Thursday, 24 December 2015

Day 24: The Winter Cuckoo by Shirley Hammond

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 Over recent years following retirement, my partner and I have welcomed many paying visitors to our home in beautiful West Wales.  A few of these we might describe as having provided somewhat unusual experiences! This story was knitted together from several colourful strands of such material........

 I am a lark. At home, my best work is done before eight a.m. When I am with the writing group I belong to, I enjoy writing pieces under pressure. These often seem to turn out better than stuff I have agonised over for days.

This is the first story I have had accepted for publication. I have, however, also reached the shortlists for several short story and play writing competitions. This success will encourage me to keep on trying!   

Wherever I am writing, it is important to me to be able to look around and see trees and sky.


During 2013, in County Wexford, on a Welsh/Irish exchange visit, our group attended a large evening gathering. We suddenly realised, to our horror that we were, as honoured guests, expected to contribute to the entertainment or ‘craic’ - whether by playing a musical instrument, singing or reciting poetry .

Not wishing to be accused of English snobbery, I accepted the microphone. Did the audience hear the spine-tingling strains of that glorious Welsh hymn, ‘Cwm Rhondda?’ Or experience the mournful pathos of ‘Danny Boy’ sung by a foreigner as a compliment to her hosts?

I’m afraid not.

I am, after all, a no nonsense Yorkshirewoman by upbringing.

So it was a dialect-word perfect rendition of ‘On Ilkla Moor bar t’hat’ that echoed round the hall.

And everyone joined in the chorus.




An extract from The Winter Cuckoo 


It was the Tiger’s fault.
Our neighbour is proud of her nickname. She is aware of her elegantly striped hair and the
feline slant to her eyes. She also employs, to effect, the purring vowels she developed for
 minor parts in television soaps twenty years ago - before she gave up her career for
Barney’s millions and an escape to the country.
What she doesn’t know is that she has earned the name, as far as the village is concerned,  in two other ways. The first by her somewhat predatory attitude towards men (wasted on  Gwyn, however) and the second because she never – ever -- calls round to see anybody  without having designs on their resources.
It is a freezing cold Valentine’s Day morning when she tells us the reason for her visit.
‘It’s about my friend Jason Knight. You might have heard of him. He’s making quite a name for himself as a sculptor. So clever. And such good company.’
‘Never heard of him,’ says Gwyn, who, since retirement from town planning, spends most  of his time growing vegetables and soft fruit in the garden.
‘Well, sculpture isn’t really your thing, I know that. But his reputation is starting to travel  way beyond the artists’ colony here. The only thing is, he’s split up from his girlfriend and  has had to move out of their house.  So sad.’
‘He had no choice in the matter?’ I ask. I used to work in social services.
‘Oh no, nothing like that,’ the Tiger says quickly, ‘just grown apart over the years. But the arguments weren’t helping his creativity. He needs his own space. And I suddenly thought – how wonderful if you could let out your flat to him.’
We have a small, self- contained flat on the second floor of our house, which we let out to holidaymakers in season. It’s popular with families, being cheaper than a cottage, and within walking distance of the beach.
‘Why can’t you have him?’ Gwyn asks.
‘Oh darlings – you know I couldn’t. What would people say, with Barney having died so recently?’
Barney was thirty years her senior. His earthly career collapsed last summer. The Tiger continues to occupy their enormous former rectory with every appearance of enjoyment and a Polish couple who do all the work.
She changes tack.
‘I thought I was doing you a favour!’ she mews. ‘He would be paying you. And he’ll be out all day. He’ll be no trouble.’
‘I suppose we could let him have it until Easter,’ I say, turning to Gwyn. ‘On a weekly let. I would have to charge for doing his laundry.’
There isn’t a washing machine or tumble dryer in the flat.
 ‘Only if he limits himself to two suitcases,’ says Gwyn. ‘And we’ll have to meet him first.’
Jason Knight turns out to be a tall, quietly spoken man of about forty, with greying hair tied back in a ponytail, a long moustache, and several tattoos which look like signs of the  Zodiac. He wears a lot of silver jewellery, and a vintage sweatshirt with a picture of Che  Guevara; but, on the whole, seems relatively inoffensive, and accepts our terms.

On the day he arrives, it is clear that Gwyn’s edict regarding luggage has been ignored.
Heavy-looking grey clouds gather, as a traveller acquaintance of his brings a truck to the front of the house and empties a mountain of possessions on to the drive. Being woolly  liberals, we fail to say anything at this point. It takes Jason an hour to get everything up the stairs. No, he does not want any help.
He refuses a cup of tea.


About the author 

Shirley Hammond is one of a dozen committed members of a creative writing group in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, run by author Judith Barrow. Her experiences of country living in retirement - and looking after holidaymakers from all walks of life over recent years -  have provided her with much interesting material. However, she holds to the adage that if a story is worth telling, it is worth embroidering.......

 

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Day 23: last Call for Air by Mike Scott Thomson

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  1. What gave you the idea for your Snowflakes story?
If anyone’s read the short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” by Philip K Dick (or seen the film version, Total Recall), you may remember that the main character is fixated by the prospect of Mars, without really understanding why. I feel a little like that, but with Greenland. I doubt very much I have false memories implanted in my head, or that there’s any latent tough-guy conspiracy sci-fi thriller action adventure awaiting me in an alternative life, but the very concept of this huge, sparsely inhabited island does interest me. I wanted to write a story set there, even though I've never been, really to see if I could conjure up that sense of place. As for the plot, let’s just say I've done enough office jobs in my time. Politics at some of these big companies can be as unpredictable as snowstorms, and often twice as cold…

  1. How would you describe your normal style of writing?
I enjoy writing short stories, partly because they’re great (of course), but also because they’re a much better prospect for experimentation and practice than other forms (say, novels). As a result, even after a few years, I'm not sure I've really hit upon my “normal” style, and I'm not convinced I ever really will; maybe that’s how it should be. However, if there’s anything that links my various works, it’s probably a willingness to see the positive side of people and situations, coupled with an acute sense of the absurd.

  1. Have you published other material?
I've been fortunate enough to have had my work included in some great publications, including two anthologies from The Fiction Desk (with a third upcoming), literary magazines such as Litro and Prole, and a book of short fiction in aid of Shelter, “Stories for Homes”. I've also come runner up or been shortlisted in a few competitions, including InkTears, Writers’ Village, Momaya Press and Writers’ Forum, and finally achieved a first place by winning the inaugural “To Hull & Back” competition for humorous short fiction in 2014. You can find a full list of my published works on tiny.cc/mst-stories.

  1. Do you have a writing routine?
No. I should really, shouldn't I? At the moment it has to be a combination of free time-meets-inspiration-(potentially-meets-looming-deadline).

5.     5. Do you have a favourite place for writing?

I have a study in my flat where I do some writing, but not as much as I should; very often I find the walls start to close in. As a result, I'm prone to taking my iPad and keyboard to a selection of local cafés, and spending an hour or two there. Occasionally I go to the London “Write Together” groups on Meetup.com. Some writers don’t find the busy atmosphere in cafés conducive to creativity, but I find the soft hubbub and general lack of distraction quite helpful.

6.    6. Tell something quirky about you.

Quirky, huh? Okay, try this. When I was a teenager, I was a very keen magician. By far the youngest member of my local Magic Circle, I would often perform stage shows, or baffle audiences with my ever-present pack of playing cards. On one occasion, I performed on stage with none other than Paul Daniels and the “lovely” Debbie McGee (note to non-UK readers: Paul and his assistant wife Debbie were the two most famous television magicians of the 70s and 80s). As a young conjurer, I had the privilege of sawing Ms McGee into not merely halves, but three pieces. That, to be sure, was an interesting experience.

Whilst I no longer perform magic, I often see parallels between performing magic tricks and writing fiction. Both, in their different ways, are forms of storytelling, creating an imagined possibility out of nothing. Both use misdirection, hiding the obvious in plain sight. Over two decades later, my teenage wizardry has probably shaped me as an author more than I realise.


An extract from Last Call for Air 

Jannik awoke early on the Monday morning, levered himself out of bed, and pulled up the blinds. A brighter, lighter air than usual flooded into the room. Overnight, the Hovedstaden had been liberally coated with a luminescent white, two or three inches thick: dappled and jagged in places, rounded and smooth in others. The Greenlanders would have a word for it, if Søndergaard was to be believed.


Jannik felt a sudden rush of hope. Just for once this development may put him on the right side of ‘maybe’. He reached for his phone and opened the arrivals/departures app. A couple of swipes later he found what he was looking for: Copenhagen to Nuuk via Kangerlussuaq.


No delays. No cancellations. All flights, bang on time.


The news couldn’t have been any worse.



The terminal was all glass and glare. The low winter sun fractured its way through the building, splaying translucent shadows across the airport’s drop-off area. From the back seat of the taxi, Jannik turned his head and looked up, his eyes a quick glance up and down but the rest him unmoving. Not for the first time he recalled an expression he’d once learned in English – to ‘fall’ into a job – and wondered whether he could apply this maxim to himself, when he spent so much time in the air.


A year ago, it had been obvious upon his arrival at Kjær-Iversen that his role was mostly undefined. Ostensibly, ‘Information Technology’ was his department, informationsteknologi, but the informations involved in his day-to-day work had no appeal to him – beta-testing programs, handling decimals and percentages, tax bands for different territories – and the teknologi side of the role was, for Jannik, merely fixing the numerous problems arising on a daily basis – logins, passwords, systems crashes. Such fails were almost always down to human error. His job, as it became apparent, was to clear up other people’s mistakes.


With his Master’s in Computer Science freshly imprinted on his CV, he knew he should achieve better. He could write programs able to process the same data in half the time, and, he estimated, at a quarter of the expense. But as a junior member of staff, straight out of university, he needed to be patient.


With the possible exception of his immediate manager, Birgita, everyone seemed to have a different idea about what he actually did. Even Søndergaard thought, as was evident during the flight back from the Nuuk conference last February, that his young new recruit’s remit was a blurred hybrid of Customer Service and web design.


“Those are elements, yes…” were the only words Jannik managed to get in edgeways.


Søndergaard squatted down in the aisle, made an overly deliberate point of making eye contact, and leaned in conspiratorially. “Did you know,” he said, “that the Eskimos have over a hundred words for snow?”


This was a complete change in subject from what had been little more than smalltalk, and Jannik had a sinking feeling that he was about to hear ‘that speech’. As it happened Jannik did know about the Inuit and their supposed lexicon, but only because Søndergaard had said the very same thing at a training seminar six weeks before. Although Jannik could have sworn the number of words for snow back then had been fifty, not a hundred.

About the author  

 


Mike Scott Thomson’s stories have been featured by a number of publications, including The Fiction Desk, Litro, Prole, and Momaya Press. Competition successes include the runner up prizes in both InkTears (2012) and Writers’ Village (2013). In 2014 he won the inaugural ‘To Hull and Back’ humorous short story competition. Based in Mitcham, Surrey, he works in broadcasting. You can find him online at www.mikescottthomson.com.



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