___WORDS FROM ME_____________________________________

not another duck

I’m pleased to say I have a new short story available in/on (still not sure how that should go) the fiction webzine With Candlelight. The guys running the zine have got a really great set-up, with a nice easy podcast, and interviews on the site, as well as plenty of stories, mainstream and genre (and those fuzzy bits in between as well as some flash fiction too). It’s well worth a visit and a look around.

My tale is called “Not Another Duck!” and is about 1,500 words long, if I remember correctly. It’s not the first of its kind, so I wanted to say a few words about what’s been going on.

For a while now, when I’ve either been too tired to write anything longer or wanted to write something that could be finished in a single sitting, I’ve been working on a series of pieces featuring the nameless protagonist of this tale and his three-legged dog, Horatio. The series – if that’s really what it is – came about by accident . . . which seems to be the defining feature of most of my writing output.

A good few years ago I wrote a 3,000- word short story called “Walking Horatio.” It didn’t fall into any easily defined genre and wasn’t really mainstream enough to be published in a mainstream venue. But friends who read the piece enjoyed it and that made me want to see it in print. I toyed around with it, adding a crime element to see if it might be possible to sell somewhere. But the tale felt dishonest like that and I reverted back to the original version. I showed it to a couple of mainstream magazines, and the responses were positive, but no money changed hands and the tale didn’t find its way into any of those good publications. So, in the way of these things, I put it aside a little sadly . . . and forgot about it. 

Or at least, I thought I did.

Turns out the characters didn’t want to leave me alone, even if I had thought we weren’t seeing each other any more. I wrote another story about them, thinking when I’d finished that there would probably be a final tale written some time in the future to wrap up a little trilogy of pieces.

Again, I was wrong.

I wrote another tale, and there they were again – one slacker and his dog, Horatio – but it wasn’t the final tale of the loose trilogy I’d imagined it would be.  Okay, I thought. That’s interesting.

Four seemed like an odd number (even though it’s even, as my nameless protagonist would probably point out) for a trilogy, and so, after resisting doing so, I wrote another tale. And then another. Both featuring the narrator and Horatio. I started to think of them as “The Horatio Tales.” But they weren’t the only things I was writing at the time. I wrote a couple of books which you can probably find on eBay or Amazon Marketplace for a penny each, some that you won’t be able to find because they didn’t make it into print, and some other short stories too (some of which have been published, some of which have not). For a  while – maybe a year or more – I didn’t go back to our hero and his dog. After all, although they were fun to write and didn’t take long, I wasn’t selling them . . . or even sending them out to magazines that might have published them. They were beginning to feel like an indulgence. But then, between chapters of novels, or at the end of drafts of other pieces, or just on the occasions where I’d no strength to write something new from scratch, I found myself going back to see how these guys were doing.

Slowly, over the years, new characters made their way into the tales. They kept popping up in other pieces, and I realised I’d got quite a cast of oddballs and sweet innocents I genuinely enjoyed spending time with. Indulgence or not, the reason why you write, ultimately, is for yourself, and I have been doing exactly that with these tales.

I have maybe twenty pieces now, and I still haven’t written the tale that I thought would make up that original trilogy. It’ll happen, I think, possibly later this year or early next, and when it does it won’t be long until I write another couple of Horatio tales to round things out. Then I’ll revise (because you always have to revise) and gather the tales together in a short collection. I’m looking forward to it.

“Not Another Duck!” is one of the Horatio tales. It was written – or at least first drafted – in a single sitting, as most if not all of the Horatio tales has been. I think it’s one of the more recent pieces, written in the last year or two. When I saw that Brandon and Roger were asking for tales that didn’t really fit anywhere else for With Candlelight, for some reason I flashed on this piece and thought it would be worth sending to them. I don’t know why. But I did.

They agreed it was, and you can find it here now. Just scroll down the page and you’ll see it there. Read it for free. And enjoy it. One way or another, there are more of them to come.

library thing

I've been reminiscing lately, for all sorts of reasons, some happy, some sad, some just melancholic.

For some reason I got to thinking about the library of my boyhood, a single room of books in a terrace house owned by the local council. This was in an old village on the side of a hill in Yorkshire. I'd go there with my dad first of all, before I was old enough to go by myself, either walking down the hill and back or, if there was petrol in the car and the car was running, driving down. To get to the heavy library door you had to cross a slab of old stone, worn and weathered, and often slick and dangerous in the wet. Beneath the stone slab, was a darkness, leading to the cellar. The library door took some opening, and inside there was a narrow square of hallway with bare, painted steps leading up to a place I knew was out of bounds. Instead of going up the stairs you turned right, through another heavy door with a  circular knob that rattled for all the years I remember using the library (before it was closed and the books taken in some odd amalgamation with the newer community centre), and there was that certain smell unique to libraries, there to greet you along with the silence of dreaming books. 

There was a grill fire in an old chimney breast, and the fire smelled when it was lit. Rosemary the librarian's reception counter stood in the middle of the room. There was a microfiche reader that looked magnificently science-fictional and took up more space than was probably good for it, and there were white walls with shelves up to a boy's head, and on the shelves were books. Lots of books. More books than I'd ever seen. Many were old and grubby, but still had a shine to them because of their protective covers. They were all special to me, things to be amazed about.

Even though it was a small library, I'd be lying if I said I read everything in there, but I certainly got through everything in the small children's section. Often more than once. 

I thought I was smart back then, so figured that if I looked at an adult title or two and pretended to put them all back on the shelves but really kept one for myself, I could sneak that title into the children's corner, and then - criminal genius - make a louder show than usual of taking it out of the children's section and over to Rosemary.  I'm sure I wore a most convincing expression of innocence as I presented her with some horror novel or violent thriller.

I used to think Rosemary was a stern fearsome person, but looking back, I realise now that she was looking after me. With only the odd raised eyebrow behind her glasses, she let me take out more titles from the adult section than she might have done. I read a lot of yellowback Gollancz SF, thanks to Rosemary, long before I truly understood them. And plenty of middle books in fantasy sagas. (For some reason the library never had book one of a trilogy or series. To this day I kind of prefer reading book two of a series before book one. A hangover from those days, I suspect; though to some extent I do think the second book of a trilogy is more interesting if you haven't read the first one.) I read a lot of everything.

But there was, quite appropriately it seemed to me, more than a little bit of myth and legend about the library among us kids. I mentioned that beneath the library was an entrance to a cellar and it looked very much like a cave. The rumour went that there was a passage from the library, running underground, to the ruined old folly of the criminal Black Dick, and that his ghost walked the passage during the day, until sundown, when it haunted the ruin itself. 

One day I would dare go down there, I told myself, and see if I could find the tunnel. I would take my best friend and my brother and his friend, and we would use a torch like the posh kids in The Famous Five did, and explore, and probably find buried treasure and be chased by a ghost. Or a man disguised as a ghost, which was often what ghosts turned out to be in detective fiction and on Scooby Doo on the television. It all seemed possible, beneath the library, as if the secret worlds in the books had slipped out of the pages and been pulled down by gravity into the cellar and the secret tunnel. We would have our adventure and it would be scary and exciting.

One day we would do that.

But of course, we never did.

after jerusalem

Okay. It's 2017 (why do all years feel like science fiction titles these days?) and it hasn't been a great one so far, for all sorts of reasons. The details are too grim and upsetting to go into, so I won't linger on them. Let's just say I'm not going to forget this one in a hurry and can only hope it gets better as the months pass. We take our happier moments where we can, and we should remember to cherish them. 

And so . . . with that in mind: I have a new story out. Which is always nice to say. It's a quiet little science fiction piece called "After Jerusalem" and was actually written quite a while ago. (I've a feeling it could be ten years old.) It's one of those tales I've always been quite fond of but never been entirely sure what to do with; and so, while deep in prevarication, hadn't really done anything with it . . . for a long time.

But then I found Sci Phi Journal, and the old story popped into my mind as sort of appropriate for the publication. I thought so, anyway. I found the file, gave it a quick polish (look, something ten years old must be improvable in some respects), and emailed it off . . .

. . .  not realising I'd missed the open window for submissions by a week or two.

Luckily the lovely people at Sci Phi Journal promised to read the tale anyway. This is called going above and beyond the call of duty and is a rare gift in publishing. That kindness alone was enough to make me feel the world was a better place than I'd previously feared it was. I just hoped I wasn't wasting their time by giving them yet another tale to read that wasn't approriate and was wasting their time . . .

Fortunately they liked the story enough to want to publish it. (This sometimes feels like it's even rarer than acts of kindness in publishing.) Naturally I was delighted, and am pleased to say you can read it right here. If you can, then please do so. I hope you like it.

Take care.

christmas calories

Time’s ticking. There’s an air of expectancy. It’s coming up on midnight.
Sleet passes outside the window. It hurtles into the city, sparking in the street and office lights.
The nutritionist has stayed late for this. Her clients and staff are gone, leaving her alone in the building. Tonight she’s waiting on a special client. He has a problem with his staff, and it could destroy his delivery targets if it’s not fixed. Even so, this appointment is scheduled for so late an hour that she has experienced major protestations from her family. She knows she has to make it count. This is important stuff.
It would have to be as well, because there’s no other reason she’d miss being with her kids tonight. Tonight of all nights.
The office is dark but for a desk lamp and the nutritionist sits in the half-shadows it casts. She is a dusky, thick-haired woman somewhere in her mid-forties. She wears executive clothes, a business suit over a plain white blouse, but has tiger-patterned heels to show a little quirkiness.
For the last three years she’s been wearing eyeglasses. She knows they suit her; she can lower them to the end of her nose and peer over the frames at someone either seductively or threateningly. Both poses affect people rather to her liking.
Tonight . . . Well, tonight she doesn’t know how it’s going to go, if she’ll need to use them as a prop, though a secret part of her would love to go all seductive on him. As her tightest friends would say, “Imagine the bragging rights . . .!”
She hears a tinkle, right at the edge of her hearing. It’s followed by a thud from upstairs. She chides her foolishness. She should have been watching for him through the window. Right now the sleet has thickened though, and her windows are smeared with furred scratches that bleed water. She rushes over and looks out. There’s nothing but blurs of light and dark, traces of headlamps moving in the sparse traffic below.
Booted feet walk on the floor above her, and then down the stairs. He hasn’t taken the lift. He’s on her level now, and coming her way with heavy, purposeful thuds. There’s a pause and then he’s pushing through the glass doors to the outer office. Earlier she’d made sure they were unlocked. Another three steps - thud, thud, thud - and then another pause. Something in the air suggests he’s just the other side of her door now. The atmosphere is pure magic, seeping through. She feels her heart tremble like it did many years ago at the thought of him. Her blood is high, her cheeks flushing.
She returns to her desk and in as confidant a voice as she can muster, she calls out.
“It’s open. Come in.”
With a jingle and a jangle, the big man enters. He has to squeeze his shoulders and duck to make his way in at the best angle he can manage. He’s cautious about standing all the way up for fear of putting his head through the ceiling tiles, so walks in a careful hunch. He’s taken his hood down, and his white hair spills free, curling at his beard. But still, he is huge.
This is one thing about him that no one tends to mention. His real size. Yes, he’s overweight, and you see that in all the pictures of him, but he carries it well. He’s a giant.
But a friendly giant?
This is the first time she has met him. Truly met him and not one of his helpers. Their correspondence has all been by letter.
He smiles at her, his cheeks rich and rosy like the sweetest red apples you ever ate.
“Hullo, Joanne.” There’s a chuckle in his rumble of a voice, even though they’re here to talk about serious matters.
She can’t help but smile back, though she is trying hard to stay professional. She finds it hard to think of him without using the word “hearty”.
“Hi,” she says, touching the report she’s prepared, acting as if he’s just another client. “Come through, and take a seat.”
He won’t fit in any of the chairs before her desk – even the outsize ones for the sturdier clients referred to her – so she waves a hand to the sofa set at an angle to the wall. When she stays late, she often puts her legs up on it and reads through her reports.
Eyeing it with some suspicion, the giant lowers himself to the sofa. It protests loudly, its internal workings going boing, and wood cracks. A couple of springs burst through the fabric either side of him, pushing foam into the air. He looks settled if not comfortable. A giant in a child’s way.
Joanne says, “You’re here alone? Your helper, he’s . . .?”
“Looking after the ride,” the big man says. “He doesn’t know why we’ve stopped here. I’ve explained it’s a little extra business, something I need to tidy up. I’m worried about him though, he seems to be deteriorating quickly. He has an enormous stomach where before he was thin and fleet.” Aware his own stomach is not exactly insubstantial, he pats it a little guiltily and sucks it in. “And he’s very sluggish, puffing and panting when he walks very far. He sleeps a lot. If you’ve answers, I’d like to hear them. And I’ll just remind you that it’s a busy night for me, so you’ll understand if I’ve to rush you.”
Joanne nods and stands up, collecting the papers in the file before her. She walks around the front of her desk and hitches up a leg and sits on its edge, facing her client, serious expression on her face.
Leafing through the statistics even though she knows them by heart, she says, “Okay, the short of it is that while you are fine on your diet—”
“Should think so too,” he says, traces of his ever-present humour in his voice.
“—your ‘helper’ is, from a nutritionist’s point of view, in a seriously bad state. For one, as an example, his cholesterol is dangerously high. It’s only going to get worse unless you put him on a balanced diet. More fresh fruit and vegetables, regular roughage, and I’d suggest a good amount of white meats. Also, though your alcohol intake is frankly off the scale, it seems to have had no affect on your liver or other vital systems. Your ‘helper’ doesn’t have the same sturdy constitution that you’ve been blessed with. His blood sugar levels are far too high and the blood tests have hinted at other potential problems.”
She slips her glasses to the end of her nose, peers sternly at her client. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
He nods slowly. “Fewer drinks for him, you’re saying. Keep off the sherry.”
Far fewer drinks for him,” Joanne stresses. “Have him count the calories and not exceed the recommendations I’ve made for him. Cut out as much sugar as possible. And I’m serious,” she says over her glasses again, giving him the scary look and holding it. Even he seems troubled by it for a few seconds.
Eventually though, the big man smiles and nods. “Very well. Message received and understood. And as long as he does that, he’ll be fine?”
“I should imagine so, if he sticks to his new action plan. Here, I’m made a list of foods and some exercises he should follow and adhere to. They’re at the back of the folder.”
She hands him her report, with all its recommendations.
“Thank you, Joanne. I knew I was right bringing this to your attention. You were always a good girl. One of my favourites, you know.”
Having got what he’s come for, he rises to his feet, remembering at the last to duck and not put his white-haired head through the ceiling tiles. (She’d have a hard time explaining that to the building’s maintenance team, Joanne thinks.) The sofa he’s just vacated is dead, and seeing so he smiles in chagrin, then hunkers up his britches, pulling tightly on the thick belt he wears around his middle. His jacket is fringed at the collar and cuffs with pale almost luminescent fur and Joanne has to will herself not to reach out and stroke it.
The big man scratches his beard thoughtfully, and says, “So finally, to go over it again. No more mince pies for him, and keep off the sherry, that’s right? Even though we only do this one night a year. And he’ll be all right?”
“Along with some exercise, which wouldn’t go amiss. The ones I’ve described in my report for you.”
He nods again, thoughtfully but with a smile, and pats the report.
Joanne can’t resist it, and says, “Believe me, I’m an expert. And I’m telling you the truth when I say that all that bad food’s not good for your Elf.”
The big man pauses to let the pun fall flat, groans happily then, and says, “Ho, ho, ho,” rather mechanically. He winks at her and with three tugs on his beard is stooping out of the door and gone.
Joanne puts her hands to her heart, not ready to release the magic she feels there, and listens to him make his way back up the stairs.
A minute later there’s a rush of sound, the sound of many hooves dragging a heavy object across the roof, and it rips down through the building to Joanne. This time she doesn’t forget. She dashes to the window, presses her fingers against the glass, wishing she could open it for a better view. She feels a thrill she hasn’t felt since she was a child, the same delirious emotions she imagines her own children must have felt this evening, and perhaps still are if they’re sneakily trying to remain awake to catch a glimpse of Santa.
She searches the sky through the bleary smears on the glass but sees nothing, only that the sleet has turned, thinning for a moment, to snow. Flake after flake after flake coming down.
Her disappointment lasts only a moment. Sleigh bells jingle through the night, high above, and a rich, laughing voice cries, “Ho, ho, ho.”
When she finally leaves the window, she sees a large parcel squeezed - as if by magic - into the middle of her office.
“How . . .?”
But she knows she shouldn’t ask. She just laughs. It’s in the shape of a new couch.
The tag reads,
Merry Christmas, Joanne.
A good girl always.
Love Santa.
PS - Leave out the sherry and only one tumbler and mince pie next year.

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