My stories appeared in five BCU anthologies (a testament to the quality of my writing or to the length of time it took me to finish the course). The last two of these collections I also edited. Extracts are presented here from each of these entries, along with images of the book covers behind which they coyly repose. The header to this page comes from a fresco by Giotto which features in the last story sampled below.
I had two stories in the inaugural anthology Finding a Voice (2008) but this one was finished first and therefore gets pride of place. An old woman and her son embark on a series of visits to famous trees which becomes for her a means of communicating something important.
Extract (from near the middle of the story) Their third tree was his choice, a towering redwood in the grounds of a private school. It was said to be the tallest in England although Lawrence thought this a cheap distinction, there being, he was sure, much taller ones north of the border. They were taken to the spot by the Principal’s secretary, pausing to be shown the new gymnasium then standing aside for blazered boys on their way to lessons, numbers trumping age in deciding right of way. The tree bore the name of the man who planted it over a hundred years before, a shipping tycoon turned amateur botanist whose last claim on posterity this was, now that his fleet of liners, once synonymous with luxury travel, had disappeared without even a sinking to be remembered by. Gabidon’s Pine was a misnomer, according to Marwick, the redwood being a sequoia, not a pine. Lawrence, versed in the false attribution of paintings, took a dim view of this mistake. In his eyes it somehow diminished the tree. But custom had a habit of snubbing what was technically correct, as Violet had seen with streets when the council tried changing their names, and she liked the idea of a native species stealing the intruder’s glory…
A Man of His Times
In this story, which appeared in The Book of Numbers (2009), a man tries to ditch the stale categories of race, gender and age but finds it difficult to escape who and what he is.
Extract (from the start of the story) Lance Draper ducked into the museum without breaking stride, judging the clearance perfectly. Subsidence had caused the front wall to sag soon after it was built, even the oldest prints showing the famous bellied lintel. As a result, anyone of more than average height was forced to stoop when passing through the door, which looked and felt like homage, to the place itself but also to its founder, whose bust, atop a marble plinth, met you inside the hall.
Lance found it difficult to reconcile that mild, uneventful face with what was known about Malvolio Kendrick. Naturalist and bestower of names, his own attached to numerous species of insect and plant. Trafficker in totems and masks from Brazil to Benin. Member of Parliament. Diplomat and, reputedly, spy. Property developer, the streets around the museum his design. And, as if that wasn’t enough, three marriages yielding eleven children – and they were just the legitimate ones. ‘When did you find the time?’ Lance thought, as he reckoned with the sapping complexity of such a life. ‘Man, they threw away the mould.’
It was ten thirty – later than usual but there were good reasons for that. He had slept at Clea’s the night before, and needed to call home for his books and a change of clothes. The memory of her receding into the bathroom passed through his mind, a towel worn like a stole but otherwise quite bare, each cheek lifting and falling as she walked, a comic device, a sleek contraption of desire…
Weights and Measures
By the time of the third anthology, The Spiral Path (2010), I was writing about things further removed from my own experience. This story features the best ending I have ever written, which is a bit of a tease because the extract comes from earlier in the story. Monica, a young single woman with decided views on life, meets someone she used to know on the train and finds the standards of behaviour she prides herself on surprisngly hard to maintain.
Extract (from the middle of the story) They had met doing holiday jobs in the local branch of Flooring World, Monica in her first year at university, Simon is his second. It was a barn of a place, with rolls of carpet as big as felled trees, mats piled like pancakes and imitation Persian rugs on the wall. Simon helped with deliveries, loading orders onto the van, changing the displays. The men who worked there cracked jokes about students and made him arm wrestle, laughing at his weakness. It was a half-hearted initiation, after which they treated him as one of their own. The comradeship of labour – or idleness, as it was half of the time. Monica rarely escaped the office, where she did the filing and answered the phone. It was dogsbody work ruled over by the manager’s wife, who initially resented having a younger woman around and then bored her with gripes about marriage. Monica almost envied the men, who at least had a form of solidarity, however limited their conversation. As the summer wore on Simon spent more time in the office, as his usefulness became clear. Comments were passed about Monica and him, clumsy attempts at match-making which they both ignored, except to relieve passages of boredom or, once, in the pub, when a kind of flirtation occurred…
The fourth anthology, Extremus appeared in 2011 and was my first experience of editing. This might have proved a distraction from my own work, particularly as I was trying out a form new to me, the monologue. But in the end I was reasonably pleased with the outcome, in which an unreliable narrator tells a story from his past only to reveal more about himself than he intended.
Extract (from the start of the story) In the year in question I was… well, let’s say much younger. That’s not forgetfulness on my part, or vanity. Call it superstition, born of long years in the trade. If I say how old I am the phone will stop ringing. The parts will dry up completely. But no doubt you have ways of finding out such things. Or more likely, you’ll ask my daughter, who has much less reason to be coy about her age. Although she must be getting on a bit, perhaps to the point when her own parts are drying up, if you get my drift.
Let’s start again. It was never-mind-which-year and Flic was only a few weeks old. Oh yes, that’s what we called her, short for…its longer form, anyway. It used to amuse me how people gave their children perfectly decent names and then immediately mucked around with them. Then, low and behold, I went and did the same. Of course, you’ll know Flic by her stage name… which eludes me, for the moment. Would have been nice if she’d kept mine. We are a dynasty, you know. Three generations. Or is it four, now? Makes one proud – and humble, of course. Yes, that’s it. Humble and proud…
This is probably the most effectively realised of the short stories I have had published and appeared in Blood from a Stone, the last anthology I was involved with. It relates the effect on an Italian businessman of a chance encounter with an American and deals with art, memory, sex, the strangely delayed death of religion and a bourgeois as opposed to a proletarian sensibility – all in less than 5,000 words.
Extract (from the start of the story)
“Mano sul mano.”
Guido placed over his companion’s hand, with its writer’s callus and childlike absence of rings, his own plump and predatory paw. He noticed, as if with her eyes, a pouch of flesh at the base of his thumb, the liver spots which made his skin look unclean. He was like this about his physical self, never morbid or excessively vain but alive to its humours and flaws: the billowing from muscle to flab which started years ago, and lately the subtle encroachments of age.
This was a trademark routine, a verbal prank that could turn its hand to seduction or philosophy. The first couplets were an excuse to make contact, a small liberty gauging the level of response. After that, of course, the words were on their own.
He closed his hand around hers and said “Mano in mano”, the middle word stressed to indicate a natural progression. She stiffened momentarily, more in surprise than alarm, her eyes fixed on his mouth like someone who senses a trick is being performed and wants to know how. Was he running ahead of himself? They had known each other less than an hour yet something about her had made him impetuous, an unfamiliar braiding of sharpness and naivety. For once it was not clear what outcome he desired…