Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden and our next Book Club pick.

Hello everyone, I hope you have had a wonderful weekend and have been out enjoying the summer sun!  For the UK, this is a bank holiday weekend, so you guys should kick your feet up and enjoy the long weekend!  For everyone else, commiserations on work tomorrow, but the good news is, I am here to cheer you up with a book review and our next book club pick!  If you haven’t joined my book club already, then you should definitely give it a go!  Just buy this months book, read along and let me know your thoughts!  It’s that easy.

Bear nightingale pic

Last months book was ‘The Bear and the Nightingale’ by Katherine Arden.  For those of you unfamiliar with this book, the blurb reads: In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift- a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter.  Uncertain of its meaning, the father hides the gift away and his daughter, Vasya, grows up a wild, wilful girl, to the chagrin of her family.  But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.

As blurbs go, this promised a lot, and the book itself did not fail to disappoint.  On the surface, this is a good old fashioned adventure story.  A young girl facing unimaginable odds and unsurmountable danger, must face her fears and fight to save her family.  The tale has been told dozens of times, in various forms, but with the addition of mythical creatures, Russian folklore and classic fantasy, this book rises head and shoulders above the rest, to produce an exciting and entertaining read.  It takes those traditional tales, and turns them on their head, spins them around, and pushes them over.  In a word, it is magical.

Peel back a layer, and the story is about so much more.  The main character’s struggle for independence and power over her own life in a Patriarchal society, provides a classic tale of feminism and female strength.  Indeed, Vasya is told repeatedly throughout the book that a woman’s ‘place’ and ‘lot in life’ is marriage and children, or the convent.  Those are her only two options.  Both, to Vasya, are worse than death, and so she fights her family, her village, even society itself, for the ownership over her body and her future.  Her refusal to submit to such overwhelming pressure from all directions, makes her all the more heroic to me as a female reader.  Too many fairy tales present the concept of a princess who needs to be rescued, or who gives up everything she is to marry her beloved prince.  Indeed, most of the stories I grew up with as a child, seem to give the distinct impression that finding your ‘Prince Charming’ is the be all and end all.  This story certainly does not read like that, and Vasya is a strong and independent female character. I will definitely be reading this book to my daughter.

On another level, it is about a girl who does not fit in.  She is strange and odd, and as a result, she is ostracised and bullied.  But again, in the face of name calling and isolation, she remains determined to be herself.  She is happy knowing that the people who are most important to her, like her family and nanny, love her just as she is.  Again, this presents such a positive role model for younger readers, and makes Vasya all the more loveable as a main character.

Finally, and more controversially, the book is a damning indictment of organised religion and indeed modern politics.  Vasya’s village once believed in the old ways, leaving food and offerings to the many spirits which occupy their home and the neighbouring woods, and who watch over them and their animals.  When a new priest comes to town, Father Konstantin, an arrogant man who yearns to be loved, he brings with him his charming way with words and his striking good looks, both weapons in his arsenal, which he uses to sway the people towards the ‘New God’ with surprising effectiveness.  He wants to be loved, and to have power, so he terrifies the ignorant villagers, with his warnings of the fiery inferno and eternal damnation awaiting them all in the afterlife, if they do not repent and submit to him.  The villagers change, blindly following him, whatever he says, out of pure fear.  In a society where politicians also wield fear as a weapon, this makes for incredibly relevant reading.  Even as the villagers die, the crops fail and the dead walk, Father Konstantin is unwavering in his faith, simply telling the villagers to pray.  Again, I am struck by similarities to our modern day politics, where people in positions of power, positions where they can make real change, merely offer prayers and empty promises.

In short, this book is simply wonderful, and I found myself, on several occasions, unable and unwilling to put it down.  I can’t find any fault with it and I thoroughly recommend it to all of you!  Have you read ‘The Bear and the Nightingale’?  Let me know your thoughts.

Junes Book Club pick is ‘The 9th life of Louis Drax’ by Liz Jensen.  This isn’t a long one, so we may have two book club picks for this month, I will let you know!  So what is this book about?  Nine-year-old Louis Drax is a problem child: bright, precocious, deceitful- and dangerously, disturbingly, disaster prone.  When he falls off a cliff into a ravine, the accident seems almost predestined.  Louis miraculously survives- but the family has been shattered.  Louis’ father has vanished, his mother is paralysed by shock, and Louis lies in a deep coma from which he may never emerge.  In a clinic in Provence, Dr Pascal Dannachet tries to coax Louis back to consciousness.  But the boy defies medical logic, startling Dannachet out of his safe preconceptions, and drawing him inexorably into the dark heart of Louis’ buried world.  Only Louis holds the key to the mystery surrounding his fall- and he can’t communicate.  Or can he?

If you fancy joining my book club, buy a copy as well, and read along!  Don’t forget to follow my blog for updates on this series of posts, along with many others and happy reading!

Inspired Part 9

For this part of the Inspired series, I have collaborated with a fellow lover of all things that go bump in the night, to create something which will wiggle it’s way into your nightmares.  Nick Villicana lives in sunny Los Angeles, and when he is not at his day job in retail management, he is busy writing and drawing, creating dark and twisted little creatures.  If you like Nick’s monsters as much as me, you can check out more on his Instagram.  As before, I have written a short story and sent it to Nick, who has created this amazing image.  Let me know what you think in the comments section below, and if you are a creative soul, and would like to collaborate with me, please get in touch!

Monster art work

Infection

Hate is a poisonous and infectious emotion. Once it forms within our hearts, it spreads quickly, consuming us until there is nothing of who we once were; no humanity, no love, no empathy. It creates dark creatures, who wonder the earth intent on spreading the disease further. I saw it happen once, with my own eyes.

He was a student at my university, and he lived in the same halls of residence as me. When I first met him, both new to the student world, both nervous and anxious, he was shy and sweet. I liked him. He was tidier than the others who resided there, and he never stole food or brought home rowdy, drunken people or played techno music at 3am. Overall, he was a decent room mate. We never spoke that much, he kept himself to himself, but when we did he was funny and self deprecating. Then it started.

He went to a meeting, one of the many political and social groups which meet regularly within the campus, and there he met someone that planted a seed. When he returned that night, he didn’t respond to my hello, he just shuffled past into his room. I didn’t notice it in the beginning. It’s a cunning disease, which spreads slowly, subtly, so as not to provoke concern or intervention. But after a few weeks, I could see something was different, something was off.

When we spoke he was rude and cold. He would talk about things which made me uncomfortable, he labelled entire groups of people, or fellow students, as wrong, as different. He spat when he talked. I didn’t like what he said, so I avoided talking to him after that.

One night I was in my room, when I heard shouting from the communal areas of the halls. I walked down, meeting several others who had formed an audience to an argument taking place between him and another resident. They were screaming at each other. He called the girl a terrible name, so she slapped him. He spat on the floor at her feet and left the room, just as she began to tear up. I could tell they were tears of anger, not sadness. He was reported to the university after that, and given a warning. He stopped speaking to any of us.

I could hear him, inside his dark and musty dorm room for hours at a time, listening to broad casts and speeches. I don’t even think he went to class after a while, only occasionally exiting his lair to eat or take a piss. It was on one of these late night excursions, when I first saw the physical changes in him. He had become thinner, gaunt even, and he seemed taller than before. It almost looked like he had been stretched. His shoulder blades jutted out like sharp, stubby wings, and his hair had began to fall out in patches. I stopped dead when I saw him, drinking milk straight from the carton. I watched the back of his head, as milk poured down his face, pooling at his feet. When he opened the fridge door to replace the carton, it briefly illuminated him in harsh yellow light, and I could see his skin had a blue tinge to it. It was barely noticeable, almost like someone who has become suddenly cold. When he turned to leave, as the crack of light from the fridge growing smaller beside him as the door creaked shut, I could see his eyes, at least, what his eyes had become. For, they weren’t the blue eyes I had looked into before. They were milky, a white film spreading across the iris, broken up only by red snaking veins. He looked like something from a horror film. I nearly screamed as he flew past me back into his room, door slamming. I couldn’t sleep that night; every time I closed my eyes, I was staring into his.

Soon, we began to hear strange noises coming from his room. It sounded like an animal was trapped in there, something with a low deep growl. There was also a smell emanating from it, a musty smell, like damp earth and rotting leaves. We would notice clumps of hair in the bathrooms, and one day, a collection of finger nails and toe nails, not trimmings or cuttings, but whole nails, yellow and cracked with blood tinged edges. Several of the residents left after that.

I asked around, and no one had seen him for weeks. I checked his class records, and discovered he had stopped attending. I even went to one of the clubs he had joined, but he was nowhere to be seen. Concerned he may have hurt himself or worse, I decided enough was enough. I had to check on him, I had to see if he was alright. The door was unlocked when I tried the handle. I opened it slowly, the light from the hall behind me creating a line across the carpet, which grew in size, illuminating rubbish and clothes. It might have looked like any other messy dorm room, except there was pieces of rotting meat lying in piles, scattered around the floor. It looked like pork belly, except one piece had a marking on it, a tattoo of a star. I stifled my scream; he had hurt himself. But the reality was so much worse.

monster artwork part 2As the door reached it’s apex, the room illuminated by the hall light, I saw him. He was huddled on the bed at first, but he began to uncurl his body, like a centipede. No longer was he the boy I had known. He was twisted and jagged, like an insect. His arms were long now, ending around where his knees once were, and his fingers were sharp and pointed. His skin was a navy blue, and he was completely bald now. He was so tall, crouching slightly to avoid the ceiling, towering above me like some nightmare incarnate. But it was his eyes which were the worst. They were all white now, and matte, like a pearl, and they stared down at me with hatred and anger. His mouth twisted into a snarl and saliva fell as he growled and howled. I screamed and ran from the dorm. I ran until I wanted to vomit and my lungs felt like they were on fire. I ran until everything began to spin, and only then did I look back.

I could just make it out in the distance, walking out of the student’s village, a black shadow passing over the other dorms and street lights. And then, it was gone. We never saw him again after that. There were posters and TV appeals, but I knew there was nothing of him left to find. He had twisted and eroded until only hate remained. I see it everywhere now, spreading through the campus, through the country, through the world. I watch the news and see politicians giving speeches, their eyes beginning to fade white, their finger nails missing. I hear that same snarl on my radio during phone ins and debates. I smell the damp rot festering all around me, and I fear that if something isn’t done, the effects will be irreversible, and humanity will succumb, lost forever to hate.

Inspired Part 8

Inspired is a series in which I collaborate with other creative people.  I have collaborated with photographers, illustrators, comic book artists and painters and for this part I am collaborating with a poet.  The poet in question is called Georgia Lee Rose and she lives in Auckland, New Zealand, but you probably know her as ‘The Coffee Cup Poet.’  Georgia expresses herself with poetry, by free writing her words onto a beautifully illustrated and photographed coffee cup.  She started on Tumblr in 2013, as a way to get her out of a writing slump and stop her over thinking and over analysing her work.  She has been on Instagram since 2014 and has amassed thousands of followers.  If you like her poetry as much as I do, check her out!  For this collaboration, I wrote a story and sent it to Georgia, who used it as inspiration for this wonderful poem, which she then carefully placed onto a coffee cup.  If you would like to collaborate with me, please get in touch, and let me know what you think of this piece in the comments section below.  Don’t forget to subscribe to my blog, for updates and alerts when I post something new.

Coffee cup image

Beginnings and Ends

She didn’t truly understand the meaning of heartbreak until she met him. She had read endless novels depicting women crumpling under the weight of loss and she had seen a multitude of movies showing images of running mascara and snotty tissues. She had even read the endless advice columns from her favourite glossy magazines; ‘How to forget him’, ‘He isn’t worth it’ or ‘Move on with moving on.’ If there was a test, she would pass with flying colours. She was like that, learned, fastidious. She believed life could be learned in advance. Studied for like any test.

She loved to read. She digested books like meals and always had room for desert. She also liked to run. It cleared her head. She would run and run sometimes, without realising how far she had got, endless thoughts preoccupying her mind. She was fun. She danced without embarrassment or self awareness, she sang to the songs that played in the background of supermarkets, and she had a laugh that got her noticed and made others smile.

The first time she had met him, was in the university library. He had sat beside her, despite many empty benches. His elbows touched hers and he smelled of cloves. After about an hour, he had passed her a handwritten note, scrawled in red biro. It read simply, ‘Lunch?’ With one word, he seduced her. They enjoyed their first meal, then their first kiss, and then other firsts, precious and cherished, and never forgotten.

He was tall, over six foot, and she had to crane her neck to kiss him. She liked the way his long arms completely enclosed around her as she breathed him in. He had the same dark sense of humour as her, and they would laugh until they cried. They always held hands while walking, no matter the weather, resulting in a constant clamminess. He was in a band that played terrible punk music, with too much distortion and yelled lyrics. She was front row to every show. When her Father died, he had stood beside her, wearing a suit for the first time in his life, fidgeting at the uncomfortable tie and the even more uncomfortable silence.

They had a song. It had been playing in the trendy hipster bar on their second date; Moon River. It should have been a sign. They took endless selfies, always smiling, sometimes kissing cheeks or silly faces. The world knew them, and agreed they were the perfect couple. They moved in together their final year. After more than six months, they still had boxes as coffee tables and foot stools. They didn’t care, as long as they had a bed and each other.

They started fighting, quietly at first, then louder. He stayed out too much, and never said who he was with. She checked his phone when he was in the bathroom. He hated that guy in her class. He became moody and surly, sniping at her and making passive aggressive remarks. She always rose to the bait. They yelled and cried and said things they didn’t mean and could never take back.

He needed space, at first a few days, then a few weeks, then his things were gone and only odds and ends remained. A toothbrush, an odd sock, deodorant, a dog eared book; insignificant and minor in of themselves, but reminders of something painful, something that was once beautiful. Something broken. She cried when she saw these things, she kept them, even though they had no use. She stayed in her pyjamas, and ate junk food, watching horror movies and cheesy rom coms. She whinged to her friends, her family, anyone who would listen. Her profile was now full of vague comments, designed to have people ask how she was, desperate to express her rage, her sorrow to anyone who would listen.

She kissed other boys, but it wasn’t the same. They tasted differently, and she missed the way he smelled, and the way he would kiss the top of her head when they hugged. She called him drunk, and he said hurtful things to her. She never did so again after that, but there was more tears, more heartache.

She recovered, slowly, but healing takes time. She began to look around again, and smile at those who smiled at her, unafraid of their intent or agenda. She ran again, her thoughts no longer being exclusively about him. She read books, not about heartbreak and self help, but about strength through adversity and adventures and travel. She danced with friends, and even with other men, and sang aloud to the music, never caring who saw or heard. She laughed, at friends and movies and books and shows, and she found herself again, stronger than before, but changed nonetheless.

Georgia’s Poem:

He smelled like cloves
and I shopped for his
scent long after
he left me
dancing beat-less against our
firsts, our
lasts, our only’s
crushing love
more now than
snarling breath, and
what we’d used it for, I
dab my skin
with stems and
run
until it’s gone.

Inspiration Part 6

For those of you who are new to my blog, Inspired is a series in which I collaborate with other creative people, with the aim of inspiring them and being inspired in return.  For part 6, I have collaborated with the insanely talented Sarah Wright, a freelance illustrator from High Rook Designs.  Sarah lives in Northern Ireland, like myself, and has been passionate about drawing from a young age.  She is a working mum of two beautiful girls, so life can get in the way sometimes, but she cherishes the moments when she gets to sit down and be creative.  If you love her work as much as I do, you can check her out on Instagram or via Facebook.

On this occasion, I wrote the story and sent it to Sarah, who was inspired to create the amazing image below.  I think it really brings my story to life.  Let me know what you think in the comments section below, and if you are a creative person, and would like to collaborate with me, then please get in touch!  Enjoy…

Silent man pic

The Silent Man

It was dusk now, and the warm humid air of that day was beginning to cool. Oscar loved to find new places, it was one of the only advantages of working for a circus. Every few weeks he would have new paths to take, new terrain to explore, new sights to see. Sometimes he would walk for hours, losing himself in thought. Often, as he did so, he would imagine living a different life. A life where he was not a lowly clown, but the star of the show, the headliner. He dreamt of awe and applause instead of pity and laughter. But mostly he thought about Ophelia. Ophelia was the trapeze girl. Every night, he watched her soar through the air as the audience gasped. She was so beautiful, so graceful, like a swallow on the wind.

He checked his watch, he would have to turn back soon. The evening show started at eight o’clock sharp, and Jean, the man who ran the circus, would be furious if he was late. Just as he was about to turn back, he came to a clearing in the woods, where the path he had been following, met three more. A cross roads is not in of itself an unusual sight, although one in a forest is highly irregular, but what he saw before him made him start. In the exact spot where the four paths met, stood a man. The man was unusually tall, at least six foot five estimated Oscar, and he was almost as wide again. He towered above Oscar’s five foot seven, slender frame, and was a formidable sight to behold. His neck was the same width as his square shaped head, and it stood upon two large shoulders. He had dark eyes, framed by purple bags, and his thin lips were curled into a sly smile. He wore an old fashioned grey tweed suit with a matching fedora which reminded Oscar of something his Grandfather would have worn when he was a child. All of these features were unusual enough alone, but combined with the fact that the man was staring straight at Oscar with those dark eyes of his, and that his hands were clasped in front of him, gave the overall appearance that he had been patiently waiting for Oscar to arrive. He found it all rather unnerving to say the least.

Oscar froze as he absorbed what he saw, and before his senses returned to him fully, he could think of nothing else to do apart from smile weakly at the stranger, and make an inane remark like, “Nice evening for a walk.” The man made no reply, and instead continued to stare. Oscar began to feel incredibly awkward about the whole situation. He wanted to leave, but felt it would be rude to simply walk away without further conversation, and if there was one thing Oscar loathed, it was rudeness. Again, he tried to make polite conversation.

“I’m here with the circus, you may have seen the posters around town?” Silence followed.

“I find a walk in the evening really clears ones head. Do you agree?” Again, his remark was only met with further silence. Oscar found himself beginning to feel rather irritated by the whole experience. The man was being incredibly rude, not to mention unfriendly, but given his stature, Oscar thought it best to not voice this opinion, and to simply end the conversation and hurry back to the tent. He opened his mouth to say something along the lines of, “Well, have a good evening.” when the man pulled out a letter and thrust it toward Oscar. In normal circumstances, as with the Christians handing out their doomsday leaflets on street corners, he would simply say a polite, “No thank you.” and walk away. However, these were not normal circumstances, and this was no ordinary piece of paper, for clearly marked on the envelope, in blood red writing was a name, his name in fact, Oscar Thorpe.

This was unusual for two reasons, the first being that, as we have already established, this man was a stranger to him, and therefore would have no knowledge of his name. But secondly, Thorpe was his father’s name, the name given to him at birth and the name which adorns his birth certificate. It is not, however, the name he goes by. Indeed, he had ceased to use that name at the age of sixteen years old when his Father abruptly left, and within a matter of months his poor mother had died of a broken heart. Since that year, he had used his Mother’s maiden name of Sheridan, and he knew not of a single living soul who knew of his true, legal name.

He hesitated until curiosity got the better of him, and he took the envelope from the silent man. He examined it carefully. The envelope was of thick quality paper, and had been sealed with a red wax seal depicting what appeared to be a pitchfork or trident. The writing on the front was slanted heavily to one side and appeared to have been written in haste. It had a faint odour which Oscar could not place.

“What is this?” The man made no reply, and instead gestured towards the envelope.

“Who gave you this? Why do you know my name?” Again, the man said nothing, and simply gestured towards the envelope in response to Oscar’s questions.

A dozen questions sat on the tip of his tongue, but he thought better of asking them. He hoped the answers would perhaps lie within, and besides, he could already guess the response he would receive from this tall man, and they would not be satisfactory.

He opened the envelope carefully, and removed the paper from within. Unfolding it, he attempted to guess its contents, but drew a blank. Whatever it was, he had a strange feeling it would change his life forever. Written in the same blood red ink, in the same slanted, hurried handwriting, was the following letter:

Dearest Oscar,

I understand that this situation may be highly irregular, but I beg of you to please read this letter with an open mind. Trust me when I say, it will be to your advantage to do so. I also have no doubt that you have many questions, and I will do my very best to answer them all for you here. First, an introduction. The gentleman who has provided this note to you is a colleague of mine, and a dear friend. He has no name of his own, but I call him Servus. He says very little, but sees all. He will take your response to the proposal put forth in this letter, should you wish to convey one. He is extremely loyal, and very trustworthy, traits which are so lacking in today’s world.

I myself have many names, some good, some bad. I prefer to simply be called Luc. I have developed a reputation of being an untrustworthy man, but all I do is offer those desperate souls what they yearn for. I ask you, is getting exactly what one wants such a terrible thing? But, I get ahead of myself.

Please know that everything contained within this letter is nothing but the truth. I offer no empty promises and I am a man of my word. And to show you that this is not some prank, I will prove to you that I know many things, not least of all, your greatest desire. How do I know your true name you ask? I know many things. I know that you were christened this name, but that you chose another in anger and grief. Perhaps this information is not so spectacular alone. After all, it would not be impossible for one to find out, should they be determined enough. Improbable, but not impossible. But I know more than any man could. I know that you are the reason your father left. That, after discovering his second life, his second family, you had presented him with an ultimatum: Them or us. I know that, after he chose them, you hid the truth from your Mother in some vain hope of sparing her feelings, but instead the lack of knowledge drove her mad with grief, and she died within the year. I know that you blamed your father for her death, and yourself more so, and I know that after too many drinks and a building up of hurt and pain, in a fit of rage, you threw a burning bottle through the window of your ex-father’s new home, and while his worthless life and that of his new wife, were spared, their unborn babe was lost. I know that out of remorse, as well as the fear of being found out, you ran and joined the circus, choosing an empty nomadic existence as penitence for your crime. This I know, along with all the other sad chapters of your life so far. How you ask? Because I see all sin, because I know all sinful men, and because I bear the weight of those sins alongside them.

It doesn’t have to be this way Oscar. You have served your time, and then some. After all these years of making people laugh, don’t you deserve some happiness of your own? Don’t you deserve to know love? The love of Ophelia. She is what your heart desires above all else is she not? I can make her see you for the first time, more than that, I can make her admire you, to see you as the strong, brave man you truly are. I can make them all see you. You have spent too long in the shadows Oscar. I can bring you into the spot light. I can make you the star of the show, but more importantly, I can make you the star of your own life after years of playing the bit part. You can be the man your Father failed to be. You can be who you were destined to be. I can do this and more Oscar, so much more.

All I ask in return, is your unwavering loyalty. Surrender yourself to me, completely, and I will give you exactly what you deserve, and everything you ask of me will be yours. I know this seems a heavy price to pay, but your payment would only be due in death, and in the mean time, you have everything you want in life. Why worry about later right now?

I understand that this is a difficult decision, and I do not wish to rush you, just know that this is a one time offer. Refuse now, and you will never have this opportunity again.

I Look forward to your response,

Yours Faithfully,

Luc

P.S. Simply give your answer to Servus, in writing, I will do the rest.

He read the letter several times, and pondered its contents in disbelief. The information within was known to no other man, no human man anyway. Could this really be something supernatural? Could this truly be, as he suspected, the work of the Devil? Oscar was not a God fearing man, and he had given up on religion many years before. In fact, he had not believed in the devil until this very moment, for despite racking his brains, he could find no other explanation for what was happening now. So if this was indeed a real offer, as Oscar now suspected it was, the question is should he accept? One’s soul is a heavy price to pay for anything, no matter how spectacular and yearned for that thing may be. But, as the letter stated, he had a long life ahead of him, after all he was only thirty years old, and had just recently received a clean bill of health from a Doctor. Was a lifetime of happiness and joy worth later servitude? Oscar reckoned it was. Ophelia was worth that plus so much more. He imagined how joyful his life would be with her. Perhaps they could leave the circus soon, and start a family, or perhaps their children could follow in their foot steps and travel the world, performing their feats for all to see. He had loved Ophelia from afar for so long now, desperate to hold her, to kiss her. This could be his chance. And then there was the idea of being the star for once. He had been humiliated and tread on for most of his life, and for years he had endured this embarrassment so publicly. He had accepted this fate readily at first, after all, he deserved to be punished for his crimes. But had he not suffered enough? After more than a decade of shovelling elephant waste and being the butt of every joke, maybe he had served his time. This could be his chance to finally feel the warm glow of the spot light on his face, and to be the star of the show for once in his pathetic life. Yes, he could see it now, he could feel the rumble of the applause, he could feel the soft brush of Ophelia’s lips on his.

He checked his watch again. It was almost seven thirty now, and he really had to get back. Was he really doing this? Was this really happening? Just as he seemed to make up his mind, the stranger pulled an ornate black and gold fountain pen from his inside pocket, and handed it to him. “Do I just sign the letter?” The tall man nodded, and without further thought, Oscar signed his name on the reverse of the page in the same blood red ink as it’s original author. Before the ink could dry, the stranger pulled the pen and the letter from Oscar’s hands and put them inside the same pocket. Oscar had so many questions. Would it work immediately? How would it happen? Was there some kind of magic words he needed to say or some kind of ritual he needed to perform? But he had no time left, and could no longer stand the silence of this mammoth’s responses.

He turned the way he came, and after a few steps, looked back to discover the man was no longer there, and he was once more alone in these woods.

He ran through the trees, scratching himself on several protruding branches as he did so. He cursed out loud as one particularly thorny vine drew blood. If he was indeed going to receive his dream come true, this was a lousy way to start it. He made it to the tent with only ten minutes until show time, but instead of being met by the hardened, angry face of Jean, he was embraced warmly.

“Oscar, thank God, just the man I was looking for. I was starting to worry about you.”

“You were?”

“Of course I was! Ten minutes until curtain up, and my leading man was nowhere to be seen. I nearly sent out a search party.”

“Your leading man?”

“Indeed, my number one, my shining light, the star of the show.”

Silent man pic

With that, Jean gestured behind Oscar, who turned to see a huge painted, fabric poster, the size of a house, depicting him, Oscar Sheridan, as ‘The Magnificent Oscar, Ring Leader, Lion Tamer, Star.’ He had never looked that handsome in real life. His skin glowed, and the top hat and tails he wore made him look rather dashing, even if he did say so himself. In his hand he held a leather whip, and just behind him, a lion cowered in fear at his might. It was better than anything he could have imagined.

“You should go and get dressed. The clowns will be on first, then the trapeze artists, and then you.”

Oscar nodded, still staring in disbelief, and began to walk towards his tent.

“Where are you going?”

“To get changed like you said.”

“Yes, but why are you going that way? That’s where the minor players and freaks camp, your trailer is that way.”

Oscar didn’t know what to say, and simply nodded dumbly, walking in the direction of Jean’s outstretched arm. He had walked around fifty metres, when he came to a large silver trailer with ‘The Great Oscar’ painted on a yellow wooden star on the door. Slowly, he opened the door and stepped inside. As far as circus digs went, this was the crème de la crème of accommodation. He was used to sleeping bags on the ground and leaking tents. Compared to that, this was a palace. The unit was divided into three sections, a small seating area at the front, a cooking area and a double bed at the back. In the middle, there stood a dressing table strewn with makeup brushes and eye pencils. The Mirror above it was surrounded by bulbs glowing a warm yellow hew, and taped along one side of it was newspaper clippings showing Oscar smiling out under various headlines: “The Great Oscar wows Town Mayor”, “Oscar the Great is awarded the key to the City”, “Oscar Sheridan breaks world record.” A clothes rack stood to his right, and a dozen costumes hung there. The detailing on each sparkled as he swiped his hand along them all, enjoying the richness of the fabric against his shaking hands. Then he spotted it, obscured by a black satin top hat, sat a black and white framed photograph of his beautiful Ophelia. It was one of her head shots, and she stared seductively over her bare shoulder at the camera. In black ink, handwritten in the right hand corner, were the words ‘To my dearest Oscar, Forever Yours, Love Ophelia xx.’ It was all too good to be true. He pinched himself, and with the sharp pain confirming that he was in fact awake, he started to cry tears of joy. It had worked. It had really worked.

A sharp knock at the door jolted him back to reality.

“Ten minutes until show time Mr Sheridan.”

He sat in front of the mirror and applied some make up. He was used to slathering on cheap white creams, and red waxy makeup, but this enhanced his features rather than obscured them. By the time he was done, and his costume put on (He had chosen a white sequin jacket and black top hat and trousers), he truly did look like Oscar the Great.

He made his way towards the tent, and could arrived just as the trapeze artists were performing their final, and most dangerous trick. Ophelia removed her safety wire, and having swung as high as the tent would allow, she would fly through the air and somersault not once, but twice, before her brother Renee caught her. The audience would scream and gasp. On more than one occasion, someone had fainted. But Ophelia never fell. She couldn’t fall. She only flew; a swallow on the wind.

The audience burst into rapturous applause and Ophelia and Renee took their bows now they had returned safely to the ground. Jean went out into the ring and began to banter with the audience, he would always tell a few jokes before introducing the next act, and the two gravity defying stars walked towards Oscar at the side of the ring. Oscar could not take his eyes off her. She was so stunning, and the spot lights behind her, gave her an almost angelic quality. As she passed him, she grabbed him suddenly by the neck and kissed him hard. He went rigid for a moment, sheer surprise and shock overriding every other sense, before they finally returned to him, and seizing the moment, a moment he had only ever dreamt about before this night, he grabbed her by the waist and pulled her close to him, returning her kiss and breathing her scent in deeply. She smelled like apricots, and she tasted even sweeter. It was better than he could have ever imagined.

After what felt like an eternity, she pulled away, and smiled up at him adoringly.

“Knock them dead my love.”

She then skipped off, twice looking back at him and smiling the sweetest of smiles just for him. Before this, she had barely made eye contact with him, and in fact had only spoken to him on three occasions since joining their circus two years prior: “Bring me a drink clown”, “Move out of the way” and ‘Stop staring at me freak.” He had saved each word in his memories, believing any contact with her to be precious. Now, she kissed him fondly and called him her love. Now, after all the fantasies and imaginary scenarios played out in his mind, she was finally his. He felt as if his heart would burst. Surely, it could not get any better than this?

“And now, the moment you have all been waiting for. The star of the show, the bravest man in the western world, the man you all came here to see, the one, the only, Oscar the Great.”

The applause was deafening. People screamed until they were hoarse, several young girls fainted with excitement, and the entire audience, every man, woman and child, stood as he entered the ring. The audience barely noticed him before, now they gave him a standing ovation. This was everything he had ever wished for, and more. Jean handed him the leather whip, and walked backwards out of the ring, clapping Oscar as he went.

He stood a moment, basking in the warm glow of the spot light, and with closed eyes, absorbed every clap, every yell echoing around the tent. Then he raised his left hand and immediately the audience became silent. Even on the saw dust floor, you could have heard a pin drop. He couldn’t believe how receptive they were to him, “They’re eating out of the palm of my hand!” He bowed to them, and the applause erupted once more, before another raise of his hand brought them to silence. It was then he knew what it felt like to be a star amongst men, it was then he knew what it felt like to be truly happy. He wished it would never end.

In fact, he was so absorbed in this moment of sheer bliss, that he had failed to notice the two stage hands roll out the cage containing a rather large, and rather angry looking lion. There are places where a wild animal can be happy in captivity. A travelling circus was not one of them. By the time he heard the snarling roar behind him, it was too late. The beast sank it’s fangs into Oscar’s throat, pulling him to the ground. He could feel warm wetness spreading across his chest, and watched the shining white sequins turn red and dull. He felt pain for only a moment, before he began to feel nothing but cold. It was a coldness like none he had ever felt before, and it sent a shiver up his spine. He could hear screaming all around him, but this was not like the enraptured applause of before, no, these screams were filled with horror and fear.

He could feel himself slipping away, the images around him becoming black and fuzzy. The last thing he saw was a very tall man in a grey tweed suit and matching fedora, holding a piece of paper with something scrawled across it in blood red ink. Written in ink that now matched his jacket. It was a name. It was his name. It was his soul.

Flash Fiction.

This evening’s blog is about, you’ve guessed it, flash fiction.  For those of you not familiar with the term, it’s a short story with a restrictive word allowance.  You can get 50 word pieces, the aptly named ‘twitterature’ (140 characters) or even the notorious 6 word story, but for my attempt, I have gone for a 100 word piece.

It might sound easy, 100 words, after all you sometimes send more in a text message, but it’s actually insanely difficult to tell a story with so few words.  What makes it even more difficult, is the fact that it has to be 100 words exactly…no more, no less.  I’ve never tried any before, but I thought, given how busy I have been lately (Don’t ask) it would be the perfect thing to write for this evening’s post.  I have also put a ‘twitterature’ story on my twitter feed, and I encourage you all to tweet me your own!

quote

Dead End

It was a dead end! She slammed the wall with her fist in frustration. It was right behind her, she could hear it’s heavy breathing and thumping foot steps growing closer. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. These things had taken everything from her, she had nothing left anyway. She decided, if she was going to die, she would die fighting.

It stopped when it saw her, not cowering or begging, but standing firm, fists clenched, eyes like fire. None of them had ever done this before. Maybe ,this one was different. Maybe, this one was worth saving.

 

 

 

Inspired Part 5

For this part of the series, I have again collaborated with the photographer David Kennedy.  As before, he has given me a picture, this time an abandoned theme park castle, and I have written a story inspired by it.  It’s my twisted version of a fairy tale.  This is the last of the pictures David gave me, and we have no immediate plans to collaborate again, so if you love his work and would like to see more, you can check him out on Instagram as @grey.lord.  If you are a creative person or artist and would like to collaborate with me, get in touch!  Happy Easter, and enjoy…

dave kennedy 3

Happy unending

Once upon a time is a very cliched and overused beginning to a fairy tale story. But since this is a fairy tale of sorts, or more precisely, an un-fairy tale, it is the best way to begin, or un-begin in this case. Once upon a time, there was a princess. She was a woman of exceptional beauty, with allure the likes of which, are rarely seen. It was said, that the princess was so attractive, that one would fall instantly in love, should they behold even her mere reflection. However, it was also said, that this overwhelming beauty, hid a very dark secret; that the brave souls who dared to venture into her castle, were never seen or heard from again. Over time, suitors decreased. Perhaps, because of the rumours, or perhaps because after years of disappearing men and women, there were few left.

And so, over time, the castle became overgrown by the surrounding forest, and the once white walls turned grey and cracked with age and neglect. The castle, and its single inhabitant, became a story to scare children, a fable, a whisper on the wind, and eventually, forgotten.

Prince Edward was a very handsome prince. Unfortunately, he was also a very spoiled and selfish Prince. He always wanted the very best of everything, and when his frivolous demands were not met to his satisfaction, he would throw tantrums tantamount to none, and have staff beaten for as little as not bowing low enough, or for his tea being too hot. His parents indulged him, as he was their only child, but even they had grown weary of his terrible attitude and childish behaviour. They had given him everything he had ever asked for, and now, they paid for it dearly. When he became of age for a wife, they were distraught, as he was so fussy about everything, that no maiden in their kingdom, or any other, was attractive enough. He dismissed them one after the other, because their hair was too shiny or too dull, they were too short or too tall, their eyes were the wrong colour, as he preferred blue, but the ones with blue eyes had the wrong shade of blue and so on and so forth. He strutted around like a peacock, constantly preening himself, and even polished the gold pendant he wore around his neck to create a mirror on one side, so he could stare at himself any time, any place. No woman could be worthy.

The King and Queen began to fear they would never have Grandchildren, and that the kingdom would be without a Queen, when an old book came into their possession. It contained a map to a castle, long forgotten, and described a treasure beyond wealth, a Princess whose beauty overshadowed all around her. And so, they sent their son, along with their bravest and best knights, to find this castle, and locate their future daughter in law. With a little luck, she would meet his ridiculously high demands, and at the very least, it would get him out of their hair for a while.

It took the knights seven days and seven nights to locate the castle, now entwined by barbs and branches, and hidden deep within a dark and eery forest. Although, it had felt like a lot longer, with the Prince complaining and whinging the entire time. When they located it, the bravest knight, and the head of the imperial army, chopped his way through the thick growth, slicing and cutting a path with his sword. He entered the castle, intending to scout for and remove any dangers within. But after many hours, he had still not returned.

The second bravest knight, took the same path, and entered through the heavy wooden door. Again, hours passed, but he never returned. The other knights, fearing for their comrades, were torn. They wanted to rescue them from whatever danger lay within, but they had also taken an oath to protect the Prince. One by one, the bravest of the remaining men entered the castle, asking the knight behind them to look after the Prince, until only the stable boy and the Prince remained. Two days had passed since the last knight had entered and failed to return, and the stable boy was sick of taking the brunt of the Prince’s selfish wrath, so, when the Prince was asleep, he took all the horses, planning to sell them and start a new life, and he swiftly buggered off.

When the Prince awoke, to find himself alone, with no knights, no horses and no stable boy, he was incensed with rage and despair. After throwing the worlds biggest hissy fit he came to the conclusion that, since he was not a trained soldier or an experienced woodsman, he had no choice really, but to enter the castle himself and locate his other men, or at least, find shelter.

The door was massive and heavy, and creaked as he pulled it open, revealing a world as dark as the forest outside. He crept inside slowly, trying not to make noise with his footsteps, terrified about what he would find. The only light, was the narrow beam which escaped from the gap of a door ajar. It created a path from almost exactly where he stood, across the chequered marble floor, to the room from which it emanated. Slowly, he made his way towards it, the light growing brighter with every step. The door opened without any application of force, as if it was expecting him.

The room inside had the same chequered floor. The walls were covered in heavy velvet curtains. Once, they would have been red and grand, but now, they had faded to a burnt, dirty orange. Cobwebs turned patches even paler, and moths had devoured whole sections, giving the impression that the cobwebs were all that held them together. A chandelier hung from the centre of the ceiling. Once gold, and shining, it was now brass, and spiders had made it their home too. The ceiling was cracked and crumbling, and the plaster moulded cherubs donning each corner, had lost wings, and even faces. They looked horrid, disfigured. The light was coming from the fire place, where a large fire burned and crackled. Grey and black dust coated every surface, almost like snow.

At one end of the room, he noticed a pile of objects, what, he could not tell. When he got closer, he realised they were shields and swords, chain mail armour and boot buckles. Some were new, and shone in the dim light, others were old and beginning to rust and degrade. He kicked over one of the shields, and discovered a red bear, the symbol of his own kingdom. A sinking feeling spread throughout his body as he realised they were dead, his men, his bravest knights. He did not mourn their loss, after all, they were just the help. He feared what had taken them, and what it would do to him.

“Hello my Prince.”

He froze, as he felt every hair on the back of his neck stand up. The voice had come from behind him, back towards the door. It was a sweet voice, a woman’s voice. Could this be the thing that took his men? He turned slowly, and was utterly amazed by what he saw. A woman, the beauty of which surpassed all others, stood before him. Her hair was long and the colour of spun gold. It shone, even in this dull light. Her skin was pale and perfect, and her eyes were the colour of the sky. She had pink, plump lips, which invited a kiss, and she smiled sweetly at him. She was slender, but curved in all of the right places, her body rising and falling like the hills which surrounded his kingdom. She was breathtaking. Suddenly, all thought of his men, and fear for himself dissolved as he took her in. Finally, he had found a woman worthy of his affections.

“My Lady, I, I…”

For the first time in his life, he was speechless. He stood, rooted to the spot, wide eyed and gaping.

“My Prince, I have waited for you for so long.”

“You have?”

“Of course. Only you are handsome and smart and brave enough to have my hand.”

He grinned from ear to ear. Not only was she beautiful, but she was obviously intelligent, perceptive, and a woman of exceptional tastes.

“Come to me my Prince.”

Without thinking, he shuffled towards her, but a thought niggled at the back of his brain. Something about shields? His crest? He couldn’t remember, every thought now absorbed by the splendour which now stood before him. It was as if a song played in his head, so quiet, it could barely be heard. A humming of something familiar and comforting.

When he reached her, she took his hands, and placed them around her waist. She smelled like freshly baked bread, and his mother’s rose perfume and every other smell he had ever loved, rolled into one. She was warm to his touch and he could feel her body moving as she breathed him in in return.

“Kiss me my prince.”

Without any hesitation, he softly placed his lips against hers. They felt like the finest silk, and tasted like honey. He felt a warmth spread from her through his body, like an electric current. It hummed the same way the tune did, the same pitch and tone, the same vibrations. He could feel every part of him vibrating gently, and for that moment he knew true happiness.

But then, the humming began to increase in intensity, at first becoming irritating, before it became painful. Soon, it felt as if thousands of volts were passing through him, and the heat, once warm and comforting, also increased, burning him from his core, outwards. He tried to pull away from her, but he could not move, he could not scream. It felt like lightening now, striking him over and over again. The pain was excruciating He could not speak, but in his mind, he begged her to stop, to release him, to let him go.

“You’re mine now. You will never leave this place. You will sustain me, you will feed me, you will become me.”

The voice echoed inside his mind, not sweet and feminine as before, but deep and bellowing. He began to feel fire spreading from inside his body, outwards, clawing and tearing at his nerves, shredding his flesh. He could see them now, the orange flames, engulfing his body, yet she remained unchanged, untouched. His nerves, now singed beyond use, lost all sensation, so the pain, in one sudden motion, stopped. He could no longer feel his body, but he remained trapped inside it, staring out at her closed eyes, her puckered, pink, perfect lips. As he watched her, he became aware of ash beginning to fill the air, and cover the curtains and floor in a light, grey dust. He knew it was him, that the ash was his body, disintegrating before his eyes. He was crumbling into nothing. He was dying.

The princess smiled with satisfaction. After such a long famine, she had had such a feast. Contented and fat, she vanished to the world beyond this world, awaiting her next prey. The ash settled over everything, the fire slowly died, and large gold pendant, mirrored pendant was added to the pile in the corner.

April’s Book club pick!

handmaid's tale

In my March 22nd post, I invited you to join my book club and reviewed last month’s book (if you haven’t read it already, check it out via the blog calendar).  Each month, I will select a book for us to read together and review it when we are done.  Just subscribe to my blog to keep updated, and don’t forget to let me know your thoughts on each month’s pick in the comments section below!  Already read it?  Let me know what you thought.

Given the upcoming TV adaptation, and the relevance today, I have picked the novel, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood.  So, for those of you who have never heard of it, what is it about?:

The Republic of Gilead allows Offred only one function: to breed.  If she deviates, she will, like all dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness.  But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire- neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on which her future hangs…”

Given the unpredictability of today’s political climate, the rise in terrorism, and the constant threat of everything from war to global warming, novel’s like these, set in dystopian futures, are more relevant than ever.  George Orwell’s classic ‘1984’ has had a sudden boost in sales, for example, and the movie adaptations of ‘The Hunger Games’ series made millions at the box office.  Now it’s this book’s turn to be adapted for the screen, and I for one am excited to view it.  But, if you’re a purist like me, you will insist on having read the book before watching a single episode.  So pick up a copy and join me in Gilead!