• The heartache of bureaucracy

    He left in October 2013. Went across the Atlantic, to tend to family and duty and home.

    I stayed in England. Filled out forms. A petition to apply for a visa to join the person I’d been married to for six years. The website said six months. I posted the forms and waited. Rented a room in a house closer to work. Each day I came home and cooked dinner for one. Watched netflix in an attempt to drown the wrongness. Slept on one side of a double-bed. Researched Cincinnati.

    We got a letter that said the Nebraska Service Centre had received our petition to apply. We waited in vain for some confirmation that the petition had been approved, that we could move to the next step and fill out an actual application. Six months came and went. The days were filled with friends and work and people, but each night I curled up on the left side of my double bed and hugged myself. Each night the tension grew a little tighter.

    In April I gave up. Cancelled my plans to catch a boat, triumphant immigrant, papers in hand. Instead I booked a plane ticket. Three month tourist visa. I would leave in June and return in August. Three months together: our seventh wedding anniversary, my birthday, his birthday. I would turn thirty, and had no desire to spend that day apart. I gave up my job, any hope of income, and absconded to Cincinnati for three wonderful months.

    The approval to apply didn’t arrive until the end of July, eight months after he had left and we’d begun this process. The approval told us they’d sent the case on to the National Visa Centre, who would be in touch within thirty days. We waited thirty days. We waited another seven. I sent a polite email, having not been provided with a phone number. We had no response.

    My leave date loomed. I found myself tearful, clingy. A sense of impending doom hung over us, made every minute together bitter sweet. A desperate attempt to stockpile love, to hug long enough that it would carry us through.

    I leave on Tuesday. We have just got the next letter through, a bill for $88 from the National Visa Centre. His Dad pays it. We can finally submit the next stage of paperwork. As for how long that will take, nobody really knows. It could be a month. It could be another six months. It could be a year.

    I leave on Tuesday. My skin crawls with the sick anticipation of a half-empty bed. All this heartache, all this uncertainty. We cannot make plans. Cannot book tickets. I cannot even take a permanent job, knowing that I could be walking out the door in a month. Our life together has been on hold. Skype calls that were exciting when we were first dating became infuriating after so many years together. Too many memories of low wifi, poor video quality, trying to sync up across a five hour time difference and radically opposite schedules. The months ahead of me stretch out like a cold desert that I must cross with no map.

  • Designing Pipettes in the Dark: thoughts on responsive design

    I recently developed a custom ‘responsive design’ wordpress theme for new science blog Pipettes in the Dark. (I freelance in web design & development – you can see my portfolio over here at Monochrome Rainbow).

    You should definitely go read the first post — about Lego and WOMEN IN SCIENCE.

    It’s been a little while since I’ve developed an entire theme from scratch. One of the big challenges in web-design is crafting layouts that work on a range of screen sizes. We use a range of devices these days, from smartphones right up to smart TVs.

    Don’t think a bigger screen-size is such a challenge? Well, you’re wrong. Text is easiest to read in columns of about 50-75 characters. This is why newspapers and magazines print in columns.

    You have three choices on a big screen:

    1. Fix the max-width of your text areas so that they don’t grow (can often end up with ‘tiny website lost in acres of white-space’ syndrome).
    2. Make the font-size increase proportionally to the column width (actually not a bad idea, especially if you assume people are sitting further away from bigger screens).
    3. Or, final choice, you can ‘flow’ text into multiple columns using responsive design and media queries.

    Native apps versus responsive design

    There are two approaches to ‘solving’ the multiple screen-size problem. The first is by producing native apps for mobile, tablet etc. These usually work better, and can take advantage of mobile technology like GPS, notifications, etc. However they can be pretty expensive and hard to keep up-to-date.

    The other approach, which works better for individuals and small businesses, is to use a responsive design. That way you can have one website that is fluid across different screens. You lose some functionality, but if you’re basically just delivering content then that’s no big loss.

    Responsive design is mainly coded via media queries.

    Media queries are awesome. Deliver different stylesheets based on screensize, and you have one website that works on multiple devices.

    Media queries are used for responsive design

    Media queries used for three breakpoints to create a responsive design

    Pipettes in the Dark is a fairly standard blog, with no sales pitch or calls to action. I was able to stick to a tried and tested basic layout that everyone will be familiar with. The closer you stick to ‘standard’ layouts, the more familiar people will be with navigating and using them. Originality can be over-rated! Just remember the last overly-complicated flash website you tried to use. Frustrating, right?

    So I went with the two-column site with a header and footer. I then adjusted the width of the columns once you hit the tablet size, enabling the sidebar to stay readable.

    Finally, for mobiles, I got rid of the sidebar altogether. Sometimes, hiding non-essential information is the best way to go when you have limited space.

    Designing for SCIENCE

    The design elements have an interesting backstory. The header text or logo is meant to look like text spelled out with ‘PCR Bands’. Nope, I don’t know what PCR Bands indicate either, but I googled some images and was able to approximate the general look and feel in Photoshop.

    The background texture is channeling the idea of pipettes in a box.

    The colour scheme is grayscale, accented with hot pink. Keeping a limited colour-scheme can be challenging, but we kept enough contrast in each section to retain legibility. Hot pink is vivid and exciting, plus it is associated strongly with women. The blog itself will tackle some of the gender expectations/challenges within the generally male dominated field of science, and the colour scheme reflects that.

    Pipettes in the Dark is also the first of one hundred websites I designed and deployed as part of my Forty Before Forty! I’m expecting almost all of the other ones to also use responsive design… unless there is a really good reason not to.

    Want me to help you with your website? Get in touch with me suzie@monochromerainbow.com

  • That email from Amazon about the Amazon-Hachette Dispute

    So I got THAT email this morning. The one that compares the contract dispute between Amazon and Hachette to WW2 and Orwell and I don’t even know what?

    Here are my thoughts:

    Dear KDP Author, Could you not have used my name? Seriously? I’m in your KDP program!

    Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year. Hurrah for paperbacks. Didn’t stop hardbacks from being sold though, did it?

    With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion. CITE YOUR SOURCES. This seems like a really bug-eyed view of this period of literary history, and also I quite respect George Orwell as an author so, you know, I’d think he probably had some rationality behind his reasoning. 

    Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The first part of your email is irrelevant. Great.

    Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive. I generally agree with this BUT. I buy ebooks for a wide range of prices. The value is dictated not by the format, but by how much I love the author. I’ll buy Robin Hobbs books at any price. Pretty sure this is true of most readers. JK Rowling can charge more than me: that’s kind of how a creative industry works. 

    Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers. 

    The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books. Already happened, frankly. If you want low-priced ebooks, you’ll find them on amazon, by KDP authors. And lots of people are buying them. For once, the marketplace is working. We’ve got erotica for all tastes, genre fiction by the bucketload, and we’ve got a platform for many of the voices that traditional publishing has often been adverse to broadcasting (e.g. minorities, LGBT, etc.) Ebooks are an important and disruptive force — but Hachette aren’t trying to stop ebooks. They just want to set the price for their own ebooks that they are publishing. 

    Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive. This bugs me. The video game market supports 99c iPhone games right up to $60 AAA games. Both models are viable. TV is supported by adverts, and Netflix is supported by subscriptions. News sites are in a bit of flux at the moment, but you have ad supported, subscription supported and paywall supported all co-existing somewhat peacefully. The point is, different audiences want different things.

    Some people want cheap ebooks and are prepared to wade through the self-pubbed stuff that isn’t professionally edited etc. Some people want to buy paperbacks. Some people want to buy ebooks from a traditional publisher… and are happy to pay a bit more, knowing the quality control was there. Some people like to try new authors and some people only read Stephen King/Jodi Picoult and will pay whatever to get that latest novel by that specific author. 

    Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger. Give us the source data. There’s nothing more annoying than cherry-picking a few facts and figures to make an argument. As the saying goes ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’. 

    In fact, give KDP Authors more data generally. We’re using your system and we don’t even know what our conversion rates are! The day I get A/B testing is the day I’ll be able to make marketing decisions based on real data. 

    But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that. Ebooks have already disrupted the market. You are emailing the millions of people who took the self-publishing route. We’ve ALREADY enacted the change. 

    And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read).  A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures.  And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading. It’s almost like people are diverse and have different wants and needs. And it’s almost like businesses can target different niches and support those differing wants and needs!

    We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle. Basically Amazon made a number of PR moves that would have meant Hachette would not have been able to pay their editors, cover-designers, proof-readers and everyone else involved in bringing a traditional-published ebook to market. But let’s get this straight, this is a contract negotiation. Nobody ‘has’ to give in. Both companies can choose to walk away and deal with consequences to their business. Both parties can choose to accept and deny terms. 

    We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us. Wait, wait, are you asking me to troll a work-email? 

    Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com

    Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.comApparently you are. Great job. A multibillion dollar, international corporation has just taken the disruption tactics of people who genuinely don’t have voices, and used them against another corporation.

    You know when it’s valid to call for mass emails? When you’re emailing a political party claiming to represent your interests or when it’s consumers speaking against damaging corporate behaviour. NOT when it’s one corporation negotiating with another corporation. 

    Please consider including these points:

    - We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive. 
    - Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
    - Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
    - Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue. You just asked your authors to ask Hachette to stop using their authors as leverage? Ummmm. Pot, kettle? 

    Thanks for your support.

    The Amazon Books Team Did you just make up a ‘Books Team’? 

    P.S. You can also find this letter at www.readersunited.com

    So there it is. A complete clusterfuck of an email, that has completely undermined any respect I once had for Amazon.

  • Guardians of the Galaxy: some thoughts

    I’m a huge MCU fan. Seriously. Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers. I have loved each and every entry, and was fully prepared to love Guardians of the Galaxy as well.

    And I did! It’s an awesome movie, funny, with a fleshed-out sci-fi world, awesome fight scenes, great characters (GROOT!) and plenty of colour and atmosphere.

    The story is pretty macguffin-y, but it works well enough. Ronan is an instantly forgettable villain, with his motivation wrapped up in a single speech and then forgotten. Nebula is more interesting, but has very little to do.

    There is, however, a little seed of discontent growing within my love for MCU and it’s about the women.

    Marvel is constantly lauded for creating movies with good female characters. And I am truly grateful for Pepper Potts, Black Widow, Peggy, Agent May, Jane… varied, interesting and often given story-centric moments.

    But, in part because they are such great characters, I want more.

    Every character in Guardians of the Galaxy was fantastic, but it was everyone except Gamora who sang. Heck, Groot and Rocket were more charming and sassier respectively. Gamora was just the straight woman. Black Widow kicks ass in Captain America 2, and is an integral part of the movie… but it’s still called Captain America. It’s still the relationship between Cap and Bucky that takes centre stage.

    I want a female villain on par with Loki or Thanos. I want a franchise with a female title character.

    I was hopeful that with a team-up franchise we would get more from the woman. But make no mistake, Guardians of the Galaxy is about Peter Quill. He’s the one we open with, he’s the human (our entry into the sci-fi world) and he’s the one who does the most to save the Galaxy. Of the ensemble, three are definitively male and one is presented as male (Groot).

    Kevin Feige has been dangling the promise of a female-led movie in front of us for a long time. It’s time he stopped hoping and started doing. Give us Black Widow or pick someone else from your plethora of comic book titles or come up with a female Big Bad. But stop short-changing the female fans. Half naked Thor can only placate us for so long.

     

     

  • Turning thirty: Some thoughts on the big three-oh

    I turned thirty on the 16th July. It was a fairly quiet celebration, as I’d already had my big party earlier in the year — before taking off to the USA for three months. We went on a boat trip, enjoyed a nice meal, and I drank a glass or two of wine. Restrained, and, honestly, pretty grown up.

    I completed my thirty-before-thirty, or at least half the items on the list. I started coming up with ideas for my forty-before-forty. I completed the second draft of my second novel, and have almost completed the first draft of a sequel to The Rising Wind.

    I also got some bad news about my visa. For those not in the know, I applied for a spousal visa to join my husband in the USA back in December 2013. Initial time estimates suggested we should have it by July. Further investigation suggested September. And now it looks like there’s yet more delays and we won’t get it until February 2015. So I’m facing another six months without my spouse, for no real reason other than red-tape. It all feels slightly kafka-esque.

    But, because I’m thirty, I just sort of deal with it all. The day I got the news was the same day I started to apply for contract jobs back in the UK.

    Turning thirty is considered a big deal in our society. In the same way that 18 (or 21) takes you from a teenager to a young adult, thirty takes you from young adult to very firmly adult. You probably have a career, as opposed to a job (well, maybe. The economy may have dictated otherwise). You may be married, or at least in a relationship that has lasted longer than three hours. You might have children or be planning for them (it feels like a lot of my friends have kids now).

    It can carry a negative stigma. Choices start closing down. If you do want kids, you should definitely be getting your skates on (if you’re a woman). Suddenly decided you want to become a doctor? Thirty is probably your last chance.

    Thanks to improved heath-care (at least for the middle and upper classes) thirty is no longer middle-aged. I can comfortably expect to live to eighty, as long as I don’t get hit by a bus or the world’s water supply doesn’t run out, or all the farmland doesn’t get turned to desert and/or vanishes underwater thanks to global warming.

    In a lot of ways, I have more choices. I have more money (or less debt?). I can go after more prestigious jobs. I have enough experience that I can plan out exciting holidays. Life is stable enough that I can have a rough idea of where I’ll be in ten years and plan accordingly. When I was twenty I often had no idea what my life would look like next week!

    There are exciting things to look forward to. Technology has reshaped culture, medicine, the way we interact, how we learn — and it’s only changing faster. In my lifetime I have watched the internet change everything. As it reaches more places, becomes faster, smaller, more synced up, it will change even more things. Driverless cars, doctors that can perform surgery thousands of miles away from where they are, wearables that can track all your health indicators and warn you the second you need to see a GP. And things out of science-fiction: private space-travel, faster-than-light warp drives, access to the entire worlds knowledge on a gadget smaller than a book.

    At thirty, I’m more sure of myself. I know what I enjoy doing (hiking, camping, superhero movies, writing, reading, slow travel) and I know what I don’t enjoy doing (drinking too much, grimdark action movies, driving, chicklit). I don’t need to waste time on a bunch of stuff I don’t enjoy.

    There are some things that I’m glad I kept hold of:

    Your job is not your identity. I didn’t have a problem quitting my job and spending three months in the USA. Life is way too short to worry about ‘being a productive worker’. Yeah, you need money, and you can’t rely on other people’s goodwill forever… but equally don’t spend all your time building safety-nets and never actually going on the adventure.

    On a similar note: your bank-account does not dictate your worth as a human being. The work that I am most proud of is often the work I got paid least for. Equally, the time I have spent supporting my friends, looking after my family, and generally ‘being a good person’ is worth far more than the time I spent copying numbers from paperwork to computer screen… even though the latter paid more.

    When people tell you it’s ‘who you know’ that counts they are not kidding. Cultivate friends everywhere. Don’t ever be a jerk. Keep your promises. Always do your best work, even when it’s menial or boring.

    Maintain interesting hobbies. Too many people spend their free time drinking or mindlessly watching netflix. Yes, netflix is cool, and sometimes you need the downtime. But at the same time you should have something you do that is just for you, that is interesting and keeps you busy and works your brain or your body but that you don’t get paid for.

    Exercise. I was the nerdy kid who hated PE at school. But the older I get, the more I appreciate the way exercise helps me sleep, wards off depression, gives me energy and keeps me strong. I never want to exercise, but I am always glad when I do.

    I guess that is all of my thoughts on being thirty… but I should have a forty-before-forty post up here soon. I have some exciting goals to aim for!

     

  • ZORK Owner’s Manual

    The latest terribleminds flashfiction challenge was a throwback to those old-school ‘interactive fiction’ video games. You know the ones: ‘PICK UP KEY’ … the key is too far away. ‘WALK TOWARDS KEY’… you fall into a hole.

    Anyhow, the challenge was to grab a randomised inventory list and turn them into a story. The items in my inventory were:  a gold coin, a platinum bar, a key, a tool chest, Emergency Oxygen Gear, a shim, a ZORK owner’s manual.

    The result is a somewhat meta story that doesn’t really stray too far from the source material and will probably only make sense if you’re familiar with the grand-daddy of interactive fiction games: Zork. Apologies to infocomm.

    ZORK Owner’s Manual

    “What the fuck is a zork?” Sanjay Chopra crossed his arms and leaned back on the metal chair. It creaked under his weight, and a shower of rust fell from it. At some point he would have to get a new chair. And a new desk. His was made from a couple of filing cabinets with a sheet of metal — pockmarked with rust — balanced on top. A metal shim had been wedged under one leg to keep it from listing.

    “Insufficient data,” the robot said. The most expensive piece of equipment he owned, this robot, and the most frustrating. It could dig like a motherfucker though, and so far had not broken any of the 20th century debris that it had helped bring to the surface.

    Sanjay looked again at the ragged remains of a cover from what had once been a hardback book. The title, spelled out in that long dead language ‘English’, read simply: ZORK Owner’s Manual.

    “It could have been a car. They were big on cars back then.”

    “I have a record of every known car model ever produced,” the robot said. “It was not a car.”

    “So you know everything, but you don’t know what a zork is. Maybe you translated it wrong.”

    “It’s a four letter word,” the robot flashed its lights angrily. “You are the archeologist, I am merely a repository for every piece of information we’ve already discovered about life before the Stupendous War. They owned cars by the millions. Cars have not been difficult to learn about. As you well know, Chopra-saab.”

    “You are a passive-aggressive little bundle of wires and circuits,” Sanjay heaved himself up from the desk and reached for his protective suit and oxygen mask. More expensive equipment, but without them he would die. Strapped to his belt was a sharp knife. He’d not needed to use it yet, but there were too many stories of mutated monsters out there — ants the size of people, dogs that ran on two legs — for him to ever leave his tent without it. “Let’s head out to the site and see if we can find anything that might shed some light on this little mystery.”

    He had constructed his camp near the site, not enjoying long walks. The second he stepped outside the tent — a reinforced steel structure with massive air filters and radiation shielding — the winds started buffeting at him. Screeching, directionless, they pulled him one way and then another. He could see only a few feet in front of him, thanks to the swirling dust and the heavy smoke layer that turned the sky a dingy orange-black. Frost glittered and sparkled underfoot as he walked towards the dig.

    The robot followed behind him, its densely packed squat body unaffected by the winds.

    They had first dug into the frozen soil a week ago, after the robot had reported traces of metal below. Since then they had cleared the remains of what had once been houses. Only bits of wall remained, tracing out the shape of rooms. A bit of broken off pipe and a smashed cistern had told Sanjay where the bathroom had been. Some melted, misshapen lumps of plastic might have once been kitchen appliances. The metal the robot had detected had been radiators, also melted and twisted. Sanjay had carefully hauled the metal out of the dig and packed it away in the tent. The Collective paid for scrap metal, it was the material from which their civilisation had been built.

    There were few possessions left, most of the houses had been raided by the surviving populations: anything that could burn had been burned, anything that could be eaten had been eaten.

    Scattered around the perimeter of the house, Sanjay had discovered three empty tin cans. A quick analysis from the robot, and it had told him they had contained: a soft fruit known as peaches, flavoured pre-cooked beans in a sweet tomato sauce, and a kind of pudding made from rice, milk and sugar.

    He had eaten his reconstituted cockroach and algae meal pack that night speculating all the time what those ancient foods might have tasted like.

    Now, however, he was on a mission. He was determined to find out what a zork was. The Collective would pay good money for new information. If a zork turned out to be important, he might even make enough money to refit his entire office. He allowed himself to dream of it: a desk with a special place for his pens.

    “Robot,” Sanjay said as he surveyed the site. “I’ve got a good feeling about this ‘zork’ thing. We don’t leave until we know what it was.”

    “You’re the boss,” the robot said.

    Two hours of digging and dusting, and Sanjay leaned back on his heels and noticed the tiny, thread-like shape on the horizon. He stared at it, a sick feeling in his belly. Already it swelled in size as it came closer; a twister.

    “Fuck.” Sanjay grabbed his tool chest and yelled at the robot to follow him. He raced towards the camp and started to dismantle the tent and throw it onto his conveyor. A quick look back over his shoulder, however, and he abandoned everything except the robot, hustling it aboard the vehicle. The twister had already reached three times the size, the winds picking up around him.

    “Come on, come on.” Sanjay jammed the ignition key in and set the conveyor to its top speed. They rumbled away from the site on fat treads. Sanjay clutched the steering wheel tightly to stop his hands from shaking. The wind tore at them, trying to tip them, but the conveyor had been built like a tank; all thick metal and sloping surfaces.

    Even a conveyor couldn’t stand up to a twister though. Glancing behind him, Sanjay could see the forks of lightening flickering within the great spiralling body of the twister. The earth screamed beneath it, yawing and shifting, torn upwards and flung aside as the twister fed.

    Bits of his tent were flung past him, rolling along the ground. The conveyors Emergency Oxygen Kit ripped clear of its straps and went flying backwards, into the gaping maw of wind behind him.

    “Shit, shit shit shit shit shit shitshitshit” Sanjay yammered as he leaned on the accelerator. The soil shifted and rumbled beneath them, the conveyor almost tipping over.

    “Move at a forty-five degree angle,” the robot buzzed. “To the west. The twister’s course should take it beside us on the east. With luck we may survive.”

    Sanjay jerked the steering wheel to the left and the conveyor’s treads screeched to obey. The wind sucked at them greedily. Sanjay gritted his teeth and willed the conveyor to stay attached to the ground. Something slammed into the dashboard next to his gloved hand. Glancing down, Sanjay saw a gold coin half buried in the metal. The conveyor moaned as its treads started to lift off the ground.

    “I will not die here!” Sanjay shouted. The conveyor bumped back to the ground. Sanjay glanced to his side, saw that the twister had drawn level with them but was angling off in the other direction. He was so focused on tracking it, that he never even saw the building emerging from the soil until the conveyor slammed into it. Sanjay catapulted over the handlebars and slammed against a brick wall. He slid down it, thankful for the protective helmet and suit he wore and collapsed in a heap at the foot of the wall. There, he waited for the storm to die down.

    An hour later, the sky was a flat, hazy orange and the dust had dropped. The land had been reconfigured by the twister, Sanjay had no idea which direction he’d travelled from. The tread marks of the conveyor had all been blown smooth, and the conveyor itself smashed beyond the limits of his portable tool kit. His tent, survival gear and salvage was gone: buried somewhere in the wasteland around him.

    “We are a seventeen day walk from the nearest Collective outpost,” the robot announced. It shook itself, dust showering from its sides. “My battery will not last that long.”

    “I won’t last that long.” Sanjay sucked on the nozzle at the side of his helmet that led to his water canister. He looked over the conveyor, pulling the gold coin free from the dashboard and examining it. At one point there had been a portrait of a person in profile, but it had worn away so that Sanjay could not tell who it was meant to be. He stuffed the coin into a pocket and turned to the building.

    It was one of those rare buildings that had survived the war relatively unscathed. Only the top story was visible, the rest buried in sand. A blown out window stood at elbow height. At one point it had been painted white, flecks of paint peeled away from the brick.

    “Might as well take shelter in here for the night,” Sanjay said. “Work out what to do in the morning.”

    He stepped into the building through the window, the robot following him. Sanjay flicked on his helmet torch. It flickered over white walls and came to rest on a sword and a lantern, both gleaming as if new. Sanjay blinked at them, stunned by such an anachronistic detail.

    He tracked the light across the floor and up onto the wall. Plastic letters had been stuck to the peeling paintwork. Sanjay blinked as he read them. “Zork? Does that say Zork?”

    “Affirmative,” the robot said.

    “What the fuck is this place?” Sanjay moved towards the door and stepped out into a hallway. A couple of bags had been dropped halfway along, and Sanjay kicked one of them open. A pile of plastic blocks fell out, each one stamped with the words ‘platinum bar’.

    “This is some weird shit.”

    The robot, a few steps behind him, did not reply.

    Sanjay opened the other sack and discovered a lunchbox, the food long since rotted away, and a withered root of some kind.

    The hallway led to a flight of metal stairs. Sanjay descended them, drawn to the lower levels of the building as if by instinct. He’d always been a digger, had always believed the greatest treasures were the ones you had to extract from the soil.

    Cockroaches scuttled over the walls, away from the light of his torch. Sanjay kept descending the stairs until they expelled him into a stone basement. There were no windows down here, and the floor had only a thin layer of dust.

    Sanjay shone his light around. No furniture, but in the very centre of the room there was a round trapdoor.

    “It might be another group of survivors.” Sanjay rushed towards it, examined the seal. Groups turned up every now and then. Often just a small interbred family, with hollow bones and white skin and no idea of how many generations had passed. Sometimes, however, they found another group, with equipment, skills and a different culture. Sanjay couldn’t even imagine how much he’d get paid if he found a group like that.

    “There is writing on the wall,” the robot said. “It reads: the wise traveller bewares the Grue.”

    “Zork? Grue? I’m starting to think we’re about to discover something pretty major.” Sanjay hooked his fingers under he trapdoor and prised it open. His helmet torch penetrated only a few feet into the inky darkness below, enough to see the rusty ladder that led downwards.

    Sanjay looked up at the robot. “Coming?”

    “I don’t like this.” The robot whirred. “I hope you’re right and there is another group of survivors down there.”

    “What other explanation could there be?” Sanjay grinned at the robot.

    The two of them descended into the darkness.

    Other stories inspired by randomised inventories

    Great Acting by antipelican. A funny story about a drunk actor on a path to learning some life lessons (maybe).

    Never Swindle a Swindler by D.J. Davis. Swashbuckling thievery pretty much always amuses me. There’s a great sense of a bigger world as well.

     

  • An ode to walking

    I love walking.

    Quite often, when you say you’re “going for a walk”, it conjures up images of trails through woodland, blue skies, and probably someone else to walk hand-in-hand with. Or maybe you think of a beach, wandering alone along the shore thinking deep thoughts. And I won’t deny, some of my best walks have been done on a sunny day in some woodland or along a wintery beach.

    That’s not the only walking I enjoy though. I enjoy walking along streets, staring at people’s houses and wondering who lives inside. I enjoy walking through car parks, which have a beautiful openness to them. They also, oddly, remind me of zombie movies. I enjoy walking along badly lit back roads at night, when the moon shines down and the shadows jump at you and you get a little frisson of fear.

    Walking in the rain? Makes me feel alive, young and full of energy. I love it. I still remember the day I was walking home from school and I got caught in a sudden, epic, thunderstorm. For a moment I thought shit! But then after a few more paces I changed that to holy shit, this is awesome!

    Blustery winds? Make me struggle to walk forward, but always blow a massive grin onto my face. A walk on a cold day can make a headache vanish better than any painkiller.

    The health benefits of walking are numerous; you burn calories, it improves digestion, it improves mobility, it lowers blood pressure. I like to walk every day. When I skip a walk I get mopey, angry, self-reflective and lazy. All my best ideas have come to when walking… if I’m ever stuck on a story idea, a long walk is usually all it takes to get me back behind the keyboard.

    So… I think I’m going for a walk. Care to join me?

     

     

     

  • No trouble

    Another week, another terribleminds flash fiction challenge! This time the prompt was bad parents and we had 1,000 words. I really wanted to stay away from the whole ‘starvation, drunken rage, cigarettes getting stubbed out in painful places’ kind of story. Not because those things don’t happen, but because there’s only three ways for those stories to go. It either ends in tragedy (kids die), triumph (kids escape and/or kill parents) or stasis (isn’t it dreadful).

    At the end of this post I’ll link to a few of my favourite stories that other authors have written in response to the prompt.

    No trouble

    I throw the slivers of chicken into the pan with the onions and stir. The pink meat turns white, the oil hisses and spits

    “Sarah?” Her voice, thin and scratchy, crackles over the baby monitor. I bite my lip, stir the chicken and add a splash of stock to stop it from burning.

    I go upstairs and open the door to my mother’s bedroom. She lies there, propped up against her pillows. Thin, skin translucent, crazed with wrinkles. You can see all the veins in her hands, wrapping up and around those knobbed knuckles. I stare at her hands and avoid looking at her face.

    “What is it, Mum?”

    “I’m thirsty.”

    “Would you like a glass of water?”

    “A tonic water,” she says. “With a slice of lime. A thin slice. I don’t want the lime to overpower it.”

    My heart sinks. “We don’t have any lime.”

    “Can’t you go to the shop?”

    “The corner shop won’t have them. I’ll need to drive to Tesco, and that’s fifteen minutes there and back. I’ll go after I finish lunch, okay?”

    Silence. I stare resolutely at her hands.

    “I don’t want any lunch,” she says. Her voice quavers.

    “You need to eat. It’s almost done. I’ll get the lime as soon as I’m done cooking.” I try to make my voice firm.

    “If your father was here—“

    “But he’s not here,” I cut her off. “I’m in the middle of cooking. If I leave now it’ll be ruined. I’ll go after lunch. Do you want a glass of water?”

    “No.” Her voice is sulky.

    She starts to sob as I close the door.

    While the chicken and carrots finish cooking, I take a separate pan and make the gravy. Butter, flour, stock, herbs, a slosh of white wine. I add pepper, hesitate, then add another shake of pepper. Last time she told me there wasn’t enough pepper, that it made the meal bland. I take her plate, the special china one with the blue swirls around the edge. I shape the carrots into a pyramid and place three pieces of chicken in a fan shape next them. I use the back of a spoon to swish an arc of gravy on the other side of the plate and stand back to scrutinise my handiwork. I add a garnish of fresh parsley, dropping it onto one of the chicken pieces.

    I put the lid on the pot to keep the heat in, then put her plate on the tray. I take out a tumbler and pour some tonic water into it. I’ll take it up to her, and then go and buy the lime.

    When I open her door the sobbing starts again, little hitches in her throat.

    “Please don’t work yourself up, Mum.” I carry the tray over and put it down on her lap.

    “No lime,” she says.

    “I’ll go and get you one now.”

    “Don’t bother,” she says. “I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”

    “It’s no trouble. I just didn’t want to go while lunch was cooking, and—“

    “I know how hard it must be, looking after your old mother. I remember how hard it was for me, when I had to look after you.”

    “Mum—“

    “Oh! I slaved over your food, and you wouldn’t eat a bite. I tried everything, organic baby food, pureed dinners, I spent an hour once making a special soup out of roasted squash and you just threw it on the floor.”

    “I was a baby.”

    “You were always as good as gold for your father. He’d come home and you’d eat any old rubbish. You never really loved me, of course.” Her voice cracks. She knows I can’t stand it when she talks like this.

    “I love you Mum, you know I do.” I pat her hand awkwardly. “Look, just eat your lunch. I’ll go to the shop now, you’ll have your lime slice as soon as I get back, okay?”

    She heaves a deep sigh. I head for the door, but before I can reach it there is a clatter and crash from behind me. I spin round.

    She’s knocked the tray onto the floor. Gravy, carrots, chicken, all over the carpet. The tumbler rolls across the floor until it knocks into the leg of her bedside table. I bite my lip.

    “Oops,” she says. Smiles.

    I don’t answer. I pick up the tumbler and the broken bits of plate and put them on the tray. The food goes in the bin. I get the vacuum cleaner and suction up the rest. There’s a gravy stain, but I can deal with that later.

    I go downstairs, put on my coat. I’ve worn through one of the elbows.

    Tesco is busy. I don’t see anyone I know. Most of the people I went to school with have moved away. Sometimes I see Kate, but she’s always too busy running after her toddler to see me. She isn’t here today. I buy the lime, smiling tentatively at the woman behind the checkout. She gives me a blank smile in return.

    When I get home I stir up the remaining carrots and chicken and give it a quick blast of heat to bring it back up to temperature. I take out a new plate, build the pyramid of carrots. I fan out the chicken, swirl the gravy.

    I pour the tonic water, slice the lime nice and thin. The tonic fizzes when I drop the slice in.

    I carry the tray upstairs. She smiles as I bring it to her bed.

    “Oh, you sliced it just right. And look, you made such a pretty gravy swirl.”

    “Thanks, Mum.” Happiness blooms in me at her words.

    She cuts a tiny piece of the chicken, puts it in her mouth, chews. “It’s a little dry. You left it standing too long. And there’s too much pepper.”

    “Sorry, Mum.”

    “Don’t be silly. I don’t expect you to take any trouble over your old mother.”

    Some other stories about bad parents

    These were my favourite stories written in response to the ‘bad parents’ prompt.

    Beneath One Wall, Inside Another by JP Juniper. Great sense of time and place in a short word-count, and just enough detail about the children to whet your imagination.

    No such thing by Chris White. Such a fantastical story and original setting. I would love to see this world developed further.

    Deals with the Devil by Alex. A sharp toothed story about the way society regulates women’s bodies, especially those of mothers.

  • Blind Abbot

    Another Flash Fiction written for a terribleminds prompt. In this case the prompt was a list of cocktail names, and I randomly drew Blind Abbot. I’m not sure how well this works as a story, but I like the Blind Abbot character.

    Trigger warning: implied child abuse.

    Gary caught his foot in one of the tree roots bulging up through the cracked and twisted flagstones. He staggered forward, clutching at a branch to stop himself plunging face first. A cloud shifted, and moonlight illuminated the old, decrepit stone mansion. Turrets twisted up into the sky and bats flittered from the shadows beneath stone eaves.

    Think of Alice.

    An imposing door loomed out of the shadows: dark, weathered wood punctuated with the muted gleam of iron. Gary wiped the sweat from his forehead with one hand and used the other to grab the snarling gargoyle knocker and hammer out his arrival. The knocks reverberated through the old wood and dust showered down. Gary wiped his forehead again. Nobody had been here for a long time.

    Seconds ticked by, turning to minutes. Gary shifted from foot to foot, staring at the rage-filled face of the gargoyle. A chisel had been taken to it, leaving a stony scar where the gargoyle’s eyes should be. Another minute ticked by. Gary lifted the knocker again just as the door wrenched open with a screech of rusted hinges.

    A robot, made entirely of mahogany, every joint a carefully constructed wooden ball socket, stood before him. Gary looked into the blankly polished sheen where a face should have been and forced the words out, his throat still raw from the outburst he had indulged in last night. “I’m here to see the Blind Abbot.”

    The robot glided into the hallway. Gary followed, taking in a confusion of jumbled objects piled up against the walls: a huge copper disk, tarnished green; coiled rugs, bright with golden threads. He picked his way through a collection of marble statues, each with a missing limb or two.  A slender women wept over her missing hands. A man leaned sideways, gazing in slumped horror at the jagged stone where a foot should have been. Gary pulled his gaze away and found himself staring at an oil painting of a young girl, her hand held out as though to clutch at the hand of an adult. No hand claimed hers, and Gary blinked away tears.

    The robot continued to glide along the hallway. Gary dashed the tears away with his knuckles and jogged to catch up. They ended up in a library, shelves filled with leathery tomes; wreathed in shadow and dust. Embers smouldered in the fireplace, the dull red glow the only light. A massive wing-back chair faced the fire. Gary took a step toward it.

    “Come no closer.” The voice rich and clear, each syllable oiling into place.

    “Blind Abbot?”

    “So they call me.”

    “They say you can find things. Things that are lost.”

    “My price is high.”

    “I would give anything in my power.”

    Silence from the chair.

    “It’s my daughter, Alice.” Gary felt the shiver of grief in the back of his throat and paused to take a ragged breath. “She’s been gone three weeks. The police… they just aren’t getting anywhere. I have to know where she is. If she’s been taken, or-“ He couldn’t finish the sentence.

    “Or killed. You must understand I can only find. I cannot intervene or change what has happened.”

    “I understand. But I have to know.”

    “Do you have something of hers?”

    Gary fumbled in his pocket and brought out the silver daisy-chain bracelet Alice had liked to wear.

    “Give it to the robot.”

    Gary held the bracelet out and the robot took it in polished wooden fingers. Gary felt his heart clench as the robot carried it to the chair and the bit of silver — all that remained of his daughter — disappeared behind the imposing leathery surface.

    The chain clinked as the Abbot held it. Gary closed his eyes and wondered what creature sat in the chair, what claws-or-tentacles-or-decaying-flesh played with the bracelet. His mother had told him the fairy-tale; the ancient story of a creature nobody had ever seen, a creature blind to the darkness and ruin it lived in and yet capable of seeing everything in the world.

    The tale always changed in the telling, but the central motif remained the same. Somebody lost something precious and went to the Abbot to ask him to find it. The Abbot warned them the price would be high and located the missing object. Several days later they had to give payment. Almost always the Abbot took something the person wished to give up even less than the object that had been lost in the first place. Family heirlooms were found, but the family taken. Runaway pets returned home, but the home torn away.

    Gary could not imagine anything in the world he would prefer to his daughter, returned safe.

    “She lives,” the Abbot said.

    Gary sagged with relief. Tears sprang to his eyes. “Thank God! But where?”

    “With her mother.”

    “Her mother?”


    She lay curled up on the bed, sound asleep despite everything, her hand interlocked with Gary’s. Gary sat by her, stroking her blond hair. They had found her drinking water from the dog bowl. Her mother had taken a knife to one of the police officers.

    A clunk at the window.

    I’ll never let her take you again, Gary promised her. I’ll keep you safe, no matter what.

    Clunk. Harder this time.

    Gary gently unwrapped Alice’s fingers from his own and stood up.

    Clunk. No doubting the knock’s urgency now. The next one would smash the window. Gary hurried over to the window and pulled the curtain back.

    The blank, polished wooden head of the Blind Abbot’s robot stared back at him.

    Gary pulled the window open. The robot held out an envelope in those slender mahogany fingers. Sweat collected in the hollow of his back.

    He opened the envelope with shaking fingers. The letter inside simply said PAYMENT DUE in red capitals.

    “What do I have to do?” Gary asked the robot. It tipped its head to one side, raised its hand and made a beckoning motion.

    “I can’t leave her alone.”

    The robot beckoned again.

    “Alright. Give me… give me fifteen minutes.”

    Gary pulled the curtain back across and checked Alice still slept. Closing the door softly behind him, he went into the hallway and called his neighbour, Penelope. A good sort, and the only one who knew he’d been to visit the Blind Abbot.

    “Pen? I’m sorry for calling so late, but I need your help. Will you come and watch Alice for me?”

    Penelope turned up five minutes later, wrapped in a dressing gown and wearing an enormous pair of fuzzy pink slippers. Gary let her in, glad the robot stayed out of sight. He didn’t want to scare her.

    She gave his arm a sympathetic squeeze as she came in the house. Gary pulled on his coat and stepped outside. The night air carried a bitter chill.

    The robot glided smoothly around the corner of the house. Gary followed it, jogging to keep up. Dark houses lined deserted streets. Gary already knew where their destination, so it did not surprise him when they left the town behind and struck out into the dark countryside towards the Abbot’s crumbling stone mansion. Up the shadowy path, through the hallway cluttered with broken artworks, and into the library. Once again Gary’s gaze flicked to the ancient books, but the dust stood so thickly along the spines he could not read the titles.

    “Your payment is due,” the Blind Abbot said.

    “I know.” Gary wiped the sweat from his forehead. “What will you take?”


    Gary fumbled the key in the lock, and felt relief sweep through him when he stepped across the threshold. Home at last. Shrugging off his jacket he went into the kitchen and grabbed a can of coke out of the fridge. He popped the tab and took a swallow when he heard someone walking across the hallway.

    “What the hell?” Gary grabbed the first thing to hand, a rolling pin — a rolling pin? Since when had he owned a rolling pin? — and stole forward to apprehend the intruder.

    “Gary?”

    Penny, his neighbour, blinked at him in confusion. She wore a dressing gown and slippers. Had he invited her to spend the night? Gary felt the start of a headache form behind his eyes.

    “Penny? What are you doing here?”

    “You asked me here to watch Alice, remember?”

    “Alice? Who’s Alice?”

  • Old Man Goriot: 100 novels

    I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list, and my latest review is about Old Man Goriot. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels. This review will contain spoilers.

    Old Man Goriot

    Old Man Goriot focuses heavily on three characters: Rastignac, a young student determined to break into Paris high society; Vautrin, a jovial criminal who takes Rastignac under his wing; and the titular Goriot himself. Despite being the title character, we get very little from Goriot and see his tragedy play out mainly through the eyes of Rastignac.

    The novel is one of those rich, meandering tapestries full of mesmerising detail. Indeed, Balzac is generally credited with founding realism in European literature. The book is not stylised or romanticised in any way, but rather depicts the thoughts and actions of people who may as well be real.

    As such, it makes for a depressing read. Goriot’s story is not a happy one. A hardworking small businessman, he makes enough money to ensure his daughters are ‘well married’ and they enter a higher social strata. They quickly snub their father, except when they need more money. Goriot sacrifices more and more of his own well-being to try and help his daughters with little reward. Eventually, penniless, he suffers a stroke and dies slowly – but his daughters are too busy attending an important high society ball and do not visit him before he finally dies. They also do not attend his funeral, choosing instead to let a medical student and Rastignac (his fellow boarder) organise a paupers grave.

    The way this desire to ‘go up in the world’ and achieve greater wealth and fame corrupts people is played out again in the character of Rastignac. From a poor rural area of France, he has high ambitions but quickly realises you need wealth and connections to even be noticed. He takes money from his family, that they can ill afford, and even contemplates becoming an accessory to murder.

    Despite the fairly horrible actions of the characters, they are well-fleshed out and surprisingly sympathetic. Poverty is shown to be a grim and horrible thing, and it is no surprise that people are desperate to escape to the glittering world of wealth and good fortune.

    Indeed, with our own inequality of wealth rising, this book has some surprisingly poignant moments. The poverty of the boarding house, the desperation of most of the characters to escape, and the prejudice the wealthier class has against the poorer ones – even to the extent of daughters turning against their father – all feels sadly modern.

    Buy Old Man Goriot