March Short Story: Hysteria

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts (I know the graphic is incorrect) during March 2019 via the @AlternativeChat and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 4pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Hysteria

‘You’ve not heard, have you?’

Harry is the Senior Sub and my liaison since January. I was here to catch up with Connie in Lifestyle, returning her West Wing DVD’s, and he’s collared me by the vending machine.

‘I don’t look at social media every 10 seconds, what have I missed?’

‘Your favourite bonkers actress gave possibly the most honest post-Golden Globes interview anybody ever wished for.’

Looking at my watch it’s 3am in LA. Alice Hooper was a shoe-in as Best Supporting Actress for a remarkably subtle turn in ‘Surviving’, a World War 2 blockbuster. The win I knew about, because I’m in the same WhatsApp group as her publicist. We’ve kept in touch since graduating from Guildhall together: Pip and I shared a curry the last time she was in London. This turn of events is a surprise, and isn’t being spoken about privately as yet.

I know what Harry’s going to ask this freelancer next: the paper’s editor can spot a story half a mile away with headlights on long before anyone else. What needs to happen now is me at a workstation, firing up YouTube, in the hope this interview’s bonkers content has gone viral. Polly Acres has the footage on screen already, trawling it for comment, and is happy to re-run the three minutes and twenty three seconds in its entirety. The first thing that strikes is Alice isn’t herself: both hands grasp the award, working hard to keep a shake under control.

In two hundred and twenty three seconds she calls her co-star a misogynist devil, attacks the director for sacrificing historical accuracy over trite one liners and confirms the production company insisted that their CEO’s daughter be given a totally pointless walk-on cameo role. None of this is lies, if rumours online were to be believed, but they’d all been strenuously denied or redacted. For Alice to pretty much rubbish everybody she’d worked with in such a short space of time is an impressive show of defiance even for her, but that’s not the killer.

The final question comes from this paper’s Entertainment editor: what do you have to say to your fellow nominees? Alice stares straight at the camera, eyes full of tears:

‘You’re wasting your lives. Nobody cares about you, or what you’ve done. It’s time to change profession.’

The press room falls suddenly silent as Hooper extends her arm, before theatrically allowing the Golden Globe to fall to the ground, where it quite impressively disintegrates into several pieces. As she walks away, there is undoubtedly signs of a limp that wasn’t there yesterday.

I’ve interviewed Alice eleven times in twenty years. She’s never done drugs, remains proudly bisexual: last time there was a lover in her life was over a decade ago. Their death from a pulmonary aneurysm had profoundly altered both outlook and approach to the entertainment world. As the expert on Hooper in the room, Polly is told the facts: this woman will have drunk water all night, it isn’t prescription pills or drugs talking. No slur, eye contact with cameras the entire time. This is just her and utter truth.

The question we should be asking is why.

My phone ringing at this point would normally be a massive inconvenience, until I notice the caller ID: Harry’s eyes widen as I show him, before connecting to Pip. She should be asleep, but if the call’s being made now, I’ll be on a flight to LA before the end of business today.

I know what’s going to happen before it does.


Eleven hours on a plane and a small fee for internet is all I need to get back up to speed on Alice’s life to date. There’s an immediate red flag: an appearance on a US genealogy programme was suddenly cut a couple of months ago. Buried away in a Variety byline are the details, language which is quite obviously chosen by someone with a legal eye on proceedings. I had no idea such programmes even existed, and with time to kill there’s an opportunity via the flight’s entertainment system to watch an example.

Fourteen minutes into this particular episode, elderly male celebrity makes jokes as he’s asked to swab inside his cheek for a DNA test, and I’m curious. My mother used to tell me I was wasted as a journalist and would have made a fantastic policewoman instead. She was right. This would have been something Alice would have loved: history, romance and intrigue around her family who emigrated from Italy to New York in the 1880’s. What if that DNA test had flagged something serious, the knowledge of which had forced her to withdraw from this documentary?

I’ve not replied to Pip’s last WhatsApp message yet, details of when to meet Hooper when I get to LA. Normally we’d meet at the Chateau Marmont, but instead it appears I’ll finally get to see Alice’s home for the first time, which fills my tired mind with a measure of excitement. El Cabrillo was built by Cecil B. DeMille in 1928: a two-story, ten-unit Spanish-style courtyard apartment complex, which has a history as rich and torrid as the man who was responsible for it’s construction. It has featured in countless TV shows and movies across the decades.

It’s one of three homes in LA, originally owned by her last long-term partner Lucy Welles. It was generally accepted she never stayed there any more as a result, but she will be there at 9am tomorrow morning, waiting for me. Nobody else will be offered either invite or interview. I ask Pip via WhatsApp if she’s okay, expecting a generic response. It takes fifteen minutes, then a video arrives: she’s still in the outfit worn for the Golden Globes. She thanks me for my discretion and honesty, before bursting into tears.

Something is terribly wrong here.


There’s a man waiting outside the Complex as I get out of the cab the next morning. LA is surprisingly sullen and grey, sweater weather for most. I’m still too hot and suddenly nervous, uncomfortable at this man’s presence. I’d come fearing the worst: this serves as confirmation. He’s a care nurse, unphased I’m a reporter, explaining that Ms Hooper has left strict instructions for my handling. There is breakfast inside: I must wait until Alice wakes naturally. It is important not to disturb her. As he opens her apartment door, I’m left completely stunned.

The place is a shell: no furniture except my chair, full breakfast tray and Alice’s hospital bed, for that’s what it is. Surrounded by quietly bleeping and clicking machines is the woman who yesterday was very much upright and defiant. As the front door closes, eyes flicker open.

‘Good morning, Ruth. I hope you brought enough hard disk space for a sizeable expose…’


I wish now I’d taken a proper camera, looking at photos downloaded from my ancient and much in need of an upgrade mobile phone. Back now at the Hotel, they’ll tell this story regardless. Alice Hooper was diagnosed with Lichen planus eleven months ago: after the disease failed to respond to traditional medication she was sent for specialist testing. Then came the discovery that her immune system had begun attacking other organs, including liver, heart and lungs.

She provides me with details of a charity set up to fund research and promote knowledge of this new condition, using her personal fortune after she finally passes. It could be weeks, or hours from now. Nobody really knew. Death stood, waiting for a prompt she was ready to leave. Asking about the outburst at the Golden Globes, why she spoke brutal truth elicited the only real smile in her entire interview.

‘I was a lousy actress, never made a difference. However as a test subject I might end up saving lives. I really wish I’d changed careers far sooner.’

It’s impossible to transcribe any more of the interview, I’m crying too much. This woman is a personal heroine, and I will be the last person to have interviewed her. This legacy, gratefully received, will ensure devotion to her life and career ends on the most positive of notes. On the way back to LAX that evening four calls in thirty minutes go to my answerphone. Rumours are flying after Alice’s performance that this is way more serious than a spat with the production company. People want to know why I’m in LA: they’ll be told, when I am good and ready.

Once upon a time I’d have been hustling for a deal, playing one media outlet against the other. Not any more: what she told me, with brutal honestly over four hours has already had a profound affect on existence.

To be so fearless, that close to death… her greatest performance.


Alice Hooper dies when I’m somewhere over Newfoundland.

Pip’s message is two minutes of tears, trying to get words out: she doesn’t need to. A stewardess asks if I’m okay, only passenger in First Class Alice bought for my return trip. I tell the truth: a dear friend passed away.

My Favourite Things

Last day of February, and starting tomorrow there will be no more poetry until the start of April. The burnout really is real, and it has been a very long time since I threw myself into something that worked as wish fulfilment before anything else. Enter Ternary which is a writing project which is likely to be familiar already to those of you who have been here for a while.

Ternary.png

This used to be The Sayers which began as weekly fiction. Now it’s been amended, extensively edited and is in the course of being completely re-written from scratch. That’s what I’m going to do with my free time in the next few weeks, as well as the other stuff that you’ll have seen in Monday’s blog post. It has a soundtrack Spotify playlist (under construction) and I keep writing bits of dialogue down as stuff occurs to me and in that regard, it’s already a success.

The ultimate irony however is that it begins with a poem.

Progression and development means different things to different people. For me, even if I can’t stand the sight of it right now, poetry’s become part of my psyche. It is also remarkably important in the alternate history I’m writing, that the piece which starts the book pretty much underpins everything that takes place during the first part of what, on reflection, was always going to be a trilogy. How I decide to publish it remains to be seen. This year’s submissions elsewhere will probably determine that path.

For now, there’s the unbridled joy of a new thing to do, and that honestly the last thing I care about now is how other people get to read it when it’s done. All that matters is the telling: we have a beginning, middle and end, with all points in-between covered. That in itself is a glorious state of affairs that’s not taken place for quite some time.

November Short Story: Piper

This story was first published in 30 parts via Twitter during November. It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Piper

Maggie Piper can’t sleep, won’t take the chance she’ll miss her son again. It’s 1.15 am, brain’s ramped up on coffee, waiting for when the phone sounds a tinny, dissonant alarm at 2.26. Then, without fail, Alfie will start what’s become a weekly, unstoppable sleepwalking ritual. When her husband left in the spring, things were initially difficult between mother and son. Alfie was quiet to begin with, and for a while said nothing at all at school or to friends. Then, Maggie decided to just tell him the truth, no frills. That altered a lot between them.

He admitted relief that Dad had left, watching violent abuse meted out after drinking and late shifts and had no idea how to help. His father had ignored him for years, the loss was nothing he felt either angry or upset about. What mattered more was their happiness going forward. For a few brief and glorious months, life had been full of smiles and laughter, but after the boy turned 12 in October, something changed. There are gaps in memory that cannot be explained, irritable behaviour, and now, twice a week at 2.26 am, he leaves the house without fail.

She took him to her aunt’s in Blackpool at half term, hoping sea air might help. He was less irritable, but still found his way outside regardless. There he stood, looking down for six minutes before returning to bed. She is too scared to lock doors, no attempt to restrain him… There’s a chirp from the phone, and immediate confusion: who could be sending texts at this time in the morning? Looking at the message, Mags’ brain is simultaneously amazed and frightened by what she reads:

‘My son is going to sleepwalk again tonight too. You are not alone.’

The first thought is to respond but there is no time, as second message appears:

‘Please pack an overnight bag. A car will come at 3am. Don’t be scared, please get in, because if you do we can provide all the answers required to not only help but support you both right now.’

‘How can I trust you?’

‘30 kids in Manchester wake up twice a week like him. One goes to Alfie’s school. We want to help them all and all the other kids across the country who have been doing the exact same thing since October 15th.’

‘There are others?’

‘There are thousands.’

Mags’ not scared any more, but comforted. If there are others like this, there will be a reason why this is happening, and if someone else is already dealing with the issue, she should be involved. There’s twenty minutes before Alfie walks; just time to pack a bag for them both.


It’s still dark as car rolls into the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre. Alfie is asleep, head in Mags’ lap seeming far more relaxed and comfortable than she’s seen for a while. The driver, Bill, is a genial Mancunian but has kept silent to allow Mrs Piper time to read as they drove. The folder she’s been given is both reassurance and panic combined: across the UK, since October 15th, exactly 2027 children have been acting as a unit in Manchester, Liverpool and the market town of Nantwich in Cheshire, constituency home of the current Prime Minister’s family.

Elicia Redmayne, eldest daughter of Charles Redmayne, PM, is the most high profile of the 2027 sleepwalking children at the exact same time as Alfie. He’s also absolutely the last person Mag expects to have opening her car door at 4am: he waits, looking more nervous than she is. The papers have been full of his absence from Westminster in the last week: is he unwell? Is there an international crisis in full swing, with government leaders across Scandinavia and Europe also disappearing from public life? Mags now knows real reason why Redmayne’s gone AWOL.

He and his party may be disliked by large portions of the country for socialist policies and a distinct focus on environmental issues over encouraging profits, but there is no doubting the unerring commitment to three children after wife died from Breast cancer a year previously. This man would do anything for his family, and for others. Redmayne takes a still-sleeping Alfie in his arms, carrying the boy to a newly constructed area on the Jodrell Bank site. Khaki tents have been erected: portacabins mark temporary walls of a site where armed guards stand.

Perhaps before it would have scared Mags this place is protected but now there’s an understanding of the scale of Alfie’s significance, the Army serve as reassurance. It isn’t just kids in the UK who are acting as a unit, but across the globe, and to an extremely specific pattern. There’s a medical team waiting already, because this young boy is the last piece of an incredibly complex puzzle that’s taken since October 15th to decrypt.


Mags isn’t very hungry, pushing scrambled eggs around her breakfast plate. This temporary mess hall might be packed, but she feels very much alone. It’s almost lunchtime and Mrs Piper is exhausted, yet too scared to sleep. The briefing she was given still rattles around a brain that is simultaneously happy and stunned: her son is the last of the 2027 UK children to be located. This makes Jodrell Bank unique across the World.

Tonight sleepwalkers will be watched and monitored as the first complete unit to be gathered together in one space. Media is already saturated with this revelation after the story broke in Sweden the previous day. Redmayne will therefore address the nation in the next 30 minutes. The Army have already taken over the entire Butlins holiday camp in Skegness as the only place where 2027 children plus families and observers can be kept together without major issue. As soon as Alfie’s tests are completed they’ll be driven with the PM’s team to join the group.

Tonight, at 2.26am, all kids will be allowed to roam free across the camp. There have already been hints of individuals heading for each other, groups forming before moving to create some kind of shape or message. Various theories will now be examined under controlled conditions. Mags already knows what’s going on in her heart, and that’s what frightens her most. This is no different to all the times husband would manipulate them both, his threats of violence if they didn’t do as they were told. Nothing good ever comes of messing with other people’s minds.

Even if all this could be precursor to some wondrous, life changing event, Mrs Piper is already thinking ahead. Considering every possibility was how her soon to be ex husband was finally found out, his affair and misuse of joint cash exposed with quiet, unemotional efficiency. Her father, an ex Army man himself, had taught many lessons in survival. Always know your exits. Plan for the worst, so the best can be enjoyed as a true surprise. Most importantly, however charismatic and beguiling they may be, never believe politicians know little or nothing.

Watching the PM on screen in a now silent, rapt Mess Hall, all eyes are on his speech; Mags knows he’s lying. They’ll have a chance for conversation on the way to Skegness, and then she’ll push him for the truth. How he reacts will dictate what happens next to Alfie, and for her.

This is not the World she woke up to yesterday.


It is not the World anyone expected today.

Trying not to look back, it is impossible to ignore raging flames in Range Rover’s rear view mirror. Four children huddle on the back seat, too scared to even cry.

Maggie Piper is numb.

At 2.26am, every kid at the holiday park had woken simultaneously: not one sleepwalked. Instead, from their mouths issued noise unlike anything heard on Earth in tens of thousands of years. It was anguished alarm, sending unexplained fear into the souls of each assembled parent. Redmayne had argued long and hard against kids being bought together, but the Scandinavians were adamant. This had happened before in their history; no harm had come to any of the children previously. This time, circumstances were different. Many things had changed in a century.

As connections were lost with Sweden, Norway and Denmark, the UK Military’s communications were ruthlessly severed. These children’s presence alerted the first wave of invasion craft hidden on the far side of the Moon, that Earth was sufficiently self-aware to present a problem. This planet had solved a genetic puzzle planted by the Korsal 8000 years ago, ingrained to determine human’s level of sophistication, alerting when bodily harvesting should finally take place.

Redmayne and Mags, plus their children, are the only survivors from a deadly first strike.

September Short Story: Sacrifice

WARNING: This story deals with adult themes and should, as a result, be approached responsibly.

This story was first published in 30 parts via Twitter during September. It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Sacrifice

 

Knowing this is how he will die, Daniel Burton succumbs to fate.


The salty whiteness his body is tumbling towards registers acceptance with more than a measure of panic: he’s willingly sacrificing himself to me with no fear, why? He’s in love, first time in 34 years. With HER. Searching this man’s mind, these last seconds are blissfully calm. Elaine’s honestly, beauty and courage shattered resolve never to even consider the possibility of a woman in his existence. This is true love too; the Librarian’s Contract has been broken. Daniel has to live.

The vast lake of sentient semen, built over nearly six hundred years from ritual offerings, thinks it has the right to be hacked off at this turn of events but is surprisingly sanguine instead.

Then it begins to laugh: deranged and maniacal: what will now happen is beyond funny.


There’s a voice, in Daniel’s head, chuckle that unexpectedly busts out into a full-blown cackle of delight.

‘Nice work, my son! Whether you like it or not, we’re now in this for the ride, together. I can’t harm you, because if I did the World will come to an end, quite literally… I have one last task to do before this is all over then you get the happy ending that fucked me over in the first place. HANG ON…’

Up from the lake comes shape of a hand, catching falling body with delicate skill. The last thing Daniel remembers before passing out again is the smell…


Chained to the Non-Fiction section of the Manchester Central Library, Elaine McCormack knows something has altered in the nightmare of existence since September 12th, 1468. Deep below Manchester’s streets familiar presence in her head is laughing maniacally whilst Edgar’s in pain. Next to Fiction, the warlock to whom she’s been magically bound since her 16th birthday drops to the ground, clawing at collar of a perfectly starched Jerome Street shirt. The air darkens, swirls of mist and iniquity not seen since their fateful first night on Saddleworth Moor.

This game, meticulously managed over centuries encompassed the Industrial Revolution, two World wars… rise, fall and renaissance of a centre for commerce and inspiration. Finally they’re here, second decade of the 21st Century, about to lift the curse that’s crippled this city. For six hundred and fifty years this man wanted her love. That was all that was needed: steadfast refusal had been her undoing, and in his anger they were both bound to this spot to suffer for all eternity… except not any more.

Daniel had broken their curse, simply by being kind.

There’s a low rumble from beneath the foundations of the Library, as Edgar Burrows grasps extended existence is about to be forcibly snuffed out by his own deranged and distinct ego. The spell used to separate them back in 1968 had simply escalated this inevitable confrontation. Except Burrows isn’t ready to leave, and with the curse that joined him to Elaine temporarily weakened, there might yet be an opportunity to reach for a second stab at immortality without the millstone of his own sexuality to continually assuage. It is worth a try, so he’s gone.

As warlock vanishes in a puff of sulphur and salt, McCormack’s mental and physical bonds evaporate. Falling to the floor, the woman prepares for reversion to pre-pubescent state, or to die instantly from old age. When neither happens, there’s cause for considerable celebration. Her thoughts go immediately to Daniel: he’s beneath, in the Chamber. This offering has not been consumed by the Creature and remains… asleep. Protected inside its body, reward offered for assistance, if she really cares for him. To remove Burrows completely… there is still a way.

Running through the Library, people are leaving, belongings left behind in panic as they bolt for the exits. Only now is it apparent that the entire building is shaking, books beginning to dislodge from shelves: outside sirens grow louder, emergency services arriving on cue. Time is running out, and the item that Elaine needs is locked inside Edgar’s office. Fortunately for her, he won’t realise what is about to happen until it is far too late. The obsession with self-preservation is literally about to become his own undoing, blinkered to the end.

In her head, the Creature’s apprehension manifests as surprise and resignation, before its guilt stops her progress. The ego is sorry, as afraid to die as Burrows… but is about to do so willingly for her soul. Joint sacrifice is unstoppable, stolen life now returned, unhindered. With a massive bang, door to Edgar’s office is blown off its hinges before being reduced to a surprisingly neat and evenly splintered pile of firewood. An ancient Tome of Spells that had been used to bind virgin to warlock is in Elaine’s hand, conveniently open at the right page.

Except after centuries of abuse and subjugation, McCormack cannot read the words; killing and torture her abuser’s task, not hers. She was better than this… but unless there was action, more innocents would vanish. A hand moves gently on her arm, book taken from a shaking grasp. This man ceased to exist the night he bound them together on the moor, yet continues to represent pure body of their curse: Burrows true self, forcibly removed decades previously. His ethereal manifestation smiles, resignation obvious and inescapable, tears falling as he speaks.

‘I am so sorry for all of this, what I did to you. The Evil will stop at nothing to keep himself in this plane, and to stop him I will smother every atom of that persona into oblivion. Let me read the words, so you can understand the good that existed but was lost so long ago.’

As the Creature reads, book turns from solid to smoke, vapour swirling around and into the fabric of the apparition. Instead of being bound to the woman, good has reattached itself to evil with one task in mind, to forcibly cancel darkness out with light, once and for all. The building suddenly stops shaking, and with a thump, Daniel appears on the floor in an ungainly heap.


Outside the Library, Emergency Services are in a state of some considerable concern. The ground beneath their feet has gone from solid to distinctly unstable within moments. With complete synchronicity, every manhole cover and access point covered by a metal plate is blown upwards into the early July morning. How anyone is not hurt is a miracle… and as each one whistles into clear blue sky, they vanish without a trace, before time slows to a crawl.

For a mile surrounding the Library an overpowering, oppressive stench rises like a wave from beneath city’s streets: is it hideously overripe cheese, rotting food or dead fish? Perhaps it is all three: as nearly four thousand people lose consciousness simultaneously nobody cares.


There remains a fair deal of contention as to what exactly happened at 10.15 am on the morning of July 16th: most agree they won’t ever forget the smell. Details are still under investigation, discussion in public subject to a raft of legal restrictions… but evidence remains. The three foot high wave of white liquid that engulfed Albert Square and surrounding streets has been described as a mass hallucination, because how else would the entire Town Hall have remained undamaged? Except amazingly, everything for a square mile is now pristinely clean.

Skeletal remains that appeared in 162 neat rows east of St Peter’s Square are being identified by the Manchester Police Force. Early rumours suggest at least some may belong to a number of the Jackson’s Row Missing, homeless people who mysteriously vanished across forty years. Initial damage reported to the inside of the Central Library could not be confirmed, and patrons were somewhat divided over what they observed in the hours leading up to the incident. The event’s only casualty was last seen inside the building: Edgar Burrows remains listed as ‘missing.’

Manchester Chronicle reporter Daniel Burton was injured as a result of a separate incident on the same day and remains stable at the Royal Infirmary. His harrowing report surrounding this incident and Burrow’s true identity has been read nearly twenty  million times on the Internet.


As man sleeps, wrapped in hospital linen, Elaine refuses to leave his side. Outside their room a dead Elm tree continues to regenerate: late, unexpected burst of Spring green in mid July. There will be issues to address over McCormack’s abilities once Daniel is fully conscious…


 

August Short Story :: Lydia

This story was first published in 31 parts via Twitter during August. It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Lydia

The Circus has never visited Anchorbridge before, of that Connie is certain. It’s not even on the map, battered corner store and gas station, collection of huts and tents that the railroad somehow forgot. Why they’re stopping here, now, is a mystery to all the carnies except one. Polari knows why they’re pitched, massive tent hauled to it’s full, imposing height. Sometimes, deviation is their plan because the Cards instruct change matters more than dollars. Connie watches from her caravan as he holds court: showman extraordinaire, Ringmaster of all.

This change transpired the night before, wagons pulled to sudden halt before crossing the tracks. Autumn’s coming: they’re already too far south as it is. To hit the State Line before October’s winds start causing trouble, this is a stop too far for everybody… yet, it’s show-time. 

Connie’s neck and chin have been itching since early dawn, so she combs the coarse, red fibres of her beard as distraction. Body is humming, heat within like late summer sun, harsh and unrelenting. This flesh demands satisfaction, but no man here will touch her. She’ll survive. These muscles intimidate whilst breasts infuriate, which is the way it should be when you’re 100% woman except for the addition of excess facial hair. Gramma Ana had cried the day she’d upped and left, but understood why. Normal folks won’t accept a freak, just the way life works.

Except these folks do, and have. Sure, she’s lonely sometimes, but everyone here is too, in their own way. The relief is companionship, acceptance and understanding. The performance is everything, glue that sticks them together in one glorious, colourful whole… and she’s needed. The Bosco Brothers and the Amazing Almarzanoff can’t get the main tent support straight, it requires a woman’s brutal, muscular touch to complete. Beard grooming can wait, this is a part of the dance Connie secretly loves. Without her, they are less than whole, as it should be.

They’ll do three nights here and then it’s time to pack the wagons to head north for the Winter.


In the middle of her first Strongwoman act, Conni’s aware of being stared at. It shouldn’t be a problem, that’s part of performance, except this time… something is in the air. Tonight has been full of surprises: a lame horse galloping into the ring fully cured, before demanding to be part of the act she’d performed in for over a decade. The clowns’ buckets, normally filled with paper tonight held water: Beppo was not happy at his resultant soaking.

As the sold out, full to bursting tent cheers its acknowledgement of her ability to lift two adult sea lions precariously balanced on plinths, there’s a smile brighter than sunshine from the seats by the entrance. The woman’s tall and blonde, sporting beard the colour of straw. Connie has to stare hard, confirming the truth. Reed thin but still muscular in dungarees and a chequered shirt, this stranger exudes warmth and humour: more significantly, nobody around her seems at all phased by the fact she’s a bearded lady… quite the opposite is the case.

Scanning the crowd, this woman is not alone: there’s a voluptuous brunette in a blue summer dress, elegant goatee plus immaculate handlebar moustache. Twin mousy brown haired, middle aged ladies clap and smile, beards plaited and bowed to match the tailored scarlet trouser suits. The tent is at least a quarter full of beards, sported by both sexes, and nobody seems to be the least bit upset or phased. As the entire audience rises to a standing ovation, Connie’s heart accepts something that previously was unbelievable: she is no longer unique in the World.

There’s also a sudden, overriding desire to take a walk into town the following day: Anchorbridge is suddenly a fascinating place to be pitched at. The Circus’ only Bearded Lady’s already deciding which of many dresses to wear, and hoping she might bump into someone on the way…


The following morning is unusually sunny and warm for mid-September: Connie is having trouble containing excitement as she walks through the outskirts of the town, surprised at how many inhabitants there are living in shacks and tents, in the process of building better homes. Passing these groups, there’s no shortage of smiles or good mornings. Obviously overt single sex families mix with the traditional, one group that appear to be some kind of commune… with absolutely no sadness to be found. Everybody, without exception, appears relaxed and happy.

Her assumption had been there was some raw material being farmed here, or a resource exploited… but the truth is these people are outsiders, with nowhere else to go. Normal society had forced them into the wilderness, and together they were creating their own unique Community. Reaching what passes for Main Street, Connie’s heart soars: there is the woman with the sunshine smile, axe in hand, efficiently trimming a large trunk of its bark. Athleticism is without question, sight of her muscles working as blade strips tree becoming beyond distracting…

‘That’s Lydia,’ says a voice to her right. Turning, a young boy, not yet into his teens, is watching the woman work, as transfixed as she is. ‘My aunt can clear bark off a tree in ten minutes. She’s the best woodworker in town, have you come to learn how to make things too?’

The woman has stopped working, aware of Connie’s presence, and as their eyes meet attraction is both obvious and unavoidable. Lost for words, the Circus’ bearded lady is no longer outsider, or afraid of consequences of her desire. She has already been made better coming here.


This will be the first time Connie has missed a performance since her late teens: she knows Polari will not be angry. In fact, it was him who gave her leave to be here: ‘these truly are your people,’ he’d confirmed before encouraging her not to return for the day’s entertainment. Lying under canvas, Lydia is sleeping beneath crook of her arm. Talking here together, fully clothed, whisper of possibility slowly bound both together. There are two days before the Circus is due to ship out, handful of important choices to make before morning sun finally rises.

It would be so easy to once more drop everything, starting new existence with this family, in a loving community, already instant and accepting home, except… the Circus means more to her than was at first grasped. To leave them would also hurt: there are hard choices lying ahead. What is needed most are Elvira’s cards plus clairvoyant’s unswerving guidance: the distraction beside her must be removed, for now. A note is written, on back of a circus flyer: ‘There are issues that need to be settled, I will return with the dawn.’ before quietly slipping away.

It is a surprise to find a group of friends waiting for her at the City limits: all seven Bosco Brothers impeccably attired in matching suits, Beppo and Alto’s bright scarlet waistcoats acting as beacons in the gloom. Even Polari dressed for the occasion, a faultless ensemble. ‘I know what you seek, but there’s no need. Elvira has told me to follow your lead, that all who yearn must come see this community for themselves. She understands better than anyone what drives both bodies and minds forward. It is time for everyone to stop, think and breathe.’

The look Polari gives is damning, reasoning the Circus stopped here becoming clear: an overridingly female-heavy community, possibility to look past appearance and convention for genuine connection. What mattered most to her as attractive, is different for everybody, after all… As both Boscos plus clowns move as a throng towards town Polari remains, taking Connie’s hand with unexpected gentleness. There is a change to him: not inevitability of losing her to these people, but something far more significant. He is ready to give up existence for her ideal.

‘You have wrought much change since agreeing to stay and became part of our family: I will never be able to thank you for all the lessons these boys were taught, for that is all most of them have ever been. Respect matters, above all else, to build the best of men in this World. There is no point in moving back north, fate dictates this is our home for the winter, perhaps longer. Elvira knew we might lose you, but then grasped greater good that could come from us all taking a moment to stop and think, reassessing where it was that we all belonged.’

Connie will thank Elvira in the morning, no need now to return to the Circus. Anchorbridge has become a way-point, chance of growth for all her friends. What matters most to her is Lydia: cornflower blue eyes, hair the hue of ripened corn, bright bearded future possible together.


The Story of Us

As the process of applying for poetry mentorships has been moving forward, my brain is thinking about all the means by which I ought to be improving the other forms of writing which form the backbone of my online life: not simply blogging, but the narrative forms too. I’ll be trying a different approach to the August Short Story, for instance, which is again a diversion from my first person approach. It helps to try and mix up the foundations, in order to keep writing fresh. However, when reminded that every story is the same… is there a point?

I follow a number of automated ‘story’ Bots online. They’re a collection of random phrases, programmed into a spreadsheet, which then automatically generate these resultant Tweets at set times. It has always fascinated me that the Bots come up with interesting structures, but to do so, they have to be programmed with the correct language and syntax. Marco Polo’s structure, once you’ve read a couple of dozen tweets, is predictable. It’s certain key words that change meaning: temple, township, spire-dwellers, caverns are comfortable narrative baselines, but it is more often than not the protagonist’s reactions to these places which creates most interest.

This Bot is one of my favourites, and demonstrates that you don’t need 280 characters to tell compelling stories. I’ve found myself wanting to extend on certain stories from this account too, because the surreal nature of some of the juxtapositions between sentence one and two make for really entertaining reading. To write a good bot, it occurs to me, needs a programmer who understands how language works, and then how to translate that into the most accessible, compelling forms. It’s odd to say I’m being taught by robots how to write better fiction, but this is undoubtedly the case.

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With the holiday coming up, and with wifi at the villa we’re staying at, I hope to get some time to watch more of Will Schoder’s output because it looks interesting. After that, its time to see if YouTube has anything else to teach me…

EX/WHI :: Part Six

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The bottles behind the cafe’s counter might look full of alcohol but it is immediately apparent they’re empty, and not even made of glass. What Chris finds fascinating is the illusion they create: same weight, even with obvious transparency, but constructed from something unbreakable, that bounces back every time he throws one at the floor. As he attempts to destroy an increasing number of items from hand to ground, Ami is investigating fridges and storage areas. Her conclusions are not comforting: apart from what they jointly bought on arrival, everything else is an elaborate copy.

An incredulous mind is slowly adjusting to their new reality, because that’s what it is. They’ve already established in the last hour by their watches (which still work) that they’re prisoners, there’s absolutely no way in or out of this facsimile, the toilets still function and there’s water they won’t yet drink. With nothing sharp or dangerous enough to make even a dent in what appears to be an impressive and quite bouncy outer wall, they instead investigate the bounds of confinement. Chris has done his best to brute force anything that might look like it could act as a weapon but after the incident with the table, nothing budges.

‘We could try and hurt ourselves and see what happens.’

Chris looks at Ami, who’s holding something in her hand that is obviously not part of the illusion, which is a surprise.

‘I really wish this was a gun or a bomb and not just lipstick, but it at least allows us to make notes. We need to work out what we know, so there’s a chance of answering questions that make no logical sense.’

Her lack of panic or incredulity has been amazingly impressive since regaining consciousness: without Bishop’s pragmatism, he’d have probably just sat and hugged his knees for a long time before wanting to work out answers, not allowing reality to seep into this nightmare. However, she needs to be running the problem, and is already writing a word them on the top of the long, dark wooden serving bar which, as it transpires, was his first thought about their abductors too.

‘I read an inordinate amount of science fiction as a kid. Tons of the stuff, watched all the TV shows. I know what this is, because that’s the only logical explanation for what just happened.’

‘I was big on Buck Rogers, did you get him in the UK?’

‘Yeah, and Wonder Woman, and that thing with the metal bad guys -’

‘Cylons. They at least looked like aliens. What makes you so sure that’s what this is?’


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