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!

The Galileo: A Science Fiction Short Story.

Good evening fellow story lovers!  I know Sundays can be pretty bleak, but hopefully a short piece of science fiction will cheer you up! I am a huge Geek- I love Sci-fi and have been a Trekkie since I was a child (I have action figures and a uniform and everything).  This story draws inspiration from years of movies and books and comics.  I hope you like it!  Don’t forget to enter my competition giveaway if you haven’t yet, this is the last week it will be open, with the winner drawn at the end of the month!  Enjoy…

The Galileo

She awoke slowly, all blurred images and muffled sound. She felt like she was under water, fighting to get to the surface. Dazed and dizzy, she struggled to focus on her surroundings, blinking hard as everything slowly stopped spinning, and began to clear. She was in one of the ship’s corridors, cold from lying on the steel floor. A red warning light flashed on and off, casting the narrow space in an eery light. There was an alarm sounding, far off, intermittently drilling into her skull with it’s loud buzz.

She had no memory of what had happened. The last thing she could recall was them receiving a distress signal from a transport vessel, but after that it was blank. Her head thumped and pulsed with the rhythm of her heart beat. She touched her forehead and found her fingers wet with her blood. She checked her status on her electronic cuff. It indicated she had received a blow to the head four hours ago, and had immediately fallen into unconsciousness. She had a concussion and would require stitches, but apart from that her vitals were good. But where were the others?

She dragged herself off the floor, and wobbled over to a computer outlet on a nearby wall. Plugging in her cuff, the screen suddenly came to life, casting an eery blue light onto her face After a moment, it had booted fully and was ready for interfacing.

“Identify.”

“Crewman Holly Mathews, Delta five five three of the science vessel Galileo.”

“Voice identification confirmed. Please provide instructions or state your query.”

“Where are the others?”

“Please clarify ‘others’”

She yelled in frustration. She hated the interfacing tool. The ship was capable of travelling at the speed of light with the push of a button, but ask it something without spelling out exactly what you need, and it became like talking to a toddler. It was a machine, and it thought like one. It didn’t understand slang or metaphors or sarcasm. It was literal, it was frustrating at the best of times, but with her head pounding, it was even worse.

“Locate the other members of the crew.”

“My records indicate that the science vessel Galileo has thirty two crew members assigned. I can locate only one crew life sign at present, that of your own.”

“No…that can’t be.”

“I run over one hundred and twelve checks per second. My data is accurate to zero point zero zero zero…”

“Alright, stop. I get it.”

She suddenly found it difficult to breathe. Tears made there way up her throat and through her eyes, stinging the cut on her cheek and sending red water droplets onto her uniform. How could this be possible? How could they be gone? This had to be some kind of nightmare. She tried to steady her breathing, to hold the emotions back until she could figure out what was going on.

“What happened to the rest of the crew?”

“Unknown.”

“What do you mean unknown?”

“My systems were shut down three hours and thirty seven minutes ago. I have been offline until you initiated the interfacing programme, automatically rebooting my system.”

“Who shut you down?”

“Unknown.”

“How were you shut down?”

“Unknown.”

She yelled, banging her fist against the screen, a small hairline crack forming in the glass. The ship was the most sophisticated of it’s kind, and had an incalculable IQ, yet it could answer none of her questions. It sounded like a record stuck on repeat or a parrot which had only learned one word: Unknown, unknown, unknown. If she heard it one more time, she would smash the screen. If she was going to find out what happened to the crew, she would have to physically check herself.

“Show me on a map, where the crew’s bodies are located.”

“Unable to comply. There are no crew member’s bodies on board.”

“What do you mean? Where are their bodies?”

“Unknown.”

“God damn you.”

She punched the screen over and over again, until the cracked flickering surface was coated in a thin layer of her blood, now trickling from the open wound on her hand. She began to weep, sinking to the floor. She closed her eyes, begging herself to wake up, but when she opened them again, she was back there, in that corridor.

After a while, she pulled herself to her feet, and began to run to the bridge. The alarm grew louder the closer she got. When she entered, it was deserted, with no sign of any struggle or injury, no bodies, nothing. She plugged her cuff into the Captain’s control panel, and took a deep breathe.

“Identify.”

“Crewman Holly Mathews, Delta five five three of the science vessel Galileo.”

“Voice identification confirmed. Please provide instructions or state your query.”

“Turn off the alarm.”

“Confirmed.”

The red light vanished, and normal lighting levels returned, as the loud intermittent noise suddenly stopped.

“Who initiated the alarm?”

“No crew member initiated the alarm. The alarm was initiated automatically when my systems went offline.”

“Where is the other vessel? The one with the distress call.”

“The vessel which issued the distress call is in cargo bay three. I detect all systems are non functional, and there are no life signs on board.”

“Show me.”

The screen was divided into four images, from the cameras which covered the cargo bay. She chose the top left image, and zoomed in on the ship. It appeared to be a two man sub vessel, used for short journeys to the surface of planets and back or evacuation. The distress call had come from a transport vessel, or so she had thought.

“Confirm, did the distress call originate from this vessel.”

“Negative. The distress call originated from the transport vessel ‘Safe Haven.’”

“Where is the Safe Haven?”

“I detect debris and fuel, the signature of which confirms it belonged to the transport vessel Safe Haven. I detect no life signs. This sub vessel is all that remains.”

She felt her heart rate rise and her breathing quicken.

“How many souls were on board?”

“Records indicate the Safe Haven had three hundred and seventy two persons registered on board.”

Tears forced their way through her eyes and fell onto the screen.

“What happened to it?”

“Radiation levels and chemical signatures present indicate that the vessel’s core exploded.”

“How?”

“Unknown.”

“Play the distress call.”

The screen flickered and blurred with static. A face could be seen occasionally amongst the moving waves and shapes. It was a man, perhaps in his thirties, with short dark hair. He looked terrified, eyes wide with panic, and he was dirty, black covering one side of his face. Or, perhaps that was a burn? The sound quality wasn’t great, and she had to strain to hear what he was saying.

“This is Captain Ray Thorn of the transport vessel Safe Haven. We are under attack from something. We answered a distress signal from one of the small moons orbiting planet Alpha one one. We found a ship, appeared to be a salvage ship or perhaps a pirate vessel. It was heavily damaged, it clearly hit the surface pretty hard, half of it was missing. The crew, they were gone, no bodies, no blood, just vanished into thin air. But there was something there, we didn’t realise, we brought it back with us. I don’t know what it is, but it’s on board now. They’re all gone too, my crew, the passengers, all of them. There’s no one left, just my life sign and it’s, whatever it is. I’m going to blow her, the Safe Haven, try and kill it. I have…”

It suddenly cut off, leaving only static before the screen went black. Her stomach twisted, and her throat went dry.

“Confirm, was the sub vessel scanned for life signs before we docked it?”

“Confirmed. One life sign was located on board.”

“Was the life sign Captain Ray Thorn?”

“Negative.”

“Was the life sign human?”

“Negative.”

“What was it?”

“Unknown.”

She swallowed hard, dread rising within her. She suddenly recalled her question to the system and it’s exact response when she had it scan for the crew’s life signs: “My records indicate that the science vessel Galileo has thirty two crew members assigned. I can locate only locate one crew life sign at present, that of your own.” She repeated it inside her head, I can only locate one crew life sign, one CREW life sign. She had asked the wrong question.

“Confirm, how many life signs are on board.”

“I detect two life signs on board, that of your own and that of an unknown entity.”

The dread had filled her up, her voice crackled with fear, and she could hear her heart beating inside her skull, it’s thumping increasing as her breathing quickened.

“Confirm…where is the unknown entity.”

“The unknown entity is located on the bridge.”

She went to scream, but it was too late, and then, nothing.

……………………………………………………

“Captain, we are picking up an automated distress call.”

Captain Robert Gregson, sat forward in his seat. After years of working his way through the ranks, this was his first command. The military vessel ‘Mars’ was as new as him, and he was eager to test out her capabilities.

“Which vessel does the call originate from?”

“A science vessel called the Galileo sir. She’s supposed to be out here researching black holes. No signs of damage but she appears to be adrift.”

“Open communications with them.”

“I’ve already tried Sir.  All attempts to communicate have gone unanswered.”

“How many life signs on board?”

“Just one sir.”

“Jesus, what the hell happened? You’d better take us in.”

Inspired Part 7

For this latest edition of Inspired, I have collaborated with the incredibly talented artist Lelya Borisenko.  Lelya was born in 1973 in Shostka, Ukraine, a republic, which at that time was part of the USSR. She studied academical painting, easel graphics, etching and engraving in the Kharkov State Academy of Design and Fine Arts in 1993-1999. In 2001 she moved to Moscow, Russia where she is liveing and working at the moment.  If you love her work as much as I do, you can see more at her website or her Instagram. She created Oscar Apollo, the adorable character featured in this piece, five years ago.  I have fallen in love with Oscar, and you can check out his adventures on Instagram.

I sent Lelya my story, and she created this amazing painting inspired by it.  I hope you like it, let me know in the comments below.  If you are an artist or other creative person, and would like to collaborate as part of this series, please get in touch.  Happy reading…

Its just a story artwork

It’s just a story.

It began as a story told to children in order to make them behave, or a tale told around a camp fire, designed to frighten and scare. No one could ever provide a reliable source for the information within it, and it had always involved a friend of a friend or a cousin’s neighbour etc. It was an urban legend, a tall tale, fiction. No one actually believed in it, and yet, the images it conjured remained fixed within their minds eyes for years to come, occasionally manifesting as a reluctance to join in, or a fear of certain things, until they told it to their own children, and their children’s children, passing it on down the line for generations. Thus, it could never die, living forever on the tongues of story tellers and gossips.

The story, involved a child. The gender of the child would change, sometimes a girl, sometimes a boy, but they would always be young. Perhaps they had a name. The child lived somewhere isolated, like a small village in the country or some back water town, far off, where facts could not be corroborated. The child was lonely, or maybe they were naughty or perhaps simply curious. Either way, when they saw the large circus tent of red and yellow stripes being erected in the fields, they were excited and certain to attend. They would watch from afar, as performers practiced outside their caravans, or animals like horses and elephants, chewed their food and slept in the dirt. They would maybe even talk to one of the crew, in their strange, foreign clothes of colour and pattern, distributing leaflets and posting bills around the town. They would tell them to come and see, they would give them a free ticket.

In some stories, the parents of the child does not approve of such frivolities, or trust the strange performing nomads, and they would ban the child from attending. The child would of course sneak out after their bed time, down tree branches and trellis, and out into the dark. In other versions, the parents would excitedly plan a fun family evening together, or present the tickets as a gift. Always the child attends, and always, they end up separated, alone, unprotected.

There are acts of amazing bravery. A ring master who tames a lion using a chair and a cracking whip. A trapeze family, soaring at impossible heights, letting go off the bars to the gasps of the audiences before being caught again as the gasps morph into roaring applause. There are feats of strength. A strong man who picks up a chair in each arm, in which sit two audience members. An elephant balancing on a ball. And finally, there are jokes and comedy. Clowns tripping and falling, pulling endless handkerchiefs from pockets and throwing buckets of confetti. The air smells of saw dust, perspiration and pop corn.

The child becomes enamoured, separating from his family, wandering between the tents, seeking out the best views, the back stage banter. They will meet a figure, someone awe inspiring but also menacing, perhaps the ring leader with his stubbled chin and whiskey breath, or the clown with the running make up and missing teeth. They will promise the child adventure, fame, glory, love, everything their heart desires, everything their imagination can produce, everything they have ever dreamt off. But there is a catch, a condition, something minor to a child, something the ramifications of which are unknown to them. They must give a token, a treasured toy or a favourite book, or perhaps they must sign their name on a piece of crumpled paper, crudely written and incorrectly spelled because of their age.

It is a mistake, one with terrible consequences. The child becomes the property of the circus, another soul to tend the animals, clean up their shit, or perhaps to perform the dangerous tricks no one else wants to do, the knife throwing for example. The child tries to run, but cannot escape, there is too many. But surely their mother, their siblings will come looking? But the circus makes them forget. They forget the child’s name, their face, and they become just a feeling of deja vu when a certain toy is stepped on or book read. This is the curse, this is the punishment for their curiosity. They are servants, tied to the circus forever more. They will age and twist and bend to a bitter and cynical adult, who in turn will tempt and trap other children as some kind of revenge against the world. If they had to suffer, others should too. The circus will travel from town to town, moving with the mist, stealing souls, stealing lives. But none of this ever happened, because it’s just a story, right?

Inspired Part 4

For this part of the Inspired series, I have collaborated with the brilliant comic book artist Jorge Ibarra.  Jorge is a 29 year old architect from Santiago, Chile.  Like the heroes of the comics he loves so much, he has two lives.  By day, he designs buildings, but by night, he uses his artistic talents to produce amazing comic books.  He became interested in the world of comics, when at 6 years old, a friend gave him his old collection.  A copy of “The Amazing Spider Man” caught his eye, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Now, producing comics and illustrations, and telling stories is his passion.  I sent Jorge my story, and he was inspired to draw this amazing pop art style illustration.  If you love his art work as much as me, you can check out more of his work on Instagram @slamcomics.  Let me know what you think of Jorge’s and my work in the comments section, and if you are a creative person who would like to collaborate with me, then please get in touch!  Enjoy…

The Watcher image by Jorge Ibarra

The Watcher

It started off as shadows. A blur in the corner of your eye, a movement which seemed to have no cause, a feeling of being watched. Over time, gradually, it manifested and formed shape, and one day, it was just there.

Sarah could remember the first time she saw it. She had been in her room, doing her history homework, when something drew her to the window. It was just standing at the other side of the street, watching her. She couldn’t make out it’s features, it was merely a silhouette, but she could tell it was staring right at her. Based on it’s build, and height, it appeared to be a man, but even that was difficult to tell. Something inside told her it wasn’t human. She hadn’t slept well that night, nor any night since.

The next day at school, she had gotten that same feeling of dread as she realised someone or something was watching her, stalking her like prey. She had searched the crowded playgrounds, but it wasn’t there. Later, as she sat in English class, she saw it standing beneath a large tree. It was always in the shadows, always just an outline. The shape of a person without features or form. A blank patch in the landscape.

As she walked home from school each day, she could hear footsteps on the sidewalk behind her, always keeping her pace, even though the street was empty of other people. She would run until she felt sick and her legs shook, but it was always there, just behind her. Those damned foot steps. Only when she reached the safety of home or school, would it show itself. The same black nothing.

Paranoia is a poisonous thing. Eventually, it spreads through all aspects of your life, tainting them, infecting them like some disease. Nowhere felt safe. No person felt trustworthy. She retreated into herself, afraid that somehow too much interaction with the outside world would bring it to her door.

Once, when she felt desperate to be free of it, she opened her window, and looking straight at it’s featureless form, she screamed, “What do you want from me?” It made no response. It did not move. It just remained there, a guard at it’s post. That night she wept. She dreamt that her shadow, once a loyal companion, began to twist and snake away from her, until it grew to become a separate, sentient entity. It changed and undulated, until it grew to form that same silhouette, that same black shadow. She awoke screaming and panting, sweat stained sheets stuck to her body, and immediately she sensed it, she knew it was there, just across the road. Standing in the same spot, in the same position. A malicious statue. Her silent watcher.

She lost her appetite, and along with it, the curved form which puberty had brought. She permanently had sunken, dark ringed eyes, and sallow skin and she started and jumped at every noise or sudden movement. A rabbit, permanently caught in headlights. Her mother begged and pleaded with her to tell her what was wrong. Was it boy trouble? Was it body image issues? What could she say? “Mum, I’m being followed by some kind of demon.” No, she knew where that path would lead to, and she wasn’t prepared to be forced into some treatment facility, along with the girls who cut themselves, or had eating disorders. Besides, she knew that it would find her wherever she went.

She agreed, after much harassment by her mother, to see a counsellor. Every Wednesday and Friday, she sat in that little brown chair opposite a sour faced woman who smelled of cinnamon candies and over pronounced every word, as she asked her how everything ‘made her feel.’ All throughout, she stared out the bay window, to the street outside, and watched the shadow watching her. Her phantom was always there when she arrived for her sessions, waiting for her. The counsellor eventually told her mother to send Sarah to a psychiatrist for therapy, and her mother struggled to hold her composure as she cursed and screamed

“What the hell was I paying you for? A fucking hair cut?”

After that, she didn’t have to visit the counsellor again. It adjusted its schedule accordingly, and appeared wherever she was, just in her peripheral vision, always in shadow. After almost a year of this, she began to self medicate, sneaking her mother’s booze at first, but eventually having the older boys buy her her own. She would drink sometimes until she passed out. Anything to obliterate it’s presence from her mind.

It was on one such occasion, that she realised it had moved closer. Not by much, a few feet maybe, but enough to be noticeable. She dismissed it as the alcohol. But the following day, inside the school classroom, she confirmed what she had seen through blurred vision. It still stood stock still, and it remained in shadow, but now she could make it out a little more clearly. She realised it was wearing some kind of suit, what colour she did not know, but she could make out the outline of a collar and cuffs. It was definitely a male, or at least, it had manifested as a male, because she could now see it was tall, perhaps six foot three, with broad shoulders, and the outline of short, spiked hair.

It remained in it’s new spot, keeping watch, for about a week before she noticed it had once again moved closer. As before, it was only a few feet closer, but now it was moving out of the cover of darkness, she could make out further detail. The suit was dark, perhaps navy or black, and it wore a tie. It had laced shoes and wore a watch on it’s left hand. Sarah felt the fear rising in her stomach. Why, after all this time, was it beginning to move? Why was it coming closer? Was it coming for her? There were so many questions swirling in her head that she felt as if her brain would burst out of her skull. The room began to move and she felt motion sick, her stomach churning and knotted. Everything swirled and blurred around her until she fell into complete darkness.

When she awoke, she was attached to a heart monitor, the solid beep beep of which was the only sound in the room. There was a drip filled with some kind of clear fluid attached to her right arm, and she felt like she had the hangover from hell. Her mother was asleep in the corner, awkwardly positioned on a plastic chair. As the fog cleared, she turned her head to take in the rest of the room.

That’s when she saw it. Standing behind the white plastic curtain, she could make out the clear outline of it, standing as it always did, but now, it was so close, she could almost reach out and touch it. She wanted to scream out, to cry for help, but she could not move, she could not run. It was as if an invisible force held her to the bed, and all she could manage was to squeeze out a solitary tear as the form before her began to melt and ooze into a black liquid, a puddle forming beneath the curtain. Slowly, she felt a coldness grip her body, making it’s way from her feet to her head, spreading through every cell, snaking through every vein. She willed her mother to wake from her slumber, to sense something was wrong, and come to her aid. But it was too late. After less than a minute, the black had entombed her.

It was like being underwater. She could hear her own shallow breathing, and the pounding of her heart beat inside her head, and then she began to feel the water rushing away. As she lay motionless, the world around her began to disappear. She felt herself begin to break apart, and flow away too, atom by atom. She imagined this is what water felt, as it was evaporated into the atmosphere. She began to forget things, memories of her childhood, her first crush, her own name. It was if she was being shown a still of each moment of her fifteen years on earth, before it was snatched away and lost forever. Within moments, she remembered almost nothing at all, and whoever she was, or had been, she knew she was dying. And then, she was gone.

When her mother awoke, she discovered Sarah’s bed empty. The drip needle, lay on the bed, and the clear fluid had left a small wet patch where it had continued to serve its purpose. She had screamed for help, hysterical at the thought that her daughter had run away, or perhaps even worse, been stolen from beneath her nose. There had been a search of the hospital and grounds. There had been police called and search and rescue called and eventually even coast guards called. There had been television appeals by her crying mother, and posters printed. Her high school prom picture now wall papered most of the town, and her face was better known to the local people than most celebrities. But despite the dogs, and the helicopters and the prayers and tears, Sarah was never seen or heard from again. She had simply vanished.

Robert sat at his computer, staring at the calculations on the lap top opposite him, desperately searching his brain for the answers. College had been harder to adjust to than he had thought, and despite his attempts to reinvent himself, he was still very much the outsider. When he began to question why he had chosen physics as his major, something inside him stirred. He suddenly had the overwhelming feeling he was being watched. He looked around him, and confirmed that the library was indeed empty. After all, it was 3am, and most students were either passed out from too much drink, or still partying. But something drew him towards the large stained glass window opposite him.

He walked up, and got so close to the glass, that his breathe misted it, turning the dark royal blue, momentarily paler. Through the glass he could just make out the figure of someone. It looked like a girl, based on the height and build, and the slight outline of long hair, but it was hard to tell. He couldn’t take his eyes of it. His gut told him something was very wrong. That this thing wasn’t human, that it was here for him. He didn’t sleep well that night, nor any night since.

Black Ink

I have been very nervous about posting this piece, because it is an insight into my struggles with depression and anxiety.  Despite leaps forward, there is a still a stigma attached to mental health issues, and you never really know how people will react when they find out.  I believe it is important to discuss such things openly and honestly, because not only will that help end the stigma, it may also help someone who is experiencing their own personal struggle.  This piece, ‘Black Ink’, is my attempt to explain to someone who is lucky enough to have never suffered from depression, what it feels like, or at least, what it feels like to me.  I would love to know your thoughts.  And if anyone reads this, and sees something familiar, I urge them to talk to someone and seek help, and most of all, do not feel ashamed or embarrassed.  You would never be embarrassed if you were diagnosed with a physical illness, and this is no different, because that’s what it is, an illness.  I won’t pretend it’s easy, but you can come out the other side, you can manage it, and you can rise up, stronger than ever.

black ink photo

Black Ink

If humans were made of machinery and cogs, I would be malfunctioning. As they say, I have a few screws loose. It’s hard to explain Depression to someone who is lucky enough to have never suffered from mental illness themselves. Depression is like black ink, which spreads through the waters of your life, tainting and discolouring everything. It’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to see anything beyond that thick black, and often, things can seem hopeless. Light cannot reach that place, so even moments of joy and tenderness, are lost to shadows and lethargy. Every happy moment loses it’s shine, and is more often than not, missed entirely.

It’s as if the very mechanisms by which you feel emotions, are broken. If screws are indeed loose, it is in the part of your soul which helps us experience happiness and joy, sadness and anger, love and hate. It’s not necessarily that you are sad all the time, it’s more like an overwhelming numbness. That thick black ink blocks everything out, and you feel alone, and lost. If you are very lucky, a hand will come through that black, and pull you clear. But if you have no one to talk to, no one to offer their ears, their sympathy, their support, then you can sink beyond reach.

That is why it is so vital that we talk about it openly. You cannot see mental illness. It does not scar the skin or burn the flesh. It’s invisible, and hidden away beneath fake smiles and reassurances that everything is fine. I’m Fine. There is no shame in mental illness, in fact, it is more prevalent than most people think.  It does not discriminate by race or colour or religion, it targets anyone, everyone.  All around you people are experiencing their own personal struggle through the darkness which slowly closes in around them. Think about the people you know and love. Statistically, your Mother, your Sibling, your friend, your colleague are experiencing their own version of that black ink, spreading through their life and their minds. Please, reach out to them, give them your hand, and help them escape from the blackness, before it swallows them whole.

Inspired Part 3

In the third part of my series, ‘Inspired’, I have been given another amazing image by the talented photographer David Kennedy.  As before, I have written a short story inspired by that image alone.  If you like David’s photography, and would like to see more, you can check him out on Instagram via @grey.lord.  If you like what you read, check out the other stories in the series via the blog calendar on my home page.  Don’t forget to follow my blog to keep up to date.  And finally, if you are an artist or photographer, or even a poet or writer too, and would like to collaborate with me, please get in touch!  Happy reading…

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Treasure

Mark wondered why Sam had chosen to hide the money here. Yes, it was remote and deserted and the likelihood of someone stumbling across their loot was slim to none, but every precarious step felt like a gamble with death. The place was condemned and every shift in his weight, sent pieces of concrete and red brick rumbling down holes and crevices. It was literally crumbling around him. And, if he was honest with himself, the place gave him the creeps. He would never admit to believing in ghosts or the paranormal, but if horror movies and camp fire stories had taught him anything, it was that you shouldn’t mess with that shit.

He carefully made his way across a beam, using it as a bridge between one room and the next, the floor having given up years prior. The more he told himself not to look down, the greater the urge, and he found himself speeding up, the last step being more of a hurried leap. As he wiped the sweat from his brow, he reminded himself to chastise Sam when he got there.

Sam was bright, there was no denying. He was the one who had come up with the plan to rob ‘The Deer’s Head’ on the day of the Grand National. He had worked there before, and knew the owner ran illegal betting for all the major sporting events. On days like that, there was a lot of cash on the premises, and the old man and his son wouldn’t be in a position to say no, staring down the barrel of a sawn off. It had been easy really. They wore rubber masks they bought online, stole a car for the get away and used his dad’s old hunting guns, with a few amendments of course. It had went like clockwork. The driver, Tommy Boy, stayed outside, with the engine running, while Sam and him went in, guns and voices raised. The old man nearly had a heart attack. They took everything, the cash, the Turkish cigarettes he was selling under the counter, the good booze. He even emptied the pounds out of the poker machines, the locks gave out easily to his crow bar and brute strength. In and out in five minutes, and they were nearly thirty grand richer for it. Owner only went to the bank once a week. Idiot.

Sam had suggested hiding the loot here, until the heat died down. Now, they were meeting up to divvy up the goodies, and he had his eye on a nice Yamaha bike. He had torn the page out of the local auto trader and taped it to his fridge.

What the? Something had moved in his peripheral vision, a dark shadow that vanished as quickly as it appeared. He felt himself shudder as the hairs raised on the back of his neck. The sooner he got his money, the sooner he could get the hell out of there. He was suddenly very aware of how huge and how isolated the building was, and he wished he had met the boys outside and come in together.

An old metal sign had rusted, leaving just the word ‘Warning’ visible. Mark didn’t know what the warning had originally been about, but he found it rather ominous now.

It had been a steel works back in the day, but cheaper steel from over seas had slowly crippled the place, along with all the other factories in the area, and it was eventually abandoned and forgotten, like the men who had grafted there. Men like his Father. He was determined not to end up like him. He had worked his ass off his entire life, and for what? He died with nothing but the clothes on his back in a grubby little counsel house. No, not him. He learned early on, if you want something you take it.

He stopped dead in the centre of the room. Had he heard something? He listened hard, holding his breathe in case he missed it. There it was again, a ringing sound, like a bell. It was to his left. He felt torn. The loot and his accomplices were ahead, but if someone else was there, he needed to know. There couldn’t be any witnesses after all. Slowly, he tiptoed across the room, avoiding the discarded pieces of machinery and tools. Through the door way, there was a long, dark corridor. He could hear the ringing, louder now, right at the end of it. Water was running through a crack in the ceiling. It must be raining outside.

He made his was through the gloom, feeling out each step before he put his full weight down. He didn’t know how bad this part of the factory was, and one wrong step could send him to A&E. He could use the torch on his phone of course, but he was wary of warning whoever was down there. By the time he reached the end, his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and he could just make out the shapes of stacked chairs and a desk. There, sitting on the desk, was an alarm clock, new and shiny and brightly coloured; a stark contrast to it’s surroundings.

“What the?” He reached out and pushed the snooze button on the top. The ringing stopped just in time for him to hear a shuffling behind him. But, it was too late. The first blow was enough to cause his vision to blur, and he fell forward onto the desk, the sheer shock of what had happened temporarily immobilising him. Before he could gather himself and retaliate, a second blow came down, and then a third. He was on the floor now, and his left eye was filling up with blood. He just focused his clear eye long enough to see Sam standing over him with a poker raised above his head, before the final blow closed it forever.

Sweat poured down Sam’s brow. He hadn’t realised how much energy it took to kill someone, especially someone as large as Mark. He was a big guy, about six foot two, with broad shoulders and bulging arms. All braun and no brains. Sam chuckled to himself. Tommy had been easier to dispatch. Idiot stood on the edge of one of the holes in the factory floor and commented on how far down it went. One little push, that was all it had taken, and Tommy boy went bye bye.

It had all been too easy. Blood dripped from the end of the poker onto the concrete floor below, joining with the pool which now formed around Mark’s head. Sam stared at what was left of his skull, and laughed. He was surprised Mark had any brains to spill. After he had wiped the poker down, he threw it out of one of the broken windows.

He made his way towards the little storage room where they had stashed the bag. He passed by the hole where Tommy had met his end, and couldn’t help peering over the edge. He still lay where he fell. He reminded Sam of a broken marionette puppet, all protruding limbs and sharp angles.

The bag was exactly where they had left it, in the bottom drawer of one of the old filing cabinets. The drawer had ‘X-Z’ written on it.

“X marks the spot.”

He laughed to himself again, a little disappointed he didn’t have an audience for his joke. He unzipped the bag and stared at the notes within. Thirty thousand quid and some change. It was enough to get him out of that dead end town. He had no idea where he was going, he just knew it would be far from here.

It was beginning to get dark, as he made his way back through the old factory floor. His footsteps echoed around him, and sent little clouds of dust up as he went. He was nearing the entrance way when something made him stop. There was a creaking noise coming from above him. It sounded almost like footsteps. It couldn’t be. There was no way either one of those idiots had survived. And yet, the creaking continued. He strained his ears, listening to see if the noise was moving along, as a person would. He stepped back into the room, and looked up through one of the gaps in the ceiling, trying to see through the darkness at the floors above. He felt dust land on his face, so something was moving up there. When the noise got louder, he realised what was happening seconds too late. A large chunk of masonry had become dislodged, perhaps because of time and degradation, or perhaps because of the sudden flurry of activity within the factory walls. As it hurtled towards the top of Sam’s head, he just about had time to think a single thought, his last thought…Karma’s a bitch.

Inspired Part 2

In the second part of my series called ‘Inspired,’ I have written a short story called, ‘Forgotten’ based on a picture taken by the very talented photographer David Kennedy.  If you like his work, you can check out more on his Instagram page @grey.lord.  Let me know what you think, and if you are a writer, artist, photographer or general creative type, and would like to collaborate with me, then get in touch.

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Forgotten

She was just nineteen years old when she was institutionalised. She was not a criminal, nor was she mad. Her only crime was being pregnant and unwed. Her lover had been much older than her. She was innocent and inexperienced. He did not have the excuse of youth nor naivety for his actions. He had seduced her, convincing her that he loved her, that they would elope and marry. But one day, she found her letters unanswered, and no answer at his door. He never said goodbye. At first, she had believed he would come for her; save her from that wretched place. But he never came, and eventually she lost all hope, along with her mind.

The day they brought her there, the sky had been a dark and foreboding grey, threatening to rain at any moment. She had stared out the window of the car, willing it to rain. She didn’t want to weep alone. Her father had not said a word to her since the day she had spilled her secrets. He never looked her in the eye, and tensed whenever she reached out to him, or spoke his name. After a while, she stopped trying. Her mother had called her a whore, and slapped her hard in the face.

They had tried to have one of the back street Doctors solve their problems, but she had only revealed her affliction when the bump had grown too large to conceal, and by then, it was too late. She had been glad. She loved the life growing inside her. It was all she had left of her lover, and of the time in her life when she had finally felt true happiness. It would belong to her, and she it. She would run away to somewhere they did not know her. She would invent a name, and a dead husband. They would not have much, but they would have each other.

By the time she saw the institution coming into view, and realised what was happening, it was too late to escape. She had kicked and screamed, and even bit one of the men in white uniforms, who had dragged her from her Father’s car, but they were so strong, and they stabbed her with something which filled her head with fog. She had screamed at her Father for help, but he never turned around. The last thing she had seen, before everything went black, was his car driving away.

After that, it was difficult to tell nightmares from reality. Her room was small and dark There were bars on the tiny, grubby window, from which she could just see the lush green of the world outside those walls. Inside, everything was grey. Grey paint peeled from the walls, and fell in large clumps like scabs. The itchy wool blanket which was stretched over the lump filled mattress of her single bed, was also grey. Even the light which emanated from the naked bulb above, seemed to be grey. It swung from side to side, despite there being no air in the room, and cast moving shadows all around.

They left her there, in that room, for hours. No one came to see her, or explained what was going on. The only reason she knew there were other people there, was the occasional scream, which echoed through the corridors outside her cell. Eventually, three men appeared. Two, she recognised as the orderlies who had dragged her inside. One wore a bandage on his right hand, which seeped. She hoped it hurt. The third man was short, with thinning grey hair, and small features. He wore small, round glasses which sat on the tip of his nose, and a pale grey, tweed suit. He always spoke quietly, even when she screamed in his face. He was Doctor Stevens, and he was the most evil man she had ever met.

He told her three things that first day. First, he said that she was very sick, and that she needed to stay in the institution until he could make her better. Second, he told her that violence would not be tolerated, and every outburst by her, would be met with swift and harsh punishment. Third, he told her that a lack of cooperation was pointless. They had ways of making her take the drugs and eat her meals, and they were so terrible, she should be smart and do what she was told, like a good little girl. She spat in his face.

Everything went black again. When she awoke, it was dark outside and her room was empty. She stared at the ceiling, damp and mould creeping across it, and prayed for help, for mercy. But it never came.

The next few weeks were a repetitive cycle of treatments, bland food, restless sleep and punishments for her defiance and attempts at escape. Ice baths in the morning, breakfast of cold porridge and bread. Next, came ‘exercise’ which consisted off placing her alone in a large enclosed yard, to wonder up and down, staring at pieces of the sky, before lunch, usually a broth of some kind. She would then be forced to have talking therapy with Dr Stevens, during which he would deride her for her sinful life, before she was made to go to the Hospital’s chapel, and confess her sins to the unsympathetic priest, Father Murphy. He always looked at her like she was the Devil himself, and spoke to her of the terrible fate awaiting her in the afterlife if she were not to repent. After another bland meal, she would be placed in her room for the evening, alone with her thoughts. The only reading material provided was a bible, with pages missing. The only comfort she had, was the movements and kicks of the child within her.

True despair did not come until the day they took her baby. She had went into labour in the small hours of the morning. It was pain like nothing she had ever felt, and she was utterly exhausted by the end, but it had all been worth it when she heard the little cries. But as she reached out to it, they carried it away, still crying. Crying out for it’s Mother. That was the last time she ever saw her child. They never even told her the gender, until a nurse with red hair, called Queeny, took sympathy on her, and secretly gave her a small black and white photograph of an infant, wearing a dress and bonnet. On the back, written in pencil, was the word ‘Elsie.’ That was one of the few moments of kindness shown to her during her stay.

After they had stolen Elsie, they had moved her to general population. Some of the other girls were there for the same reason she was. They tried to make friends, but she had nothing left to give another. She closed herself off, and stopped speaking. Other people only hurt us anyway.

Years passed, and patients came and went, but she remained, heartbroken and alone. Eventually, even the staff changed, and new managers and Doctors brought new treatments and therapies, but nothing can heal wounds that deep. When they found her stiff and cold in her bed, the other patients said she had died of a broken heart. Inside her hand they found a worn out black and white photograph of a child, whose, they did not know.

Everyone was glad to see the place closed. They had tried to sell it, and during the property boom, a few property developers had even viewed it, contemplating turning it into flats. But there was something off putting about the place, a vibe which left everyone who stepped foot inside, feeling unnerved. Eventually, it decayed and began to crumble. Not even birds would use it’s roof to perch, and dogs, out walking with their owners, barked at the empty windows, warning of invisible threats.

They say, she still walks the corridors to this day, crying out in pain. Crying for her baby.