Short Stories

The (Vanishing) Tenements Bus Stop

I have just discovered that the short story published in Storgy which was available on their web site is no longer accessible. It is available in When I Am Not Writing Poetry, but as it used to be available electronically – and it is very short – I thought that I would reproduce it here.

The Tenements Bus Stop

She told me she loved me. She whispered it. She breathed in my ear. She brushed my lips and breathed into my mouth. We hugged and she pressed against me. I could feel her body against mine. She kissed me and I found myself responding, my lips against hers. Briefly her tongue flickered and pushed into my mouth before withdrawing. Of course I told her I loved her and held her tightly, urgently. My hands exploring—daringly I thought, until her impatient hands moved mine. Her hands… quickly, she whispered. And then I saw it: we came out from behind the bus shelter and I boarded the bus back to Sauchiehall Street, to the stop outside the cafe where she worked—my photo has my number on the back, she had said and crossed the road to her Dad’s tenement block. So, we parted, I was still nineteen and still ignorant; I travelled back alone to rejoin my ship. I never saw Baillieston or her again.

Short Stories

Short Stories #30

Congratulations if you have stuck with me through this marathon – we have today reached the final, the 30th, short story in my collection When I Am Not Writing Poetry. Welcome to ‘A Writer’s Life’.

Once I had an uncle – before he died in Africa when I was a toddler – and once he had a fiancée. This long short story – almost a novella – tells the story of neither of them: it is a fictional account of the birth of a writer: the birth of this writer. It blends fact and fiction, places with which I have been familiar throughout my life with other imagined homes, and real characters with imagined characters. It is an account that interweaves some elements of real lives with an awful lot of fiction. It is a story…

When the news reached him he was sitting at his desk and did not immediately take in the full import of what he heard. He had been constructing, if that is the right word, another version of himself that would suit the narrative he had in mind (his initial plans were rarely on paper), a version that would be him in all but name, have his history—or a version of it—but a figure from which he could distance himself in order to look down on, to judge, his actions. At once him and a remote almost alien figure. It would be a tricky balancing act. As he stared at the blank page it occurred to him that he needed the familiarity of his life but did not want his readers—would he ever have readers?—to recognise him in that history. He wondered what he was hiding from… or perhaps he was not so much hiding as disguising his need for a real life as his source. He thought that if he was to be his alter ego, he must be the writer or poet born in Wales that he had never been: perhaps a miner for a father and a teacher as his mother. A father who read avidly in the Institute every night, often returning home late—probably when they threw him out and closed up—to too little sleep before another hard day beneath the ground. It struck him as absurd that, at work, his father was often a few hundred feet directly below his mother, and he wondered if either of them had ever had the same thought.

If he was turning his father into the educated, albeit self-educated late in life, parent he wondered if too he was robbing his mother of the education that she had never pursued.

‘ A Writer’s Life’ and all the other short stories that I have introduce over the last month can be found in When I Am Not Writing Poetry – available here or on Amazon.

Short Stories

Short Stories #29

The twenty-ninth  story in my collection, When I Am Not Writing Poetry, ‘The Birth of a Story’, describes what lay behind the writing of ‘The Endless Border’, and like its parent, plays with structure and format. In the formatting I have tried to distinguish between the different voices in my head while I was writing of ‘The Endless Border’; I have played with narrative, and with time, interweaving short extracts from the story itself to indicate my progress.

He thought that the trouble was that he always wanted his writing to be memorable. And that he wanted to be known as a writer. Like … he had been going to write Dickens—the first name that came into his head. He shuddered. Ridiculous! Definitely not like Dickens. Perhaps like Durrell or maybe even Nabokov; yes, that would do. Definitely. But he was a long way from that—while he had a story line and some idea of his protagonists in his head, he was not sure how to make them truly rounded, compelling individuals who would carry the plot forward while holding his readers. He had read somewhere that there were five traits of a personality—introversion (or whatever the opposite was), agreeableness, emotional stability, conscientiousness, and the degree to which someone was open to new experiences, and that most people were average in each of these. So, he reasoned that to make a character interesting, someone who would stand out, it would be necessary to move them away from average—in either direction—in one or two traits. But he wasn’t sure that he wanted to contort his people like that. He could imagine the Reader’s indignation. Or his wife who, while she may like his representation of her as emotionally very stable, would not like to find herself thought extremely anything! But still, she was scarcely there. None of them was. Except for the Writer, of course.

Voices. They were all just voices! Faint voices. Distant, some of them.

You will have to focus.

‘The Birth of a Story’ can be found in When I Am Not Writing Poetry – available here or on Amazon.

Short Stories

Short Stories #28

The twenty-eighth  story in my collection, When I Am Not Writing Poetry, your last taste of life at sea, is ‘Such Sweet Sorrow’. I have said before that it is easier – less painful – to leave than to be left, and others have written about how navy wives have two separate lives – and it just as they are getting used to being alone, to managing life – the house, perhaps the children – alone that their lives are rudely interrupted and all of their routines turned on their head. And then some weeks later, the reverse! But, that said, it is not easy leaving either.

It is today at breakfast. We sit as we have sat so many times before. In silence. An absolute silence except for the clink of a knife or spoon on china, the splash of tea falling into a cup, the occasional stirring of coals in the Rayburn. Today is as every other day, except that it is today, except that we know it is today.

And we remember.

In silence.

The night had started early and we had slept together for the last time. I had been perhaps too keen, too assertive; she had been loving, but passive, sad. And then we had slept not quite in each other’s arms, not quite together.

Perhaps we were practising.

Today she will get into her car and drive to work. Today I shall get into my car and drive away.

‘Such Sweet Sorrow’ can be found in When I Am Not Writing Poetry – available here or on Amazon.

Short Stories

Short Stories #27

The twenty-seventh  story in my collection, When I Am Not Writing Poetry, is ‘Only Me’  – another tale of escaping from solitude!  Waking to discover normality, the very stuff of everyday life had vanished would be unnerving enough but with the grey fog hiding every vestige of outside life, the author is plunged into an Orwellian nightmare world – or into a post-apocalyptic world such as that of Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague or better, perhaps, Vaughan’s Under the Dome.

I had gone to bed late. The weather over the weekend had been poor, damp and misty, I had not been out much, I had avoided the jobs that needed my attention, had not even dusted or swept the floors, and I stayed up late reading; overall I was dissatisfied with my weekend that had achieved so very little yet left me feeling tired. Added to that general malaise was the fact that I had heard from no one—no one had telephoned or texted, the only emails had been sales pitches and spam and all had been dispatched into the waste bin unread. It seemed that my Covid isolation had become complete! It reminded me of being officer of the watch at sea when an engine failure left us adrift in dense fog mournfully sounding our fog horn as prescribed to announce our presence to shipping while our radar assured us that we were completely alone in the vast ocean! So when, eventually, I turned off the little reading lamp by my bed, it was with some satisfaction that the weekend was fading behind me, the new week had started, I was probably already in the future.

When I woke up there seemed an eerie silence…

‘Only Me’ can be found in When I Am Not Writing Poetry – available here or on Amazon.

Short Stories

Short Stories #26

The twenty-sixth  story in my collection, When I Am Not Writing Poetry, is longer than most you have read so far – ‘The Endless Border’ is a story of two men trying to escape from their daily life: from, perhaps, the world of Covid: searching for life beyond. A journey made by two friends into the unknown. And I wanted to use their contrapuntal conversations – a little like Beckett’s Mercier & Camier as a means of adding a further dimension to the story. At the same time it was to be a journey of discovery, and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress [from This World], to That Which Is to Come came to my mind.

As a poet I was also interested in experimenting with the text on the page. I was aware that the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam had written of The Inferno and especially the Purgatorio as “glorifying the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking,  . . . In Dante philosophy and poetry are forever on the move, forever on their feet” and I wanted my text to move along at a slow walking pace and for the conversations to be at the same leisurely pace. Both inconsequential and significant, casual yet intrinsic, in time and timely. So I inserted spaces into the text to slow the reader down! Seamus Heaney wrote of stepping stones – those “stations of the soul” – that venturing out on them into the middle of a fast running stream left you on your own, at once giddy and rooted to the spot, moving yet stationary, and I saw my little pieces of text as the stepping stones on our journey: we were never quite still yet we balanced on our path, pausing, walking, stopping, ambling aimlessly yet crossing a divide.

When the two men met again, he couldn’t help himself and, despite social distancing, he clasped his friend to his chest. He hadn’t realised how worried he had been, the last message from him had been so vague… and then the silence… for ten days. And there was the lack of reply to his message. What was going on? It wasn’t like Edward, and Jonathon had been concerned for him, really concerned—was he ill? Or perhaps a member of his family? It didn’t bear thinking of, but of course, he did. His mind ran through all the dreadful possibilities. This was what seven months of isolation and lock down did to you, he thought: it left you fearing the worst at any excuse. They had been close—almost inseparable—friends for so long, but this time last year, in those lazy, sunny, pre-Covid days he would never have taken ten days silence as a harbinger of doom. They had known each other, been close, for so many years since they began working together and he realised that, in retirement, the absence of work seemed to have brought them even closer. They met because they wanted to! Initially, all those years ago, their daily meetings had been because of the work, and then, work had almost become incidental to the daily chats, the coffees… the companionship. I don’t suppose I have ever been as close to anyone he thought. It occurred to him that they had been together for more years than he had been married to his wife, and he thought that was strange. There was such a bond. A close bond. And he knew Edward felt it too.

And now, seeing him in the doorway—still with his coat on and looking slightly surprised by the close contact—brought tears to his eyes: he looked so thin… and worried. We have to get away, he thought…

‘The Endless Border’ can be found in When I Am Not Writing Poetry – available here or on Amazon.

Short Stories

Short Stories #25

The twenty-fifth  story in my collection, When I Am Not Writing Poetry, is ‘Last Words’ which is in fact the last you will hear of my three friends. And I give them the stage. Each, in their own words, has written something that brings everything that you have learnt – if you have followed (read the stories) them through this volume. Jan speaks first and then Professor Neil. Simon has the last word. The first excerpt is from Jan’s diary, the second from a letter which Simon sent to me.

Dear Diary. Today is the fifth sixth time I have seen him—same cafe, same table, same time on Saturday—although to be honest I don’t know when he arrives—before me, at any rate; and he leaves after me. Perhaps he is there every day. I am so sure I recognise him! The first couple of times he was joined by a rather pretty girl quite a bit younger than him…

How nice it was to hear from Neil and Jan after all these years. We had met before at a local artist’s reception in the university down here—it must have been ten years ago before they decamped to your little town with its smaller university where they were both able to become heads of departments. And now we have all met up again. Although I must confess I could hardly remember you! The white beard didn’t help! Actually I can hardly remember those walks back to the boarding school…

‘Last Words’ can be found in When I Am Not Writing Poetry – available here or on Amazon.

Short Stories

Short Stories #24

The twenty-fourth story in my collection, When I Am Not Writing Poetry, is ‘The Poetry Reading’ – not something that I often do as I don’t think I do them very well and, unfathomably, have a knack of misreading my own lines! But this is a fiction – perhaps based on one of my readings, perhaps not! The short poem by Malcolm Lowry that I have quoted in full at the end shows that I am not the only poet to have problems with words!

I have never really liked giving readings of my poetry. I am not sure why. Perhaps it is partly that I sense that my speaking voice is not the mellifluous voice I hear in my head, does not have the timbre that the poems deserve—that it does not—in my humble opinion, as they say—present them well. I am not a natural performer! Or perhaps it is that I seem to possess a skill, which surely must be unique to any wordsmith: I have the ability to read aloud a line that I have read hundreds of times before, a line which I wrote, for goodness sake, and probably spent some time over—agonising over the perfect word and word order for the sound of the line—for my poems are certainly written for the sound as much as the words on the page—and misspeak the one word on which the line hinges!

‘The Poetry Reading’ can be found in When I Am Not Writing Poetry – available here or on Amazon.

Short Stories

Short Stories #23

The twenty-third  story in my collection, When I Am Not Writing Poetry, ‘Diary Extracts of a Lockdown Addict’ is a series of snippets from my imaginary diary. None of them – except perhaps the last which memorialises a friend – is particularly significant. It was my life during lockdown! The first showed the state of my writer’s mind! There are six more!

Looking back at what he had just written, it occurred to him that in naming two of his characters he had somehow evoked that stage cowboy of his childhood years, Roy Rogers. Wondering if it was just chance—is there ever ‘just chance’—or whether something deeper had moved him to name Roy’s alter ego as Roger. Wondering if this was just his poet’s ear finding the logical, the apparently right word at the right time. Wondering if modern and all too real coronavirus masks had somehow resonated with the cowboy bandana. Was his subconscious really that shallow? He had, after all, been trying to buy a mask online and had given up after finding that nearly all failed to specify anything other than protection against dust. Even when he specifically searched for ‘medical protection masks’! Wondering if this was a case of retailers jumping on the bandwagon. Wondering… doubting that Roy, Roger and certainly not Roy Rogers had ever had that problem!

‘Diary Extracts of a Lockdown Addict’ can be found in When I Am Not Writing Poetry – available here or on Amazon.

Short Stories

Short Stories #22

The twenty-second  story in my collection, When I Am Not Writing Poetry, ‘Kinderszenen’ once again inhabits the back stories – possible back stories – of characters from The Dark Trilogy. Kinderszenen is the name Schumann gave to a collection of 13 short piano pieces, and the documentary I mention in the first paragraph was in part about Schumann … each of the 13 names that he gave the individual pieces can be found hidden in my story! I imagine meeting those same three friends from primary school again in later life. How would our pasts have appeared… how would we appear, now?! Maybe they would even take on the shape of their contrived back stories!

He had been making notes at the time: sitting in the cafe trying to recall a documentary he had seen the previous evening and relate it to the short story he was writing. There were certain similarities… not similarities exactly, maybe echoes, yes echoes that he felt could be woven in. If the characters could use a borrowed phrase, show some erudition, that sort of thing, he thought. The couple at another table had been talking animatedly—loudly—for some time and, engrossed, he had managed to block out the sound. Until now. Until he heard someone say, That’s absurd, Neil, it can’t be him! And Neil—presumably—pushed his chair back and leaning towards the writer, said, You know, I didn’t recognise you at first—the beard I suppose—but Jan did—she’s right… we were at school together. You’re… Jan shouted his name above the hubbub. And two of his characters were suddenly brought up to date. He was left wondering about the third.

‘Kinderszenen’ can be found in When I Am Not Writing Poetry – available here or on Amazon.