Flash Fiction: 2013 365 Challenge #159

Holiday snaps that tell a story

Holiday snaps that tell a story

Flash fiction is great for bloggers. In a world where everyone is always busy, being able to offer a story that only takes ten minutes to read is a real gift.

My installments aren’t flash fiction, but I do try and make them as standalone as possible, for the people who don’t follow every day.

(Thank you to those who do – if you’ve read every Claire installment, you’ve read 120k words since January. If you’ve read all my posts that probably adds another 80-100k words. Thank you, you’re amazing!)

One of my favourite blogs – Apprentice, Never Master – features daily Flash stories, as well as a weekly serial on Wednesdays. Interestingly I haven’t kept up with the weekly serial because I missed an episode and need to go back to catch up (Gwendolyn, if you’re reading, a catch-up ebook at the end would be fab, please! 🙂 ). With Gwendonlyn’s Flash Fiction, I don’t get the chance to read them all, but I am always drawn into the ones I do read. There are some fabulous scenes and moments. It amazes me how a story can be written in so few words. (As someone who struggles with the concept of brevity.)

Captions please?

Captions please?

The most moving (and shortest) piece of Flash Fiction I know is “For sale, baby shoes, never worn”, attributed to Ernest Hemingway, who apparently wrote it for a bet. Although, as a parent, I don’t necessarily see the sad meaning. I have plenty of baby shoes never worn, because the darn kids grow so fast…

Listening to the radio in the car this morning (a rare treat, as I’m normally forced to endure endless loops of Wheels on the Bus) I heard The Boxer by Simon & Garfunkel. It is a complete story in a little over 200 words. Songs, particularly folk and country songs, are often excellent examples of Flash Fiction (I wrote about it once).

On the subject of music, I also heard The Whole of the Moon, by The Waterboys, in the same set (chosen by Mark Owen from Take That, on Radio 2) and it transported me back – rather randomly – to a wedding I attended when I was around fifteen. Big hair, big hat, floral dress (me, not the bride. It was the 80s or early 90s). We stayed in a static caravan and the song played endlessly on the radio. Songs, like smells, can take you backed to the oddest moments in your life.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Oh, Kim, it looks gorgeous.”

Claire flicked through the pictures on her iPad, as the two girls pored over details of Wilderhope Manor. Jealousy twisted in her chest as she took in the traditional beams, the four-poster bed, the wooden floorboards and immaculate bathrooms of the refurbished hostel.

“I can’t believe this fell into your lap at short notice. Just goes to show, one person’s heartache is another person’s lucky break.”

Kim beamed. Then her face fell. “I hope it isn’t a bad omen, that the groom got cold feet and ran off overseas. It feels wrong, somehow. What if some of their guests turn up to our wedding by mistake?”

Claire giggled, “That could be quite funny. It would be ages before they figured it out – you don’t see the bride and groom for hours at a wedding.”

“Don’t! I’d be mortified. I don’t know that I would recognise all of Jeff’s friends without their rugby kit on. What if I welcome them in, only to discover we didn’t invite them?”

Realising that Kim was serious, Claire stopped laughing and turned to face her friend. “Kim, you just need to put a big sign out front, declaring it to be the wedding of Kim and Jeff. Two signs, three if it makes you feel better. Send out special passes with your invites, that people have to present on arrival. Don’t worry! It’ll be fine.”

Kim ran her hands through her two-tone hair and tried to smile. “I’m sorry. There are so many details to think about and mostly I just want to sleep. I’m growing bones inside here, you know.” She stroked her belly, and her face changed imperceptibly. Claire felt a chill, as her friend disappeared into a world containing only her and the baby growing inside her.

“Did you know the baby can already hear? Isn’t that amazing?” Kim looked up, eyes alight with joy.

Claire wasn’t sure how she felt about it. I guess it is incredible, to think there’s a little person growing in there. She hadn’t really talked about the pregnancy with Kim during her stay. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to, it was just hard to find anything to say. The wedding was a neutral ground they could both have opinions on.

I might never get married, but what little girl hasn’t scribbled a design of her wedding dress in a school book, or draped a net curtain over her head. One of Sky’s apps came to mind. Of course, these days, little girls can create it in colour animation with a few taps of a screen. It’s a different world. By the time Sky gets married, they’ll be able to 3D-print her dress to her exact specification.

“What else can I do to help with the wedding preparations?” Ouch. That wasn’t the most subtle change of subject. If Kim noticed, she didn’t comment. She sat forward and reached for her camomile tea.

“Mum’s sorting the flowers, as she’s local to the venue. She’s going to get them from the market and do the arrangements herself. She arranges for the Church, you know.”

“Are there any other bridesmaids?” Claire couldn’t remember if Jeff had sisters or nieces that might be invited, or if Kim would include some of her acting friends.

“No, no bridesmaids. Jeff’s nephews might be page boys, but we haven’t decided anything. We can’t afford to hire suits – Jeff’s borrowing his brother’s, if it fits.”

“What about your sister? Will she come back for the day?”

Kim frowned, losing some of her new-found glow. “I don’t know. We Skyped the other day, but she’s really busy and of course the flights are expensive.”

“I’m sure she can afford it. I don’t suppose she earns a pittance, teaching English to Chinese businessmen.”

“Living in Hong Kong isn’t cheap though.” Kim bristled in defence of her sister.

Claire smiled inwardly. Blood’s thicker than water. Funny how we can be as critical as we like of our siblings, but bare our teeth and growl if anyone dare say anything bad about them.

“Have you and Jeff agreed an invite list? I’m happy to help you write invitations or place settings if you like?”

“We’ve invited most people digitally. Thank god for Facebook, Twitter and all that jazz. We don’t have to worry about seating plan as we’re having a buffet. The hardest part is going to be sorting the bedrooms.” She giggled mischievously. “We get the four-poster, that’s easy. But deciding who to put in the six-bed dorms is going to be fun. Do we go for chaste or racy?”

Claire giggled too, and suddenly they were both sixteen again, huddled under the duvet at a sleepover, discussing who had snogged whom, and all the other teenage gossip.

***

Post Party Blues and 2013 365 Challenge Day #28

The Jungle Party was a success

The Jungle Party was a success

Everyone is sad and jaded this morning. Husband has a second-interview tomorrow and no energy to spend on learning his competency-based answers. I’m behind on my post and can’t keep my eyes open, and I left two crying children at nursery which always breaks my heart a little bit.

I phoned ten minutes later to check they’re okay and Amber had been let into her brother’s room to give him a cuddle. I love that they look out for each other and are a comfort to each other. I must work hard today to make up for their sadness. I do wonder how my daughter will cope with going to school every day in September. She does so love being at home, particularly since Daddy has been home too. Let’s hope his interview goes well.

Party Girl in the Zebra mask she made as part of the craft activity

Party Girl in the Zebra mask she made as part of the craft activity

The party was amazing but we were all exhausted afterwards. The only problem with having it in the morning was surviving until bedtime. And my daughter’s birthday isn’t actually until tomorrow so there are still visits from grandparents and more gifts to come. It’s overwhelming for children even though we’ve tried to keep it as calm as possible. It’s tough on the little one, too, as he doesn’t really understand the gifts aren’t for him. Especially so close to Christmas when they both got presents. So I’m going to get him a little something today so he has a toy to play with tomorrow.

The tightrope walk of parenthood!

My daughter told me this morning (after I lost my temper at their constant whining about not wanting to go to nursery) that she wanted a different Mummy rather than me. Husband was horrified:

“Mummy gave you an amazing party this weekend, aren’t you grateful for that?”

I just shrugged and said, “But that’s my job.”

The Jungle Party Room

The Jungle Party Room

If she doesn’t hate me from time to time I’m probably not doing my job properly. I love her, I want her to be happy but I also want her to grow up knowing the balance between times when she is the centre of everything and times when the world gets on and she must fit in.

I want to be her friend but first and foremost I’m her Mum. The two are not always the same thing.

Anyway, I’m late with the post because I had no words by bedtime last night. I have twelve minutes to post pictures and write something about Claire. Might be a bit of 200-word flash fiction today. I’ve been reading some great Flash Fiction over on the Apprentice, Never Master blog and it’s a skill I don’t currently have.

And then I have to make a dozen Valentines Day cards for the Gallery, buy Amber a gift from her brother, wrap all the presents and make dinner for Grandad’s arrival this evening. I might not earn a wage but it still feels like work to me!

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“Julia? It’s Claire. Don’t bother: I know Carl’s in an end-of-the-world summit in Timbuktu and can’t be reached. I don’t want to talk to him, I just want to pass on a message, seeing as that’s his preferred method of communication. You tell him it will take more than his sister’s friend’s stupid husband to make me quit my assignment. If Carl wants to fire me he’ll have to do it in person. Until he grows a pair and tells me to my face that I’m no longer required I will do the job he is paying me to do. That’s all.”

Claire hung up the phone and grinned. An unfamiliar surge of liberation flooded through her, starting in her chest and spreading out down to her fingertips. She pictured Julia’s face as she listened to the diatribe pouring down the phone, imagining the perfect cherry-red O in the middle of her flawlessly made-up face. Glancing in the mirror on the back of her phone Claire realised with a start that she hadn’t put make up on for two days. And she didn’t care. Who is there to impress out her in the sticks? She stroked her face. It felt clean and smooth, like it could breathe. I don’t remember the last time I went out in public without slap.

The sun shone on the while walls of the Byrness hostel as Claire loaded her things into the car ready to drive to Kielder. She looked at the building with more fondness than she could have imagined two days earlier. Settling into the icy seat Claire pulled on her gloves before touching the freezing steering wheel. She tugged the choke, gave the car a pat of encouragement and checked the Sat Nav instructions. Her heart felt buoyant as she poked around for a gear and drove away.

***

Books and Songs

Front cover

It seems appropriate, given that the fabulous Olympic Opening Ceremony spent a lot of time on literature and music, that I rediscovered two truisms this week; Reading makes you a better writer and music can be powerfully motivating.

Both activities – reading my own choice of novels and listening to my own choice of music – have become rare events since the children were born.

There are many reasons for this.

  • I tend to zone out the world entirely when I’m reading a good book; something that, until recently, hasn’t been vaguely possible. My son especially requires constant vigilance to ensure his continued good health (not because he suffers from any kind of illness, but because he likes to throw himself off high things).
  • Kids (and husbands) have an in-built sensor that alerts them when you’ve got to a good bit. Husbands you can just about tell to feck off, but it’s only on really bad days that I say that to the children.
  • Even after they’ve gone to bed, assuming I can keep my eyes open to read, the little one wakes every couple of hours, and on the rare occasion I’ve read past midnight, he’s guaranteed to be up and screaming from 1am until 5am. I had one awful night during my consumption of Hunger Games when I didn’t actually get any sleep. Not the best way to get through the following day without going to Mummy Hell in a handcart.
  • Then there has been what to read. My book club kept choosing self-help nonfiction type books, which I duly struggled through but didn’t often enjoy. I read far too many Mills & Boon in my attempt to mirror the style for The Real Gentleman, with no success. I re-read all my favourite romances when editing Pictures of Love. But I found that I had moved on, my priorities are no longer about meeting the man of my dreams, but closer to getting a good night’s sleep and maybe the chance to pee by myself. So I sought out novels about parenting but reading them was a bit of a busman’s holiday and I knew I didn’t have the skill to write anything so funny.  
  • I was also paranoid that reading books of the same genre as the one I was writing might lead to me inadvertently copying a character or piece of plot. I even read a book that had almost the same beginning as mine, which terrified me.

So I stopped reading anything but blogs and my life was poorer for it.

With music it’s the same thing. When I worked as an artist I had Classic FM on all day as background burble and when the adverts became too annoying, I switched to Radio 2, where I’ve stayed, (except between 12 and 2 as I can’t stand Jeremy Vine.)

The novelty of Radio 2 has long since worn off but I only had a radio in my old car and, besides, the kids don’t like me singing unless it’s Wheels on the Bus or Old McDonald had a farm.

Anyway, this week that all changed.

I re-read Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials to try and banish my writer’s block on my young adult novel Dragon Wraiths. The quality of the writing is such that it automatically raised my game. Reading nothing but books for very young children, (think Gruffalo and The Hungry Caterpillar), combined with permanent sleep deprivation, has resulted in my vocabulary shrinking to that of a five-year-old. Not something Philip Pulman can be accused of.  When I finally found some time to write on Thursday I found myself using words that wouldn’t have occurred to me the week before.

I also got a new car this week, with cd player AND iPod jack. Even better, I had the chance to listen to my music in the car, on the two hour trip back from the beach yesterday (kids were asleep – we had children’s songs all the way there). Not only were some of the big numbers stirring, motivating, uplifting, I also found the same vocabulary-enhancing effect happening.

Some amazing one-liners leapt out and smothered me with goosebumps and envy.

Lines like, “On winter trees the fruit of rain is hanging trembling in the branches like a thousand diamond buds,” or “Regrets and mistakes. They are memories made,”

Mini stories in a few words, the ultimate flash fiction.

I used to use Country Music songs as examples of story arc when I was teaching Creative Writing. There’s a great Garth Brooks song, Papa Loved Mama, which is another well-executed example of flash fiction, including my favourite example of showing rather than telling rage:

“The picture in the paper showed the scene real well
Papa’s rig was buried in the local motel
The desk clerk said he saw it all real clear
He never hit the brakes and he was shifting gears.”

 It doesn’t have to be literary to be effective.

What songs and books stand out in your mind as excellent inspiration or great examples of flash fiction?