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.

100 Novels: Midnight’s Children

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

Midnight’s Children


I actually read Midnight’s Children last year, so I didn’t need to re-read it. I was glad to see it pop up on the 100 novels list, however, because it was one of those books I absolutely loved.

First some background. Midnight’s Children falls into that genre known as magic realism. The novel is set against an historical background, which is India’s move away from British Colonialism towards independence. However, the writing is full of fancy, with supernatural acts and the whole novel really symbolism layered over symbolism.

The narrative is complex, being an story of his life that the central character, Saleem, is telling to his wife-to-be Padma. His story is unreliable, based on his memory and full of digressions, foreshadowings, flashbacks and commentary with the result that much of the book is left open to interpretation.

To me, the book is about how people and history are one and the same thing. That where and when a person lives will impact on who they are, but equally they shape history and become a part of the changing face of our world. Saleem considers himself a chosen child ‘handcuffed to history’, but in truth there are a thousand and one others like him — the ‘midnight’s children’ of the title, all born at the exact moment that India became independent — and in truth his story does not climax in an act of any great significance; Saleem finishes his life as a chutney maker and prophesies that he will fall into dust in the very near future. In some respects, Saleem is India, he represents her, but in other respects he no more represents india than any of the other characters he comes into contact with. India is more than one person, far greater in depth and complexity than even the most significant and noteworthy of human lives. Yet equally, India is only the sum of all the human experiences that make her up, without human perspectives and human lives there would be no such thing as a country or history.

The book is a masterful creation; with details within details. You could discuss the meaning of the characters and the scenes endlessly, and it would be a brilliant book for a book club because of the controversial themes and ideas that run through the novel.

But unlike many ‘classics’ this one is joyful. There is a sheer love for storytelling that comes through, and the nod towards an oral storytelling tradition only deepens the enjoyment. I can easily see myself coming back to this novel again and again, thanks to the beautiful writing, and the complex themes that run through it. It’s the kind of big, bold book that make you love reading and shows you what a masterful writer can really do.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Sex scenes which were actually essential for the story

Recently, over on Tunblr, I have been engaged in a discussion about George R.R. Martin’s inclusion of the rape/de-virginisation scene of a 13 year old girl, and whether it was, you know, actually necessary. I sit in the camp that the whole thing is creepy and gross, and completely unneeded. However, usually what happens after I state that a sex scene is creepy and gross is that people assume I think ALL sex scenes are creepy and gross.

Which I don’t. And in that spirit, I’ve decided to compile a short list of sex scenes that I think actually served a purpose within a story, rather than just being there as a sort of ‘oh look they are having sex!’ type scene.

1. All erotica ever

Well, yes. Because the point of erotica is to be titillating and to get you off. So pretty much if you’re reading erotica you are hoping for sex scenes in their dozens, if not hundreds. I’ll also include ‘racy romance’ in this category, since the pay-off is the characters getting together and sex/marriage is pretty much the way that gets signalled to the reader.

Why it works: Because the sex is the point.
Shop for erotica

2. The sex scenes from Choke

Choke is Chuck Palahniuk’s novel about a sex addict, who goes to a sex addicts 12-step program. So it kind of figures there’s going to be some sex in this book. You’ll either love Palahniuk, or you’ll hate him. But given half the point of his books is to push right to the edges of what is acceptible and to try and make you feel uncomfortable; the sex in these books is pretty fundamental (and not really written to turn you on or make you think of sex in a positive way)

Why it works: It’s part of the nihilistic, taboo pushing backdrop to the book and an essential part of the character
Shop for Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

3. The rape scene in Clan of the Cave Bear

Clan of the Cave Bear is the first Earth’s Children novel, and whilst the novels very quickly go downhill, and even the first is filled with rambling purple prose that you can easily skip, it’s also one of the best explored and logically thought out ‘alien’ cultures. Ayla is a Cro-Magnon girl who ends up growing up with a group of Neanderthals. There is a point where she is repeatedly raped, but because of the society she lives in, the rapist can carry out his crime pretty much in the open wherever he wants. The consequences of the act have a massive impact on Ayla, from a character development point of view, but also lead to her child.

Why it works: It isn’t romanticised, it’s written from the female character’s perspective, and it permanently changes both her character, and the nature of her relationship with the rapist (not to mention the rest of the clan)
Shop for The Clan of the Cave Bear: Earth’s Children 1 by Jean M. Auel.

4. The sex in all of Robin Hobb’s books

Robin Hobb writes Fantasy, but she writes grown-up, incredibly well thought out fantasy with complex characters. Sex turns up often, but it always feeds into our understanding of character, advances or complicates the plot, helps the character come to terms with or understand aspects of themselves, and generally is realistic and often beautiful. Did I mention I love Robin Hobb? I love Robin Hobb.

Why it works: Robin Hobb is a genius for character
Shop for books by Robin Hobb

5. The sex in Earthly Powers

Earthly Powers is an Anthony Burgess novel that opens with a fairly infamous line that references sex. It is a giant novel that explores morality, humanity and religion and you can’t really talk about any of those things without talking about sex. Read the book, it’s great.

Why it works: It’s irreverent and playful, and underscores the main themes.
Shop for Earthly Powers

6. The sex in The Illuminatus Trilogy

A book by Robert Anton Wilson, whose stated goal is pretty much to get you to trip the fuck out. There is a rather memorable sex/death scene involving an apple (I won’t tell you more than that).

Why it works: It’s part of the whole magical mind-bending sixties sexual freedom vibe.
Shop for The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Suggestions from others

  • Rochefort and Dariole from 1610
  • Woman on the edge of time
  • Anything in Diceman
  • Swastika Night
  • Lolita
  • The Time Travellers Wife

There are many more examples, and it would be great for people to share any that they think worked particularly well – using sex to develop character, illuminate a main theme, or for some other reason that you think makes it work.

Ninety-Nine Dreams

Written for the Corporate Abuse Flash Fiction Challenge at terribleminds.

We lost.

That’s the wisdom I have for you. We lost. No surprise, when you look at history. Technology, wealth, education, privilege—what chance did mere numbers have against that? We sent wave after wave of people against them, to die futile deaths on the spikes of their citadel. The world burned, furious, fast. The world burned and turned to ash.

The corporations flexed their muscles—military weapons, economic chaos, the morale-sapping reality of poverty—and we conceded. Governments collapsed. The corporations, bloated, putrid, triumphant, took over the running of the world.

Work shifted to where it was cheapest. Wages bottomed out; a desperate man would work for a handful of bread. The corporations offered a deal: work for us and in return we will shelter you and feed you. We moved from camp to camp, making gadgets, luxury yachts, beautiful things that sold to other corporate CEOs. We worked on vast farms, feeding cows too weak to stand, who remained upright only because they were supported by the four walls that surrounded them.

Occasionally, from a distance, we would see a sleek car pass by the walls of the camp, the windows tinted black, and we imagined a warm little bubble, stinking of champagne, in which a rich man and his wife giggled together.

I had managed to acquire a book, stolen from a publishing house at which I had worked for a short time. Real books had become rare, those that could afford to read chose e-books, churned out by a writer-farm, a group of desperate word-smiths that typed-typed-typed for endless hours.

The few paper books that remained were works of art, full of colourful pictures and clever typesetting. This book I had was no exception. The insides were filled with bright drawings, of a man clad in black skin-tight clothes leaping from buildings. At first, I admired the art, but later his masked visage started to haunt my dreams. For freedom. That is what he said, whenever he rescued a child, or defeated a comically flamboyant villain. For freedom! I read it many times, looking at the pictures of the mansion in which the black-clad hero lived and wondering what it would be like to have a bathtub and a bed.

I tried to teach my daughter to read it, but she was more animal than little girl. She picked fruit with ferocious intensity, and nearly always claimed the ‘pickers prize’, a hunk of bread filled with dripping steak. She treated me with contempt, which was fair enough—we were all worthy of contempt, living in that pit.

But I read that book again and again.

One day, I upended the family and went hunting for work in the textiles industry. It was not a favoured industry—working there invariably led to asbestosis and other lung diseases. My daughter wept as she worked the giant looms, her tears streaking a white trail down dusty cheeks. She hated the fetid air and gloom of the factory, and longed for the open orchards where she had been prized.

My wife accepted the move with dumb resignation. She worked less and less these days, and ate less as a result. I tried to give her my portion, but she just stared at it. Her ribs stood out on her white skin, and her eyes were sunken and bloodshot. I tried to ignore her, and focus on my plan.

Difficult to steal from the company, as armed guards—they ate for every stolen item they found and confiscated, so were diligent to the point of fraud—searched us hourly. I gave them obvious wins and took what I really wanted over the course of many weeks.

My wife stopped going to work. She lay on the iron bunk that passed as a bed, and stared at the pockmarked steel of the bed above. Her fingers twitched against her stomach like skitterish spiders. My daughter, still two years from independence, ran away. I wished her well, but I had little hope she would survive long. The best fruit-pickers were children, adults got slower and slower. Her skills would not last.

I worked on my secret project after dark, when everyone else slept the exhausted sleep of workers that had worked eighteen hour shifts. I could barely see, working by moonlight and touch, and the costume was a ragged mockery of the one from the bright pages of the book. I loved it all the same, though the fabric sagged about my spindly limbs and stretched across the swollen paunch of my belly. Even so, the cloak furled and swished most satisfyingly.

On the night my wife finally died, her face a skull, her body shrunk to little more than bones and skin, I cut a drawing from the comic, a close-up rendering of a red rose, and folded it into her long fingers.

We lost. That’s the wisdom I have for you. Yet here I am, ignoring my own wisdom, running into the black night to start again. Taking up the fight, armed with nothing but a dream plucked from the pages of a brightly coloured book. Oh, but what a dream!

Connected

Written for the Flash Fiction Challenge: Brand New Monster at Terribleminds.

Harris lifted a hand to his head, groaning. Beside him, Sarah rolled over. “Feeling it, are you?” she asked without sympathy. Each word struck like an axe, and synapses screamed.

“Coffee?” Harris asked. One hand scrubbed across dry, gritty eyes, the other twitched on the cover of their bed. His wife snored; too theatrically to be real. Sighing, Harris clambered out of bed, and squinted at the bedroom door. His legs trembled; his tongue, furry and swollen, tasted like it had started to rot in his mouth.

“Shit,” Harris said.

“You kept me up until twenty past four,” Sarah said.

“Sorry, honey.” Harris stumbled to the door, creaked it open and picked his way down the stairs. They had a small house, him and Sarah, but it was clean, homely, and he had never been jealous of his friends as they had moved up the corporate ladder, buying bigger and bigger houses, but spending less and less time in them. Yawning, he went to the kitchen and started changing the filter in the coffee machine. The kitchen table was covered with empty cans. His stomach turned over at the smell of stale beer and he quickly looked out the window.

He saw a body, sprawled halfway down the stone stairs that led down to the road. Continue reading Connected