It has been a good news and bad news sort of week.
First, I got a renewed contract and cheque in advance for editing – that was very good.
Then I made a sale to Jean Rabe for an urban fantasy style short story in a rural setting. It will be published in a DAW anthology titled Boondocks Fantasy.
My story is called Siren Tears and it was inspired by:
“What potions have I drunk of siren tears,
Distilled from limbecks foul as hell”
Shakespeare, Sonnet 119.
The story is set in Morwenstowe, North Cornwall as seen through the eyes of a London yuppy.
The real Morwenstow coastline is shown above.
Then the BBC rejected my Friday Short Story for Radio 4. It is very specific so does not have an alternative outlet. Shame, I think it is one of the most technically competent stories I have written. But I can see why it was not very BBC.
It is called Past Lives and I post it below:
Something about the scent of the invitation card dredged up memories that I thought long buried under the silt. Maybe she still used the same perfume, or soap, or perhaps I could smell the chemistry of her skin. You never forget your first, no matter how hard you try. I held the card to my nose and was transported back a decade.
Hello fresher. Those were the first words she ever spoke to me. She was running the Literary Society’s stall at the university freshers’ fair. I was disinterested in highbrow literature, still am for that matter, but I paused to listen because she fascinated me. Her voice was low and throaty and she said “yah” instead of “yes”.
She was like the foreign movies that the Film Society was advertising on the next stall – exotic, confusing, incomprehensible, sophisticated and so very sexy. Our heads were close together when she showed me where to sign the application form and I inhaled her scent for the first time.
I was so smitten that I attended a meeting of her society. Greater lust hath no man than he sit through an evening of modern poetry. She chaired the meeting, introducing the first poet who read a piece consisting of random words arranged on the page to form patterns. Nothing rhymed but strawberry jam and menstruation formed a recurrent and disturbing theme. It was followed by an author reading his poem illustrating the evils of masculinity and the need for a feminist economy. I disgraced myself by asking how in practice feminine finance would differ from masculine. Apparently if I was too stupid to work it out then the author could not tell me. I shrank back in my chair at his scorn. She smiled at me and winked, her eyes dancing with laughter.
There was wine and cheese afterwards. People formed groups and talked about things like the allegorism in Bradbury’s latest novel and whether silence was more important to poetry than words. I worked my way across the room and sidled up to her. Eventually, I caught her eye.
“Hello fresher,” she said, with a smile. Her attention flicked away before I could reply, back to the circle of postgrads that formed the social elite of student society. No one noticed me leave.
My student life moved on without her. Twelve months later my class sat around a table in the public bar of the Bargeman, celebrating the start of the new academic year. No one commented that some familiar faces were missing, casualties of the end of year exams. It was no more done than bomber pilots asked how old Squiffy had bought it when he failed to show up for breakfast in the mess.
Our group drank real ale. I had little taste for the brew but lacked the courage to resist peer group pressure. The conversation around the table dissolved into background noise in my head and I wondered why I sat drinking a sour liquid with people that bored me. I put down my glass and slipped out of the pub. No one noticed me leave.
The canal was dimly illuminated by light filtering through the trees from the road lights. I walked along the towpath away from the university, happy to disappear into the dark.
A muffled female cry caught my attention. I heard the word “No” and the murmur of an answering male voice. White limbs writhed under a black shadow in the bushes. I hauled the shadow off her by the scruff of his neck. He gazed at me with goggling eyes. I hit him on the bridge of the nose, breaking the cartilage with a satisfying crunch. His blood ran black in the dim light. I pushed him away and he fell heavily. He called me a rude word but he fled when I raised my fist.
I reached down to help the girl to her feet.
“Hello fresher,” she said.
We became lovers that night. I had little sexual experience but she taught me. My naivety amused her and fixed her nickname for me for ever. No, you never forget your first.
She often stayed in my room on campus during the week. Occasionally I stayed over at the old terraced house she rented with two housemates. A bewildering variety of older men passed through. She laughed at my disapproval. Her room was a disorganised mess of research papers and text books scattered amongst old tissues and takeaway containers. She was amused to find I organised my lecture notes into a cardboard filing system, all annotated and neatly cross indexed.
Sometimes she talked and screamed in her sleep. I used to hold her tight until she stopped trembling. She insisted it was only a bad dream, not a bad memory, but I noticed it was always the same bad dream. When I tried to question her she would silence me with her lips until I was deflected.
Our relationship was entirely in the present. I learnt not to ask personal questions about her past because she either changed the subject or told me something fantastic that contradicted the previous answer. I had no past worth discussing. My life had revolved around school and homework to achieve my grades
We never discussed the future. She rebuked me if I called her my girlfriend. She said she was a free agent, and so was I. She was out of my league, so I never pushed the issue for fear she would dump me, but I did not want to be free.
It was one of those cold crisp London days before global warming. Bright sunlight from a startling blue sky caused the frost to sparkle like icing on a cake. The grass crunched under my weight. The air was so cold and dry that it burnt my lungs. We walked along the towpath by the icebound Grand Union Canal. The brightly coloured canal boats moored against the other bank stood out like lego bricks on a white tablecloth. Washing hung frozen and rigid in the still air.
“When I write, this is what will come out,” she said, gesturing at the scene.
She laughed in delight, eyes hidden behind fashionable pink sunglasses. Her breath condensed in the cold air as if her words were hanging in space. I photographed her, freezing the moment for all time.
Every detail of that walk is clear in my mind. It was the pinnacle of our relationship. Afterwards, we spent less time together. She disapproved of my love of shooting and photography, which she described as pseudo-art for chocolate boxes. Conversely, modern art exhibitions and experimental theatre bored me rigid and I found it hard to conceal my contempt for the posers who created it.
She had never claimed that I was her only lover, let alone that she loved me, and I chose not to ask. One night we had arranged to meet in the union bar after her seminar. I checked my watch for the twentieth time. This was not the first time that she had stood me up. The rest of her literary crowd were there so why wasn’t she? I tapped one on the shoulder to make enquires.
“She’s still with her supervisor, getting in some extra tuition,” he said with a laugh.
I stormed out and strode to her department, my anger building with every step. I ran up the stairs and threw open the door to her supervisor’s office. She was on her knees in front of him. She stared at me without expression before very deliberately turning away, resuming her performance as if I was not there.
He flapped his hand to shoo me away without opening his eyes. Something in me died that night. The greyness descended. I stopped attending lectures and dropped out of college rather than fail the year.
“Fresher, you came to my birthday party,” she said, throwing open her front door and giving me a hug. She smelled just the same. She had cut her hair and was thinner than I remembered. Lines radiated from her eyes when she smiled. It had been ten years but somehow I had not envisaged her changing. Life had marked me, I stroked the beard I had cultivated to hide the scars of cosmetic surgery, but in my head she had remained the girl at the freshers’ fair.
She pulled me in and thrust a glass of white wine into my hand. I was instructed to mingle. My leather jacket and jeans stood out among the fashionable suits and evening dresses. People stood in groups and discussed the latest ad campaign, Marxism, and the merits of various private schools for young Julian and Jemina.
A popular photoprint decorated the main wall – the ‘girl in pink shades’. It was my first big sale, the one that kick started my career. I had not really looked at that photo in years.
A man noticed my interest and came over to comment. He explained that his wife had known the photographer, indeed, his wife was the subject. He made a joke about how she had not aged well. I walked away, resisting the urge to break his nose again.
A woman recognised me as THE war photographer, the one who got all those awards? What was it like to be in a warzone?
I had a flashback. I felt again the hot dust of Afghanistan that penetrated everywhere.
Have you ever smelt a burning land rover? It’s a strange mixture of oily smoke from tyres and diesel, acrid chemical fumes from burning plastic and the sweet smell of roasting flesh.
I kept on snapping pictures as Terry Taliban sprung their ambush. Men fell round me and an RPG took out another car with a great whump of flame that battered my ears and seared my skin.
Brownie returned fire with the automatic grenade launcher bolted to our car. I photographed him crouched over the gun. A bullet hit him in the temple, blowing out the back of his head, and getting me another award-winning photograph.
I dropped my camera and grabbed the gun. Terry had dug themselves into pits on the hills above the track. They popped up to fire. It was so easy compared to clay pigeon shooting. Wait for Terry to give away his position. One short and one over to bracket the range then pour it in until they stop moving. I settled into a steady rhythm, changing ammunition belts as they ran out, until something exploded in my face.
The woman wanted to know how I overcame fear? How I could stand up unprotected on a Land Rover, single-handedly holding off the Afghans until our soldiers could rally. She wanted to know how I, an artist, reconciled myself to killing.
I wanted to scream the truth at her, that a dead man isn’t scared of death, that killing is easy, you just aim and pull the trigger, but I stuck to the platitudes I trotted out on daytime TV.
I let myself out, thinking no one noticed me leave, and flagged down a passing taxi.
She ran down the pavement after me. She threw her arms around my neck and kissed me hard on the lips. Her scent filled my nose.
“I thought we might meet up,” she said.
“Sure,” I replied, “I’ll give you a ring.”
I waved the invitation card, to show I had her phone number, and climbed into the taxi without looking back.
The taxi driver cheekily asked me if the lady was a good friend. I told him she was just someone that I’d met in a past life.
I raised the invitation to my nose but her scent had gone. I tossed the card out of the cab window.
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