Archives for category: Fiction

SONY DSC– The  Aphid #1, 2013 –

Karl melted away. “Evening, Mr. Klinkel. Been on a little adventure have we?” Karl rubbed at his throat. “You could have phoned us first,” said Clarke, “like Mrs. Hardy.” She emerged from the shadows, dressed for grieving. “Hello Karl,” said Cordelia. “Did you engage with the young woman?” said Clarke. “The maid?” “Yes.” “No.” “Hear anything?” “A tape loop. Just bass and drums.” “Nothing else?” “No.” “I wonder what she’s playing at?” said Clarke. “How do you know what’s going on?” said Karl. The detective turned away and talked to his sergeant. Ute was talking to a uniformed policeman. Karl walked over. “I think my wife needs medical attention,” he said. He held up her arm so that the PC could see the injury. “Come with me,” said the PC. Their feet crunched through the gravel in a loping rhythm. “Not far to the road now,” he said and squeezed her shoulder. “I feel funny, Karl. The girl poisoned me,” she said. Her pupils were dilated. Something moved in the trees. “What’s that?” she said. There was a soft sound. A crunch of gravel that wasn’t theirs and an arm around his neck. Karl tried to shout, but the arm tightened around his windpipe. Something hard knocked the revolver out of his hand. Then Ute was pulled away. He was being propelled towards the road. He stamped on a foot. There was a sharp intake of breath very close to his ear. Then a male voice cursed. Outside the gates sat three police cars. DI Clarke walked towards him. “OK, sergeant,” he said. The hands that and females are produced. Between draped her arms around his neck August and September mating takes place and kissed him on the lips. “Come during flight. After mating, male adults die on, let’s get out of here,” and females shed their wings and he said. She leaned on him. Return to the soil to overwinter. He could feel her breath on his neck – his reward. They turned the corner into the entrance hall. “What about Tony?” she said. “We’ll call the police as soon as we can,” he said. Together they staggered out of the front door, across the terrace and onto the gravel drive. “We have a bit of walking to do. Are you strong enough?” he said. Ute lifted her head and nodded. There was a strange hush. The normal night sounds seemed absent. Karl smiled at her. Emerge in spring and lay eggs. The little smoke. He tried the handle first brood will be fed by and the door swung inwards. “Oh my the queen for three to four God, Karl,” cried Ute. Her dress weeks before pupating in the soil. Adult was marked with dark patches, her workers emerge after two weeks to hair matted and he could see maintain the nest and feed the even in the dark that there queen and subsequent larvae. When adults find were bloody marks on the stacks a food source they leave a phalanx of sheets and towels. “I didn’t shoot trail of chemicals known as pheromones did I?” he said. She staggered back to the nest for others towards him, her arms outstretched. “No, to follow. Towards the end of summer my darling, you rescued me.” She winged males to the queen and her nest simply makes larder. Beyond the shelves piled high space for another. For this reason with packets, tins and jars was it is best to focus on a thick wooden door, locked, controlling only those nests that are course. He knocked on it. “Karl?” causing real problems. “Adult worker ants are,” said the voice on the other side, “all female, wingless, and around 5mm”. “I’m coming,” said Karl. “Stand away in length. Queens are significantly longer and from the door.” He heard scuffling. Fatter larvae are white legless grubs, roughly holding the revolver at arm’s length, 5mm long. Each colony can vary – in he pointed it – at the door’s size from as small as 500 lock and squeezed the trigger. There individuals too many thousands. After over-wintering, females was a terrific bang, and the wind. Something glinted Heaps of earth around the nest on the ground just to the entrance can be a nuisance in left of the front door. He the lawn where they interfere with crouched down to take a look. An old fashioned key. It could bury low-growing plants. Karl stepped into the red ant Myrmica rubra and the main corridor. Don’t turn on the black ant. Queen ants are the lights. To the left was a fly in from neighbouring gardens all a short hall at the end the time but are killed by of which, on the right, was ants from existing nests. Killing a door. The door “She has locked me in the small piles of earth around laundry cupboard,” said the voice [in holes in soil, lawns, paths, and German. Karl located the ventilation grille at the base of exterior walls. To it he said, “I am Adults and may be in the house coming.” There was nothing for it, around fresh and stored food, but to shoot the lock off on sap-sucking pest-infested plants. Large swarms hit the front door. Karl rounded on the flying ants appear in late corner to the terrace and noticed summer. Plants affected. Garden ants rarely cause damage to Cordelia’s pot plants. However, they feed on the garden, its oversized drooping blooms grown sugary foods, oily seeds, honeydewed and sinister in the dark. The tree’s aphid-infected plants and other small insects rattled in.

Untitled digital photograph, 2012

Untitled digital photograph, 2012

Untitled digital photograph, 2012

“What are we doing here?” said DI Quinnell.

“Keep watching the door,” said DS Donohue. They were sitting in Donohue’s car across the street from a cafe. It was  cold, even for November. They could so easily have wasted the morning at the station instead; it would have been warmer.

“There,” said Donohue, jabbing a gloved finger at the windscreen. A slightly-built bookie-type entered the café. “There’s your man.”

“He’s got nothing to do with the murder,” said Quinnell.

“Wait,” said Donohue. So they waited. The car’s ineffectual heater hummed. Two women pushed buggies past the car, followed by a small boy wearing an inside-out blazer. He swaggered over and pressed his face against the passenger window, until Quinnell flashed his badge. Then the boy ran off.

“That woman,” said Donohue, nodding at the café entrance…

Untitled digital photographs, 2012.

The close was almost exactly as she’d left it – neat suburban houses at the upper end of the property market – its pavements bathed in a soft sodium haze. A family car had been parked on a verge by the road directly under the street light, but apart from that there was no change. The close was still and lifeless as a stage set. It was when the stage-set beckoned her forward that she realised she was shaking. Ms Nobody had not eaten for at least eight hours. “I’m starving,” she said to the lamppost. “I’m ravenous,” she said to the street sign. Dunn Close it replied.

Untitled digital photograph, 2012

Untitled digital photograph, 2012

Untitled digital photograph, 2012

Untitled digital photograph, 2012

Untitled digital photograph, 2012

Leaves, 2012

Untitled digital photograph, 2012

Scaffolding, 2012

Untitled digital photograph 2009-12

Rain blundered over from the other side of the open market and splattered itself over the cafe’s front windows. What could have been so pressing that Pankhurst couldn’t lead an investigation into the killing of a celebrity? Quinnell sipped the cold remains of his tea. The slow clockwork of Cafe 13 whirred and gyred around him, a small deal here, a customer nodding out there. He took comfort in the familiar cycle. Too many things were changing for his liking.

Untitled digital photograph, 2012

Untitled digital photograph, 2012

“The appearance of Scutt means someone has stopped caring about consequences. Because Scutt doesn’t follow no code. He doesn’t care about  rules. He’s bad for business – everybody’s business.”

This is Pretty’s illustration for my short story The Manager Who Fell To Earth, originally published by Pulp.Net in 2003. If you’d like to read the story, click on the image.

Untitled digital photographs, 2005

These were taken with my first digital camera, a 5MB Pentax compact. The idea was to convey a sense of unease with mundane objects – a kind of underlying terror with the everyday. The camera was never the same afterwards.

Untitled digital photograph, 2008

The following is from Chapter 13 of the novel, originally extracted for reading at a writers’ group. Chapter 13 is a big one – currently 300-400 pages long. So, a small extract…

For the first time ever she saw it rain gravel. Terence the driver fell over backwards, like a felled tree, into the mouth of the garage. She let him lie for a while then, when he didn’t get up again, Jennifer walked over to see what had happened. From the concertina metal doorway she could see him sprawled on his back, a marijuana cigarette smouldering just out of reach of his right hand. His left still held the gun.

“Are you alright?” she said.

“Jenny.” The driver didn’t move. He spoke to the ceiling.

“Yes,” she said.

The left hand laid the pistol carefully to rest on the concrete floor.

“You haven’t shot yourself have you?” she said.

Without raising his head, Terence said in a low voice, “No, I must have blanked out for a second and squeezed the trigger by accident.”

Jennifer walked smartly into the garage and ground the joint underfoot. “Naked flames: not good in a garage,” she said.

“Do me a favour. Don’t tell anyone about this,” said Terence.

“Spoilsport,” she said.

“I mean it. Tony’s very anti-drugs. If he knew I’d been smoking, he’d sack me.”

“You’re joking.”

“Please, Jenny.”

“Alright, but you owe me one big boy.” She turned on her shiny heels and left the driver where he lay.

In a moment they would all come running to see what the noise had been. Jennifer picked her way down the path between the outside wall of the garage and the moat. It ended in a dilemma. Did she step out onto the lawn, possibly alerting the inquisitive guests in the drawing room to her presence, making them wonder what she was doing there? Or did she somehow squeeze herself into the undergrowth, where ivy and brambles had been allowed to run wild, but beyond which stood a line of trees in the shade of which she could hide?

She peeked around the corner of the garage. A figure stood on the concrete terrace that adjoined the drawing room, a hand raised to its ear: Dave. Tony, who was now dressed in a silver shirt, stepped out to join him. They exchanged a few words and then the singer disappeared back inside the house. Dave tapped a number into his phone. A mobile ring-tone she had not heard before started blaring in the garage. Jennifer retreated. No way could she appear from behind the garage now. Nothing about her conduct must arouse Tony’s suspicions, not now when everything was going so well. The bramble bushes behind her were up to waist height. She had nothing with her to cut through them, and nothing obvious to hand that would act as a switch. Then she saw, lent on its side against the garage wall, a broken decorator’s plank. It was damp and slimy and snails had congregated on its shady underside. But the plank was all she had, so she lifted it and laid it down over the spiky undergrowth. Thorns squeaked and a fallen branch snapped. Then all noise stopped. And she was shimmying across the plank into the shade of the trees.

Dave’s voice grew louder as he approached the garage; he was still talking into his phone. If you took away the garage there was probably less than twenty feet between him and Jennifer. She concentrated only on the next step. Make no noise. Breath become invisible, inaudible. After twenty-five-six-seven steps, the path widened. Enough that she didn’t have to stop to unpick thorny tendrils from her skirt and jacket every few feet. She allowed herself to breathe and filled her lungs with a welcoming earthy smell. Rotting leaves? The aroma belonged somewhere else, where? The time Danny got lost in the New Forest. Long before he got his hands on a drum kit.

Jennifer felt a sharp pain in her ankle. She had wandered into a nettle patch. “Ow, shit,” she said and hopped to a patch of bare earth under a big old tree. On a protruding root, she set about massaging her ankles through her sheer black tights. She knew she needed a dock leaf, but didn’t know what one looked like.

Around the curve from the base of the old tree, the gap between the undergrowth and the moat got narrower. If it got much tighter her clothes would be ruined. She thought she could see movement, a bird or something flitting across the path, but it was just flies. Where she was, the brambles were still too thick to climb through, so she pushed herself up off the tree and walked with burning ankles down the slope towards the narrowing path.

Its perfect body blocking her way, one dark eye open and glassy, lay a fox attended by three house sparrows. The birds did not fly off at her approach, but continued to regard the corpse with interest. Scarlet berries or fruit of some kind, had fallen from the surrounding plants and into the gaps between paw and tree root, snout and leaf. Here is death, thought the sparrows. Nijinsky, thought Jennifer. Nijinsky. This was her new world – savage, beautiful, vengeful. Seemingly as cunning a confection as her own outward appearance. What set of circumstances had led the fox and the birds into this composition? To this frozen moment. The fox had a neat brown bullet hole in its neck. Small spots of blood marked the fur here and there, but otherwise there was surprisingly little mess. It must have been Terence, she thought. Not as bad a shot as he seemed. If he stayed off the weed he could be quite dangerous.

She too could be dangerous, the girl who had chosen this path, the maid whose origins lay in an ‘A’ level art class. An oh-yes moment: she chanced upon Untitled 1975 by Cindy Sherman in a book about the eighties. It was made up of 23 head and shoulder shots of Cindy from the first, where she wore glasses, no make-up and limp shoulder-length hair, through twenty-one minor changes – glasses taken off, blusher, eye shadow and eyeliner applied, thick red lipstick, a beauty mark and a black choker added – one picture at a time. Until at last she looked like a different person; still Cindy, but with a new hard outer layer. This work of art was something else. It did something in the world. To Jenny it said, “It is possible to effect change.” So she put away her paints and started using her body as her material. And here she was, as much of a confection as the Cindy Sherman of Untitled 1975, as much of a result of circumstance as the dead fox before her. What a pretty picture they made: the fox, the maid, the house sparrows, the spilled fruit.

Jennifer stepped over the dead animal and found herself in a less overgrown area. The blackberries had been cut back, the nettles cleared. Just ahead of her and to the left, she could see the foundations of the summer house. A little further along she would be able to slip out onto the lawn behind the tool shed.

It may surprise you to learn that some people have never seen a single episode of The League of Gentlemen. But it’s true. I’m one. Which puts me in the happy position of being able to review Jeremy Dyson’s first book of short stories with the cool detachment it deserves (he’s a co-writer on the series, for those who are as uninitiated as I am).

Never Trust A Rabbit comprises twelve short stories, three of which have been published previously in other places; seven and a half were written specially for this collection. Each story is preceded by a wonderful unsettling, inky black and white illustration by James Hood. We get an introduction from the author, and, opposite the colophon page, a Hungarian proverb: Never trust a rabbit. They may look like a child’s toy but they eat your crops. It’s the perfect taster for the stories to come. And, of course, Jeremy Dyson made it up. There is no such Hungarian proverb.

All twelve stories end unexpectedly. After the first couple, We Who Walk Through Walls and A Slate Roof In The Rain, you begin to expect the unexpected. Some stories finish more surprisingly than others. When the twist works it’s brilliant, but when it doesn’t it’s extremely frustrating because the stories are otherwise so well written. City Deep is the oldest here – dating back to 1989/1990. It’s about a tube-train-phobic man who is forced to go underground with catastrophic (but kind of predictable) results. And We Who Walk Through Walls (about the staging of an illusion that involves a world famous magician walking through a wall) ends unpredictably, but at the expense of its own narrative logic, making the ending read as if it were flown in from another story.

But when it works, ah when it works…

At the heart of the collection are two stories. The first is The Engine of Desire. It’s disgusting, improbable, nasty, and hilarious. Where some of the other stories are tightly focused miniatures (The Maze, All In The Telling), this is a story told in the literary equivalent of widescreen CinemaScope. It has a “hero” called Jack Sleighmaker (fer Chrissakes)!

Sleighmaker is an international adventurer-cum-mercenary who will do virtually anything for money. He is commissioned by Prince Bandar bin Turki (of some unspecified country) to find and acquire an incredibly rare automaton invented by an erotomaniac artist called Thomas Narcejac. The piece in question is a life-like replica of a girl called Aveline that can apparently perform unbelievably exquisite sexual acts. The quest to find the piece takes Sleighmaker from Egypt to Rippon in North Yorkshire and eventually on to a little piece of Kent in the middle of Zambia. The visceral, gory, insane, spectacular denouement reminded me of one of the Chapman Brothers’ sicker dioramas. And made me laugh out loud.

The second is the most recent story in the collection, A Last Look At The Sea. It’s a taut, unshowy dissection of a couple’s relationship, with a strange maritime effect as a backdrop. George and Tessa, who have been seeing each other for a year, visit Long Cross in Cornwall, just prior to Tessa going to live in America for a year. At Tessa’s insistence they go for a cliff walk that leads them to a fog-shrouded beach where the tide goes out and does not come back. There is a sumptuous bleakness to the story, rounded out by a deft ending that manages to be positive without being sickly or sentimental.

The remaining eight stories stand at points along the line that connects The Engine of Desire to A Last Look At The Sea.  At the heart of each lies a believable relationship – even if it’s between a man and a cash machine (The Cashpoint Oracle) – and this lends the stories, no matter how absurd, their emotional power.  It’s a fine balance between the deliciously sinister and the mundane and human that makes these stories so satisfying. Tasty!

Review originally published by The Roundtable Review (May/ June 2007)

This got packed away in the very bottom of a box when we moved four years ago. I had never read it; in fact had taken against it. No matter how many people told me it was a work of unparalleled genius I wouldn’t budge. How dare this upstart dazzle my friends, I thought. I taught myself to spit the words Donald and Barthelme.

Anyway, we moved. A new environment, somewhere bigger where we could stretch out and breathe. One whole year later, we decided to open up the boxes and rediscover some of our old books. There it was. Oh-ho, I said, the over-rated Barthelme and his forty stories. My copy’s a floppy American penguin Handbook edition, printed on very thin paper. I weighed it in my hand. This feels nice, I thought, wonder what it reads like.

It didn’t feel like a dipper, so I started reading from the beginning. Chablis, the first story was a domestic miniature told from the point of view of a man struggling to keep his wife happy – I could feel myself thawing. Can this be? The second, On The Deck, was abstract and allegorical seeming, but again ended with a surprisingly emotional pay-off. By the time I’d read The Genius, I was hooked. And every story was different in style from the one that preceded it. My favourite opening line is this one from The New Owner: “When he came to look at the building, with a real-estate agent man hissing and oozing beside him, we lowered the blinds, muted or extinguished lights, threw newspapers and dirty clothes on the floor in piles, burned rubber bands in ashtrays, and played Buxtehude on the hi-fi – shaking organ chords whose vibrations made the plaster falling from the ceiling fall faster,” but you might prefer: “Some of us have been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he’d gone too far, so we decided to hang him,” from Some Of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby.

Over the last four years I have fallen in love with these forty stories. Particularly the one about Paul Klee (painter and teacher at the Bauhaus), losing an aircraft that he is supposed to be transporting during World War II, because he is too busy drawing to notice it being stolen. And the one about Bluebeard…