Crimson’s Creative Challenge #66: The Knapper

CCC#66

A last bus rumbled past, leaving behind it diesel fumes and a wash of gutter water.

The night was restless with weaving drunks, corners stuffed with sleeping bags and cardboard mattresses for the city’s homeless.

‘Does it have to be now?’ Marv whispered.

Tyche pushed knotted hair from her eyes. ‘When else?’ She approached the old gaol wall, its dark mosaic of flint nodules.

‘We’re gonna end up in jail ourselves, only it’ll be more shared lavs and shivs than pretty rocks.’

‘Here.’ She knelt by the rusted grill, hand on a particular ball of flint. ‘Get to work, Knapper.’

Sighing, Marv eased down beside her. The wall seemed to glow a little, a faint luminescence only visible away from the street lights. Placing a swollen knuckle on the light, he struck.

Splinters fell to the pavement. A song floated, sinuous on the air. Such longing.

‘We’re here,’ hissed Tyche.

***

Written for Crimson’s Creative Challenge #66. Go here to join in.

NB. Tyche was the Greek Goddess who governed the prosperity and fortune of a city.

Flint is a fascinating material that was used for weaponry and tools long before it was used to make buildings. It’s almost a mystical thing, to watch an expert knapper create an arrowhead from a solid, brittle ball of flint.

And for fun, I thought I’d include a video of my favourite knapper – archaeologist Phil Harding from Wessex Archaeology. And if you want to imagine Phil as Marv, feel free.

What Pegman Saw: Blackbirding

Image: Googgle Street View

Solomon crouched to the last snare. This was often the best place – dense shrubs in the lea of a tumbledown wall, the sound of waves crackling over the shingle beach below.

The blackbird eyed him. It lay on its side as if tipped by the wind, exhausted from fighting the snare. A young cock, strong, clean feathers. The scales on its left leg were torn away, bloodied, the foot nearly off where the wire had pulled tight.

The sun was almost up, the world all greys, the blackbird a scrap of night with a golden beak.

Solomon enclosed it in his hand, rubbing the soft head with his thumb. The bird was too tired to fight, breaths coming fast and shallow.

He’d always liked blackbirds – smart, handsome, harmless.

The neck broke easily with a twist of his fingers. He tossed the corpse into the sea.

Poor eating on a blackbird.

***

Written for What Pegman Saw, the prompt that uses Google Streetview. This week we are in Vanuatu in the Solomon Islands.

On reading the history of the islands, I found they were a target for slavers seeking labour for sugar plantations. This practice was called ‘blackbirding’.

Night of the crying women

Image: Bernd Rehbein Pixabay

I’m away from my laptop this week so thought I’d share this, a story that won first place in a competition a few years ago. It’s a longer read than normal but worth it, I hope. As it was part of a Bronte anniversary comp. can any of you guess which of the sisters’ novels inspired it? Answers in the comments, please.

***

‘Got the look of an old lag about her,’ said Grandad, fingertip tapping the rain speckled pane.

‘Like you’d know,’ said Mum. ‘Come on, you’ve sagged again.’ She slipped her arms under his, yanking him up in his chair, plumping his jumper like she was arranging a cushion.

‘Leave me alone,’ he grumbled, swatting at her. ‘I’ve met crooks enough to know one. Come here, our John. Have a look.’ He tugged me close, pointing towards the street below.

From our sixth floor window, I could see the roof of The George Inn where Mum worked on weeknights and next to it the playground, with its crisscross paths and the frame with the missing swings.

‘What?’ I said, not sure what I was looking at.

Then I saw her, hunched against the wind, hair the colour of Tizer whipping from a squashy knitted hat. She pushed a tartan shopping trolley that flapped with empty carrier bags.

‘She’s wearing slippers,’ I said.

‘You see,’ said Grandad. ‘Probably pinched’em from Terry at the market.’

Mum had put on a rain hat and her coat, transforming the hat’s slithering ties into a bow with a twist of her fingers. ‘Her name’s Gracie, she comes in the pub. Downs three milk stouts every night then rolls home.’

Mum headed for the door. ‘The only criminal thing about her is the quarter of gin she hides in her trolley to sneak in her stout. Now Dad, stop talking codswallop. John, off to bed – and mind you brush your teeth.’

***

The next time I saw Gracie, I was sitting on a bench in the playground with Ed and Dougie from the flats. Ed had a bottle of Cream Soda and I’d brought two Penguin biscuits from home to share. Dougie didn’t bring anything – the cupboards in his place were always empty.

I was licking the last squishy chocolate from a Penguin wrapper, when Dougie said, ‘Seen her?’ Gracie was crossing the park with her trolley. ‘Nutter,’ he said and returned to peeling the label off the bottle.

‘Don’t do that,’ said Ed. ‘I want the money back on it.’ He nodded towards Gracie. ‘Mum says we should keep away from that old cow. Says noises come out of her flat at night.’

‘What kind of noises?’ I said.

Ed shrugged. ‘Weird ones. Mum says the old woman’s neighbour Mr Brocklehurst has complained to the council but they don’t give a monkey’s so long as the rent’s paid.’

‘Her trolley rattles like it’s full of empties,’ said Dougie. ‘And she smells like the drain outside the pub.’

‘Wonder what the noises are,’ I said.

Dougie snatched up the Cream Soda bottle and threw it hard. It fell just short of Gracie’s slippers, shattering into a million shards that skittered over the tarmac.

‘Bloody idiot,’ said Ed, punching Dougie hard on the leg. ‘You owe me the money on that.’

Gracie didn’t even pause, but trudged on towards The George.

***

We were walking back from school the next day when Ed raised the subject of Gracie again.

‘I went up to listen at the old bag’s flat last night.’

‘Why?’

‘Cos Mr Brocklehurst is above us and he was moaning and pacing and banging his stick on her wall – noisy pig. So I waited till my dad was watching the news and slipped out. Wanted to hear for myself.’

‘And?’ I said.

His pace slowed to a crawl. ‘Voices. Hers – and others too. Women mainly, but a man an’all – he was shouting. And there was a scraping noise – like chairs dragging across a floor.’

My pulse thudded in my throat. ‘My mum says she lives on her own.’

He nodded, eyes on the ground. ‘And she’s got no telly.’ We walked on in silence, sucking our liquorice sticks until they went soft.

As the shadow of the flats fell over us, Ed said, ‘I’m going back tonight. Coming?’

I stopped. ‘What?’

‘Don’t you want to know what the noises are?’

I was curious, but I hated walking round the flats in the dark. There were too many shadows.

‘Well, I’m going tonight. Coward.’ Ed banged through the double doors.

I paused just a second. ‘Ed! Wait up,’ I shouted.

***

Mum was working at the pub that night and I knew Grandad would be asleep in his armchair by half nine, so I found the torch, put it in my coat pocket and sneaked both into my bedroom. Grandad was snoring by quarter past nine and he didn’t stir as the front door clicked shut behind me.

The light was out on our landing and the weak glow from the torch only lit a small puddle at my feet. Cigarette packets, stubs, a baby’s dummy, all slid in and out of the puddle as I walked.

‘John!’

My heart beat in my ears, the torchlight quivered.

‘Over here.’

Ed stood in the shadow of a flight of stairs, coat over his pyjamas. A second figure stood beside him.

‘Alright, John.’ It was Dougie.

A click and another beam of light shone out, wavering upwards to settle on Ed’s face. ‘I told him what we were doing and he just turned up.’

‘Let’s go sort this old bird out then,’ said Dougie, heading for the lift.

I gave Ed a look but he just shrugged. ‘Yeah, I know. But what could I do?’

All I could think of was spikes of a shattered Cream Soda bottle.

‘Stinks of pee in here,’ said Dougie as the lift groaned and rattled.

A few seconds passed, there was a ping and the doors juddered open.

‘This way,’ said Ed, shining his torch along a row of blank doors.

At each flat I heard a muffled telly and dull voices. I was sure at any second someone would tell us off and send us home. But the wind tumbled empty crisp packets and whistled along the balconies – and no one came. At the end of the row, Ed stopped.

Shining his torch on a peeling door, he whispered, ‘Mr Brocklehurst’s.’ Then, the light slid sideways and we were there.

We listened, breathless.

A thump – loud and solid, like a body hitting the floor – followed by voices. A woman was singing – a tune that pulled at my insides. A man’s voice barked orders – the thwack of a stick. And weeping, the quiet kind of crying someone does when they don’t want other people to hear but can’t keep the tears in. Sadness filled me up, sitting behind my eyes till I felt like it would spill over.

‘What do you think?’ It was Ed, face pale, eyes big as golf balls.

For a second, I had been in the flat with the women, waiting for the stern man with the stick. ‘Is it the same as before?’ I whispered.

He nodded.

I tried to keep my fear pressed down, reminded myself we weren’t babies, that there would be good reason for the noises. But all I could think was one thing.

‘Ghosts?’ I whispered.

A fresh noise – the screech of unoiled metal, so sharp it pricked my eardrums like a needle. My heart beat against my ribs. I ached for the loo, for my bed and realised we hadn’t decided what we’d do when we reached Gracie’s door.

‘It’s open.’ Dougie stepped inside. Ed snatched at his sleeve, but grabbed only air.

‘What shall we do?’ said Ed. In the torchlight, he looked smaller than he did in the day.

There was nothing for it. I took a step, another and I was in.

Soon Ed followed on behind me, our torch beams overlapping, brightening the darkness so it was just light enough to see without bumping into things.

‘Don’t like the smell,’ said Ed.

It was like burning and wee that hadn’t been cleaned away.

‘Dougie!’ I called, but quietly, hoping I was loud enough for Dougie to hear and quiet enough for Gracie not to.

Thwack! The sound of a stick against railings. The pitter-pat of tiny paws.

‘Hell.’ Scampering from the torchlight, over a heap of rags and old newspapers, went one small tan body then another. ‘Mice,’ I breathed.  

Crying again, from our right. I felt Ed’s arm brush mine and realised we’d huddled so close we almost tripped over each other as we walked, though neither of us pulled away. We followed the noise along the hall, towards a doorway glowing with dull orange light. The burnt smell grew stronger, catching at my throat.

‘Dougie?’ My heart tripped fast.

We turned into the room, into the sound of crying, the squeal of metal hurting my head. I stopped, unable to think what was happening.

The air was filled with smoke that stung my eyes and there was an armchair with a body slumped in it, another kneeling on the floor and the noise was so loud and the kneeling figure was Dougie and he looked up at us, his face shining and wet.

‘I think she’s dead,’ he said.

***

Someone had put blankets around our shoulders. Someone else had made us tea.

‘Don’t like tea,’ said Dougie and an ambulance man cuffed him round the head.

I heard the clack of Mum’s heels before I saw her. She stood apart, rain hat in her hand, nodding as a man in a uniform talked.

‘… old asylum nurse … lived onsite there for thirty years – turned her a bit odd I reckon. Didn’t like the quiet when she retired, so one of the staff made a recording – crying, the wardens, squeaking hinges – to help her sleep. Nowt so queer as folk, eh?’

Mum arms were crossed, face stern as the Queen’s on a stamp.

‘What were you thinking?’ she said.

I shrugged, too tired to explain and not sure I could. ‘Is she okay?’

Mum sighed. ‘She will be. Dropped a fag on the carpet – could’ve burned the whole of Thornfield House down. Come on. Let’s get you home.’

Ed raised a hand as I passed, Dougie too, his face smeared with drying tears and dirt. Both of them looked worried, as if they could still hear the women crying.

‘See you at school,’ I said.

A seance at the Grange

Image: CJ Pixabay

I’m away from my laptop this week, so I’ve scheduled this snippet. I’ll catch up with comments next weekend. Have a great week, all.

***

The dining room door was slightly ajar. That would be his mother, Elizabeth – she liked him to listen to the chatter, gauge the tone of the evening before his big entrance. The voices were hushed, barely raised above a whisper. One male voice – a bass drone –  his mother’s choppy alto, then a twitter of sopranos he guessed were the spinster sisters, the unsuspecting guests of honour.

Beyond the door was Elizabeth’s world of candlelight and earnest conversation, the shy chink of wine glasses. Behind him was the entrance hall with its expanse of cracked floor tiles, the doors with their mottled brass plaques – billiard room, library, study – empty titles for unused spaces.

What his mother and the spinsters and the bass voiced man didn’t realise was that darkness was as full of colour and noise as daylight. If only they’d pay attention.

Somewhere upstairs a door thumped open and shut, caught in the draught from an open window. Goose bumps roughened his arms to shark skin. The dead were gathering around him, brushing against him, waiting for him to speak for them.

The grandfather clock struck, eight chimes that echoed in his chest.

“Matthew?”   

It was time.

***

Bit of practice writing around characters from the current WIP.

Matt is a sixteen-year-old psychic, he and his mother Elizabeth make money from wealthy, bereaved clients. And Matt usually calls his mother by her first name.

Friday Fictioneers: His fortune in a globe

PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carroll

Joseph made it a habit to check the flower bulb hidden in the inner pocket of his coat each day, even when the sea was craggy with waves, or the crew limp as windless sails in the overheated air. And every day of the eight weeks it took to reach Portsmouth, the globe remained hard as a pebble, the papery skin sweet smelling.

As his hammock swung in the humid crack of darkness below deck, he imagined the fortune he could charge the plant collectors at Kew, the dresses he would buy Mary, the house he could leave his son.

***

Written for Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s Friday Fictioneers. See here to join in.

I saw Josh’s lovely image and thought of all the plant collectors through history who often risked their lives on long sea voyages to find unusual and unclassified plant specimens and take them home.

Sometimes these adventurers would return to fame and fortune, like Joseph Banks or the tulip bulb collectors in 17th century Netherlands.

I wonder if my Joseph will experience success or failure.

NB – Kew is Kew Gardens in London, one of the most prestigious botanic gardens in the world since it was founded in 1759.

Weekend Writing Prompt #139 – Devour

Piotr didn’t notice the hunger at first.

Since he’d become wealthy his opinion was required on any number of subjects such as who should pay for the upkeep of the jail. He’d assumed the authorities would, but the council and guilds decided the populace should meet the bill, as it was they who languished within the prison walls most frequently. The wages of the constables, the maintenance of the stocks and the gibbet were added to the charge through the same logic.

As Piotr listened to the learned men of the town debate, he wondered why the contents of a man’s purse should determine how closely he was listened to. He didn’t recall being asked his opinion before he was wealthy, back when he was the one sitting in the stocks, the one pelted with wormy cabbage hearts and green potatoes.

He almost suggested the populace pay for a cushion for the stocks – he remembered the seat being very hard – but it probably wasn’t the sort of thing a powerful man should concern himself with.

The banquet after the meeting was the first time he noticed.

He’d grown used to the rich food, the range of wines and ports and Madeiras. He was admired by his fellow worthies for his slim frame, the bones still visible at his wrists and collarbone, where their’s were masked in fat. He smiled, flushed, assured them he would soon put on weight.

But as he picked at the feast, he realised something – since having money he had never felt full. When he was poor and ate a large meal (a rare occurrence) his stomach would swell and harden as if he were a sheep suffering from Bloat. Now he could eat and eat – gorge, even – and was never full.

Always the rat of hunger gnawed at his belly, scratched at the back of his mind.

He tried every food on offer – thick cut meats heavy with Burgundy sauce, glazed fig puddings pocked with chestnuts… Even the pea pottage that had once been his only sustenance left him hollowed and bony.

Hunger filled Piotr’s every waking hour, his every thought, his every dream. He took to chewing pine twigs between meals to busy his jaw, to stop him gnawing at his own fingers. His nights became restless, his days sluggish. He took to walking the country after dark, snaring and eating wild animals, searching for something that would fill him.

One evening he walked abroad. A Hunter’s Moon swelled behind thin cloud, the land clean and grey beneath it.

He paused to drink at a brook and that was when he saw it – a hump he’d at first mistaken for a rise in the earth but as he drew closer resolved into a man. The body lay on its front, hands beneath it, head slumped forward into the water. Ripples formed and broke about the right cheek and jawline, water tumbling into the ear, rushing back down on itself.

Piotr’s first instinct was to haul the stricken man to dry land, to have him washed and laid out for burial.

He bent to grip the man’s wrist. The flesh was surprisingly soft and cool, the muscle tender, relaxed in death as it might never have been in life. A calm knowledge washed over Piotr…

The next night he slept well and the night after that. His restlessness would gradually increase but a night roaming the country setting his traps, devouring his prey, would sate him.

Piotr no longer remembers the discomfort of the stocks or the taste of pea pottage.

***

Written for Sammi Cox’s Weekend Writing Prompt #139 – Devour. Come and join in here.

Don’t ask me where the idea for this came from, only that the word Devour suggests not merely hunger but desperate hunger and from there I imagined a man who might never be satisfied.

What do you think Piotr has become? Merely a capitalist exploiting the poor? A psychopath or something much darker?

What Pegman Saw: As the tanks rolled in again

Aliena stared through the window to the street below.

‘Yes, yes, I know,’ she said, absentmindedly stroking her cat, Mika. ‘We should have left months ago.’

Pulling at the balding, leathery ears, she smiled. She’d so loved Mika that when he’d died her husband, Dimi, had the creature stuffed. How long ago? Too long to remember.

A tank rumbled past, shaking the glass. Wehrmacht. Once it had been Soviets, later the Poles. She and Dimi had watched it all from this same tiny window.

Before that, when they were a young married couple, it was the Cupid bronze in the communal garden that had drawn them to the place. ‘Keeping guard,’ Dimi had said. ‘A good omen.’ He’d smiled, kissed her.

‘Where are your omens now, old man?’ she said.

But she spoke only to the air and to a stuffed cat.

***

Written for What Pegman Saw, the prompt that uses Google Street View as its starting point. This week we visit Minsk, Belarus. See here to join in.

Minsk has been at the centre of various conflicts for centuries, overrun by various nations. I saw the Cupid statue, that little window overlooking it and wondered what they’d both seen over the years.

See here to read more about the history of Minsk.

Friday Fictioneers: Searching for Len

Copyright-Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Mum decided to sort the spare room in time for New Year. There was a pile to go to charity, black bin liners filled with old clothes and what Mum deemed ‘tat’ in the centre of the room.

On a scuffed table were items she wanted me to put in the loft for her. A black and white print lay on the table, an image of a man who died before I was born. ‘What did granddad do again?’

She paused in her sorting. ‘Worked at Heathrow, ran a grocer’s. Did I tell you about the time the police came for him?’

***

Written for Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s Friday Fictioneers. Let the image inspire you to write a tale. See here to join in.

Reading Rochelle’s story about her grandfather led me to think about my own.

Horace Reuben Ayres was born in the East End of London within the sound of Bow Bells, making him a true Cockney. He was by all accounts a bit of a rogue.

He did run a grocer’s and work at Heathrow Airport later in life, but early on he was somehow involved in the boxing world (he was said to know the Kray twins, but everyone in the East End involved in boxing would have known them, I’m sure) and supposedly with gambling, illegal outside of racecourses in those days.

He went by a couple of different names – most people called him Len, though my mum doesn’t know why. My grandmother said he was born to a Jewish family, though if he was he was lapsed by the time Mum was born.

Despite searching, no one has ever found a birth certificate or a record of his birth, so we don’t know exactly how old he was and yes, the police did come to the house for him one day. He was in a reserved occupation during the war and left without permission which was a criminal offence. He apparently legged it out the back door while the police came in the front.

I wish I’d known him. He skirted the edges of the law but my mother adored him.

New Year’s Eve 1973

Image: sjdents0 Pixabay

‘Lesley Howard?’ Patricia pulled on her cigarillo, puffed a cloud of blue grey smoke into the air. ‘Is that the Brief Encounter chap?’

‘No, that’s Trevor Howard. Leslie Howard was Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.’

Patricia selected a card from the hand she was playing and slapped it on the green baize table. ‘So in answer to the question, “which film actor would you want to be”, you choose the one who loses the girl.’

Bobby rubbed his stocking feet against the flank of a dozing Labrador. Firelight flickered around the living room, casting picturesque shadows over the threadbare rug, the stacks of mouldering newspapers. ‘Always seemed like a decent sort,’ he said. ‘Shot down over the Bay of Biscay, 1943.’

‘A dead war hero? So decent, so proper, such a good egg.’

He recognised the hard chink in her voice. ‘You and Scotch do not make happy companions.’

She raised a hand. ‘I’m just saying you sound very alike, you and your dead actor.’

‘Oh, yes?’

‘Always doing the right thing. Fighting for King and country. So noble. So very, very bland.’

Bobby reached for his own glass. New Year’s Eve and she was as impossible as always. Well, this year he refused to bite. ‘Who would you be then? Greta Garbo, I suppose, wanting to be alone?’

Patricia’s teeth chinked against her glass tumbler as she threw her head back, laughing hoarsely. ‘No, not Garbo. Too sulky. Perhaps Marlene Dietrich in Morocco. Remember that scene? Her in a top hat and tails?’

‘Huh. Very, very you.’

She raised her glass. ‘I always was the butch one, dear.’ She drained the last of her Scotch, rolled the glass between the palms of her hands. ‘Ideally, I would have been Gable.’

‘Clark Gable?’

Patricia nodded. ‘That sharp moustache, the oiled hair, stamping around the Deep South, shooting Yankees.’ Then with a watery smile, she added, ‘Not giving a damn.’

***

I’m currently planning a new novel and these are two of the main characters. Their spiky relationship keeps drawing me back and Patricia talks to me, even when I don’t necessarily want her to.

For reference, the novel is set in the early 1970s and they’re both in their 70s, hence the selection of old film stars.

NB For those too young to know…

To learn more about Leslie Howard, Trevor Howard, Brief Encounter, Gone with the Wind, Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo, follow the links.

Lessons in short story writing: Go watch TV

lace making, lace, threads
Image: Pixabay

Toward the end of this year, I had a particularly inspired time as a short story writer. This was due – in very large part – to the change of seasons.

Autumn and winter days are gloomy and brief, the nights long and forbidding as one of the original Grimm fairy tales (before they censored the really nasty bits). The weather here in the UK is by turns warm, wet and windy, and clear, still and crystal bright with frost.

While the summer inspires me to be outside, writing never feels a more attractive prospect than during the colder months, when there are no butterflies to chase and bees to bother.

And so this autumn I found myself entering several writing competitions*. Okay, it helps that Halloween brings a swollen crop of writing challenges and there’s nothing excites me more than dipping my stubby toe in the murky waters of the dark and the creepy.

The idea for one competition sprang from another favourite past time – television.

The Antiques Roadshow was on the box. For those unfamiliar with the programme, the Roadshow is a BBC staple (it first aired in 1979) which encourages people to raid their attics, empty the contents into the grounds of a stately home and stand for hours in the pouring rain/blazing sun waiting for an expert to tell them their treasure is worthless tat or – very occasionally – that it really is treasure.

The fun comes in watching the reactions of the owners as they hear the news, usually falling into two camps,

The ‘Well-I-love-it-anyway-despite-how-obviously-ugly-and-worthless-it-is’ Camp

and

The ‘It’ll-stay-in-the-family-despite-being-terrifically-ugly-and-worth-more-than-my-house’ Camp.

Which if you believe them means no one sells anything that’s been valued – ever.

Anyway, we were watching an episode that featured Victorian mourning jewellery made from human hair. Because the Victorians had very different views on death and thought it perfectly acceptable to pop their dead granny down to the photographic studio to have her portrait taken for the album before lopping off her hair and having it woven into a brooch, a watch chain, a ring or even a framed family tree – if there were enough dead relatives to make a tree of course.

Watching this fascinating piece, my writer’s mind wandered …

Along the back streets of Victorian Manchester, to a lace maker down on her luck who one day takes on a rather unusual commission …

I came runner up in the Writing Magazine Dark Tales competition with the resulting story, The Lace Maker. To read the story, the judge’s comments and to see my equally creepy author head shot, see here.

And the moral of this tale?

Don’t let anyone tell you being away from your laptop/typewriter/notepad is a waste of writing time. Watching TV and films, reading books, going for long walks and communing with bumble bees all have their place in the writers’ life and in feeding your inspiration.

Just make sure you get your bum on a seat afterwards so you can carve a story from those sparks of creativity.

***

*Of the other three stories I wrote this autumn, I wasn’t placed in one and haven’t yet heard about the others. Watch this space. Or not, because, let’s face it, I’ll only write a post if I win.