What was it that Edgar Allan Poe said? A short story is to be enjoyed in a single sitting? I’ll take that. Their beauty is in their brevity. A quick toe-dip into someone else’s world rather than an underwater swim. But a short story is so much more than a convenient quick read. True, many authors use it as a way to hone their craft on their way to the novel. For many critics, it’s the novel’s troublesome sibling with its loose ends and half-told versions of what actually happened. Yet, for some of us writers (and creative writing academics), it’s a genre with a fascinating history spanning genres and always breaking the rules. If the novel is top of the class then the short story is behind the bike sheds capturing those snapshots of lives that loiter and lurk. And that’s often where you’ll find me as a writer, eavesdropping.
For me, the craft of short story is in its potency. To negotiate that fine line between the said and unsaid. To mess with its form and bend its structure when short stories are nimble, playful, and lithe.
I could go on, and on some more, but better, I feel, to offer my thoughts on some of the short stories I wish I’d written.
Myriad Editions Short Story Salon December 2020 with Hannah Vincent, Elaine Chiew & Elleke Boehmer
New short stories forthcoming in ‘The Matters‘ (and where you can read them first):
An Arm and an Oar for The Simple Things, Autumn 2021
Book Launch, for West Midlands Readers Network, Spring 2021
Roots, in The Simple Things, Autumn, 2020
Don’t let the sea catch you crying for The New Issue, Spring 2020
The Voyagers, in The Simple Things, July 2019
The Composer, in O Magazine, October 2019
Mr Briggs’s Next Door Neighbour, in Spake, (ed) Urzula Clark & Jonathan Davidson, Nine Arches Press, 2019
He told me he drove the Seven Nation bus. Could say ‘Good Morning’ in seven different languages. Back in the 70s – his name Jack Bright on the streets of Wolverhampton, and he’s in his shirtsleeves but still wears a tie as he drops off, picks up the workers at Goodyear. And it’s a good year, this year. A Caribbean sun some folks left behind, and he agrees: curry does taste better in the heat. He accepts it in Tupperware, along with Halva and Jerk chicken, crowds his family around an old pasting table in the street and smiles as his wife smooths out a tablecloth. “Now sit,” she tells the kids as Jack sizzles Polish sausages over a camping stove with a spatula: laughs when his wife butters a chapati and second helpings are passed around.
They come together in the sun. Sit on doorsteps, chew the fat, try this with a fork, try that with a spoon, dip and lick their fingers, talk of lives they’ve had and these new ones now; laughing at Jack’s wife slathering sun-lotion on his bare-naked children. She has a queue forming. Everyone wants to know what it feels like and those tyre-skinned kids squeal because it’s slippery and cold. Here’s the ice-cream van, and money’s pooled: Jack notes that everyone’s tongue is the same colour. His wife tells him – “You’ve got raspberry ripple on your chin, cocker.” The midday sun now and he has an idea.
The depot on the Cleveland Road is not far. Jack counts 12 kids and thinks of them as doctors and nurses, teachers and engineers, of little Sanjay’s way with animals, Florence’s knack to fashion a skirt. He drives a double-decker, navy-blue and cream with jolly headlights and leather seats, and the hoses in the yard are over 50-foot long. There’s nothing more satisfying than washing a bus and he divides the children into teams.
Team A, you’ll hose down this side. Team B, the other. He gives Keith, with his long arms, the extendable mop, and tasks him with the windscreen. One, two, three and Jack turns on the tap and the hoses gush alive.
He wishes he had a video camera. He has seen them in shop windows, but memories will be enough. These 12 kids and their fathers now, playing tug-o-war with those hoses; Jack wishes he could bottle all that shrieking and laughter, sprinkle it in dark times like summer rain.
He takes to the driver’s seat and one-by-one, takes a child on his lap and offers them the wheel. Laps of the yard, it’s like a fairground ride. The girls take turns in ringing the bell and play conductors. Where to? They ask. The seaside!
Single or return? They paddle in the puddles left behind, catch the rainbows in the sunbeams, pebbles become shells, and they find water-spiders in the pools. Then they go back to all those tables pulled together in the street, the rum talking long into the night.
In later life, when retired and telling all this to his grandson, Jack can still smell the sun on the tarmac, taste the raspberry ripple on his skin. It became a thing on scorching days to troop the kids to the yard to hose down the buses, where they found Jamaican beaches and built castles on Indian sand. And then the next day bidding good morning – dzień dobry – Śubha savēra – Subah Bakhair – Mi deh yah – Buna dimineata – Salām – Ow do, Bostin’ fettle last night – and still in his shirtsleeves feeling as if he’d travelled the world.
(as published in The Simple Things, Summer issue 2019)
Extract from ‘Tink’, commissioned for The Textile Stories Study Day 2019: From the Cradle to the Grave:
The number 63 stops opposite St. Agatha’s. A damp day, dirty-skied. Two women, who could still pass for girls, get on. Not a likeness between them yet they’re twins, born twelve hours apart. One wears a crocheted wedding dress in the sort of pale blue wool that immediately makes you think baby boy. The other, a fine belted trouser-suit in the sort of white that’d require dental work. They look at each other as if they can’t believe what they’ve just done.
The driver watches them both walk down the aisle in his rear-view mirror. He sees lives get on and lives get off, and seen far stranger things than a girl in her wedding dress fleeing the church. So, he doesn’t bat an eyelid when her sister pulls out a pair of knitting needles from an embroidered bag. Always there. Always on hand.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had them on you?” Eve, in the wedding dress snaps. “I could’ve used them.”
She thinks of the peacock-feather on her mother’s hat and how she’d thrown it like a dart.
“Sit still,” Dawn shushes. “And let me find a loose thread.”
What’s their story? It is this.