Hell on Wheels-Bikers, Forteana and the Occult

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One of the joys of what I do is getting to write about subjects that interest me, and for magazines I enjoy. Recently I combined both. I wrote an article for Fortean Times about the occult and Forteana in biker films and books.

This gave me an excuse to sit down and watch Werewolves on Wheels, Psychomania, and re-read loads of NEL pulp biker paperbacks. (If you’re not familiar with these particular books I’d recommend the documentary Skinhead Farewell. While it focuses on the better known Richard Allen books, it has a decent section on the biker books too. You can find it online here.)

The article also gave me an opportunity to bring one of my favourite authors, Jim Fogg, to a wider audience.

What I wasn’t expecting was for my article to be the cover story. Fortean Times is a well loved publication by many (including me), and I know it has a very loyal readership, so it feels like a real honour.

Issue FT358 is in the shops now. If you don’t live in the UK the best way to get a copy is via subscription.

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Guest Post : “Otherworldly: Folk Horror Revival at The British Museum” by Steve Toase

Priya Sharma invited me to write a guest post on her blog about Folk Horror Revival’s Otherworldy British Museum event. Read it here.

priya sharma fiction

Folk Horror Revival Facebook group (www.facebook.com/groups/folkhorror/) has been going for two years, and in that time has gathered together in excess of 16,000 members. While the core of Folk Horror is the unholy triumvirate of The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, and Blood on Satan’s Claw, discussions explore everything from Hungarian Folktales to Indonesian Horror Movies, Church architecture to Japanese Rock Museums.

On 16th October Folk Horror Revival held Otherworldly at the British Museum. To give you some idea of the popularity, all 350 tickets sold out in two days. For a first event Otherworldly was extremely well organised. On registration each attendee was given an enamelled pin badge to identify each other amongst the throngs of the BM.

fhr-badge Enamel badge by Otherworldly

Chris Lambert, curator of the Black Meadow (http://blackmeadowtales.blogspot.co.uk/) was compère for the day. Chris kept proceedings on track, and filled the occasional…

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Flash Fiction Month 2016 Week 3

Solstice is coming closer, and I can feel it in the air. The day’s are tainted with darkness when I do leave the house, and winter is gaining a momentum. We brace ourselves for contact.

While I haven’t gone for a theme (that would be too much pressure while writing thirty stories) there is a definite thread running through my stories this year. I’ve always leaned toward a moor and leaf mould setting for my stories. For 2016 the folk horror feel is stronger. This is intentional and has a lot to do with the material I’ve absorbed over the last few months. See what you think to the seven latest stories.

Day 15

And the Bluebells Did Ring

This was inspired by an article on Atlas Obscura. (www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-hidden-signs-that-mark-britains-ghost-forests)

The hikers did not know they were in the ghost forest until they heard bluebells ring out a funeral dirge.

They’d seen the signs of course. Old Ministry of Works plaques, bolted to the side of barns on the walk up. Stamped letters saying “You are now approaching one of England’s Ghost Forests. Walk with care.” The hikers thought them a prank or anachronism.

Once inside the ghost forest the hikers ignored the advice of the long forgotten Ministry of Works. They stumbled over dead trees and half chewed spines that hid in the sunlight. Each step they took crushed petals of flowers not alive for millennia.

Careless in their walking they collapsed dens in the ethereal woodland, though the hikers themselves did not hear the cries of sleeping animals disturbed with their passing.
But the things that made their home in the Ghost Forest heard the hikers, and shadowed their meandering route.

The sun dropped and the Hikers had still not left the ghost forest. Predators with too many teeth, and dried fur sticking to their claws, shuddered from the long dead past. Slowly, over several miles, they unveiled themselves, and when the hikers were little more than meat soaked in fear, the ghost forest had its feast.

Day 16

Jack Frost Hidden

When Spring came the warmth tore Jack Frost apart, and he hid himself throughout the fields and forests. On the return of winter, memory evaporated by the long hot summer, he searched for his body, carrying a single thread of spider silk to stitch himself together once more.

His breath was hidden deep in the lake, pressed down by stagnant water and rotting carcasses of fish that every so often floated detached scales to the surface.

He found his sight between the sapwood and bark of a dying yew tree. Breathing on his vision he blew away the splinters and insects ambered within.

His limbs were compressed into the mud of four forest paths, each leading in a different direction. The first to drowning, the second to mania. The third and fourth ran to a quarry in the middle of the trees where the only sound was a single echo of fire-cracked stone that had never found its way out of the hollow.

Jack Frost looked at himself in his own skin and though his face was stitched back on, and his legs carved mirrors of ice into the soil, there was still something missing. He held up his arms and stared at the ten rounded stumps, knucklebones exposed to the last of the year’s heat. His fingers! How could he forget his fingers.

They were hidden well, and hidden deep, and it took many nights of searching to find each one. Some hung from the stems of leaves, only veins remaining as a memory of their shape. Others were squeezed between the plates of a fox skull, his fingerskin crushed and misshapen after many long months in their hiding place. His thumbs he’d hidden together in the chest of a single brown robin, deep in the most knotted part of the woodland. With both hands he pressed nails through the feathers and withdrew the small bird’s heart, staining the robin’s breast red as he reclaimed what was his.

Then he used a single pine needle, and his one thread of spider silk, to stitch his fingers back in place. Once he was whole he breathed out his breath of winter killing, carving the gossamer of frost into ferns. A tribute to the deep forest that had hidden him so well through the long summer months.

Day 17

One Foot In Front Of The Other

 

Bill’s first mistake was stepping onto the path of fallen blossom.

His second was to not immediately sprinkle powdered ashes of his favourite book around himself.

Underfoot, the path turned to stone, then slate, sand then salt. Around him the scene stayed the same until it didn’t. The faces of people powdered to a dust of skin, bone hollowed and threadbare. Eyes of rosehips.

Bill tried to place even a toe beyond the path. A great sadness pressed out of him and he could not.

Barely more than six foot long, the path led nowhere, yet he felt unseen pedestrians brush against him as they passed.

With no food in his pockets, he harvested bitter nuts from amongst the leaf litter.

No one came to save him. Not the children with skin of shredded ivy, or the commuters with feathers for tongues.

With nowhere else to go, and no way to leave, he put on foot in front of the other, stepping onto where the path became unseen, until he too disappeared from sight.

Day 18

Enamel

“And when your teeth drop out, because you’ve eaten too many sweets, then he will come and take them.”

There was always the intake of breath when the child saw the sketch drawing, the tooth covered figure standing in a bedroom doorway.

Mr Fortnum never showed it without the parent’s permission. Only when the mother or father were at the end of their tether. Struggling to get their offspring to take care of themselves. See a future beyond the next foil wrapped sugary treat.

The child shuddered and took the free toothbrush and small tube of paste. He watched her swill and spit the pink liquid, before leaving the room with her smiling mother. Much calmer than when she dragged her daughter into the surgery.

She was the last patient of the day. Now alone, he reached under the trolley, feeling around until he found the small metal tray holding that day’s extracted teeth. Plaque and strands of gum discoloured the enamel. He held each in turn, running a finger over their shattered edges.

Reaching for a scalpel, Mr Fortnum made an incision in his chest and pressed the teeth one after the other into the pocket of skin.They clattered their way across molars already in place, and settled into empty hollows, severed roots knitting into his ribs. His stolen outer skin was starting to feel too tight as his hidden, enamelled, shell grew.

Soon the crowns would show through, then lacerate their way out. Soon he would have to shed his disguise. Soon it would be time to feast.

This story was inspired by a photo of a Channel Zero costume on Buzzfeed (http://boingboing.net/2016/12/06/full-body-costume-made-of-arti.html)

Day 19

Streetlight Laments

We hid in doorways and listened for the rustle of their paper faces. The beasts only came out on deserted streets. Hidden feet left no spoor for us to track. Just the sound of their skin and their bellows.

Passing under street lamps they became visible, the cone of sulphur burning away any disguise. The spells scratched into their hides glowed with the orange light. We wrote them down in our notebooks, so we knew what we were up against. So afterwards someone would remember.

Getting ahead of the creatures, we ran to the roundabout. Laid out sigils in road grit along the kerb. The beasts stepped in and became solid, the tarmac struggling to bear their weight. We turned away from their Polaroid paper eyes so we would not be trapped in their gaze.

Walking around the circle of lights we burnt effigies papier-mâchéd from free newspapers and rat bones. Their voices drowned out the cries of the beasts circling the grass. We watched smoke rise to settle in the air as clouds. Then the rains came.

The beasts did not scream in pain. We didn’t even know if they could. Over the next twenty four hours their origami hides soddened. Became pulp that clogged the gutters. We scraped it up with our bare hands and we sang laments for the last of their kind.

Day 20

The Peacock Man

Today’s story was inspired by this display I saw in a Munich shop window. Have a great weekend!

Glitter-faced and brittle-beaked the Peacock Man lurked in the December streets. Drunken singing and clinking glasses had tempted him from his nest of broken champagne flutes and discard bottles. Through frosted windows he watched work parties in full swing, his gibbet of fingers scraping along the wooden sill.

They never saw him, but he saw them, his cheek pressed against the stone. Saw the Prosecco glances that passed between co-workers under cheap paper garlands. Reaching out he stole those shared moments from the air. Let them dangle from his mother-of-pearl fingernails like dying rodents.

He turned the gazes over on his feathered palms then dripped them into his mouth. Tasted the honeyed smiles and bitter laughs. Let the vodka drowned flirtations sit upon the plumage of his tongue.

The party-goers never noticed the Peacock Man had stolen their precious moments from them. They barely registered sharing them with friends and crushes in the first place.

The stolen glances settled into the Peacock Man’s iridescent train as yet more blind blue eyes. Inside the party, the revellers’ skin turned a little greyer. Their laughter a little more hollow.

Day 21

Sleeping in Splinters

Today’s story was inspired by a display in Cotswold Outdoor Shop

The campers found the head of glass hidden in a crevice between two blocks of millstone grit. Lichen discoloured the dappled surface. Once cleaned with Sam’s shirt, they saw the thin slices of hazel inside.

The stoma in the neck was barely wide enough to slide in a finger. They forced their hands in anyway, stretching the glass edged hole in their eagerness. It pulsed and gripped at their touch.

Each hazel disc was marked with oak gall ink, dragged into lines by sharpened twigs. The campers could not read the writing, but made their choices anyway. Jill took the last and the glass head melted like sugar in rain.

With nothing else to do they each placed the chosen disc against the roof of their mouth and waited.

Splinters tore apart their palates, pressing through cheekbones and sinuses until they spined eyes to eyelids.

Unable to see, the campers stepped cautious, but not cautious enough. Each stumbled into a new world only they occupied, razor thin and a leaf’s breath away from us.

Sometimes a breeze blows through the pocket where they are trapped blind. We smell the moss growing on their skin. We run our tongues over the roofs of our mouths to check for hazel bark, and finding none we weep for our friends sleeping in splinters

Haunt and Collaboration

Since Haunt got shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards I’ve been thinking about the collaborative part of the project a lot. Throughout the last eighteen months we’ve worked with a lot of participants. Some were improving their situation. Others had chaotic lives. Many we didn’t see every time we ran a workshop. Some of the participants only attended once, leaving us with several pieces of work, or insightful conversations that helped tweak my worldview.

One participant has been present all the way through, yet until now I’ve never really talked about him. My 16 year old self.

It may seem like a twee sentiment but there’s an important point here. To be actively engaged in writing creatively for Haunt I’ve had to meet the person who I was just after I was kicked out of home 24 years ago. His language is not mine. His view of the world is not mine, and his relationship with Harrogate is certainly not mine. It’s been a disconcerting experience.

We change by degrees and it’s only through Haunt that I’ve looked back and seen how much I’ve altered  since I was that 16 year old, still doing my GCSEs, living in a bedsit with no contract and not quite enough money to get by.

Recently a good friend passed away. He was very supportive around the time I was kicked out. His illness and passing brought back a lot of memories of what a great generous person he was. Those memories also collapsed time and made me feel 15 and 16 again.

The fear about making my 16 year old self an active participant is the fear I’ll slip back to who I was then. That somehow the ghost, who was hurt, angry and upset, still lives in me somewhere and will become too easy to wear. But if I see him as a participant, a collaborator in Haunt, then I can listen to his stories without tumbling into my past.

I’ve found that by listening to who I was, as the person I am now, it’s helped me be compassionate, patient and have empathy. Maybe, personally, that 16 year old past self is my most important collaborator.

Saboteur Award Shortlist and Collaboration

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(Warning. I use the word collaborate a lot in this post.)

At the weekend we had some fantastic news. Haunt has been shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards in the category of Best Collaborative Work.

I’ve been thinking about Haunt and collaboration quite a lot over the past couple of weeks. I chat about it in my latest newsletter but wanted to go into the subject in a bit more detail.

I’ve had the idea at the heart of Haunt since at least 2009, wanting to explore how people living in Harrogate bedsits or experiencing homelessness are haunted by the opulent identity of the town.

Even before I discussed the idea with Tessa at Imove I knew for Haunt to work it would be a collaboration and that meant allowing other people influence Haunt. On a day-to-day basis I’m a page writer. I sit in a room by myself and write stories by myself. This was going to be very different. If you’d asked me in 2009 how I felt about this you might have got a different answer, but now, in all honesty, I’ve found the collaborations the best part, and am really excited about working with different artists and participants on the performance and installation part of Haunt.

Part of the reason I’m really looking forward to working with others on the next stage is that so far the core idea has stayed unchanged, but the way Haunt has grown as a project is far beyond anything I could have hoped for. That’s down to all the people who have collaborated so far.

And there have been a lot. At the core of Haunt is the collaboration between Imove Arts (Tessa Gordziejko and Elenid Davies), fellow lead writer Becky Cherriman and the particpants who have experienced homelessness or vulnerable housing. Without those core relationships there would be no anthology, no performances and no Haunt. Beyond that there have been many, many more, for example Harrogate Homeless Project and Foundation Harrogate who helped us find people interested in participating in our workshops. Bean and Bud who hosted on exhibition of Paul Floyd Blake‘s photos alongside words from Haunt, as well as letting us hold a pop-up reading and selling copies of the anthology for us. Corrina’s Homeless and Vulnerable Project also let us hold a pop up reading in their cafe.

Harrogate Museums have worked with us, allowing us to launch the anthology at the Royal Pump Room Museum, and included stories from Haunt in their Harrogate Stories exhibition. Both these events were symbolically important, because it meant the words of people normally excluded from the narrative of the town were repositioned and included.

In the next stage we’ll be collaborating with Harrogate Theatre, choreographer Zoe Parker, Dancer Tom Hunt, music producer Kwah, Al Orange and Steph Jones, as well as still keeping up those key relationships.

On all levels, Haunt is all about collaboration, working together to make experiences of homelessness more visible, while preserving the core idea, which is why I’m so pleased we’re shortlisted in that particular Saboteur Award category.

(If you like what we’re doing with Haunt, please consider following the link, clicking on ‘Vote here’ and giving us a vote. http://www.saboteurawards.org/)

 

 

 

A new newsletter

After seeing that the month of flash fiction was so well received I’ve decided to give it an afterlife. Every two weeks I’m going to send out a newsletter, the core of which is a new piece of flash fiction, free and straight into your inbox. The first one went out yesterday with a short tale about the true nature of the world.

If you’d like to receive a new story every couple of weeks, you can sign up at the link below;

http://tinyletter.com/stevetoase

These stories are the perfect length to read in those gaps in the day when you don’t have time to tackle anything longer. So if you’re stood in the supermarket queue, waiting at the petrol station, trying to get your baby son to sleep, or just want a break from spreadsheets, this might be the answer.

A Month of Flash Fiction-Week 4 (and a bit)

 

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Apologies for the delay. Unfortunately a trip abroad, Christmas and my birthday got in the way. If you’d like to read more flash fiction throughout the year I now have a newsletter you can sign up to. The plan with be to send out a flash fiction story once a fortnight. http://tinyletter.com/stevetoase

Flash fiction month – Day 22

(This was written for my wife’s birthday)

Repairs

Taking me by the hand she led me inside, through the door sprinkled with glitter, below the roof shaped from whispered words.

Inside, she invited me to recline on the bed. Underneath me was a blanket crocheted with wool of many colours. As she made a pot of tea I pulled away strands and chewed them. They tasted of cinnamon and snow.

We drank from chipped mugs and she told me stories of who we would one day be. Her hair was woven through with stars the size of pine needles. She pointed at them and named the constellations. The swimmer and the embrace. The whispered name and the moth.

Then I slept.

When I woke she had taken out my heart. There was no scar. This was surgery, not theft.

On her table my heart lay in a Wedgewood bowl. Around the rim she had lit pale candles that guttered and sent soot toward the ceiling.

With a pair of bone tweezers she worked through the night. Straining her eyes in the candlelight she pulled loose splinters of rotten sash window frame and metal swarf from a Coventry cast engine casing. Scorched paper from a thousand abandoned story drafts, and the ice from too many nights spent shivering.

These were easy to find. Next, she reached for a magnifying glass and searched for the ephemeral. Words of dismissal spattered across the heart so long ago the serifs had been obscured by regrown tendons. She ran her fingers over the surface until she found several half forgotten glances in government offices, and she pressed into the blood vessels to find burrowing conversations, hidden by scar tissue, even I had no memory of.

By the time she had finished repairing my heart, dawn hung in the air outside.

She walked out of the door, collected mist and knitted it around my heart to hold it tight. Then, while I slept, she placed my heart back in my chest and kept me safe in her house, with the door of glitter and roof of whispered words.

Day 23

Spine Barked Trunks

Emma heard the same rumours as everyone else. Tales of trees erupting in empty houses. Stories of how they shaped needles from sponge soft floorboards and carpets frayed to ghosts. Spine barked trunks filling the air with the scent of snow, ragged fox pelts and bones picked clean by unseen grubs.

Some in the village went looking through dirty windows for the out of place branches. Made brave by cheap Christmas whiskey they pulled away chipboard shutters and went into the derelict buildings with bowsaw and felling axe. Their tools were often found rusting against the porches, though the amateur lumberjacks were never seen again.

By mid-December the trees appeared in the corner of family homes, including Emma’s. Where glitter and glass bedecked pines already stood, the newcomers dragged them to the floor, pulping them with sap thick as bread sauce. While families slept the trees wrapped bones in fresh pressed paper, scratchy embossed patterns uneven and twitching.

Out of sight, fibril mats of roots spread through rooms, anchoring themselves to the house foundations with tendrils pale as breath.

Like the rest of the village, when Christmas morning came, Emma sat with family around the tree in the corner of her living room. Over a breakfast of selection box chocolate they started to unwrap the shuffling gifts. Behind them the roots tore themselves free of the carpet, rose into the air and pressed into the pliable napes of necks.

Day 24

Muted Grey As Stone

The cold winds came and fluted down the hollow bones of the bifrost coloured birds, chilling them inside and out. They knew winter was coming, and they knew what they had to do.

First, they muted their colours. Each dawn they tore off sheets of the sky in the hours before dawn and used their beaks to rub the darkness into their feathers. Over the first week of November they turned themselves the tint of wet stone. As they flew the colour leached out into the sky, brushed against the sodden air, deepening the early nights and thickening the winter mist. The greyness spread from therm like watercolours on dampened paper.

Camouflaged, they dipped and rose through the sky, gripping every sound and tearing it free from the now dull days. They did not care about the source of the sounds. The now grey parakeets stole engine sounds of a spluttering black cab and the drunken singing from a Christmas party gone on too long. They swooped down on carol singers, taking every last note like greedy fledlings grasping food from their parent’s beaks. Perched on the open windows of nightclubs they stole the beats and the breaks, dragging them upwards, the torn tails of tunes buffeting against the frosted walls.

The days darkened and the sound of the city muted, until the parakeets clung to the glass of the highest buildings. Below them the city lost its voice, while they Knotted together the sounds they hadstockpiled. High above the city all 60,000 disguised parakeets hid, warmed against the winter in their nests shaped from noise.

Day 25

Roofs of Branches, Doors of Blankets

(Today’s story was inspired by something Dr Anna Macdonald told me about ants.)

Outside the gates of the city Belinda leant back against the chalk walls. Running off around the foot of the defences were small timber huts, with roofs of branches and doors of blankets. She reached into the bag on her belt, undoing the seal and shifting her hand inside.

The thieving ants crawled over her fingers and palms. Some bit her, but she ignored the pain and scooped out a handful, watching the insects stream across her skin.

Bringing her hands together she crushed them to paste and smeared the mixture across her brow, then down her cheeks, and finally over her lips. The broken pincers felt like grit. She carried on until every showing piece of skin was coated.

From behind her the smell of cooking rose into the air. Pomegranate and pumpkin soup. Rich stews of lamb and parsnips. Syrup treats with the texture of snow, and the lingering taste of one thousand different sugars.

Across the motorway the City of the Dead rose in mud clumped towers, shedding dust into the air. Belinda stepped carefully across the tarmac and tried not to cough as the powder caught her throat. The dead never coughed. Taking the first step into their streets a jolt went through her. What if the scents on her skin did not fool them? A group walked toward her, their limbs tattered and transparent. They passed by, ignoring her flesh and her breath.

She went from house to house, finding the hearts beside the hearths, and rested each in a lead lined box, the shape of a lover’s sigil. Using a copper nail she scrawled the name of each in the soft metal. By sunset she had collected twenty in the second bag upon her belt, and the dead had not stripped her skin from her muscle.

Walking back across the six lanes, the barrier in between, she placed the lead lined containers of rescued hearts beside the doors and stepped away from the entrance to the city. In her absence her fellow citizens had come out and built a new wooden hut, with a roof of branches and door of blankets. This was her home now. She would never see inside the chalk walls again.

Day 26

Not Surgery

Callum stood outside the house at the end of the cul de sac. The neighbour shuffled three children into an estate car and tried not to catch his eye.

The yellowed uPVC door opened and a woman left, cradling something to her waist. Callum could not see what it was. He did not want to.

“Go into the living room,” the old man said. “Lay down on the sofa.”

Callum did as he was told. The small coffee table beside him was covered in dirty coffee mugs and overflowing ashtrays. The old man re-appeared, the heat of a fresh cup steaming his glasses.

Taking a sip he put the drink down and picked up a piece of cheesecloth from the carpet. To Callum it looked like an old shirt with the arms cut away, scars of an unpicked pocket just visible.

The old man placed the fabric over Callum’s face.

“Close your eyes,” he said, and Callum did.

The cheesecloth smelt of bucket sand and candy-floss and seaside rock and then nothing.

When he woke his death was on the table. A small white figure, skin cracked like porcelain. It twitched its arms and flexed its fingers, painted lips shuddering. Callum’s hands went to his stomach.

“There’s no scar,” the old man said. “This isn’t surgery.”

He held the little death. the tiny figure flinching from the nicotined touch. Next he picked up the fabric. He wrapped the little death until only the face was showing. From under the coffee table he brought out a small wooden coffin and slid the parcel inside.

Callum sat up and the old man passed him the bundle.

“You only have so long until it recovers its voice, so bury the coffin soon. Somewhere old. Somewhere between stone and soil, and until dirt covers its face don’t try and lipread the mumblings.”

Callum nodded, and left the house. Shutting the door he felt the still clinging air of the house slew from his skin. Clinched in his palms the death struggled against its bindings. Callum tried to concentrate on the tarmac of the path, but the cold skin was against his hands. The lips stilled for the moment. The eyes watched him, wanting Callum to keep looking. Then it started again.

Instinct kicked in and Callum’s thoughts followed the twitch of the mouth. He mouthed the words. Like found like. His words became the death’s words.

With cold porcelain hands the death reached up and started to pull Callum’s breath from his lungs, and did not stop until it’s white cracked skin was clothed in the thing that used to be Callum.

Day 29

Glitter in the Tarmac

The whiskey in Sampson Brown’s breath fogged the wndscreen and fogged his eyesight. Not that it made much difference. Outside, the fog littered with strands of orange light. Something in the motorway didn’t move quick enough. An animal glanced off his bumper and became vapour behind him and then nothing. Sampson Brown did not notice, all effort going into fighting the pull of malt and peat in his neck.

In the road they sensed the peat and marsh mixed with spit, so out of place in the three lanes they called home. They blinked and stretched, some green and others red. The car passed by and they turned to follow the red lights that juddered between their kin.

They bristled the tarmac around them into fur, each strand thick as treacle and hard as stone. Tongues red with the blood spilt upon the lanes. Then they ran. They chased the mist of single malt, their whisper thin whiskers brushing against the rear lights of the car. Their legs never tired. This was their home, and nothing could outrun them.

Climbing the boot the cats crowded out the rear window. Turning liquid they seeped over the now blistering metalwork, pulling loose flakes of atomic silver paint that glittered like their eyes when they moved. Covering the passenger windows they pressed against the window seals until the rubber perished at their touch and the tang of whiskey was replaced with the throat hook of tar. The temperature of the car rose and inside the alcohol found its ignition point and burnt light blue. The cats of the road danced to the heat, their eyes glittering in the flames.

Day 31

Branch Children

Bark skinned and knot eyed the branch children turned up on Mary’s doorstep one solstice morning.

“Would you like to come in?” she said, as she would any visitor.

They just stood in the rain, paper thin fingers brushing the painted timber of the door.

“Would you like to come in?” she asked a second time, but the branch children did not move.

“Can you speak?” she asked.

When they answered their words were all stitched from stolen sounds. A branch falling from a tree to crush its own seedlings, the panic of a badger as it hears the edge of steel collapse soil into its sett. The snick, snick, snick of a trap around the almost severed limb of an animal it was never meant to snag.

Making no progress Mary knelt and stared the two children straight in the eye, rings rippling out like echoes of a drowning. They held her gaze.

She felt the pressure of the soil as a seed forced out the first shoot, the first questing root. The crush of teeth pulping leaves to paste. The swipe of the coppicer’s knife as he winnows and shapes. The burn of lightning scorching to charcoal.

When Mary had finished she tried to stand, but she was bark skinned and knot eyed, and with the two branch children who were now her kin she walked up the path of the next house in the street.

A Month of Flash Fiction-Week 3

Day 15

Inspired by 6music Make Art

Nine Plough Furrows

Lighting the peat fire in the morning Callum and Damon watched strands of thousand year old trees burn into the breeze. From each field on the hill they brought handfuls of clay. Some red, some yellow. Others grey as the sky. Throughout the morning they teased features from the mud and wiped grit down the sides of their jeans. Above them clutters of ravens gathered to watch.

The figure stood three feet high, swirls of colour in his limbs. With aching backs the two men laid him upon a bed of embers and covered him with sawdust and sticks. Sparks glittered through the afternoon as the fuel burnt to cinders, then a smear of ash. The sun set and the only light on the hill was the spatter of flames that burnt on under the clay back. Callum and Damon crouched beside feeding the fire sticks and themselves nothing.

Across the valley church bells hooked midnight from the sky. The two men stepped back nine plough furrows. At a safe distance they watched the fire shudder apart and life scorch through the finger shaped limbs. The pottery man stood and with blank eyeslooked north, south, east and west. Heavy footed he walked toward the village leaving smears of clay with each step. The men ran through the fields, mud clagging their shoes as they tried to catch up, and as the pottery man tore his way through the thorned hedge doubt burnt through them.

Day 16

Inspired by 6music Make Art

Six Strands of Music

Sofia saw the six strands of music glittering in hidden places across the landscape.

The first was light as air and had become entangled in the branches of a silver birch, bark pale as ghosts. She teased it loose with numb fingers, the sound of bells like mermaids whipsering filling her ears.

The next was at the bottom of a stream, weighted down by river cobbles. Taking off her shoes, Sofia waded into the middle, water cold as words. She held it high, the tail still fluttering in the current, and as the breeze made the strand of music dance the morning echoed with the sound of rich baritones and tenors.

To find the third strand Sofia fought her way to the middle of the woodland. Hard coated beetles danced on her arms to their own tunes, their shells the colour of spilt oil. The music was tangled in roots and it took until dusk for her to tease it free, swallowing the tune to feel the notes tickle on her tongue.

Returning to the town she found the next strand dangling from a lamp-post, glittering like amber in the sodium light. Hand over hand Sofia climbed up, wrapped the free end of the music around her waist and jumped, the song breaking her fall. She lay on the pavement, letting the words take her away.

Opening her eyes Sofia was back in her front room. A fire blazed in the hearth, flames dancing to their own tune. In the fallen ashes she spotted the fifth strand, twitching in the heat. Using a pair of tongs she pulled the music free. Once cooled she brushed away the grey ash and listened to the old folk song, each word echoing around the small room, singing of bowers, wax dolls and death.

Sofia searched the whole house for the sixth strand of music with no success. Tiredness overtook her and she burrowed into her bed. Her eyes blossomed sleep and she saw the last piece of music, a silver seam between sleep and waking, a lullaby, simple and clean, the notes carrying her into her dreams.

 

Day 19

Hatch

The hatch was no bigger than a postage stamp, made of thin planks and embedded in the back of Dani’s hand.

In the early days, when she was at Primary school, she would unhook the latch and poke her finger between the bones inside. Sometimes she let her classmates hook their nails in to make her fingers dance. That was a long time ago. The metal fittings had long turned to rough Verdigris that flaked off into her food.

It had been a hard night as most Christmas parties were. Sat by herself on the sofa she drained the last of the stolen Prosecco and started to fiddle with the hatch. The lock held, at first. Wrenching it open, the metal snapped, broken half falling in to lodge between her muscles. She folded the hatch a little too far against the frame and one of the hinges gave. Inside something crawled.

Her secrets mostly had three, five or seven legs, as if every one of them had suffered amputation to survive so long. They were blind, snuffling out. Some stopped to gnaw the twenty five year old timber with sharp mandibles, ignoring her skin and bone. She picked one up, reading the secret’s name scrawled in the fabric of its wings. Memory flooding back she crushed the thing between her fingers. The secret smeared across her skin.

The rest of the secrets swarmed from within her, chattering and descending on the crushed body of their kin, gnawing upon its thorax. Their cloud of chemicals was so dense it rose to cloud her face and stung her eyes.

She tried to swipe them away. More came, childhood deceit and adult lies, until they covered every inch of her skin and she collapsed to the carpet with the weight of the hidden.

Day 20

Strands of White

Friedrich’s father told the authorities that his son had run off to the woods. He was an unreliable witness, and will not feature again in Friedrich’s story, but in this fact he was correct.

Like most, Friedrich thought he had the skills to live under the canopy of leaves. Like most, Friedrich was wrong.

After the first few days sheltering under piles of leaves and sticks, stomach rumbling and mouth dry, Friedrich realised he could not survive by himself.

Friedrich asked the animals of the forest for help. They turned their heads from him. He could not hunt. When he walked his feet crushed the casings of nuts and the scent of his skin warned the prey they were coming.

Friedrich asked the birds for help. They turned their heads from him. He had no feathers or wings. Just skin, and when he tried to fly he spun to the forest floor, limbs snapping like dried twigs.

Friedrich asked the trees for help. They turned their low branches from him. He had no leaves, and when he tried to turn sunlight into food his skin just erupted in blisters. The only water he had seen in days.

With nowhere else to turn Friedrich asked the fungi of the forest for help. Speaking for all the mushrooms and fungi in the forest, the fool’s mushroom dipped its head and said yes..

The honey fungus shared their mycelium with him, because he had none of the fine white strands of his own. They slid their network into his skin, between muscle and bone.

Next the truffle showed him how to camouflage his skin, turning it brown, and the green of sunfed moss. Better to hide from those humans who would come and pluck him from the forest to take back to the knives and ovens of the town.

The fungi knew that Friedrich still had much to learn to become one with the colony. Encouraged by their silent pupil’s progress, fly agaric taught him to split his skin as he expanded, tatters hanging on like flags.

Yet still he was too large to conceal himself from those who harvested the forest floor. With desperation and love for their new charge the avenging angel mushroom taught him how to separate himself into tiny white stems. Friedrich’s were of mineral and hollow, easily concealed in the dirt and mosss of the living soil around the shifting roots of the trees.

Months before Friedrich had asked the fungi and mushrooms of the forest for help. Now, finally he was hidden from those who would hunt him down.

Day 21

The Crow’s Gifts

The crow first appeared on the red gate at the entrance to Stacey’s garden, then the lilac tree at the far end.

Every morning Stacey fed the crow, leaving piles of peanuts in the nooks and gaps of the porch for the bird to find. Every afternoon the crow brought her gifts, laying them out across the the steps for her to gather.

Stacey took the gifts inside and rested them on the windowsill, a pane of glass between the offerings and the outside world; a spring from a wooden peg; a pink hair clip, metal tarnished to green by the wettest Autumn on record; a length of red ribbon with strands of blond hair still entangled in its knot; the ivory coloured hem of a wedding dress, rain sodden confetti still stuck to the lace; a pebble that turned the colour of the sea when wet; the wires of a pacemaker, insulation frayed and fibres of muscle still attached; a paper thin retina, the shadow of the last thing it saw ghosted in the surface; a single memory of childhood snatched from a woman in the final stages of alzheimer’s disease; the sound ‘ee’ from a toddler learning to speak.

Stacey arranged them all on a sheet of sunfaded red velvet, so the crow could see she loved the gifts.

The victims of the crow’s thefts cared nothing for the red velvet, sunfaded or not. Skin faded to transparency they crowded Stacey’s garden, more joining them every day to stare through the glass.

Between the red gate and the lilac tree they waited for the day Stacey joined them in their paper thin world and they could steal back what was theirs, and take compensation for their loss.

A Month of Flash Fiction-Week 2

I’ve completed the second week of my flash fiction challenge. This week has been harder. I seem to have struggled a bit to get inspiration, but hopefully they’re enjoyable. Here are the next seven stories.

Day 8

Secret Santa

Michael locked his front door and slumped on the sofa. The Christmas meal had been as awful as every year. The whole office crammed around three scratched tables in the back of the local pub eating dried out turkey. He’d spent most of the time trying not to let the alcohol bring on a fit of honesty or blackmail worthy smartphone memories.

He picked up the secret santa gift, corners of torn wrapping still attached. The budget was £5 and the secret benefactor had not exceeded that. His present was one of those oh so humourous toiletries; a soap to help grow a thick skin. Probably from Jim the caretaker. He hadn’t got why some people might not find his jokes quite so funny as he did. It had only been an informal reprimand.

Michael opened the box. The contents fell into his lap, a yellow swirled bar that smelt vaguely of marigolds. He picked up the box, trying to focus on the contents.

“Horsetail, Calendula,” he read out loud to himself, struggling to pronounce the last word. “Powdered chitons.” He traced out the phrase in brackets (Not suitable for vegetarians.)

When he woke it was the early hours, neck cricked against the arm of the sofa. Picking up the soap he went to the bathroom, left the light off and turned on the tap, waiting while the water heated.

With his gift to hand he lathered up the soap and rubbed his face. It felt gritty, but not unpleasant. He rinsed his skin and touched his face. The skin felt odd. He stared into the mirror above the sink, trying to see in the light from the hall. His forehead had healed over with fans of mineral plates. He felt them spread over his face, down his cheeks, turning his lips to shell and sealing them across. Inside he pressed his tongue against the plates and felt them flex at the touch.

The alteration started where the soap cleaned but soon spread. He watched his hands turning to shell. With razor edged nails he tried to claw between the gaps, but there was no space to gain purchase. He watched his skin change until his eyes healed over and there was only darkness and discomfort and the weight of his changed skin.

For a few hours nothing happened. He could not see, and though he tried to feel his way from the room his muscles were too weak to move him in his blindness. Then, slowly but surely, his vision returned. First, eyes of mineral erupted in his back, then on his chest, until every part of his skin was covered in flexing aragonite eyes, their stone lenses twitching to see the darkened bathroom whose floor he was now ground into.

 

Day 9

Skins of Embers

After the Burning People arrived with the onset of winter none of our fires lit again. Sparks and flames all disappeared overnight. We watched these people of the inferno walk around the empty midnight streets with their skins of embers as we huddled around cold hearths with no candles to light our way.

The only burning we knew was jealousy. After our children started blueing from hard frosts, gangs broke the curfew and clattered the streets. They cornered and dismembered the Burning People to carry home glittering limbs, bones of smouldering charcoal exposed to the falling snow. Glowing coals fell to the ground and melted through the drifts like trails of burnt toast. That night we huddled close to the first hearth fires in weeks and ate hot food so fast it blistered our jaws.

We did not know that this was how the Burning People bred. How they increased their number. Now we have more flames than we could ever desire. Now our children are no longer blue. Now there is nothing but fire.

 

Day 10

Gift Wrap

Word reached Marco of a new Christmas shop selling wrapping paper for far less than the supermarkets. Word reached the rest of the town too. People queued down the street to save money on something only needed until little fingers found their way inside.

Reaching the front, Marco stacked Amy’s arms high with rolls of paper, each decorated with embossed stars or abstracted reindeer. Elegant, good quality and cheap.

Back home he wrapped the family’s gifts with care, marvelling at how the paper didn’t tear on sharp, awkward corners. He added curled satin ribbons. The perfect finishing touch.

Early Christmas morning the paper was scattered to be forgotten, attention focussed on the coloured plastic gifts. Marco gathered the wastepaper, pushing it down into black bin liners, ready for recycling.

During the night, skin scorching heat woke a still drunk Marco. Believing the central heating still on he tried to rise from bed and failed. Reaching down to unfurl himself from the duvet he felt embossed paper instead.

Trying to free his legs, he crashed to the floor. Torn paper pinned arms to torso, rolling him toward the door as it crushed his ribs to splinters. He saw Amy already cocooned, breathing her last.
Marco tried shouting. Decorated with reindeer, torn paper collapsed words back into his throat. Used sellotape, thick with dust, held it in place. Waste paper knitted across his face, blinding him. The pressure increased and glistening muscles erupted from gaps between the sheets, looped like satin ribbons.

Day 11

The Well of Words

The Well of Words stood in the middle of the town, edifice carved from yellowed bones of long dead creatures, like basilisk and cockatrice.

Each day the children would go to the well, stand on the edge and lower in empty pen barrels to capture the words in the narrow tubes.

On summer days newborns were placed in bassinets, thin reeds coming out of their mouths so they did not drown, and were lowered down the chamber to soak up words like sentience and rushing, erupted and agility.

The letters sat upon their infant skins until the daylight bleached them pale.

But it was on winter nights when we would stumble to the well and skim off feral phrases that rose to the surface like cream. Backs against the bones of long dead creatures we stitched words like rebellion and disobedience into sentences, and, as the snow melted on our skins, became drunk on their power.

Day 12

Clotting

The red and blue sky beyond the platform opened its veins and bled birds into the evening. Laura watched them fall to clot roads and pavements, feathers in such number they turned the snow black.

The trains could not run because of the weight of tiny corpses on the rails. The taxis were crowded and each step in the street was soundtracked by the snapping of tiny hollow bones. They tried to clear the feathered bodies from the street, but they had a weight far beyond their size. Far beyond anything that floated on thermals.

When the birds started walking again, on powdered legs, calling through snapped beaks, Laura was not surprised. The birds crawled over each other, shuddering as their feathers caught.

The birds tasted secrets. All through the city they crowded around people, clinging to them with claws that cut through clothes and needled skin. Once they attached they could not be unhooked, singing their calls at their victim through broken throats. Once they attached more and more came until the shape of the person underneath was lost in the softness of feathers.

Laura did not leave her flat, eating combinations of cupboard ingredients until no food was left. Using gaffer tape she sealed every gap and snick she could find.

She woke to find the bird gripping her headboard. It hopped across the bedclothes and knotted into her hair. Getting up, she poured a glass of tap water that tasted of floating birds, sat on the sofa and waited for the rest to arrive.

Day 13

Ghost Fishing (Inspired by a conversation with Dr Anna Macdonald)

Sailing out on erupted waters the crew of The Flying Cloud caught nothing. At first. After several hours at sea the lines snagged and they dragged them through the muttering surface of the sea.

Hand over hand Billy and Sam hauled the catch onto the deck and stared. Every line held a single pot, lost long before Billy and Sam started crewing. Each trap of wire was crammed to crushing with swimmer crabs, twenty to thirty in each. Some were still alive, claws still twitching against the shells of the dead.

Opening the pots the two fishermen tipped the crabs to the deck and watched the ones still alive grasp their way free. Billy delved in, grabbing two and taking them down to the galley, appearing a little later with two plates of crab meat that they ate as the weather tried to scrub the world to grey.

Over the next two weeks they gifted the catch to friends and family. Compressed the cooked meat into stone pots and turned creature after creature from blue to red.

The ghosts, only recently knotted into shell kept flesh, found new homes. One pale, shimmering legs they slipped easily from the dead sea creatures to take up residence behind the eyes of the fishermen. Behind the eyes of their children The ghosts liked knives. They reminded them of their lost claws. Soon they would start their cutting.

Day 14

A Winter Ride

Mike took the corner and wound open the throttle, the bike accelerating under him. A gust of wind snagged on the mirror, wrapping itself around the front forks.

Across the fields, the other end of the gust grasped the torn wing of a crow, pulling her off course. Unsure what was happening the bird clattered through a hedge, snapping its beak tight around the thorned branches. The drag shook most of the roots free of the field, a rain of soil falling through the air. The scent of crushed blackberries and mallow clothed the sky.

Under the dirt a single root tried to hold to the earth where it suckled, until it could resist no more and was dragged free, bringing with it the forty two sinews of plough furrows tattooing the field.

Mike came to a stop outside his garage. He killed the engine, around him a cocoon of branches and feathers. Breezes and soil. His skin was stained with the juice of blackberries. He risked a glance in the mirror, the countryside behind now scrubbed to fraying and pale as chalkdust.