Short stories


Ben Nevis, Britain's "highest hill"Those of you who have followed me for some time (11th anniversary for grumptyke the other day) will know for my attempts at poetry and short stories I like to write short, often very short, and in a form for which there are strict rules.

Something I have never tried before is a pantoum, based on the Malay literary form of pantun, which has a rhyming structure and in each quatrain repeats lines from the previous quatrain.

Wanting to write something in praise of my friend Ruxandra’s (and founder/leader of our writers’ club Writing on the Wharfe) amazing hike of 120 miles in 3 days in the Scottish Highlands, in aid of a young persons’ mental health charity – Young Minds Trust – I chose to scribble a pantoum over my pre club meeting lunch.

Here it is:

Homage

She climbed Britain’s highest hill
In a trek of some 120 miles
Covering Scottish Highlands with only will
Yet her reports were filled with smiles

In a walk of some 120 miles
Some of us might give up before the end
Yet her reports were filled with smiles
Not a glum face wherever she might wend

Some of us might give up before the end
To return to the start by bus or train
Not a glum face wherever she might wend
But a walk for troubled youngsters has much to gain

To return to the start by bus or train
Never entered her crazy Romanian head
Not a glum face wherever she might wend
But I bet she welcomed at last the stay in bed

Struggles with longer writing

My battle to finish the one ‘long’ piece of fiction, working title Miranda, I’ve attempted continues. Starting as a 300 word short story, it’s now become a novella at about 30,000 words but my ambition is to grow it into a novel. The subtitle – ‘A tale of unlikely love in 60s-70s London‘ – tells me there’s enough material in my head from that exciting time, my time, in our capital to merit it. Dragging distant memories to the fore and turning it to fiction, easy for the first few chapters, is proving more difficult as  the journey through subsequent chapters continues. It is, after all, a period of my life between 47 and 52 years ago but draws somewhat on my experience a few years further back than that.

A photo of the working cover showing a mini-skirted girl 'with attitude'

My first attempt at getting my story going again was to format it as a book (https://wp.me/pkm0h-1G9)

I’ve often said I cannot write (fiction) to order, only when my characters hassle me to be heard; getting up early, or staying up late, to write 1,000 words come what may, as so often advised, is a pointless activity for me. So my first novella/novel(?) – ‘A tale of unlikely love in 60s-70s London’ – has lain untouched for several months.

Yesterday morning my two protagonists demanded that I pick up my fountain pen and give them a voice again. Why, I do not know. They did not say much, half a chapter from only one of them before I had to leave home, but they were clear what they wanted to say, each demanding a new chapter to give more details of a close friend, a friend who had a major influence on our lovers’ relationship. More than that I do not know.

It’s not writers’ block

Some time ago I felt I had not let them say all they wished to say but their tale had stopped at around 30,000 words. I had the idea that they each wanted to say more about a friend mentioned in passing but they wouldn’t say more at that time. I put the idea of filling out two other characters to my blogging writer friend Kristina Steiner, who has just published the second novel in her trilogy; despite her support for the idea my characters wouldn’t say more. Until now.

Beginning as a short story

The tale began as a short story, prompted by a theme set in our writers’ club: ‘what if?’ The story resulting, no more than two or three hundred words, became a chapter as one character began to speak. Shortly after the other of the couple demanded to be heard, so another chapter flowed out of the pen. They each now seem to be settled on allowing one to speak to me without interruption, for a chapter, then keeping silent while the other speaks.

Initially, each chapter finished with ‘what if?’ but that became tiresome and was deleted. On the other hand, I am fascinated by the idea of a story having more than one ending – ever since reading ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ when it was published during the era in which my tale is set. So my complete story became a ‘what if?’

Will my protagonists continue to speak? I don’t know but I would like to learn what happens to them. Hopefully, so will you if they do continue to speak.

 

 

 

 

A screen shot of a preview screen showing the menu structure of my reorganised blog.

I still use the editor with which I began 11 years ago; in my opinion few, if any, of WordPress’s changes have been an improvement, rather the reverse. I disliked the ‘app’ from the start and I haven’t changed my mind.

Recently I decided to restructure this blog, in particular to highlight things which interest me more than when I began to post on it seven years ago (though it was created four years before that!). I didn’t want to change the overall look of it, with which I’ve always been happy; in particular, I now want it to be principally a ‘library’ of my fictional prose and ‘poetry’, grouped under menu headings. So I’ve changed the tag line in the header a little too to reflect that.

What has amazed me during this exercise is not only the number of short stories and ‘poems’ I have written but the different genres I have tackled. My first attempt at a short story was almost seven years ago; the ‘poems’ began about a month after that, prompted by a haiku from a blogger ‘five reflections‘, who I believe posts no more.

However, the greatest influence has been our local writers’ club, Writing of the Wharfe, formed by our lovely Romanian ‘leader’ Ruxandra Moore. I was a founder member.

A change of emphasis only

I continue to ignore the desperate attempts by WordPress to change my way of editing: “There’s an easier way to edit posts …”, it insists at the top of every editing screen. Not for me there’s not!.

Although I’m changing the emphasis, I do not want it to be a blog only as somewhere to publish my fictional writings, as many writers’ blogs are. I still want grumpytyke to feel free to have a grump about something from time to time and, when appropriate, give some background to the ‘creative writing’.

Until now all my so-called ‘creative writing’ appearing on this blog has been within a post giving some background, eg, this piece was what I wrote to read at a meeting of my local writers’ club, that piece was what I presented at the Ilkley Literature Festival, this work was inspired by something written (link) by this blogger, etc. So I wanted to separate the story or ‘poem’ from the post originally including it. Eventually there will be a link to the original post including it. I did this with my ‘haiku’ (I don’t now believe they are haiku – just 5-7-5  verses) and ‘tanka’ some time ago, collecting them together on a single page.

A work in progress

It’s a work in progress at the moment. It’s not too difficult to extract pieces from a post, put them on a page and put them under the appropriate menu or sub-menu heading, though I’m no IT expert so it’s far from perfect. Another problem is that I have quite a bit of writing which has never appeared on this blog.

’Poetry’ not Poetry

You may notice that I usually put inverted commas round the words ‘poem’ or ‘poetry’ when referring to my own creations. After reading and listening to poetry for more than seven decades I’m still not sure what poetry is so I am reluctant to call any little piece of mine a poem. Of course I have to tag them as such.

One of my favourite poets, David Machin, a member of our writers’ club, insists on calling his creations ‘verse’,  not poetry. Another, Matt Abbott told me during an hour spent with him on a barge on the Leeds-Liverpool canal, “If it makes the audience cry it is poetry” (see my ‘poem’ A Lesson in Restriction). The poetry of another, Iulia Halatz, which I ‘lost’, I’ve just unearthed hiding in an interesting writers’ collective, Sudden Denouement

An added difficulty is that for the past few months I’ve produced so-called ‘creative writing’ only with a fountain pen. So, unless I’ve typed it up to put in a post, it has now to be typed up to add to this archive.

A novella/novel in progress

Finally, I wanted this library to include pieces I’m working on so I have a sub-heading ‘Writing in Progress’. At the moment this is mainly chapters of a novella?/novel? I pick up from time to time (it began as a 5,000 word short story; now it’s reached about 30,000 words). Even this list gives something away: I don’t write by starting at the beginning and proceeding to the end. Nor do I ‘work’ at it; I write only when I feel the urge to write and may pick up a story, or ‘poem’, at any point. (Recently I read a blogging ‘guru’ saying that writing was hard work and there was no such thing as an innate ability to write. That may be so for him but in my view it is nonsense, even arrogant, to apply it to all writers.)

The work in progress is password protected.

For me, the only art form to compete with writing is music but as I do not create music I do not have a menu heading for that, any more than for my reading, though I may occasionally have posts about either. I’ll rely on the search facility to find those.

Food and Romania

I used to blog a lot about cooking/food and Romania so I decided to leave a menu heading for each of those categories, to display posts which fall into that category. At some point I’ll sort those out too.

As I said above, this reorganisation is a work in progress. If a particular story or ‘poem’ is clicked, you should be taken to that story or poem. If you click on a menu heading or sub-heading it should take you to all the posts in that category, as usual, but it doesn’t always do that. I’m working on it!

As I’ve said before, I no longer consider the 5-7-5 ‘verses’ I write to be haiku but I think it’s as much a haiku as any in English I’ve seen on internet. It was written for a special friend, not a blogger.

Winter in her eyes
Its beauty shatters her gaze
In love yet again

The short story was written very quickly, maybe 1/2 hour, for the first 2019 meeting of our writers’ clubWriting on the Wharfe. It is completely unedited, just as it came pouring out of my fountain pen, with which I now write everything, only typing up later for internet. 

Short story

The New Year has never begun well for me, not for as far back as I can remember.

But, downing the glass of bubbly as Big Ben’s hand moved steadily past twelve, I really thought this year would be different. 

I’d arrived at the party late, too late for the hosts Kath and Mike to introduce me to everybody in their crowded sitting room, probably 30 people in all. I didn’t mind; I’m not at all good with people I don’t know.

But then, bubbles exploding on my tongue as the sixth chime struck, I saw her. Or rather, her eyes pulled at mine. Embarrassed, I tried to look away from that frank, open look inviting entrance to an enchanted world behind those wide, soft, brown circular doors. I could not.

I made the effort to slowly widen my field of view, noting that the eyes were not much less than six feet from the floor though, glancing lower, I saw that her feet were almost completely flat on the ground, no tall heels to add to her height.

Avoiding her eyes, I slowly allowed mine to travel up her perfectly sculptured ankles and calves, pausing a moment at the hem of her dress just a couple of inches above her knees.

Continuing upwards, the lightly pleated, gossamer skirt, which would sway provocatively when she walked, did not hide her softly curvaceous form, a hint of the mount of Venus, a comfortable inviting cushion above it suggesting a love for her food. 

I paused a moment, imagining my head resting just where the long bare fingers of her right hand now rested, the fingers ending in perfectly manicured nails with a hint of shine from the uncoloured varnish.

A quick glance to her left revealed index and second finger gracefully retaining the stem of the almost empty champagne glass.

“Damn!” Her third finger was hidden.

My secret, so I thought, journey upwards dipped into a gentle waist then hardly changed direction to cross the valley between her pubescent breasts, girl-like though her whole demeanour suggested an age well into her twenties, maybe even thirties.

Finally I summoned courage to look for those eyes again. They were still looking directly into mine; was that a smile in them? It was certainly not mockery, which I half expected to see. 

It was only ten paces to arrive directly in front of her, looking a little upwards into those eyes. 

Hello. May I get you another drink,” I heard myself saying.

That would be nice of you.” Still her eyes never left mine.

As I reached for her glass I felt a presence at my side. With difficulty I pulled my eyes away from hers to see a man a couple of inches taller than her, handsome, confident, superbly attired.

He smiled, a genuine warm, friendly smile.

Thank you for looking after my wife; I had to make an urgent call,” I heard over my thumping chest.

Damn again! Another New Year beginning disappointingly,” I thought.

Latvia's flag

Latvia’s flag

Today is Latvia’s ‘Independence Day’. In fact the country is celebrating its 100th birthday today. Two years ago I would not have known that, nor would it have had any importance to me. Now, thanks to the wonder of blogging, I know far more about this small (certainly in terms of current population) country and take an interest in its culture, history and language. Admittedly that’s down to one blogger, Ilze, with whom I’ve developed a particularly close blogging relationship.

Many years ago I did visit Riga briefly, on the way to Helsinki and St Petersburg (it was then called Leningrad), though which way round I don’t remember but probably Finland first as that was work, USSR as it was then was just an interest in the city, as it was for Latvia’s capital. In those days, running my own business with overseas clients, I often used a client visit as an excuse to make an itinerary to take in other places of interest.

Would Riga now be ‘disappointing’?

I would probably be disappointed now by Riga – I suspect that though the architecture would be the same, as in Sibiu in Romania, the culture which attracted me has probably been overwhelmed by commerce – tourist cafes and restaurants, etc. I’m not a city person but nevertheless I would like to see the city again now that I know much more about the country.

Latvians are rightly proud of their independence; they fought hard for it in every sense of the word. Again, thanks to blogging I know not only much of the overall story but even some individual, personal stories.

The general story you can find elsewhere on internet, so I will not repeat it here, but personal insights are thanks to my special blogger friend, which I will not repeat here either. What I will do is pick out some unusual facts which have intrigued me.

Aerial photo of the beach at Salacgrīva

The beach at Salacgrīva

Seven things you may not know

  • Latvia is believed to be now the country with the tallest women, though I believe there are individual women who are taller elsewhere. Although I am well past doing anything about that now it is interesting because I have always found tall women attractive, as anyone reading my short story ‘The Girl in Block 18’ might have concluded.
  • Latvia is a leader in terms of internet connectivity.
  • It is also a leader in use of open source software. Perhaps that is more linked to freedom than saving money. Internet was, of course, intended to be free to all but has been largely taken over by commercial or governmental interests. I use a lot of open source software and had I not been introduced to PCs with an Apple computer (Europa II) long ago (actually 44 years ago) I would probably be using Linux today.
  • I knew of course Latvia had a coastline but I didn’t know it had a beautiful seaside, golden sands stretching from sand dunes to an inviting sea. So, if I ever manage to visit the country a stop in Salacgrīva, the home town of my ‘special’ blogging friend, will be a must.
  • Latvian food is mostly extraordinarily simple but delicious, from what I’ve learned from following blogged recipes from my good Latvian friend.
  • The country in which you will find the most Latvians who have left their own country is right here, the UK. You are all very welcome.
  • Latvia should be referred to as a ‘northern’ country, not an ‘east European’ country. If you know the history you will know why Latvians dislike being referred to as ‘east Europeans’. That’s not just because it is geographically incorrect.

So, on this day especially I wish my good blogger friend Ilze and her family, along with all Latvians everywhere, a great celebration and a bright future.

Again you might blame my writers’ club colleague, Jo Campbell, for this story.

But not completely. The 17/18 years old students (at Liceul Tehnologic ‘Nicolae Nanu’, Broșteni, Neamț, Romania) of my former Romanian student, Paula, now herself a teacher of English, so liked my ‘dark’ 5th November story, which was prompted by Jo, I promised to write another for them. Unusually, I have written to the theme given for readings at today’s meeting of our club, Writing on the Wharfe.


Not in my diary

She had been meticulous as far as her diary was concerned. By ‘diary’ I mean journal, not a place to note appointments, meetings or other dates and times to be remembered.

The journal was completed over morning tea each day, relating the most important, to her, happenings of the previous day.

She had noted, on the page for 30th April, ‘St Walburger, witches’ sabbath!’. Born close to the Brocken in Germany, she had always observed this feast.

But, and it’s a big but, Richard, the name of the love of her life she has declared, has never appeared in the journal. ‘My love’, yes; ‘he’ or ‘him’, perhaps; but never the name – Richard.

Photo of the Cow&Calf

The Cow&Calf

It began one day when, as the sun was setting, she and Richard visited the famous Cow and Calf rocks on Ilkley Moor, in Yorkshire.

Not satisfied with standing on the larger ‘cow’ and admiring the superb view over the town of Ilkley and the Wharfe Valley, they descended with a mixture of runs and jumps to the ‘calf’ below. Giggling, they scrambled to the top of the smaller rock and lay out in the fading sun.

Let’s leave our names on the calf,” Richard suggested, “with today’s date. It’s a special day.”

I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Isn’t it better to leave the rocks as nature intended?” Heidi was a keen environmentalist.

One more won’t make much difference; there are so many on all the rocks,” Richard answered as he began to scratch the rock with a knife he always carried.

3, 0, A, P, R, 2, 0, 1, 5,  H, E, I, D, I,  A, N, D,  R, I, C, H, A, R … 

he hesitated as the knife met some resistance from an inclusion harder than the surrounding rock. Exasperated, he put his whole weight behind the blade, lost his balance and tumbled down to the ground.

Eventually the air ambulance arrived – two broken legs, a broken collar bone and a dislocated neck kept him in hospital for several weeks.

The following 30th of April, 2016, early evening, found the couple wandering through the New Forest hand-in-hand in the twilight. As trees began to assume fantastic shapes in the fading light, an impressive oak, its trunk of a girth which the two lovers could not encircle with their outstretched arms, made them stop and rest, backs against the rough but somehow comfortable majesty supporting the now leafy branches above.

I’m going to carve our names here so this tree will remember us,” Richard announced.

If you do, it will remember us with pain. Don’t do it, please.”

Oh, you’re too superstitious. Trees don’t feel and anyway it can’t do any harm to one so enormous!,” Richard retorted, the irritation clear in his voice as he took the knife from his pocket and began:

3, 0, A, P, R, 2, 0, 1, 6,  H, E, I, D, I,  A, N, D,  R, I, C, H, A, R …

a large gasp broke the concentrated silence as the knife slipped to make a deep gash in his left wrist.

Blood, so much blood, fountained from the cut, obliterating the carved letters before covering Heidi’s breast. Quick thinking, she ripped off her blood-soaked shirt and applied a tourniquet.

Nevertheless, Richard lapsed into unconsciousness and the paramedics, who arrived quickly following Heidi’s desperate phone call, told her he was lucky to be alive and would not be were it not for her prompt action.

One year later, 30th April 2017, found the couple on the Brocken, following a visit to Heidi’s parents. 

They didn’t take the steam train up to the highest peak in the Harz mountains but decided to walk, though there were vestiges of snow on the peak.

About half way up they left the road, found a clearing among the pines and sat to eat their picnic. Richard lit the tiny light-weight gas stove and poured bottled water into the small pan they had brought to make a warming tea.

Etching, St Walburger’s Night, Johann Heinrich Ramberg, 1829

Etching, St Walburger’s Night, Johann Heinrich Ramberg, 1829

This is a magical place my love; I’m so glad you brought me here.” Richard wasn’t usually so easily impressed.

You just be careful; it is a magical place but it’s witches’ magic, not fairies’ magic,” Heidi warned him.

Oh you and your superstitions. I don’t believe a word of it. Anyway, it’s beautiful. I’m going to carve our names in the dry turf here,” he finished, pulling out his knife.

Please don’t. Just leave it as nature intended,” Heidi pleaded.

But Richard had already completed her name and the first six letters of his own. Turning quickly, his elbow caught the little stove and it was on its side, setting the dry turf alight.

A forest ranger found them in a tight embrace. 

In his police report he wrote: “I don’t understand how the fire burned in a perfect circle with them at the centre, or how such a small fire could completely carbonise the two corpses. Even stranger in a way was that there was a diary lying there next to them, completely untouched by the fire. The last entry was for 30th April; it just read “This is not in my diary!”

§

I’m not a fan of ‘dark’ tales, of Gothic literature (not even Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley) though I did have a teenage period when I was crazy about Dennis Wheatley‘s occult novels (anyone remember The Devil Rides Out, his first, and the first I read?) – not quite the same thing but certainly scary. (The film ‘The Exorcist‘ cured me of that, sometime in the ’70s I think, and I’ve never watched or read the like since). However, as the meeting of our writers’ club, Writing on the Wharfe, was a few days before 31 October we were set to write a ‘Halloween story’. I dislike what ‘Halloween’ has become too so I said I’d prefer to write around a real English tradition, a November 5th story.

Last year I did attempt a ‘dark’ story so I asked one of our newer members (Jo Campbell) to read it and give an opinion as she’s a fan of Gothic literature and writes ghoulish tales. As she is a relative newcomer to blogging I was delighted that about a week ago she extended her sparse blog to include things like her story (not ‘dark’ at all) for our ‘performance’ at the Ilkley Literature Festival, which has to be my favourite from the night. Her blog is here.

As she liked my tale from last year (suggesting one amendment, which I’ve made) I decided to try another. This is below. Last year’s, Hallow’morrow, is under the ‘Short stories’ menu.


Guy was puzzled. Forks in the road, with signposts clearly indicating the way to his destination, never seemed to get him there. In fact, it was just one fork and the third time he’d arrived at it. He was feeling ever more cold though wearing warm cycling gear and it was not yet winter, being only the beginning of November, the 5th of November to be precise.

He’d set off from his flat in Gillygate in York, close to where St. Peter’s School had been when attended by the best remembered gunpowder plot conspirator, with the idea of visiting the abandoned medieval village of Wharram Percy; there was a ruined church, parts of which were medieval, and really old gravestones, which were particularly interesting to him.

He didn’t take his road bike as he’d decided to take a cross-country route from the still populated village of Wharram le Street rather than the usual advertised walk from the English Heritage car park. However, the gear change on his off-road bike had been playing up recently so he decided not to go directly via Malton but to make a detour to Easingwold and call in on bikeWright to see if they could fix the gear problem. 

The Easingwold shop had repaired the gear change but it took far longer than he’d planned. By the time he arrived in Malton the light was already fading and a typical November mist was thickening. He debated with himself whether it might be better to go directly home from Malton but he had excellent lights on the bike, chosen for riding off road in the dark, and a powerful flashlight in his backpack so, thinking a tour of the ruined church with no-one else around might be fun, he continued. He set off down the B1248 and was soon in Wharram le Street. Having taken Station Road as he remembered from the map, it was not long before he’d reached the fork with a signpost to Wharram Percy, though he almost missed it in the deepening gloom.

When he first set off down the narrow lane signposted to Wharram Percy there was still a little light so he was surprised when he seemed to arrive back at the fork. He had not seen any turning, signposted or not, since leaving the spot. “I must have missed it in the gloom,” he muttered and set off again.

On the second visit to the fork he recalled catching a glimpse of a billboard announcing that Catesby Estates had acquired a field near the fork for a new estate. “Many people would be scared to go out at night in such an isolated place,” he thought, “Strange how the notice has disappeared – maybe it was further back than I remember, maybe it’s just the mist is a lot thicker now.”

He began down the lane for a second time, cycling very slowly, looking carefully to left and right. Finally he come to a fork with a sign post to Wharram Percy.

But it was the same fork. Of that he was sure.

Was someone or something trying to tell him he shouldn’t go there? Should he give up and carry straight on, to Stamford Bridge then home to York?

“Damned if I will,” he said aloud. “”I’ll give it one more go!”

He set off again. There was little light now but enough, he thought, to make finding the church worthwhile. The lane soon became something he did not recognise, trees on either side making it ever darker but the broad beam of his headlight picked out ruts and large stones to be avoided. “This isn’t bad,” he thought, “if only it were not getting so damned cold.” He shivered, despite the effort required on the rough track.

A large dark mass emerged out of the gloom without warning; it took him a moment to realise he was only a few yards from the church, the broken tower reaching out to a moon filtered by mist, a few dark clouds recalling scenes from a Hammer horror film. Spooky.

Then he saw them, a small group of figures, men.

“Damn!” he exclaimed softly. He had hoped to be alone.

“Must be some kind of event, or rehearsal for one,” he thought, noticing now that the figures were in cloaks, pointed hats and carrying flaming rush torches, not flashlights.

Laying his bike down he approached them but before he could say a word one of the group said loudly “Thither he is. Alloweth not him receiveth hence.”

The group surged forward, one grabbing his arms, another swiftly tying his wrists behind his back.

“Hey, I don’t know who the hell you think I am but I’m not part of your play or whatever it is. I just came to see the church.”

“Thou art Guy aren’t thee?” The question came from the man who seemed to be leader of the group.

“Yes but –“. His answer was cut off with a glare and a slap in the face, a hard slap. “Bid us, bid us, who is’t they wast.” He didn’t understand and the accent was one he didn’t recognise.

He must have been slapped very hard as the faces in front of him kept fading in and out, even disappearing for a few seconds. “He’ll not bid, Sir William;” said one. “Rack him!” shouted another.

He felt himself being bundled forwards, then up stone steps in the tower, his increasingly desperate protests: “This is crazy! I’m not who you think, I’m just a visitor, and it’s bloody dangerous to climb up here,” were ignored.

The group ceased pushing him upwards. There was now only a glimmer of light. He strained to refocus on what was directly in front. Some rope, a loop of rope. A hangman’s noose. Instinctively he took a step to the side to avoid putting his head in it.

A dog walker (Wharram Percy is a favourite place for dog walkers early morning) found him at the base of the church tower. He clearly had a broken neck. “The idiot must have tried to climb the tower in the dark,” the dog walker said to himself as he pulled out his mobile phone.


Wharram Percy is probably the best known deserted medieval village in Europe as a result of all the excavation and research which has been done there. It’s now an English Heritage site.

Did you pick up the clues ‘hidden’ in the story? Not difficult. A bit of self-indulgent fun on my part. Guy Fawkes avoided the hangman’s noose for his part in the 1605 plot to blow up the House of Lords, with the king, either by jumping or falling from the scaffold (it is not known which) and breaking his neck.

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