This is my writing blog, where I will be shamelessly posting my work. Poems, short stories, flash fiction, extracts from novels...they'll all be here. And if you don't like any of that, just play with the tiger.

Thursday, 29 November 2007


Just in case you were thinking I'd whined myself away to nothing...

A good thing happened yesterday - a nice surprise in the post. No, not my kids' manuscript finally staggering home from the agents who said about three months ago that they reply within a month. I suspect that that particular bundle of papers was long since shredded for hamster bedding.

Anyway. Some time ago I ordered some gig tickets, then suffered a prolonged attack of blondeness and forgot all about it. Said tickets wafted gracefully on to my desk yesterday, and once the cogs in my head torturously inched and shrieked into life, I grinned. Next Wednesday I will be spending the evening with the Manic Street Preachers, and all is well with the world. Huzzah!

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Whine list

Before reading on, please be warned that I am being self-pitying and pathetic.

For various reasons, I haven't been able to do much with the blog lately. First, there is work. I'm currently stuck doing two people's jobs, and am beginning to feel the strain. This would be bearable - I don't mind working hard - but, because I often have to bring work home with me, my Open University course is suffering. I am going through the motions of studying, but nothing more. Fellow students are discussing topics (Katherine Mansfield at the moment) with a depth of understanding that is quite beyond me, and I feel utterly stupid and inadequate. Which isn't helped by the fact that I am doing no writing at all. I can feel the first stirrings of the urge to write: it is a quiet, thrumming build-up, not of words or plots or characters, but simply a need to daydream and imagine. And I can't. So I feel penned in and miserable, and there's no prospect of change in sight.

On the plus side, I did manage to do a three point turn during today's lesson, without causing irreparable damage to local kerbs.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

The sounds of violence

It’s almost like a symphony. Nearest, and most irritating, is the slow, heavy drip as the water that seeps through the walls pools and then plops into the floor-sized puddle below. It never stops; never hesitates or misses a beat. Then there are the sudden staccato flashes of shells landing somewhere near; you constantly expect them – your nerves are wired for them – but every time one goes off your heart explodes into a flurry of panic-beats. Hodges provides the melody. In his dreams, he wails constantly, high-pitched, like some tortured soprano; his cries for his mother swoop and whirl through the foul dankness of the air. Then, after a while, you notice anew the bass line, and wonder how it could ever have stopped being at the forefront of your mind. Incessant, determined, making the soles of your feet tingle – that’s the heavy artillery, and you know it’ll still be rumbling on long after you’ve gone to join the heavenly choir. This is my music, now.

I wake, suddenly, knowing something is wrong. I strain my ears against the darkness, and realise. Half the wall has been blown in, and Hodges – well. His singing days are over.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

A longer short

November the fourth is the anniversary of the death of Wilfred Owen. In tribute (and it is a pathetically weak and inadequate tribute, I know) to him and all members of a lost generation, I'm posting a short story I wrote a few months ago.

‘Christ, that were close!’ Arthur ducked behind a decapitated daisy as the shower of earth pattered down. ‘Alright, Tommy?’
Tommy Atkins whimpered in reply. Of course, Arthur couldn’t hear the whimper over the mad, incessant, cacophonous roar of gunnery and shells, but he knew Tommy whimpered. Tommy always whimpered. Just your luck, Arthur Evans, he told himself. You had to get landed with a bona fide Tommy Atkins, and it turns out he’s a bloody coward. The Hun’d piss ’emselves if they knew.
Speaking of pissing oneself, Tommy now bore that hot, pained expression of a man whose bladder control has just gone AWOL. Arthur rolled his eyes. Now he wouldn’t only have to spend the evening in a trench rammed up next to the almost physical presence of Tommy’s astounding body odour, there’d be the acrid tang of urine, too. Assuming both of them ever made it back to the trench, that is. The Boche weren’t messing about today – they meant business. Not five minutes ago, Captain Mallory had taken one in the neck, a vicious slice of shrapnel that fizzed through skin and artery and showered everything within a ten foot radius in a spurting shower of purple blood. The captain had folded calmly to the ground and watched stoically as his men tried not to flinch. Then he died.
His servant, a skinny, rat-faced lad of perhaps fifteen, took the corpse by its armpits and tried to drag it home, but an invisible sniper took objection and felled the lad with a clinical bullet to the temple. The servant died even before he could cry out for his mother. Arthur had been glad about that, at least. He hated it when they wanted their mothers; it was impossible to comfort them when they took on like that.
Arthur had seen all this even as he charged, dived, flung himself flat on his face in the squelching, stinking mud. Once the show was underway, he had a sudden capacity to see, hear and do everything at once, as if part of him were outside his body and observing the lunacy and horror from far away. As a whizz-bang sailed narrowly overhead, Arthur wondered if that was how God felt all the time.
‘God!’ This time Tommy was audible. ‘Oh Jesus, I’m hit! Arthur, I’m hit!’
‘Alright, Tommy.’ Arthur began a slow flounder over the few yards that separated them. ‘Bad ‘un?’
Tommy went ashen by way of reply, and his eyes drifted to the top of their sockets. Arthur arrived just in time to catch him mid-swoon, and dragged him back into the relative safety of a shell crater. He stooped and collected water, or rather liquid mud, in his palm, and dripped it onto Tommy’s blenched face. He couldn’t see the wound.
‘Tommy lad, where is it?’ Arthur gave his face a couple of concerned slaps. ‘Come on, son, tell me.’
Tommy opened his eyes feebly, and worked his mouth.
‘What? Come on, lad, speak up!’
Tommy’s pupils flickered towards the top of his right arm.
‘Righto, let’s have a look, then.’
Arthur felt relieved. Not many people died of arm wounds. On the downside, he would have to get to the skin to dress it, and that meant loosening the fabric which, to some degree, kept Tommy’s BO under wraps. Arthur took a deep breath and began loosening uniform, using his knife to help. No time to look for a rip in the cloth. It was no use, though. As soon as a gap opened and Tommy’s pasty flesh peeped through, the stench burst out and assaulted Arthur’s nostrils. He gagged quietly, and wondered if his gas mask would be any use. God knew, you got used to all kinds of stinks around here – latrines, men who didn’t make it to latrines, Ginger’s cooking, the heavy, lingering sweetness of decaying flesh and spilled, spoiled blood – but this was another level of pong entirely. It was a warm, moist, rolling smell, redolent of rancid cabbages and onions, rotting fish, and burnt tripe. It pushed the breath from Arthur’s lungs, and for a second he considered letting himself submit to the wave of nausea rolling up from his belly. It wouldn’t make the smell worse, after all.
‘Ow!’ wailed Tommy suddenly.
Arthur had reached the wound, and was instantly caught between fury and laughter. It was a tiny, insignificant flesh wound, less than an inch long, that had already stopped bleeding. All that urgency, for this! He rearranged Tommy’s uniform without the needless formality of a bandage.
‘You’ll live, son,’ he said curtly to Tommy’s pained and bewildered gaze.
Son. That was a laugh. Arthur was only twenty himself, just a year older than the hapless Tommy, but next to this lumbering lad who had somehow latched onto him, Arthur felt an old, old man. Tommy was foolish and frightened, not ready to die, whereas Arthur had long since abandoned any hopes of making it home for good. He might get a blighty, but they’d stitch him up and send him back here sooner or later. It was never going to end, Arthur could see that, until there were no men left alive to fight.
Not to say that Arthur didn’t get the fear, sometimes, when the air hissed with lead and all around him men were falling, screaming, trying to run on stumps, and that spark of life within screamed at him to turn and run. The battle wasn’t with the Germans, then, it was with himself and the whole bloody war, not to give in. Live to fight another day. So far, Arthur had always won.
Gradually the seething air subsided to a low, distant rumble. It was over, for now.
‘Come on, Tommy lad,’ Arthur said as kindly as he could. ‘Let’s be getting back.’
Tommy made a vague, noncommittal noise, and blinked helplessly at his companion.
‘Come on,’ repeated Arthur. ‘It’s safe now. The shells are going miles past us. Jesus.’ Seeing that Tommy wasn’t about to move, Arthur put his arm around him and slowly steered him out of the crater and back towards the dug-out.

Arthur reassessed his mental accusation of cowardice once Tommy was safely crammed onto a narrow ledge to sleep. He lit a cigarette, not so much because he wanted to smoke, but because the resulting fug calmed Tommy’s odour a fraction. Tommy probably wasn’t yellow, not really. He just didn’t belong here. Watching Tommy’s big, bovine face, with its surprisingly long eyelashes and the youthful bloom on his cheek, Arthur felt a heavy, terrible pity for the lad. He should be back home, bringing in the harvest and one day raising a huge brood of stocky, apple-cheeked children. He had a girl, after all. He’d shown her picture to everyone he could find, when he first arrived. Arthur had been surprised, but when he saw the girl’s likeness, he understood. She wasn’t a beauty, not by any stretch, but there was a warm spark of kindness in her eyes that shone through the paper, and Arthur understood that she would love and nurture her Tommy all her days.
The other lads took the rise out of Tommy and his girl.
‘She bakes a fair cake,’ chuckled Butler, ‘but can’t she send some bloody soap, too?’ He pinched his nose, and everyone in the dugout burst into raucous laughter.
‘How does she do it, Tommy?’ added Morgan. ‘She put a clothes peg on her hooter?’
Arthur joined in the laughter, and it was only now, as he watched Tommy snore and mutter in haunted sleep, that he recalled the hurt miscomprehension in the boy’s eyes. Arthur tried to shift into a comfier position without kicking his near neighbour in the head, and wished he hadn’t laughed. It had never really occurred to him before that Tommy mightn’t want to stink. He dragged on his cigarette, and watched the ember glow like a living thing.

Arthur was woken even before he realised he was asleep and dreaming of rich, homemade cottage pies and steaming hotpots. His fag was still clutched between his fingers, but it had burned out long since. The sky was showing the first sullen traces of grey, fractured momentarily by sudden bursts of explosive light. There was an insistent, thrumming rumble everywhere, even in Arthur’s bones and teeth. The barrage. It was time for the offensive.
As ever, Tommy wedged himself in by Arthur’s side. Arthur breathed through his mouth, and tried to think of his companion as a big, hapless, lumbering puppy. Only without that delectable new puppy smell.
‘Stick with me, Arthur?’ Tommy’s voice was harsh with dumb fear. ‘I can’t face it alone.’
‘Course you can,’ Arthur replied flatly. ‘You’ll bloody have to, if I cop one.’
Despite his tone, he was secretly glad of Tommy’s reliance on him. It gave him a reason to keep going. If it were just himself he had to worry about, he’d have given in long ago. Not that he’d run away, or any of that nonsense, he would have just waited for the right moment and stuck his head above the trench, nice and easy for a sniper. Or he could have left it a fraction too late before leaping to avoid a shell. There’d be no shame. The margins were so small and ludicrous here that nobody would ever know he’d planned it. For a young man, Arthur knew his mind well, and he was all too aware that he had seen enough.
It was moments like this – the waiting – that really did it. Once you were out there, charging like a madman for your life, you got to a point beyond fear. But here, now, waiting for the whistle to blow and signal the clumsy stampede into hell, Arthur felt he could easily lose his mind.
He glanced up at the sky, wondering if he would make it through to the next dawn. In a matter of seconds, he could be reduced to a twitching, screaming lump of meat with nothing left to do but die in slow agony. He’d seen it happen so many times, strong lads mown down by tiny bits of metal, canny lads outfoxed by a single bullet, terrified lads put to it by their own bloody side when they couldn’t force themselves to go on – it was just a matter of time before Arthur’s turn came. Why shouldn’t it be today?
He swallowed, his Adam’s apple lumpy in his throat, and turned to smile at Tommy as the whistle blasts began.
‘Come on, Tommy lad!’ he roared, and went over the top.
They ran, hunted by death from all angles. Arthur charged ahead, dimly aware of Tommy right behind him, both their mouths gaping in instinctive screams; their eyes darting jaggedly to try and spot their fate before it spotted them. Men fell everywhere. For some, it was a pulverising death by shell, for others death was written in their glistening guts, dragged out by shrapnel. On the far periphery of his vision, Arthur registered men in new contortions, writhing and clawing their eyes and mouths. The air was vaguely green, as if the victims were breathing out a last curse in their agonies.
‘GAS!’ The cry came from several directions at once, and the hysterical, hideous panic to fit the masks began.
Arthur managed his, and turned to check on Tommy. He was just standing there, the lummox, like a terrified animal. Arthur rugby tackled him from the path of a shell and began wrestling the mask onto his face. Tommy neither helped nor resisted. He just blinked and blinked, as if the next time he opened his eyes the filthy nightmare would be over and he’d be back home.
‘Alright, Tommy!’ roared Arthur. ‘Come on lad, we’ve got to carry on.’ He began to scramble out of the shallow crater, and Tommy followed like a devoted dog.
They ran again, dodging corpses and men soon to be corpses. Arthur felt a deep, primeval shame at not being able to help them, not even being able to look them in the eye. But orders were orders. Leave the wounded for the stretcher-bearers. And so he ran.
They reached the barbed wire. Butler and Morgan were already trying to force their way through, driven by some mad anger that grew from fear. They were hacking and slicing, and cursing the heavy artillery for not making a proper job of it in the first place. Arthur joined in, and bellowed at Tommy to do likewise. At these times, they all forgive Tommy his daftness and his stench. He was brutally strong, and never seemed to tire. Soon they were through, advancing on the solid trenches ahead.
Men fell left and right, and Arthur stopped caring. All those thoughts he had in quiet times, on leave or when he was just far enough from the front to not feel threatened, thoughts about how all the fighting was in a way nothing to do with the soldiers – both sides were just the same really, doing as they were told – these thoughts were felled and silenced. All Arthur wanted to do was get at them, these bastards who wanted to kill him, and give them a taste of their own medicine. He wanted to shoot, to maim, to dash brains and slice throats.
Suddenly Butler crumpled, a bayonet in his stomach. Arthur saw Morgan turn to face the culprit, when his head was split by an entrenching tool. A German, broad-shouldered, and with the insanity of utter terror in his eyes, was lashing out. Arthur struggled for his rifle; the German caught it and wrestled it from his hands. A huge shell landed nearby and for a second nothing existed but a wall of noise, louder than Judgement Day. Arthur saw the German lunge at him, making a fist to knock his block off, and he thought distantly that it would be easier to take if the German wore a glare of hate instead of that searing, bottomless terror, as if he were the one about to die. The German’s mouth was stretched into a scream – Arthur could feel the force of it on his cheek – but there was no sound. Everything had gone silent.
Arthur reasoned that the silence must be the first thing about dying, and closed his eyes.
He opened his eyes.
‘Tommy?’ His mouth formed the word, but no sound came.
There stood Tommy, triumphant over the prone German. His hands and tunic were all blood. Uncomprehending, Arthur looked down, and vomited instantly. The German’s brains were splattered all around; at the furthest extremity of the bloodbath a huge rat was greedily snuffling. Arthur vomited again, and resorted to dry retching when Tommy proudly waved his gory rifle butt in his face. It was speckled grey here and there, where little bits of brain had stuck, like Aunt Nessie’s rice pudding.
Arthur gazed blankly at Tommy, who was beaming proudly as his mouth moved silently. Suddenly his smile switched off, and a concerned frown rolled over his entire face. He mouthed more words, and Arthur wondered why the clot didn’t speak up. It wasn’t as if that bloody German would overhear. Arthur was about to give Tommy what for; if he had something to say, then he should blooming well say it, when another a great, pouring, tumbling wave of earth seethed and showered down. Arthur felt an almighty jolt all through his body, and felt himself flung upwards and backwards. Darkness closed in; Arthur wondered if he was flying to heaven.

He awoke after an unknowable spell of heavy, engrossing darkness. Was that an angel leaning over him? He forced his eyes to focus.
The angel’s lips moved blurrily. Arthur tried to crane forwards, but was immediately pressed back by the weight of a new darkness. Slowly he became aware of rolling moisture on his face. Was the angel crying for him? His eyes fluttered open, and registered that the angel was squeezing a wet cloth over his forehead. Its lips moved again.
‘Speak up!’ gasped Arthur.
‘Wakey wakey!’ said the angel, in a voice so tiny and muffled it seemed as if it were swimming an ocean of Passchendaele mud to reach Arthur’s ears. ‘Feeling better, are we?’
Arthur muttered, and reassessed the angel. His vision was slowly sharpening; as it did so, his angel transformed into a slender, brown-haired nurse with a snub nose and rosy cheeks.
‘Am I dead?’ he asked foolishly.
‘Dead!’ the angel-nurse spluttered. ‘Not by a long shot, my love. You’ve just taken it a bit in the head, that’s all. The doctor says your eyes should be fine, but your taste and smell aren’t what they used to be. Don’t you remember all the tests?’
Arthur shook his head once, feeling suddenly peevish and foolish. ‘Did you say I can’t taste any more?’ he asked querulously.
‘Let’s see.’ The nurse extracted a biscuit from somewhere and offered it.
Arthur clutched it greedily, newly aware of the snarling emptiness in his belly, and raised it to his mouth. He snuffed. Nothing. He nibbled. Nothing but dry, choking crumbs. He coughed, and the nurse immediately swooped a mug of tea beneath his nose. At least, it was tea-coloured liquid; it had no more taste than the mess-hall soup after Ginger had watered it down for the third time.
Bugger. One of Arthur’s great pleasures, gone. His mind conjured images of huge roasted sirloins, apple pies, and fried egg yolks bright as sunshine, and he allowed himself to begin his descent into a syrupy, jammy well of self-pity.
‘It’s still dark!’
The words were muffled by Arthur’s damaged ears, but he was nonetheless jerked from his reverie by the panic-filled shout. The nurse started, and leaped over to another bed further down the ward.
‘Why’s it dark? Always dark!’
Arthur sat bolt upright as the voice filtered through to his brain. Tommy! He smiled wryly – his big, smelly shadow had even followed him into hospital. He eased out of bed, and padded barefoot to his companion. The nurse was bending over him; her lips moved but Arthur couldn’t pick up the words.
‘Alright, Tommy lad?’ he said. The nurse jumped, and he realised he must have spoken too loud. It was so hard to tell; even his own voice sounded distant and feeble as it traipsed forlornly through his head.
‘Arthur! Is that you?’
Arthur trotted the short distance to the bed, and pulled up short. Another nurse, a young, terrified-looking girl, had evidently been unwinding bandages from Tommy’s eyes. Or eye. What used to be the left one was a ragged-edged socket, a pool of darkness surrounded by raw flesh and pus. There was a glutinous glaze on the cheek, as if the eyeball had liquefied and dribbled. The right eye was still there, but it was dulled and patently useless, like the eye of a grilled trout. Arthur nearly buckled under his wave of sadness for poor, silly, harmless Tommy, and tried to inject a wave of cheerfulness into his voice as he placed his hand on Tommy’s shoulder.
‘Yes, lad, it’s me. Fancied a bit of bed rest, did you?’
‘Don’t tease!’ reprimanded Arthur’s nurse, her snub nose delicately hidden behind a hankie. The other nurse had retreated to a safe distance.
Arthur realised. No smell! He was standing right next to Tommy Atkins, and for the first time he wasn’t inwardly gagging at the stink.
‘What am I going to do, Arthur?’ Tommy’s words were barely audible, but Arthur caught the gist from the expression of profound despair on the unseeing face. ‘How can I be a farmer now? I’m no use to anyone. I wish I’d just di-’
‘No you don’t, Tommy Atkins!’ Arthur interrupted in his bossiest voice, even though he ached to weep for the destroyed boy. ‘You can bloody well stay and suffer with the rest of us.’ He turned to stare at the snub-nosed nurse, who understood and backed off.
‘I’ll take care of you, Tommy.’ Arthur hoped he was whispering. His innards winced in pity as Tommy’s one eye rolled hopefully towards his voice.
‘Will you, Arthur? Promise?’
‘Promise. I’m broken too, you see. I’ve got no nose, and you’ve got no eyes. Together we might make one decent chap.’
Tommy chuckled. ‘I’ll be your nose, alright! I’ll smell for both of us!’ He paused. ‘Is that what Morgan meant that time, Arthur?’
‘What time?’ Arthur was immediately tense and suspicious. Bloody Morgan!
‘You know, when I first joined up. He said I smelled enough for fifty men.’
‘Aye, Tommy lad. What else could he have meant?’ Arthur inhaled deeply, and smiled.

With thanks to Graeme