Harlequin lemonade party

FLASH FICTION

A CHILDISH HORROR STORY

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When I was a kid, our dad would let us choose a story from a collection, and we’d naturally go for the longest. Then we’d switch off the main light and put the elephant lamp on, like we were reading conspiratorially by torchlight. Dad didn’t mind. He worked all day and he’d take us off mum’s hands after supper. That was our time, and children’s stories helped with dad’s reading. I don’t think his dad ever read him bedtime stories.

Granddad was very strict: “Children should be seen and not heard,” that sort of thing. Whenever we were too much like children around him, he’d threaten us with the cupboard under the stairs: “I’ll shut you in there, and you’ll see what happened to the last child.” We always suspected he had a secret, perhaps a trapdoor in the cupboard, leading down to a basement.

Being kids, we were curious. We wanted to go in that cupboard and make a camp, our own little room away from granddad. We wanted to be unseen and only audible to each other. But it was forbidden. His attitude seemed illogical and paradoxical to kids, his strict nature only encouraging us away to explore. And that’s how we found the skeleton in granddad’s cupboard, hidden inside a clown costume.

We didn’t tell granddad, because he couldn’t hear us. Dad would never tell us, because we only let him tell the long stories. So I wrote it down, under the light of the elephant lamp in our bedroom.

© Steve Laker, 2019

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Writing home

NEWS

I’ve been fortunate enough to be approached by the local press, who wanted to report on my story. So this week, I’m in a newspaper.

From back alleys to bookstores – The journey of a man who turned despair into award-winning tales.

The full article is here (on page 4):

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A story about life’s changes

THE WRITER’S LIFE | BOOK LAUNCH

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A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie, available in paperback

About two years ago, when I was still homeless, I stayed with a family. Sometimes, the end of one story is just the beginning of another. A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie was written when a family member was lost: A dog.

While my little cloud of a housemate was becoming a cloud, I left the family and decamped to the pub (where I ended up living illegally for a year), and wrote a story. With the family’s permission, I entered the story in a “Life-changing” short fiction competition: I won first prize and moved a judge to tears. To be honest, it gets me every fucking time.

So this one’s for Jake:

The book is the story of Ellie (“Sparks”), aged 9 ¾: A girl dealing with life changes with the help of her talking dog (Frank Burnside), and both of them ever aware of the family cat (Haile Selassie).

“Every one wishes for things. That didn’t work for me, so I wish for not things. When I wish for not things and things don’t happen, that’s wishes coming true.” (Ellie). The story was then illustrated by my daughter, who is the same age as Sparks.

“…The best thing,  I thought, was the Voice. I don’t mean the voice of your character (Ellie), although that was brilliantly well done. No, I mean your Authorial Voice. Of all the books I’ve read over the years, whether they were classics or popular fiction, the stories that have stayed in my mind have all been written by authors who had a distinct, individual style …Jane Austen … Charles Dickens… Agatha Christie…the Brontes… Enid Blyton… many others…  and there was a heart in their writing  that captivated the reader. Well, I found that your story captivated me in much the same way as theirs.” – Amanda Carlisle, Warner Publishing.

It was a story worth writing.

A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie (Review)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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About two years ago, I wrote a very important story. I was crashing on the sofa of a family of friends and during my stay, a little cloud disappeared: He was a dog. He was part of their family and he was my friend. I decamped to the local pub for a couple of hours and I wrote something which I thought might help. It was the tale of a young girl and a talking dog, who imparted some wisdom for his human friends.

The story has touched the hearts of everyone who’s read it. My nine-year-old daughter was so taken by it that she offered to illustrate it. It won first prize in a national writing competition and it’s available as an ebook in my Kindle store.

It’s always nice to get feedback from readers and peers, especially from those in respected positions; And even more so when I’m compared to “…Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, the Brontes, Enid Blyton…many others…”.

I am a tart, a whore and a slag; and I will unashamedly share such feedback:

Hi Steve…

I don’t usually email people who’s stories I read, but I felt I had to write to say how much I enjoyed your winning story in Writing Magazine: “A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie.”  

These days, so many winning stories in writing competitions are miserable reads — so many being about lingering death, Alzheimer’s Disease, child-abuse — either that or they’re written in such a way that they’ve no heart in them because the writer has tried too hard to display his/her cleverness to the judges. All of this is understandable, of course, when writing for competitions, but for me, they are very boring to read. Half the time I don’t even finish them — just skim to the end to see what the outcome of the tale is — if I’m curious enough that is. 

But your story was different. Yes it was a bit sad, but in a good way. It actually moved me to tears, which is difficult to do at my age (70 years old) and after having read what must be thousands of books in my time. There was a bubbly quality to it, as picked up by the judge, but there was also a readability to it, which is rare in short stories today, and it’s readability that is the sign of a good author. You made me remember all the dogs I’ve had in my life and how I loved them, and how… I know… they loved me, so I cried, but it wasn’t a sad cry, it was a sweet, happy memories cry and that hasn’t happened to me in years.

The best thing,  I thought, was the Voice. I don’t mean the voice of your character (Ellie), although that was brilliantly well done. No, I mean your Authorial Voice. Of all the books I’ve read over the years, whether they were classics or popular fiction, the stories that have stayed in my mind have all been written by authors who had a distinct, individual style …Jane Austen … Charles Dickens… Agatha Christie…the Brontes… Enid Blyton… many others…  and there was a heart in their writing  that captivated the reader. Well, I found that your story captivated me in much the same way as theirs. I think you have, at least the beginnings of, a great Voice and a very readable Style that is all your own and — and yes —  heart! 

So,well done and do  carry on with your writing.  And I wish you all the luck in the world. 

Amanda Carlisle, Writing Magazine (Warner Publishing)

I must admit, I was temporarily taken aback. As I’ve said before, writing is a lonely game and it will only make a living wage for a rare few, but I do it because I love it. Like most other writers, I’m used to submitting a manuscript and not even receiving an acknowledgement: That is standard. Better than nothing at all is a rejection slip: At least then you know that someone’s read your work and you might get some constructive criticism. To receive a comment like this, from a busy sub-editor is pretty amazing: Ask any writer.

Should any talent scouts be reading this, you might be aware of the person who sent me this praise, so feel free to check up. I also have the original email as proof.

(In memory of Jake, 2000 – 2015)

On a magic QWERTY ride

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

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One more sleep, then the kids go home. Last night, they asked if it was possible for there to be a story which kind of wrote itself, so that when they go, it will carry on.

I went outside and it must have been raining, because my face was a bit wet. I rubbed my eyes and I had a tiny drop of water on my hand. I blew it into the wind, so that a small part of me is out there somewhere. The sun will shine and the water will evaporate. It’ll become part of a cloud and then one day, there’ll be a raindrop with a tiny part of me in it. Maybe the kids will be outside the next time there’s rain.

So I got thinking about what they’d asked for: a self-perpetuating story. I realised that the stories about the kids’ bedtime companions – Greg and Snorty – could be a series. Even when the kids are gone, I can email them new tales of their friends’ adventures.

I’m supposed to be a fucking horror / sci-fi writer. I do love being a children’s author though:

The infinite QWERY drive

It’s very easy to make dreams come true. All you need is a little magic. And you don’t need to be a magician or a sorcerer. There’s a magic which everyone can use and it’s all around us: It’s imagination.

Snorty and Greg were just toys in the daytime: A stumpy stuffed pig and a Swedish dog with aspirations of being an actor. Each was responsible for a giant child and as the children slept, Snorty and Greg would go on trips. They never knew where they would end up because the adventures were the dreams of the giant children.

Floating around – always just out of sight – was a man; a ghost: He existed but he was rarely seen; Always just out of sight, he was benign and he didn’t even have a name. He was like an owl, flying silently at night in a dream ship: He was a ghost bird.

Many things are only awake at night: Owls, bats; Snorty and Greg; The ghost bird and his space ship. The dream world is another universe; The universe we live in is a construct of our imaginations. It was the ghost bird who brought it all to life, because the dream ship had a QWERTY drive.

The QWERTY drive is a curious device: It’s essentially an engine. It uses fuel from a sustainable source: Dreams; Imagination and thoughts. That’s at night. During the day, it’s powered by solar, wind and tidal power: The sun, the air and the sea. The QWERTY drive is fuelled by nature. But it’s not the engine of a car, a boat or a plane; The QWERTY drive creates everything around itself. No-one has ever seen a QWERTY drive but rumour has it that it looks just like an old typewriter.

Snorty and Greg yawned, not because they were tired but because they were just waking up: The giants were asleep. Everything changed when the children slept. Snorty was less polygonal than he was in Minecraft, and Greg was even more Swedish than he was in IKEA. Greg had a coat, which was all the colours of the rainbow: It was his pride coat. Snorty had a wonky leg.

“Greg?”

“Yes Snorty?”

“Where are we today?”

“We’re exactly where we were when we fell asleep. Actually, that’s not entirely true. We’re in the same place in three dimensions, but time has passed. So we’re where we were but not when we were. Get it?”

“I think so. Even though we’ve not moved, time has?” Snorty looked quizzical.

“Pretty much”, Greg confirmed. Snorty looked less quizzical.

“So what now?”, said Snorty, looking around.

“Now is now”, said Greg. “The giants are asleep and their batteries are recharging.”

“Their batteries are their brains, aren’t they Greg?”

“Yes Snorty. Once they start drawing power from the universal grid, we’ll be transported to wherever it is they’re dreaming of.”

“The universal grid?”, said Snorty. “That’s like the National Grid for electricity and gas?”

“If you like”, said Greg. “But the universal grid is thoughts. And, do you know the best thing?”

“Yes I do!” Snorty smiled. “The best thing is potato waffles with poached eggs on top, with special sauce.”

“What are you talking about, piggy?”

“Well, it’s four parts ketchup to one part Worcester sauce.”

“No, not that.” Greg rolled his eyes. “The best thing is that the universal grid is free!”

“Should we keep that a secret Greg?”

“What, that there’s a free energy source which can allow you to travel all over the universe? Do you think we should keep that a secret, Snorty?”

“No!”

“Same here.”

“So what now?” Snorty sat on the bed, propped up against his giant girl.

“We wait.” Greg was leaning back on his giant boy, as he looked around the dark room. He gazed up and after a while, he said, “I think this might be a start.”

“Of what?” asked Snorty.

“A dream”, said Greg. “Look up at the ceiling. There are stars starting to come out.”

Snorty looked up at the sky. “Oh yes.” He pointed at a bright star. “What’s that one Greg?”

“That’s Alpha Centauri.”

“Can we go there?”, asked Snorty.

“Yes”, said Greg. “But it’s only four light years away.”

“How far’s that?”

“Not very far at all in space. Sort of like going to your local shop. There are stars out there as far away as London, Paris or Berlin in comparison. Then there are other galaxies, as far away as countries like the USA, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.”

“How far’s that?”, asked Snorty.

“The other side of the universe”, said Greg. “Basically, the further you travel, the weirder it gets.”

“Let’s go somewhere far away!” Snorty said excitedly.

“Okay. All we have to do is close our eyes, imagine it and we’ll be there, in another galaxy, on the other side of the universe.”

“Like Australia?”

“If you think of Alpha Centauri as being like the local shop, then yes”, said Greg. “Now close your eyes and think, really hard; You need to wish for it and will it to happen.”

“What, like this?” Snorty squeezed his eyes really tightly shut.

“Haha!” Greg laughed. “You look like you’re straining for a poo!”

“No I don’t!”

“How do you know? You can’t see yourself.”

“Well, you shouldn’t be looking at me! You’re supposed to have your eyes closed. Unless you want me to go on my own? Do you want me to Greg?”

“No, silly piglet. We’re a team.”

“And best friends. Sort of”, said Snorty.

“Exactly.” Greg confirmed.

They both closed their eyes and didn’t know what to wish for. How can you wish for something you’ve not seen before and which you didn’t even know existed?

Just out of sight (because everyone’s eyes were closed), the ghost bird was floating around. He switched on the QWERTY drive and this is what happened next:

Snorty and Greg opened their eyes and saw that they were on a beach. It was pretty obvious that they were on an alien planet, for a number of reasons: The ocean was pink, and the waves were flowing backwards, breaking into the sea, rather than onto the beach. The sand was gold: Not like the golden sands on earth, but actual gold dust. The sky was light purple and there were three suns. A planet with rings, just like Saturn, hung in the sky, just as the moon does above the earth.

A huge shape broke the surface of the ocean and spouted water: It was a whale. It blew a cloud of pink mist from its blowhole, then before it dived back down into the pink ocean, it raised a massive fin in the air. It waved.

The pig and the dog looked around them as they sat on the beach: There was no-one else around. A couple of small crabs walked in a straight line, forwards and into the sea, but that was it.

“What strange crabs,” said Snorty. “Walking forwards.”

“They must be drunk”, said Greg. “I’m hungry.”

“Me too”, agreed Snorty.

Behind them were palm trees, with big, green leaves like the trees on earth. From a distance, it looked like the trees might be diseased, as there were dark marks all over the leaves. Snorty and Greg decided to take a closer look.

Up close, the dark marks on the leaves were more like symbols: Not numbers or letters like they knew, but some sort of code. Some of the dark patterns looked almost like faces. Then they heard a voice:

“G’day mates.” It was a soft, quiet voice; like a girl’s whisper. Snorty and Greg looked around but they couldn’t see anyone else. Greg lifted a palm leaf to his nose and sniffed it: It smelled of coconut.

“This smells good enough to eat”, said Greg. Then they heard the soft voice again:

“I wouldn’t do that, Bruce.” Where was the voice coming from? Who was it?

Snorty looked around again but he still couldn’t see anyone.

“Up here mate.” Snorty and Greg looked up. Just above them in the tree, was a large snake, like a python. It had different coloured stripes, or rather rings around its body: Red, white and blue; Red, white, blue; Red, white, blue and so on. “G’day”, said the serpent, and smiled.

“Hi”, said Snorty.

“Hi”, said Greg.

“G’day Bruce. G’day Bruce.” The snake looked at the pig and the dog in turn.

“I’m Greg and this is Snorty”, said Greg. “What’s your name and where are we?”

“This is the planet Oz mate,” said the snake. “I’m Sheila. It’s nice to meet you, Bruce.” Sheila smiled at Greg, then looked at Snorty. “And you, Bruce.”

“Are you going to eat us?”, asked Snorty.

“Noooooooo mate. I’m vegetarian.”

“A vegetarian snake?” asked Snorty. “But that’s not natural.”

“Maybe not where you’re from,” said Sheila. “But I made a personal choice not to eat meat a while ago. Anyway, you’re safe little Bruce and little Bruce.”

“But I’m Snorty”, said Snorty.

“Yeah, I know mate: Bruce!”

“Oh dear,” said Greg. “Could we eat these leaves?”

“Oooooh no Bruce”, said Sheila. “You can’t eat our money.”

“Your money?” asked Snorty. “Money grows on trees here?”

“Yes. Despite what people tell you, money does grow on trees. But only here. And the trees are very rare and very fragile. If we pick the leaves, the trees could die.”

“So what do you do about money?” Greg asked.

“We don’t. We gave up on it a long time ago. We realised that it was the cause of many problems, so we stopped using it. We have everything we need, all around us. And we have each other. We realised there are things which money can’t buy.”

“But you’ll need money one day.” Greg said. “When you evolve.”

“Oh, young Bruce: we did evolve. You have much to learn. Humans have a long way to go before they really appreciate everything that’s around them. They are capable of incredible dreams but terrible nightmares. They have done so much harm to your planet but they’re learning. Youngsters like you and Bruce here can help.”

“How?”

“By being yourselves. By using your imagination and having dreams. By making stories: It doesn’t cost a penny and it creates things which are priceless. Never stop dreaming.” Sheila looked around. “It’ll be daytime soon. You should head home.”

“Can we come back?” asked Greg.

“In time. Small moves, Bruce. Small moves.”

Snorty and Greg sat back on the beach and watched the sunset. Imagine that: Three suns. It was like watching giant neon ghosts, dancing on the horizon and stretching long, spectral arms around the planet, embracing the little pig and the dog.

“Safe journey, Bruce. Safe journey, Bruce”, said Sheila from the trees.

After a long blink of the eyes and a simple wish, the animals were back with the giant children. The giants were still asleep but they were stirring.

“What a wonderful place”, said Snorty.

“A bit like magic”, said Greg. “I wonder if the children will remember?”

As the giants began to wake up, the animals became toys again: A stumpy stuffed pig and a Swedish dog with aspirations of being an actor.

Just out of sight, the ghost bird powered down the QWERTY drive and prepared to sleep: Even the ghost bird and the QWERTY drive need to recharge their batteries.

It’s very easy to make dreams come true. All you need is a little magic. And you don’t need to be a magician or a sorcerer. There’s a magic which everyone can use and it’s all around us: It’s imagination.

(C) Steve Laker, 2016

Calvin and Hobbes

Snorty and Greg’s original adventure was written a few days before.