Coming Soon… Tincture 11

A sneak preview of what lingers in the wings as the release of the next Tincture draws closer.
Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 7.33.57 pm At Arm’s Length is a magical realism slice of domestic obscurity and invisible love with nods of the head to the work of Dan Powell and Nik Perring.

Tincture Literary Journal’s 11th issue is released September 1st.

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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

[FGC#4] Birthed

This week’s installment of the Form and Genre Challenge
FGC#4: write in the action-adventure genre
Word limit: 3000 words.

A low guttural cry tore through the cavernous interior of the abandoned Tavern on the Green and the hairs on Sylvie’s bare arms rose. The fire surged in the broken fireplace and a gust of wind rose from nowhere, extinguishing all the candles. She shuddered and tried to ignore the insidious feeling something was trying to get in. Something a drawn bolt and a chair beneath the knob wouldn’t keep out.

“Back off,” Sylvie hissed, picking up the scalpel lying beside her and pointing it in the direction of the ebony-haired Priestess inching closer, trying to see how far the baby had emerged. “I mean it.”

The Priestess retreated to the shadows, leaving her two Sisters supporting the laboring girl between them under Sylvie’s baleful glare.

They think I’m young and inexperienced. They think they can intimidate me. They don’t know how much I want what’s on the other side this. What I’m willing to do to get it.

Sylvie looked back to the pale legs and bottom hanging in the space between the tattered rug and the birthing girl. Two more contractions and the girl would birth the first child and then the Priestesses would be upon them. She wouldn’t be able to protect herself, much less the baby and the girl.

Where are you, Marcus? I should have kept you close. Not sent you away for the rest of my gear. But how was I to know? If only I’d ignored the summons. Taken the car and driven away.

It didn’t matter now.

Hurry, Marcus, please.

“You are doing beautifully,” Sylvie said when the contraction ended, grateful the dark hid the track marks up the girl’s skinny arms and the lips blistered from the raw garlic the Priestesses forced her to eat before Sylvie arrived.

Too young to be fucked up on Oblivion and caught in some cult.

The girl shook her head and panted. “I’m scared. It’s coming. It feels wrong. I’m burning—”

“Shhhh. You’re fine,” Sylvie crooned, gently wiping her burning face with a cool cloth. “Birthing is hard work.” She leant in so only the girl could hear and said, “Just two more contractions.”

She felt the girl tense up and squeezed her arm in solidarity, caressing her face and arms, urging her to relax.

I promised I’d keep you and your babes safe. And I will. Somehow.

On the next contraction, the girl grunted and fought against it. Sylvie leaned in, whispering words of encouragement, coaching her to breathe. When the girl finally surrendered, the baby’s stomach, rib cage and shoulders slid down. Sylvie checked the cord for a prolapse and the girl’s racing pulse, then sat back to wait for the final contractions, pushing aside the deathly sixth sense crawling over her skin like a plague of bugs.

Marcus. For Godsake. What’s keeping you? I can’t do this alone.

The contraction started and the girl screamed, losing herself to the terror she had barely contained throughout the labour. She lashed out and tried to stand. The ebony Priestess grabbed her arms and pinned them behind her, forcing her back onto the lap of the other Priestess. Sylvie reached beneath the girl and a moment later, the warm, wet skin of the baby hit her outstretched hands.

The baby opened its eyes and seconds later cried loudly, accompanied by its mother’s soft sobs. Sylvie worked quickly to tie off the cord and sever it, keeping herself between the baby and where she had last seen the ebony Priestess.

“Lie her back,” Sylvie said and the blonde and auburn priestesses threw the girl backward into the pile of cushions and blankets and stood, muttering curses and stretching stiff limbs.

Sylvie held the baby up. “He’s normal. Oh my God, he’s normal,” the girl cried, reaching her hand out. “My baby. My baby.”

Sylvie placed the baby on the girl’s stomach and the Priestesses closed in. Sylvie reached backward, her fingers searching for the scalpel.

Hell, where did I put it?

The Priestesses watched, transfixed by the baby’s slow crawl along the girl’s stomach, her fingers gently stroked his back. Loving words cooing from her lips. The baby reached her chest and she drew it into her arms, his tiny mouth finding her nipple and closing around it, sucking furiously.

The blonde Priestess, standing closest, moved to grab the baby, but as her hands closed in, the girl screamed, her body stiffening. The Priestess pulled back and fell over the feet of one of her Sisters.

“You can birth the second one here,” Sylvie said. Raising one of the girl’s emaciated legs to give the second baby room, she saw for the first time the tide of blood soaking into the old blankets and towels, inching its way across the bare boards towards her.

“Get my kit,” she yelled at the auburn priestess, closest to her battered kit. “She’s going to die. And the other baby.”

The Priestess didn’t move. “We have one live baby. The prophecy said—”

“Fuck the prophecy. I’ve never lost a mother and I’m not about to now.”

“Our work is done. We finished what Teleia started.”

The blonde priestess lunged and dragged the baby from its mother, passing it up to the hands of her ebony Sister, her arcane robe dripping with the girl’s blood when she stood.

The girl convulsed again and the Priestesses smiled, watching Sylvie caught between saving the mother and unborn twin, and reclaiming the baby held in the ebony Priestess’s arms.

“Marcus,” she yelled. “Marcus!”

Just break down the bloody door. Do what you did out there when those creatures were about to kill me!

“He won’t be back. Teleia took care of him,” the auburn one said, taking one last look at the blood and the convulsing girl. “And now, the Prophecy has been fulfilled. Vengeance is ours.”

Sylvie ignored them and let them leave. She couldn’t abandon the girl now. She knelt beside her head. “You stay with me… you stay with me,” Sylvie urged the girl, lightly slapping her cheeks. “I promised I’d keep you safe.”

The girl’s eyes rolled into the back of her head and her body shook before Sylvie got hold of her kit bag and the drugs she needed. When the girl’s eyes rolled back, the pupils were gone and the irises bleached of colour.

“Shit!”

She dropped the head and lurched back, watching in horror as the girl twisted and writhed in impossible ways. With a primeval roar, the girl threw her legs apart and arched her back, her womb disgorging the second baby in one massive contraction.

The second baby opened its mouth and howled an angry salutation as an explosion loosened a thick layer of plaster-dust.

Ignoring the instinct to run and put as much distance between the girl-thing and the building disintegrating around them both, Sylvie instead inched toward the prone girl and howling baby, crawling through the pool of warm blood. Her hands moved frantically across the wet floor, searching for the scalpel and string. When she thought it hopeless, the room lit up, the filthy panes in the French doors filling with iridescent green light. She located her kit and found a new length of string before the light faded and a series of explosions rocked the old restaurant, sending fresh showers of choking plaster over her.

I’ve got to get us out before this whole place comes down.

In the dark, she tied the string and waited for the next flare of light to find her scalpel, assessing the baby as best she could from touch. Even though the girl lay still, Sylvie heard the pop and grind of bones moving, accompanied by shallow gasping breaths. Sylvie knew the girl was changing into one of the creatures that had hunted her when she’d first driven into the Dead Zone. Before Mutt appeared. Before Marcus.

That old crone couldn’t have killed Marcus. Not if those creatures out there couldn’t. Or wouldn’t? Where are you, Marcus? I can’t do this. I can’t. Can’t.

And her thinking stilled.

I’m just thinking like a woman in transition, screaming I can’t, begging for help. Thinking I’m going to die. It’s just transition. They don’t die. And I won’t either.

In the next wave of light, she forced herself to find the scalpel in the congealing slick and wiped it dry on her singlet. She cut the baby free with a shaking hand, and slipped her hands under its bottom and head, bringing it to her chest and running for the open door before the next round of explosions.

The ceiling collapsed with the next detonation and a beam clipped Sylvie’s shoulder, tearing the joint from the socket and knocking her onto her back, punching the air from her lungs. She clutched at the baby with her uninjured arm.

Before the dust settled, flares lit the room, revealing the girl-thing crouched several feet away, a single milky orb staring at Sylvie. A section of ceiling had smashed the other side of her face. The baby wailed and the girl cocked her head to the side, rising slowly. The girl had not only survived the massive haemorrhage, but stood several feet taller, her limbs elongated and the deathly pallor of her skin had been replaced with a mottled red and purple hue.

“My baby,” the girl-thing said, the words distorted but recognisable. She took a faltering step in Sylvie’s direction, unsure in her new body.

“I’m only… protecting your baby,” Sylvie panted, the pain spreading from her shoulder into her chest. “I promised… I would… keep you… and your babies… safe.”

“My ba-by?” The girl-thing took several more steps forward.

Sylvie slid across the floor on her back, away from the girl-thing, and pushed against the wall when she reached it, trying to use it as a brace to stand. She screamed and slid down, the pain unbearable.

The girl walked to where she lay and looked down. “M-y. B-a-b-y.”

Sylvie tried again to stand, this time leaving a smear of blood behind on the wall. The beam had torn more than the joint. The girl-thing sniffed and Sylvie flinched, remembering how she’d been invisible to the orb-eyed creatures until she’d cut her arm trying to climb out the smashed rear window of her car after the electric locks seized. Then, with fresh blood on the air, the creatures had converged.

“Please don’t hurt me,” Sylvie said, her voice barely audible. She clenched her teeth and reached up with her damaged arm. “Help me up. I can get us both out of here. I know you’re still in there. You’re not one of them.”

The girl-thing’s face contorted and her human-like fingers flexed and released. Flexed and released.

“Please. Marcus will take us both out of here. Somewhere safe.”

The girl-thing reached down, icy digits closing around Sylvie’s.

The door shattered inward and a torch beam swept the room. The girl turned and recoiled from the light. A single shot thundered and the girl stood headless for a moment, then collapsed, Sylvie’s hand still in hers.

“Stand up,” the man said, motioning with his rifle, the beam dancing madly.

Sylvie pulled her hand free and glared into the binding light. “You bastard. She wasn’t dangerous.”

“Sylvie Jorgenssen?”

“Who the hell wants to know?”

He dropped the torch from her eyes and turned his back, pulling a walkie-talkie from his pocket.

“Alpha-Capa to base.”

“Base to Alpha-Capa.”

Sylvie shuffled forward on her knees, using the light from the rifle to guide her. There. The scalpel. And a blanket.

“I’ve got the midwife and the baby. Can’t see the mother.”

She wrapped the baby as best she could, cradling it in her busted arm.

“There was one of those things in here. Lots of fucking blood—”

She clasped the scalpel between her teeth and got to her feet. It was only then she saw the black and grey pattern of the man’s combat pants and knew it was over.

Mulholland’s raised an army to get me.

“—think it must have killed the mother. Was going for the midwife.”

Sylvie moved backward toward the French doors—

“Bring her in. Alive,” the voice squawked.

—and reaching them, kicked as hard as she could. The solider spun around, bringing his rifle up. The decayed wood gave way, panes dropping to the floor, but the opening wasn’t big enough for Sylvie and the child to escape.

“Turn around! Don’t move or I’ll shoot.”

Sylvie turned, taking the scalpel from between her teeth. “Your commander told you not to shoot.”

She held the scalpel in front of her and kicked backward with her boot. More of the door gave way, but each jolt sent a new wave of pain through her shoulder and chest, and her grip on the baby weakened.

In one smooth move, the soldier shouldered his rifle and pulled a tazer from his pocket. Chunks of plaster crunched beneath his heavy boots with each footfall. Blue electric tongues licked at the air, tasting the ever decreasing distance to her.

“Please. No.” She dropped the scalpel, knowing the current was calibrated for an adult and would kill the baby. “Please. I have a baby. I’ll come peacefully.”

The fire leapt in the fireplace, as though the smouldering ruins momentarily fed on petrol, casting chaotic shadows on faded wallpaper. The soldier turned too late and Marcus’s forearm crushed his throat, and in a single fluid movement, he caught the soldier’s falling head and twisted it. The sound of vertebra snapping preceded the thump of the soldier’s body hitting the floorboards.

Marcus didn’t stop to check the soldier, or give the dead girl-thing more than a fleeting look. His focus remained on Sylvie and getting her out before the building collapsed. He picked up a discarded coat from the floor and kicked out the remainder of the French doors, hustling Sylvie out, leading her through the courtyard and into an area away from the building. She slumped against a rusted garbage hopper as the iconic building imploded behind.

Marcus pulled the cover off a manhole. “You’re going down. It’s the only safe place for you.” He took off his t-shirt and tore it into one long piece of material. “Tie the baby to you and then put on the coat.”

“Tie the baby on,” she laughed, a terrible cutting sound. “If you haven’t noticed my shoulder is shattered.”

“I can heal your shoulder.”

“It’s stuffed.”

“Put the baby down and I’ll sort it out.”

“You’re not listening—”

“No, Sylvie. You are not listening. Put the damn baby down and let me see to your shoulder. Unless you want to be target practise for Mulholland’s troops.”

Marcus put the coat on the ground and his torn t-shirt. Sylvie laid the baby on top.

“Look away,” he said, and Sylvie turned to stare at the fence, waiting for the pain of his probing fingers to assess the damage and the pronouncement nothing could be done. The area warmed at his touch and she felt dizzy. A vortex opened in her shoulder, pulling bone and flesh inward, knitting it together, while she sipped a cup of her mother’s grappa. Before Sylvie grasped the implausibility and constructed a logical explanation, the sensation ceased. She reached for the injured shoulder and ran her fingers over the smooth skin. Rotated the joint.

“It’ll get you down the ladders. Maybe further.” He stepped away, and caught the look of amazement. “You’ll still go through the natural healing process.”

“How did you—”

A volley of flares streaked overhead and he turned. Sylvie saw two vicious scars, raised and jagged, running the length of his shoulder blades.

“Where my wings were.” She traced the ridge of one with her finger, the topography of the shattered bones. “When I fell, the Government dropped the virus on the Occupiers. Central Park became the Dead Zone.”

“Wings? Marcus, I—”

“Listen to me, Sylvie.” He turned to her and seized her upper arms. “My presence draws mayhem and malevolence, magnifies it. This fighting, this is what fallen angels bring. There’s no Devil, just my kind walking among yours, drawing out evil. Feeding off it.”

“You’re… feeding off this?”

“Not any more.” He released her and stepped back. “Get dressed.”

“Come with me.”

“Not until the fighting is over.”

Sylvie took off her stained singlet, unwrapped the baby and placed it on her bare chest. Skin to skin. Marcus passed the length of material and waited for her to position it over the infant.

“Okay. Tie it.”

Sylvie felt the air crackling with static electricity and Marcus’s breath hot and shallow in her ear. “You’ve no idea how hard it is for me to be this close to a baby.”

“I trust you.”

The material stretched, tightened and automatic gunfire erupted close by. He completed the knot, and picked up the damp coat. “The manhole ladder leads directly into a series of service tunnels beneath the main ones. Keep turning right until you can go no further and wait.”

“Keep turning right. I’ll go around in circles.”

“No you won’t.”

Bullets tore through the fence surrounding the courtyard and Marcus dragged Sylvie down behind the hopper, stray bullets ricocheting off the metal.

“Hurry. Get dressed. They’re closer than I thought.”

Sylvie pulled the singlet over the wrapping and then the coat, testing the sleeves as makeshift gloves. Marcus helped her into the manhole.

“Before I go,” Sylvie said, reaching up to touch his hand. “Was there actually a prophecy?”

“No.” Marcus shook his head and leaned down to kiss her forehead. “Go. I’ll see you soon.”

He lay on the frozen ground, watching the darkness swallow her, knowing he’d lied. He didn’t know if Teleia had succeeded in engineering the babies to carry a new form of rage virus. All he could do was hope the infant didn’t kill Sylvie before he got back to her. His salvation counted on it.

Final Word Count: 2999

– – –
Many thanks to my writing partner Laura Meyer for ensuring I wrote something this week (of quality), to Chris Chartrand who ensured it didn’t suck and Toni Rakestraw who ensured  a clean final copy.

Thirty-Eight Degrees South [FGC#2]


VOTING  OPEN UNTIL FRIDAY MORNING

This week’s challenge: write a contemporary romance, open form, maximum of 2500 words.

Heidi stopped at the caravan door, looked at the pile of showering paraphernalia in her arms and sighed. Why bother? Solace wouldn’t be found in a caravan park shower block, the first week in January, with a whinging five-year-old in tow. It had taken the first real sleep-in for six months to see the stupidity of forcing her home routine here. Besides, it was after 10.00am. If they hurried they might still beat JayDee and the girls to the beach.

“How about we skip a shower?” she said, heading back into the caravan and dumping everything on their unmade bed.

“No shower. Woo hoo!” Joel hooted, breaking into an impromptu victory dance.

“Yeah love, no shower. Reckon you could handle going straight to the beach?”

She laughed at his exaggerated air punch and “Yesssss!”

“How ‘bout you get our swimmers off the line and I’ll pack some lunch.”

“Sure Mum.” He whistled, bouncing down the stairs of the caravan, the semi-musical hiss stopping as he negotiated the plastic strips hanging in the door, moving from happy bard to stealth operative in a heartbeat.

Not for the first time, she wished she could be more like Joel, less like herself: go from one thing to another with little thought to what was left behind. Baggage made you look back and it came with responsibility, with being an adult. And now there was just her. She didn’t know how to balance responsibility with fun the way JayDee did it. But she was trying.

“Mu-um. JayDee’s here.”

“Crap!” She grabbed a robe and tied it over her pjs. “Hi,” she said, poking her head into the annex, affecting nonchalance she didn’t feel. He stood in the annex door, sunglasses pushed up above a faded cap, a smile on his tanned face. So at ease in the world—so different to Elliot.

“You left this last night,” JayDee said, holding up her cake plate. “The girls ate the rest before we got up. Best breakfast ever they said.”

“Wish I could eat mud cake for breakfast,” she said, her face relaxing into the smile she’d come to associate with JayDee.

“Hey JayDee, we’re going to the beach without a shower,” Joel said, his eyes full of excitement, and Heidi didn’t know if it was missing a shower or the unexpected appearance of JayDee.

“You have a shower before going to the beach?”

“Not anymore,” Heidi said, reaching down for the swimmers and towels in Joel’s arms. “Where are the girls?”

“My parents took them to Lorne for a picnic. I thought, perhaps I could take you and Joel out for brunch?”

“Brunch?” She couldn’t remember the last time anyone asked them out for a meal. Now two in the space of 24 hours.

“If you’re busy—”

“No. No we’re not busy. It’s just—”

“Why don’t I take Joel up to the bouncing cushion and let you have a shower in peace?”

Heidi laughed and ran a hand through her tangled hair. “You don’t know just how good? that sounds.”

“Maybe while you’re gone, you’ll think about coming with me to the surf club? They’ve got a live band tonight.”

“Out, I—”

“My folks offered to have Joel. The old man would love to have him over again. I’m a bit of a disappointment, you know, producing three daughters.”

“Can I Mum? Pah-lease. I wanna go.  Pah-lease? Granddad Keith rocks.”

“I don’t know if I can ask them to do that.”

“Mum can I?”

“You didn’t ask—they offered.”

“But—”

“MUM?”

“Joel, please, just give me a moment.”

“Hey Junior—what do you think? Would you like to hang with Granddad Keith while I take your Mum out?”

“Sure. You should go Mum. Just no… kissing.”

Heidi blushed and looked away.

“Only dancing,” JayDee said, “scouts honour, mate.”

Heidi caught a new spark in JayDee’s eye, and the guilt demons stirred. They could stir all they wanted. For one night she’d do what she wanted.

A mild breeze blew across the river, tangling the bits of hair Heidi had strategically left loose around her face. They walked past the surf shop, the general store, the Melaleuca Gallery and on to a strip of new holiday apartments.

“This used to be old Californian bungalows and vacant paddocks,” Heidi said. “You ever get the feeling of dislocation… when somewhere you used to know really well is all changed when you go back? And you feel lost.”

“It felt like that when Ruth died,” JayDee said. “That’s why I sold the house. Every time she didn’t walk out to meet me when I got home, I lost her all over again.”

Heidi nodded silently looking up the path to a strip of fancy shops and more holiday apartments. “That used to be The Three Kings milk-bar and takeaway. I remember being tiny and bouncing on the trampolines next to it. Twenty cents a go. Then it was a hardware store and now it’s more holiday apartments.” Heidi sighed. “I’m talking too much. I’m sorry. I’m so starved of uninterrupted adult conversation.”

“I know the feeling.” JayDee took her hand and squeezed it.

Heidi waited for him to let go. Instead his fingers snaked through hers, the sensation of being the smaller hand in the grasp foreign. But good. Right. He smiled at her and for the first time since leaving she gave herself permission to fall into the moment and forget everything else. She squeezed his hand back.

They walked on in silence until they came to the bend in the Great Ocean Road and the music from the Surf Club filtered down from the dunes.

“You know what. I don’t even care if the band’s shit and I don’t know the songs,” Heidi said. “For a few hours I can just pretend this is all there is. Not that I wish… oh shit. I mean, excuse my language. I—”

“It’s okay Heidi. I know what you mean. C’mon.”

* * *

The band worked its way through the usual 80’s hits: “I Ran”, “Karma Chameleon”, “Modern Love” and “You Spin me Round”. Heidi grinned as she drank her beer, dancing on the spot until the opening bars of “Footloose” spurred her into action.

“We’re dancing. Let’s go.”

She took the stubby from his hand and half-danced half-dragged him onto the dance-floor. Heidi lost herself, becoming one with the music and the bouncing, sweating mass surrounding her. JayDee danced closer with each inward press as more people jammed onto the dance-floor. Closer and closer, his body shadowing hers.

When the lead singer screamed, “Everybody cut loose,” JayDee grabbed her hand, spinning her around and around. At the end of the song he deftly dipped her backward, the two of them breathing hard. The band broke into their final song of the set and JayDee pulled her back to her feet, holding her close.

The band crooned a pared back “Hold Me Now” and Heidi put a hand on JayDee’s muscular shoulder, letting him take her other hand in his. They danced slowly, the strict dancing position collapsing until Heidi lay her head against his shoulder, eyes closed.

Her lips mimed the lyrics, “Hold me now. Warm my heart. Stay with me. Let loving start.” Her body moved in tune with his, until the speakers filled with music she didn’t recognise, the live set over.

JayDee relaxed his embrace and slid his arm around her waist. “Another beer?”

Heidi nodded. “I’ll meet you on the balcony.”

She looked into the pitted mirror over the basins in the washroom, splashing water on her face and scraping the damp hair back from her face. The guilt demons stirred in the pit of her stomach.

Not tonight. I give you 364 nights. This one is mine. All mine.

The guilt demons temporarily immobilised, she smiled at her reflection and went to find JayDee.

He sat at a table nearest the railing, two beers in the centre of the table frosted with condensation. Heidi took the chair sitting opposite and pulled it around, sitting close to him.

“I haven’t had this much fun in… I don’t know how long,” she said, taking a long drink from the stubby, drowning the last hisses of the guilt demons. “I knew you’d be good for me. I knew the first day I saw you on the beach, how you managed to be both parent and friend to your girls. You seemed to have it all together. Made me realise how fucked up I am. But…” she put her hand up to stop him interrupting her. “You gave me hope, when I thought it was all gone.”

“You’re not fucked up Heidi. You’re beautiful and brave and you’re doing an incredible job with Joel, just how he needs you to be.”

He caressed her cheek. “When I saw you on the beach that day, for the first time in years I felt… something. Something I thought died with Ruth.” He leaned closer. “And every time I see you, every day we spend together, when we say goodbye I fear you’ll walk away and I won’t see you again.”

Her heart thumped. “I see you and it’s like…” she paused, her heart thumping. “You’re so full of life. I just want to…”

She leaned in and kissed him before she lost her nerve. His lips yielded to hers, the feeling of his hand rested on the back of her neck, so natural. As they pulled apart, guilt tore free—a whiplash of competing emotions.

“I’m sorry,” she said, regret sucking the oxygen from the air.

“For what?”

Heidi pitched her seat backward and ran off the balcony, fighting her way through the crowd at the bar. Panic, the guilt’s hellhound, seized her. She stumbled through the crowd, looking for the exit. Lost. Decimated by panic and guilt, a freak show of hysterical laughter and leering faces pressing in on her, she sought the nearest corner and folded herself into it.

You’ll just ruin him like you did Elliot.

“Heidi?” His hand rested on her arm and she recoiled.

“No.” She fought against his touch

“What did I do wrong?”

“Nothing,” she sobbed. “It’s me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I lied to you.”

“About what? Hey, sweetheart.” He tried to push the hair out of her face. “Stop crying.”

Heidi caught sight of the exit through her tears and pushing past JayDee she ran, only stopping when she reached the footpath.

“Heidi, stop! Talk to me! HEIDI!” He caught her arm and stopped her from crossing the road. “I’m sorry if I came on too fast.”

“I thought I could do this. I wanted to so badly, but I can’t.” She couldn’t even look at him, staring instead at the initials drawn in the concrete. “I need to go get Joel.” She shook his hand free. “Alone.”

“But—”

“You need to forget me, JayDee. Don’t come to the van. Don’t come to us at the beach.”

“Heidi! ” He ran across the road after her. “Stop, please!”

She turned. “I lied to you JayDee. I’m still married.”

“But I thought—”

“I know. And I let you.”

She walked away, tears blurring the way ahead, wishing someone other than JayDee’s parents were caring for Joel.

* * *

Heidi dropped the bags beside the annex door and went back inside for her keys and the esky.

“Why do you need keys?”

“We’re going to a different beach today,” she said. “Point Roadknight. Awesome boats and rock pools. It’s Poppy’s favourite beach.”

“Will JayDee be there too?”

She passed him the keys. “How about you pop the boot and put the bags in?”

“Sure, Mum.” It felt like a stab, the way he said ‘sure’. So like JayDee.

Heidi heard voices at the car and went out.

“Look Mum, it’s JayDee and Granddad Keith,” Joel said, his face bright and excited.

“He’s not your Granddad,” Heidi said, walking between Joel and JayDee, keeping her back to Joel and lowering her voice. “I thought I made it pretty clear last night I didn’t want to see you again.”

Joel looked up at her, confused. “Mum?”

“C’mon sport. JayDee tells me you’re pretty good on the bouncing cushion,” said Keith.  “Wanna show me?”

Joel looked to her and she looked to Keith and nodded. She’d do anything to save Joel from a bitter scene.

JayDee waited until they walked out of earshot before he spoke. “Joel told the old man his Dad was sad and got sick and had to live in a hospital.” His eyes bored into hers. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Heidi swallowed hard, wanting to keep her composure. There was no recrimination in JayDee’s voice, but the idea of talking about Elliot undid her. She’d already cried an ocean of tears for Elliot, for Joel, for everything lost.

“Elliot’s been in a coma for six months. He couldn’t even get killing himself right.” The venom in the words surprised her. More chow for the guilt demons.

“I’m sorry Heidi. So sorry.”

“So am I.”

She walked back into the annex and sat in the doorway of the caravan.

“The Doctors have given me until the end of January. Then they’re turning off his life support. But they can’t do it without my signature. My parents suggested Joel and I come away, have a break before we had to go through… what’s next.” She put her head in her hands. “I just want to be released. But I don’t want to kill him.”

JayDee knelt on the ground in front of her and she looked up.

“I kissed him goodbye that morning, so relieved he looked focused and together for the first time in months. So bloody happy he’d finally got his act together.”

Heidi started crying. “A security guard found him unconscious in the carpark of the local shopping centre. He’d diverted the exhaust inside. I told him once, when I wasn’t coping, if he was going to kill himself, not to do it at home. Oh God…”

She cried until her chest seized and the air caught at the base her throat, and she thought asphyxiation would take her too.

“Breathe,” JayDee said, holding her tight, rubbing her back. “You’re not going to choke. Breathe.”

When Heidi calmed, JayDee boiled the jug and they sat at the tiny table staring at an open packet of Mint Slices and the floral mugs. He reached across and took her trembling hand.

“I don’t want anything from you Heidi, that you’re not willing to give. And I’ve got your back for however long you need me there.” He squeezed her hand. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ve been going nowhere since Ruth died,” he cleared his throat. “And if you decide, that you don’t want us to be friends, well, we’ll always have Anglesea. And I’ll always be grateful for that.” (2489 words)

THE READERS’ CHOICE VOTING OPENS MONDAY MORNING 10AM (AEST)

– – –
Thanks go to my the writing partner who wields the sharpest editing blade in the South, Ms Laura Meyer. Tip of the hat to Adam Byatt who came along with his virtual pom poms and the one-handed, multi-tasking, proof reading-extraordinaire, Stacey Larner, who weeded out the last of the mistakes.

B is for “Broken Angel” and “Bondi”

Welcome to my first fiction-retrospective for April.

The two stories I currently have up under my FICTION tab begin with ‘B’. As it turns out – both these stories were written for Christmas and purposely set in Australia.

Bondi appeared on the 12 Days (2009) website and remains the longest piece of short fiction I have penned.  Broken Angel appeared on Literary Mix Tapes website last Christmas and will be published in the combined paperback version of Deck the Halls and 12 Days (2010) later on this year.

Take the time to read both stories and then I’ll share five facts about each of them.

Bondi

  • The original inspiration for this story came from the Christmas Carol The 12 Days of Christmas: seven swans are swimming.
  • Giving up on twee stories about depressed Christmas ballerinas, I sent a message to some friends with the prompt and asked them the first thing to come to mind. A friend in Melbourne returned my shout out for help with, “How about the Sydney Swans?” Immediately I had the image of  seven Sydney Swans football players at Bondi. This gave me a setting for my story and a way to weave in the prompt.
  • Melbourne author Claire Halliday tweeted about the stupidity of the legal hoops her daughter had to jump through to busk Christmas carols. This gave me the idea for the opening scene of the story. All the legal paperwork  detailed comes from Claire’s tweets. To honour this (and with her blessing) I christened the daughter Claire – the only time I’ve ever purposely named a character after someone active in my life.
  • The closing scene was the first bit I wrote. Louise’s voice came to at 11pm as I fell into bed exhausted. It was written in a frenzy of words in over about 50 minutes. It’s the first time I’ve ever written a story backwards.
  • The story was originally about the guilt and grief of losing a baby, but during the writing, the identiy of who  died changed. In the beta reading phase my friend Diane (who is an avid reader, but doesn’t write) said she thought the story was about the grief around the changing relationship between mother and daughter, and the difficultes this brings up for them (and this spans three generations, not just two) This gave me the creative putty to make the whole thing hang together and tempered the expression of the grief through out the story.

Broken Angel

  • This story was inspired from a line in the Christmas Carol Deck the Halls: While I tell of Yule tide treasure
  • It was originally going to be a Christmas episode of Captain Juan – Christmas treasure and all – but the crew of the La Gongoolza were unusually quiet.
  • I specifically chose to set the story in the 1970s because it allowed me to be politically incorrect and to put the Dad in mission brown short shorts and a camel cigarettes t-shirt (my Dad had a t-shirt exactly the same and if he had similar shorts – I’ve blotted that from my memory!)
  • Chris Chartrand suggested the sound of the cement mixer at the end… I had only ever intended for the treasure box to be bricked into the wall! Once it was written it reminded me of a story I read as a kid about a woman who was bricked alive, inside a wall and was discovered several centuries later when rennovations were done to the stately home. It still gives me a chill – what Marcia’s hand may have touched had she reached in further.
  • The year I turned 18 we celebrated Christmas with my mother’s best friend and it was Boney M and mimosas all morning. I’ve waited years to wind this little bit of history into a story.

(Disclaimer: also written on Sunday.. but now I’m on track!)

Original image from Interior Design