Words have been hard to come by of late. The reality of a full time job and young family means little downtime for creative pursuits. Recently however I came across a competition to write a 50 word short story run by The Scottish Book Trust. “Surely I can manage to squeeze out that many words?” I told myself.

In reality, writing anything coherhent with so few words is actually pretty difficult. I obviously didn’t quite crack it as I got an email today to say that my effort wouldn’t be progressing to the next round of the competition but it least it sparked a little creative spurt – since completing this story I’ve managed to write another couple of longer pieces which will no doubt end up here at some point.

In the meantime here is “The Other Side”. The picture below is the one used as a prompt for the competition.

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The Other Side

The experiment left me trapped on the other side. The footsteps behind you on the platform were mine.

I followed you home, becoming that creaking in the attic when you lie in bed, that door that somehow never stays shut. Cold air brushes your cheek.
‘Help me, please,’ I whisper.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Ypres. February 2014

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Ypres. February 2014

Perhaps it is because of my day job as a History teacher that I am more aware than most of the current hoo-ha over the commemoration of the First World War. History is very much a subjective discipline and we tend to edit and shape the narrative as much as any novelist to fit the prevailing attitudes of our times. But despite our best efforts to contruct over-arching themes and a “bigger picture” through which to view the past history is more often than not the story of people, of individuals – from Kings and Queens on high to the lowliest factory hand – they all have something to contribute to our understanding of the past and how it shapes our future. With that in mind I decided I would contribute to the Letter to an Unknown Soldier project. One thing I took away from a visit to Flanders this February was the human cost of war. Visiting the cemeteries, to see those beautifully maintained outposts of remembrance marking the site of so much death and destruction made the human tragedy of it all very real to me for the first time in my life. So here is my letter…

We didn’t forget. I just wanted you to know that.

Although the last of the men who marched with you to the front have now departed, the traces they left behind are still there to prick our consciences and remind us of the sacrifices you all made. I went to Flanders in February to see for myself the places where you and your mates fought and died in your millions and I think I finally understood it.

I was there with a group of school kids – some of them old enough to have joined up all those years ago and go marching off to the sound of the guns with you. We were in Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Grave in a country full of them, the largest in the world in fact – 12,000 graves in all. On their own those 12,000 graves are a lot to take in, but then you realise there is a memorial wall at the back of the cemetery carrying the names of thousands more – 35,000 sons, brothers, husbands, erased from the face of the Earth by high explosives or lost deep in the mud. I saw all those names and realised it was still only a fraction of all those who died.

There were tears in my eyes after I read them all. I’d see familiar names that I could associate with people I knew. I saw my own name and names of family members again and again until it was overwhelming. And as I walked through the rows at Tyne Cot, I saw your name repeated thousands of times more –A Soldier of the Great War another man whose identity had been lost in those four years of madness.

Sure I’d read all the books and watched all the documentaries where Historians reel off the casualty statistics to the point your mind gets numb trying to absorb them – but there at Tyne Cot you were people again instead of numbers in a book, real people with families, lovers and friends – each one with a story to tell.

So we didn’t forget you. The world you left behind has moved on in so many ways both for good and for ill since the first shots rang out in August 1914. We can argue about what it all means and whether the war was a good or bad thing but it won’t bring you and all those millions of others back to reclaim the lives you gave up.

But we can remember you, we owe you that much.

Take care,

Bill

Ypres camera 188

ImageAt the tail end of last year I once again entered the Aberdeen University Special Collections Flash Fiction competition. Once again I didn’t win anything but hey-ho…

Anyway, since I haven’t posted anything for a while I thought I may as well share it here. The story was inspired by the picture.

Strictly Business

‘How was Bogota?’

They were standing in front of the model globe. Anderson could feel the slight chill of air-conditioning through his suit. Outside the muggy New York streets waited for him.

‘The arrangements were excellent as usual.’

‘And Señor Mendoza?’ Philips let the question hang in the cool air. He was close enough that Anderson caught a faint whiff of his cologne. He remembered the heat from the car bomb washing over him even from a safe distance. The plume of black smoke had stretched above the city streets like a crooked exclamation point confirming that Carlos Mendoza had ceased to exist.

‘Will no longer be a problem.’

‘And the authorities?’

‘Mendoza frequently criticised the drug lords so everyone assumes the Cartel did it.  So far the press hasn’t made the connection to his campaign against foreign investment.’

‘Excellent,’ Philips turned to the younger man. ‘I believe there was some collateral damage?’

Anderson nodded.

‘Senor Mendoza’s wife and his daughter were also in the car.’ Ana Maria Mendoza had been just six years old.  Her smiling, gap-toothed school picture had stared out at him from the front pages of the newspaper while he waited for his flight.

‘Unfortunate,’ Philips shrugged. ‘However, these things happen in our line of work.’ He smiled. ‘You’ve done well Jimmy. Your name is going to be heard by a lot of important people after this, you mark my words.’

‘It’s good to know that my work is appreciated.’

‘That’s the spirit Jimmy,’ Philips clapped him on the shoulder. ‘I have another assignment coming up if you’re interested.’

Anderson hesitated. He was exhausted after the Mendoza mission but perhaps keeping busy would be for the best under the circumstances.

‘What’s the job?’

‘Bit of a change from the last one,’ he rotated the globe. ‘How’s your Russian?’

‘Pretty good. I have a slight southern accent but not enough to make me stand out.’

‘Perfect.’ He reached into his inside pocket and handed over a small black box. It looked just like a regular Smartphone.

‘You can download more information via this once you leave here.’

‘Any other special instructions?’

‘You’ll need to pay a quick visit to the Lab before you go.’

‘The Lab? What for?’

‘This job needs to be a little less …public shall we say, than your last one. The political situation is more delicate. We need this to look like natural causes. From what I gather the eggheads downstairs have concocted something using polonium to do the trick.’

‘Polonium?’

‘It’s a radioactive isotope. The effects won’t be immediate but they should be fatal in the long run. You’ll be completely safe of course.’

‘I see. Well, I’d best be get down there and make a start.’ He made as if to leave.

‘Jimmy?’ Philips called after him. Anderson turned back.

‘Mendoza’s family – I trust you aren’t being troubled by any pangs of conscience.’

He thought again of the photographs and shook his head. Conscience was a luxury.

‘Strictly business, Mr Philips.’

A wee slice of flash fiction…Image

The Outer Limits

 The press of bodies moves with its own secret rhythm as music blares into the warm summer air from a dozen different sources. Pounding drumbeats and throbbing bass notes blend with ringing bells and peals of laughter to create a joyous cacophony.

The air is thick with odours too – sticky toffee apples, hot buttery popcorn, the sweet smell of spun sugar slowly fluffing into puffs of candy floss drifting through the night. Lights semaphore secret messages in gold, green and yellow flashes.

There are people everywhere, forming in knots along the strip of stalls lining the promenade. Children tug on their parent’s arms, pointing at the rides and making pleading faces. Hands dig deep into pockets searching for silver.

I stand in the middle of all this chaos and confusion, staring at the painted faces on the side of one of the rides. A thick-set, unshaven man with a worn leather pouch full of change jangling around his waist looks at me with mild disinterest. A smouldering cigarette is pinched between two yellowed fingers.

‘You just going to stand there gawping all night or do you want to go on?’

‘I’m trying to make up my mind. What is it exactly?’

The man drops his cigarette to the pavement and grinds it out with one scuffed work boot. He points to the sign above the entrance which promises “family fun for everyone!” It looks like a giant mouth ready to swallow the unwary.

I look at the pictures again – giant cartoon grotesques with bulging eyes stare back at me, daring me to join them in their day-glow purgatory.

I decide that I’d rather try and win a goldfish.

Once upon a time there was no Bill. In his place was Billy, a young lad who sometimes entertained the fantasy of being a writer one day.

In 1989, young Billy was sitting one of those English exams where they give you a booklet full of prompts and tell you to write something about one of them. He spied a newspaper headline which proclaimed, “Man to be freeze-dried” and the wheels in his mind started turning helped along by his regular intake of sci-fi stories from the local library.

Billy’s teacher read the story and insisted he put it into the school magazine. This was very nice of her and Billy was very chuffed as it was the first story he ever had published. Sadly, Billy’s copy of the story was lost in the great clear-out under the bed of ’95 and the story was thought to be lost forever.

Untill now…

Thanks to the wonderful world of Facebook and old school chum told me he had visited the old school recently as it is scheduled to be demolished soon. On his visit he found an old pile of school magazines which had been collected together for vistors to browse. Knowing that I still entertain notions of being a writer he sent me a picture of the long lost story and suggested I ask the school if I could get a copy.

I took his advice yesteday an envelope arrived containing the words written by little Billy when he was only 14 and a nice letter from the Deputy Head Teacher.

So here it is: The Man To Be Freeze Dried. Presented in all it’s badly punctuated glory. Some readers out there may think that not much has changed …apart from being a bit clearer where commas, colons and semi-colons go now!

Now, if only I could get someone to track down my long lost Christmas massacre story…