want to be. Not by him.

He met her halfway, fingers digging into the flesh of her upper arm the moment she came close enough and dragged her away from the dancing and the horrid music, off into the corridor of the toilets where he’d told her to wait.

“I told you to wait for me here,” he pointed to where she’d been standing. He didn’t know that while he’d been taking a slash, Toby had walked out, found her there, spinning off her favourite line from Dirty Dancing and whisking her out to dance. “I come out and find you’re gone… off dancing with that lecher.”

“Lecher… oh come on John, this isn’t Hawthorne’s New England.”

“You may as well be wearing the scarlet letter.”

“We were just dancing.”

“I saw you.”

He was close enough for to see his spittle darken spots on her foundation, but she didn’t move away.

“You saw what? Tell me John, just what did you see?”

“The way your face lit up when he spoke to you. How close you let him dance with you. How you didn’t move his hand when it slipped from your back and onto your arse.”

He had lowered his voice and the final word came out as a hiss.

“And what if Toby did?” She squared her shoulders and pulled the thin strap which had fallen off as he’d dragged her through those hanging around near the dance floor. The little back dress he’d never seen before. Mutton dressed up as lamb. “What are you going to do about it?” she asked.

“We’re going.”

“I’m not leaving.”

“You will do as I tell you.”

“No more, John,” the words tore from her, tears pooling in her eyes.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to say. NO more of this. No  more of you. It’s over. It’s finished. You and me.”

“But I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t.”

Image Mirror Ball Amsterdam by Yozza, via Flickr

Friday Flash: Queen of Hearts – Part One

The wolf whistles and the applause reached a crescendo and the heavy velvet curtain fell, the golden tassles at the bottom brushing the boards. Varla waited a moment and then walked off into the wings.

“Do you want to take another curtain call?” Louis was new and all the stage hands eyed him with curiosity.

She shook her head as best she could in the elaborate headdress. Sergio, the old stage manager knew never to ask her. Every fibre of her being screamed to be back out there soaking up the adoration, but stars took three curtain calls. Divas took more. Varla never forgot which side of vanity she resided on.

A diminutive woman walked into the wings, hands lost in enthusiastic clapping segueing into excited signing.

You were so beautiful Miss Varla. Bravo! Bravo!

Varla’s hands easily formed the signs she needed to assure Luisa, her deaf dresser, it was all thanks to her. Then asked: Is Vin here?

Luisa shook her head. Varla felt her joie-de-vive drain out her diamante-encrusted dancing shoes and into the ancient boards.

Come! Come! Luisa motioned. There is much celebrating to be done. No mooning over Mr Tefnel.

Luisa didn’t wait for any type of response, walking behind the burlesque star, detaching the elaborate feathered train from the sequined bodysuit then giving Varla a very gentle push to propel her back stage.

The scent of evening jasmine hit Varla the moment the wonky door of her dressing-room opened.

“Oh Luisa,” Varla gushed, her words lost as she rushed to admire the huge bunch of tigerlillies framed by the light studded mirror. “He remembered.”

He always remembers, why do you doubt him so? Luisa knew she was safe to sign her mind – Varla couldn’t see her, she’d recklessly plunged her face deep into the large genetically-engineered petals.

Luisa grabbed Varla’s arm and emphatically signed: You will stain your face with the pollen, Miss Varla.

Varla flicked her fingers off opposite shoulders: I don’t care.

With her face out of the massive petals Varla saw the envelope attached, plucking the card from within.

We did it babe. One million hits. The server held this time.

~Vin

Varla squealed and thrust the card at Luisa, clapping her hands in delight. It had been a long hard road but they’d done it. It had taken years to find a niche for their brand of uncompromising, political burlesque, moving men from wanting just tits and long legs, to appreciating political satire and fine art. And now they were no longer contained to one packed theatre a night. Minsky would love it, knowing he could charge more for the privilege of attending a live show. Via the internet she and Vin had a lucrative means of income for the first time.

Luisa put her right hand in her left and gave the two a hearty shake: Congratulations. Varla smiled, but before she could immerse her face in the flowers to drink in their perfume, Luisa had manoeuvred her into a chair and begun to strip away the burlesque regalia–tiny fingers moving with speed and precision to remove the red and green feathered diamante headdress, the wig beneath and then the thick layer of stage make up from Varla’s face. Before the tiredness had time to settle in Varla’s muscles, Luisa was pulling the star out of the chair, carefully removing the skin-tight lycra and passing a silk robe.

Are you sure you don’t want me to stay? Varla shook her head. She liked to be alone between the show and the party. And tonight she wanted to take special care to look good for Vin. See you at the after party.

Varla pinched her chin between three fingers and pulled them back: Thanks.

Luisa took the same three fingers pulled them together empathically  so the finger tips touched, mimicked Varla’s sign and then pointed to her: No! Thank You.

Varla nodded and disappeared around the corner of the shower cubicle. After a moment of rustling, the sound of the dressing-room door closing echoed around the room. Varla sighed and shrugged her tired body from the robe. She turned the taps on and waited for the hot water to come through. Above the whine of the water and the thumping of the pipes she heard the dressing-room door close again. Knowing it was pointless to yell out to Luisa, Varla stepped around the cubicle wall to find dressing room empty.

A large iron bird cage sat where the flowers had minutes earlier.

“Vin?” Varla called out. He’d always joked it was only a matter of time, given her penchant for feathers and the passion of her followers that one would gift her with a real, live bird. After their adaptation of Sadako and the thousand Paper Cranes every man it seemed, was learning the ancient Japanese art of origami to woo her.

She looked at the cage for a card or some type of identifying keep-sake but there was nothing.

Varla threw her robe on and ran barefoot out into the corridor. It was bustling with stage hands and other technicians, with the reverie from the theatre and the bar beyond still audible.

“Did you see someone come back stage with a parrot?” Varla asked everyone she passed. They all shook their head.

“A parrot you say Miss Varla,” Louis chuckled when she found him in his tiny office. “Can’t say I’ve seen anyone wandering around with a parrot. Mr Minsky was pretty darn clear on barring jerks from backstage. He hired a couple of thugs to man the door tonight.”

Varla returned to find her dressing-room cloaked in steam from the shower she’d left running.

“Shit!” Luisa would have a fit if she knew.

She waved a path through white eddies to turn the taps off. Back at the birdcage she stared at the large red and green feathered creature. It stared back.

“What the hell am I going to do with you?” She remembered all the potted plants she’d neglected.

The bird tilted its head.

The Queen of Hearts is coming.

She stuck her head closer to the bird cage.

“Did you say something?”

It tilted its head to the other side, all the time holding her gaze.

The Queen of Hearts is coming.

Varla stepped back from the bird. She’d definitely heard it say something. Heard was the wrong word for it though. The words formed with astonishing clarity in her head.

The Queen of Hearts is coming.

“OK, this is not funny.” She spun around and ripped aside the costumes neatly hung on the rack, looking for Vin. Accepting she was alone Varla grabbed a tigerlily and poked the bird with the wet stem. It ruffled its feathers.

The Queen of Hearts is coming.

“You can turn the damn remote control bird off, Vin. You’re freakin’ me out.”

When Vin didn’t appear Varla opened the door to the cage and dragged the bird out. As she turned it over, pulling at its wings, looking for the on/off switch long talons lashed out, its beak drawing blood. Finally a hot squirt of bird shit hit Varla in the face and her fingers released. Its wings opened and cut through the steam, carrying the bird to the top of the cubicle wall. Varla looked up through the swirls, wiping the shit from her cheek with her forearm.

The Queen of Hearts is coming. You have been warned.

Author’s Note: you can hear the first two thirds of this story narrated by moi here at audioboo. This story was spawned from the [Friday] Fiction prompt to include a telepathic parrot and comes compliments of my partner who first suggested such a thing two years ago. This ones for you darling!

Mixed Messages

I’m not sure why aliens would choose Reservoir to land. There have to be better places in Australia to visit than the suburbs of Melbourne. But the message was clear. They are coming. Here. And I’m to wait.

The sky is on fire, the bits I can see through the curtain of pink blossoms. A column of smoke raises from old man Salvatore’s incinerator, the stink blowing across the fence into our yard, competing with the perfume of the plum blossoms I’m hiding in. I should have set up the roof, but Mother would have heard me no matter how quiet I was. The old crystal set radio is strung up with some twine on a small branch I’ve snapped off to make a hook. It isn’t the best set up, the aerial stuck to the tree trunk, but you make do. That’s what Dad always told me. Making do, whatever the situation is what marks a dedicated communications officer. That’s why the Germans killed him. He was too good.

Samuel says Dad was a code breaker – it was his job to decipher the secret messages the Germans sent. He says Dad showed him some of the secret codes, but I don’t believe him. He says Dad was real smart and that’s why the Germans killed him.

I pat Dad’s cast-off notebook. It fits perfectly in the pocket of Samuel’s old overalls. They’re patched at the knees and soft with wear. I stole them, months ago, from a bag of clothes Mother was giving to Mrs Thomas at Number 18. They’ve been hidden under my mattress waiting for a special occasion like this.

Dresses are useless for climbing trees and while I thought long and hard on what I should wear if I was going to be meet an alien for the first time, I was certain they’d appreciate practicality over pretty. That’s what Dad said when we set off on our last adventure together, hand in hand, with Mother saying everyone in the street would talk. “Let them talk,” he said and smiled at me. I guess he doesn’t have to worry too much now about what people say. Mother says he is a Hero and no one should say a bad word against him. But they still stare at us at Church. When I go to Heaven they can say what they want about me. Sticks and stones and names can’t hurt you there.

From the tree I can Mrs Thomas unpeg sheets folding them into a wicker basket before the night air settles. The smell of Widow Grenville’s apple pie wafting out her back door is torture. And then Mother appears and the real torment begins.

“Lucy, come down out of that tree.”

“I can’t.”

“Don’t tell me you can’t.”

“The aliens – they’re waiting for me.”

LUCY, enough of this nonsense. Come down now. Dinner is getting cold.”

I stick my head out of the barricade of blossoms. The motion knocks some free and they drift like winter drizzle around Mother who has her hands riveted to her hips. A few land in her hair and for a moment I can imagine her as the beautiful, young smiling bride in the silver frame on the lounge room mantle piece.

“The aliens sent a special message. Just to me. They said, Lucy Malone, aliens are coming. Stand by.”

“No they didn’t,” says Samuel, coming into sight. “I sent you a message saying Lucy Malone, dinner is ready.”

I refer to my notepad. I write down everything. Samuel transmissions are always full of mistakes, so I’d know the difference between one of his and an important one from aliens.

“You still get ‘d’ and ‘b’ mixed up, Samuel. Why would I get out of the tree for a message about ‘binner’ being ready. You really should do yourself a favour and just tap ‘tea’ instead.”

I’m angry with Samuel because he was given Dad’s collection of straight keys and antique telegram machines. Mother says Samuel will follow in Dad’s footsteps, even though there is talk telephones will soon be more popular and cheaper than telegrams. Next year Samuel’s allowed to leave school and become an apprentice at the Telegraph Office. Mother says Mr Hardy has promised Samuel won’t have to start off delivering telegrams like the other boys. I tell Mother I’m going to get an apprenticeship at the Telegraph Office too just like Dad and Samuel. She says no I won’t and turns her back on me when remind her I’m better at sending code than Samuel.

Dad wrote to me and told me I could do anything I wanted to. Told me he was proud of the progress I was making at learning Morse Code. I’m not going to make sandwiches in Coles and wait to get married, even if Mother says that’s all I can rightly expect as a girl. I don’t want to have her “realistic expectations.”

She comes closer to the tree to hiss her commands through her teeth, that way Widow Grenville wont pop her head over the fence to ask if Mother’s having a bad day with me again. Widow Grenville is my greatest ally. Mother thinks Widow Grenville is a busybody, but  Widow Grenville says someone’s got to be my champion now Dad’s gone. She gives me chunks of Edinburgh Rock and tells me my Mother wasn’t always so mean. Widow Grenville says all the goodness and light in Mother went to the grave with my Dad. She shakes her head every time she says that and for a moment I want to ask her all the questions welling up inside me. But never do.

I thrust the note book out of the tree and shake it. “I chose to ignore your message. According to my watch you sent the message about dinner at 18:27 a good hour after the message from the aliens arrived at 17:13. I could not have made the mistake of thinking one was the other.”

“Lucy Louise Malone, you will come down out of that tree or I will tan your backside so hard you won’t sit for a week.”

“But the aliens, Mother. If I’m not here to greet them, it could be a diplomatic disaster of intergalactic proportions. Do you want that sitting on your conscience?”

“Have you been lending her your comic books again?”

“No, Mother. I learn from my mistakes, Mother.”

“This has nothing to do with his comic books.” I hang myself a little further out the tree. “How about you send my dinner up and I’ll have it in the tree. Then you will be happy because I’m eating dinner and I won’t offend the aliens.”

“Get out of the tree NOW!”

The words hit me as hard as if she’d actually slapped me. I fall back into the tree, into the safety of the world behind the pink curtain. The fire is fading in the sky. My stomach growls loudly. A shank of hair falls in my eyes and  smells of old man Salvatore’s smoke.

But I’m not going down. A dedicated communication officer remains at his post until the last. The aliens will send me another message. I know they will. They told me to stand by.

When they land they’ll invite me to come on board and live on their planet. And I’ll say yes in a heart beat, knowing the only person who’ll miss me is Widow Grenville. But she’ll understand.

“I’m counting to ten. If you are not down by the time I get to ten, you are going to wish you’d never been born Lucy Malone. One… two.”

I stare at the radio willing to squeak to life.

“Three… four.”

There’s a squeal and the tones tumble out. Dots and dashes fly from my pencil onto the page.

L-U-C-Y  M-A-L-O-N-E (stop)

“…six.”

A-L-I-E-N-S  T-H-I-N-K (stop)

“…eight.”

S-U-C-K-S  T-O  B-E  Y-O-U (stop)

Authors Note: This story was inspired by [Fiction] Friday Prompt #160: A signal is misinterpreted. Photo by Becx5 via Photobucket.