through the darkest door

This week I decided it was about time that I got my backside into gear and started doing something more productive with my writing. I was inspired by Brendan’s Gisby’s recent blog on self publishing which sent me rifling through my story folder looking for some new work to submit to McStorytellers.  I always have a couple of stories in reserve that I’ve been “saving” for …well actually I don’t know what really. It used to be the annual slog of literary competitions until i realised the chances of someone like me winning the Bridport was a pipe dream and I’d be better off spending the entrance fee on some new music or something. Ditto most of the other well known and lesser known comps that draw in thousands of aspiring authors every year. I’d dabbled with self publishing mainly as a way of playing about with the technology and figuring out how it worked. I’d put out a wee themed collection and then a couple of Christmas stories (which I’d published as a nice wee gift for family and friends – giving them away for free over the holidays and then being presently surprised when a few folk actually forked over 99p to buy one!)

Anyway, I looked at all the stories I’d accumulated and thought to myself – “why send a couple of stories when I have enough here to do something a bit more substantial?” I got in touch with Brendan and pitched him the idea of putting out an anthology under the McStorytellers banner. Emails were exchanged and in no time at all Brendan had prepped a forty story collection fully formatted and ready to be published.

If you come here often you are no doubt aware of the developing paradigm shift in the world of publishing. Once upon a time, not so long ago, the idea of putting out your own work without the aid of one of the big boys was tainted with the label of “Vanity publishing” which nobody really took seriously. The name carried with it the stench of hubris and self delusion and images of faux-leather bound books gathering dust in garages and attics.

Computers have changed all that. Social Media, E-Books and Print on Demand technology have levelled the playing field to some extent and the power has started to be wrenched from the hands of publishing conglomerates and given to the thousands of would-be writers struggling to make it out of the slush piles.

In a lot of ways it reminds me of the music scene in the early 70s, dominated by major labels and stadium filling rock bands and then …pow! Punk arrives with the instructions: “This is chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band.” Bands like the Buzzcocks started bypassing the major labels completely to put their own singles out and inadvertantly started “Independent” labels dedicated to doing the same thing for other bands. These new labels were run on a shoestring but the limitations only forced them to be more creative and unafraid to take risks. They were run by people for the love of seeing the music get out there rather than for profit.

So the way I see it McStorytellers could be the literary equivalent of Factory, Mute, Postcard, Creation and all the others, leading a vanguard of literary renegades across the new frontiers of digital publishing and I’m proud to be part of it.

This week then those forty stories were launched upon an unsuspecting world when “Through The Darkest Door” was published. I don’t expect to set the world on fire. I don’t expect to trade my Ford Focus for a stretch limo or to be able to give up my day job, but I will be able to stand up proud and point to that book and say: “I did it my way.”

You can decide for yourself by following one of the links below. If you like what you’ve read afterwards please don’t forget to leave a review for future readers who might decide to check out my work for themselves based on your words.

UK Kindle version

US Kindle version

UK paperback version

US paperback version

A little festive story I wrote for my two daughters. Enjoy!

It was the night before Christmas and all through the castle people were getting ready for the big day. Outside, snow was falling. The castle courtyard was full of wagons piled high with food for the coming feast. Oxen stood impatiently scratching the cobblestones with their hooves. They breathed out great clouds of steam into the freezing cold air.
Inside the castle, Princess Erin and Princess Carys were playing hide and seek. Both girls were dressed in their special Christmas nightgowns.
‘My turn to hide,’ Carys said.
Erin turned to face the wall and began to count.
‘One, two, three…’
Carys ran off down the corridor. The castle was full of passageways and rooms to hide in. Flickering torches lit her way as she padded down the corridors. Her bare feet made soft slapping sounds on the stone floor. Carys was thinking hard. The problem was that her sister knew all the best hiding places and could usually find her without too much trouble. Just once Carys wanted to beat Erin. She could still hear her counting from behind her.
‘Sixty seven, sixty eight, sixty nine…’
She ducked into an open doorway. The room was filled with large colourful tapestries that hung from ceiling to floor. Carys looked at them for a moment. She couldn’t remember being in this room before. She pulled one of the tapestries away from the wall and slipped behind it. The bare brickwork was cold on her back and she wriggled her shoulders trying to get comfortable. As she wriggled she pressed against one brick that was a little different to the others. She heard a clanking sound and the scrape of stone on stone as a secret door opened behind her. She fell backwards into darkness. Moments later the secret doorway closed again, sealing her behind the wall.
It took a minute for her eyes to adjust to the dark. Once she realised what had happened, Carys was not afraid. The castle was ancient and riddled with tunnels and secret places put there when the castle was built way back in her great, great, great Grandfather’s time. She guessed that she had found a new passageway and smiled. If she could keep it a secret from Erin she was sure to win at hide and seek more often. She felt around for the switch to open the door again. Her small fingers traced the patterns of the brickwork. The stone was smooth beneath her fingertips. She pushed and prodded but couldn’t locate the switch. She heard the sound of footsteps coming into the room and froze.
‘Carys? Are you in here?’
Carys was torn. If she said nothing, Erin would go looking somewhere else and she would win the game. On the other hand, if she couldn’t find the switch she could be stuck behind the walls for a long time, maybe even forever!
‘Erin!’ she shouted.
‘Carys? Where are you?’
‘Over here. I found a secret passage.’
Erin walked over to the wall. She pulled the tapestry away and started pressing bricks. After a few tries she found the right one.
‘There you are. I can’t believe you found a hidden passageway all by yourself. We have to see where it goes.’ She stepped forward into the doorway.
‘No, Erin, wait…’
The door trundled closed again. Now there were two princesses behind the wall.
‘Oh no,’ Carys said.
Erin looked at her. ‘What’s the panic? All we need to do is find the switch that opens the door again.’
‘That’s what I was trying to tell you – I can’t find it!’
‘Oh,’ said Erin. She could feel her cheeks burning with embarrassment.
‘What are we going to do?’ Carys asked.
‘Well, the passage must lead somewhere – there’s bound to be another door along the way. We’ll just follow it and see where we end up.’ She took Carys’ hand.
‘Come on,’ she said.

An hour later the two princesses were hopelessly lost. The darkness made it almost impossible to figure out which direction they were going in and more than once Erin was convinced that they were going around in circles.
‘I don’t like this,’ Carys said. ‘What if we can’t ever get out?’
‘Don’t be silly Carys. Of course we’ll get out.’
However, after another hour, even Erin was starting to worry that her sister was right. She started to think about what might happen if they stayed stuck behind the walls forever. She imagined people years from now getting into the passages and finding their dust covered bones. She shivered and tried to push the picture out of her head. She felt her way around another corner and stopped.
‘Look,’ she said. ‘There’s a light on the floor ahead.’
‘Where do you think it’s coming from?’
‘I don’t know – let’s find out.’
The light was above Erin’s head. She tried to jump up and couldn’t quite reach.
‘Lift me up,’ Carys said.
Erin put out her hands for Carys to step on.
‘What can you see?’ she asked.
‘I think we’re behind one of the paintings in the great hall. I’m looking out through its eyes.’
‘Is there anyone there?’
‘I can’t see anyone – they must have all gone to bed. We have been gone a long time after all.’ She climbed back down.
‘Do you think anyone is looking for us?’
Erin shrugged.
‘Maybe, but everyone has been so busy running around getting ready for Christmas they might not even have noticed.’
‘If Mum and Dad were here they would have noticed,’ Carys said. ‘I miss them so much.’
‘I know,’ Erin said, patting Carys on the shoulder. ‘They will be back from our Uncle’s tomorrow and we’ll have figured out a way to get out of here by then.’
‘Do you promise?’
‘I promise.’ She pulled Carys close for a hug and stroked her hair until at last she fell asleep. Erin sat in the dark and listened to the soft sound of her sister’s snoring. She was starting to doze herself when she heard a new sound coming from through the wall.
‘Wake up,’ she whispered to Carys.
‘What is it?’
‘I don’t know – you need to get up and have a look.’ She held out her hands. Carys stepped up and let Erin lift her to the eye holes.
‘There’s something sticking out of the fireplace,’ Carys said. ‘I think it’s a boot.’
‘A boot?’ Erin said. ‘What do you mean?’
‘The kind you put on your feet silly.’ She peered again through the holes. ‘There’s another one. I think someone is climbing down the Chimney!’
Carys put her eyes against the back of the painting again. The boots were shiny and black and trimmed with white fur. Silver buckles glinted in the torchlight. Above the tops of the boots she could see deep red trousers starting to come out. To her amazement the legs seemed to bend and stretch at an impossible angle as a figure emerged from the fireplace.
‘It’s Father Christmas!’ Carys said, almost falling from Erin’s shoulders in her excitement.
The red robed figure froze.
‘Who said that?’ He looked around the room to see where the voice was coming from.
‘It’s Princess Erin and Princess Carys. We were playing hide and seek and got lost in a secret passage and now we can’t get out,’ Erin said.
Father Christmas chuckled to himself. ‘Deary me,’ he said. ‘Two little Princesses in a pretty pickle and no mistake.’ He put down his heavy sack by the side of the fire and walked over to the painting. Carys saw a tiny glimpse of all the toys hidden inside the sack before he pulled it closed.
‘Hmm,’ said Father Christmas stroking his thick white beard. He began rummaging in the pockets of his robe. ‘Now where did I put that thing?’ he said. ‘Ah, here it is,’ he said pulling out a black gloved hand.
‘What is it?’ Erin asked. It was very frustrating not being able to see.
‘It’s a key,’ Carys said. ‘But Father Christmas, there isn’t a door here. We looked and looked and couldn’t see one.’
Father Christmas smiled at the little Princess peeking at him.
‘This isn’t just any old key, young lady. This is a very special key. It was given to me by a Wizard a long time ago. I normally use it to get into places with no chimney.’
He waved the key at the painting.
Both girls felt a very curious sensation. To Carys it looked as if the painting had grown thinner, almost thin enough to see through. And then suddenly both girls were standing in the room blinking in the light.
‘Well now, there we are and don’t you look a sight? We had best get you both cleaned up before your mother sees you.’ He began searching his pockets again until he pulled out a large handkerchief. He dabbed at both the girls’ faces, wiping away the worst of the dirt. ‘There now, that’s a lot better. You look like little ladies again instead of two dirty chimney sweeps. Now we have a problem – I am seriously behind schedule in delivering my gifts after rescuing you. I’m going to need some help to get done and back to the North Pole before sunrise.’
‘We can help you, can’t we Carys?’ said Erin. Carys nodded.
‘That’s a wonderful idea.’ He clapped his hands together. ‘Let’s get to work right away. I will give you both some presents to deliver around the castle and that should get me back on track.’ He went over to his sack and began pulling out boxes and parcels. Before long, both girls were laden with gifts.
‘You will need to be quiet and quick,’ he said. ‘Here, you should take this as well.’ He pulled a small envelope from his pocket.
‘What’s that? Carys said.
‘It’s in case of emergencies.’ He opened up the envelope and showed the girls what was inside. ‘If anyone should see you, blow the magic dust in this envelope into their face. It will make them forget that they ever saw you.’ He handed the envelope to Erin. ‘Now off you go. I will meet you here again when you are done.’ He raised his hand, ‘Oh, and girls, one more thing before you go.’
‘What’s that?’ Erin said.
Father Christmas smiled. ‘No more secret passages – I don’t want to have to rescue you again.’
‘We promise,’ both girls said.

The two Princesses scampered out of the Great Hall with their armloads of presents. They ran all through the castle leaving gifts wherever they stopped. They left a toy drum and a puzzle for the Cook’s two little boys, gloves and scarves for the serving girls, toy soldiers for the Royal Falconer’s son and two dolls with pretty dresses for the Blacksmith’s daughter. By the time they returned to the great hall both girls felt like they had covered every inch of the castle.
‘Ah, there you are,’ Father Christmas said. ‘You’ve been a fine pair of helpers – I’d say you were right at the very top of my nice list for all the work you’ve done tonight. In fact, I think you both deserve an extra special treat.’
Erin and Carys looked at each other in amazement.
‘Take my hand,’ Father Christmas said. ‘I want to show you something.’
The princesses touched his hand. Moments later they were standing on the roof of the great hall beside a large wooden sleigh with eight graceful looking Reindeer attached.
‘Can we touch them?’ Erin asked.
‘You can do better than that,’ Father Christmas said. ‘They’re going to need a lot of energy to get me back to the North Pole so perhaps you and your sister can help me feed them.’ He reached inside the sleigh and brought out two sacks. ‘Here you go,’ he said. ‘Carrots and oats – just the thing to get them flying full speed ahead.’
Erin and Carys rushed over to take the food and started to hand it out to the hungry reindeer.
‘All done,’ Carys said as she handed Father Christmas her empty sack.
‘Well done,’ he said. ‘I’ll be home in no time at all now.’
‘You’re welcome,’ Erin said. ‘Do you have to go now?’
Father Christmas nodded. ‘Yes, but first I must make sure that two very sleepy princesses are tucked up safely in bed before I go.’
He stretched out his hands once more. The two princesses touched his gloves and found themselves transported to their bed chamber. Erin and Carys climbed into their bunk beds and pulled the covers up to their chins. Father Christmas turned and waved to them both.
‘Merry Christmas girls,’ he said.
And with that, he disappeared. Erin could feel her bed starting to get cosy and her eyelids started to droop. Just before she fell asleep she thought that she could hear the sound of sleigh bells jingling off in the distance.

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wreckersAs part of Book Week Scotland, the Aberdeen Library Special Collections Centre runs a Flash Fiction competition where authors are invited to submit a story based on one of four images from their collection. This is the third year in a row I’ve entered …and the third year in a row I’ve come away empty handed! You can read the winners and all the other entries on the Special Collections page. In the meantime here is my not quite good enough effort.
Wreckers
Andrew picked his way over the rocks towards his grandfather. The morning mist had cleared with the rising sun and he could taste the salt in the air as the sharp rocks and shells pressed hard into the soles of his feet.
‘Let’s see what the tide has brought us today then lad,’ his grandfather said over the hiss of the waves.
They walked together along the shoreline. Andrew held his hand, enjoying the rough feel of his skin on his. The old man had taken him in after his had died when he was just a toddler and now Andrew could barely even remember his real father.
It was not long before they started to see the first debris. Scraps of splintered wood tumbled onto the beach atop the briny foam along with a man’s shirt and a solitary brown leather shoe washed up at the high water mark. His grandfather spared them no more than a cursory glance.
The first body was just a little farther along, arms splayed like a man-size rag doll as the tide nudged it ashore. The old man knelt and began a thorough inspection of the corpse. Andrew watched as his grandfather dipped his hands in and out of pockets. He was amazed as always at how quickly he worked. A rolled up sleeve revealed a gold wristwatch which he deftly removed. He held it to his ear to check it still worked before slipping it into his pocket. A quick tug on a finger also relieved the man of his wedding ring. The dead man’s head rolled from side to side as he worked as if he was objecting to his treatment. Finally, his grandfather’s long bony fingers plucked a cracked leather wallet out from an inside pocket. He flipped it open and carefully withdrew some sodden banknotes before tossing the empty billfold onto the sand at Andrew’s feet. The boy stooped to pick it up and opened it. A picture of a smiling woman and a little baby looked out at him.
‘Leave it be lad,’ his grandfather said. ‘It does no good to know too much about what washes up on the beach.’
‘Yes grandfather.’
Andrew dropped the wallet back onto the sand. The faces still stared up at him as the water washed over them making their features blur.
‘Let’s move on,’ his grandfather said wiping his hands on his trousers as he stood up. ‘Plenty more where this one came from I’ll wager, cargo too if we’re lucky.’
When they were done they would go home and count the day’s take and his grandfather would give him a share for helping. After the sun went down they would light their lantern and go for another walk along the beach. There were always plenty of ships plying their trade along the rocky coast and there were always a few that would be fooled by the light and founder on the reefs before spilling their holds into the waves.

 

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.

october_prompt_teaser_0

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