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Flash fiction: The Lament of the Magpie’s Wife

The Lament of the Magpie’s Wife

I thought that I knew all about magpies. My mother had told the story of my grandmother’s wedding ring enough times. But I believed that this was different, he was different, that I was a treasure which would not tarnish.

All silver tarnishes with time.

My grandmother was washing up, so the story goes. She loved hating doing it. Her hands were red raw from the near-boiling water, scalded by the harsh yellow soap she insisted on using. They were ugly useful things. The pretty tiny glass stone in the cheap goldish metal was a lovely useless thing and did not go with the washing up. So she placed it on a soapdish above the sink. While she was scrubbing at the tools of the kitchen, she liked to have the window open so that she could watch the birds. She liked the small birds best. They pursued their business of feeding, loving and fighting with a seriousness that she found absurd. But today, well today there was a flick of a black and white tail, a tilt of a head and the gleam of an eye.

One for sorrow.

“Good Morning Mr. Magpie, how is your lady wife today?”

Grandmother observed all the courtesies. Yet the second she turned to get the tea towel, the wily thief stole her treasure from the soapdish. As the blue black wings soared away, the ring glittered nearly brightly as his eye.

All magpies steal. And they never have enough. I can’t believe that I forgot that.

I was a treasure begging to be stolen. As a child I would always take the games too far. When climbing trees I was the one perched on the slightly-too-thin branch furthest from the ground. There was no haunted house, so-called witch’s cottage, or older teens’ hideout that was safe from me. I would need to go look, to touch the age-raddled wall or sniff the empty beer bottles and fag-ends left in the leaf mould. As I grew I grew restless. I ached for wider skies and new faces. But as I wished to spread my wings my world became more restricted. A girl will always be bound as she grows to a woman. We are too monstrous to be left free.

I met him when I was old enough to be trouble, but not old enough to know better. I wanted more than I had, but was too afraid to find it. I was sitting at the dance, in a group and yet apart. I wore a dress that glowed as bright as my hair. I can never be sure about my looks. Men called me beautiful. When they wanted me. Women called me flashy, or obvious. Was it the brassy notes in my goldish hair? My eyes that were too big, too green? I knew that I was watched when I entered a room. I glittered. So did he. His velvet coat was so dark a blue it was black; his eyes so dark a black they were blue.

He asked me to dance.

He held me too close.

My breath came too fast, my heart beat too readily.

I was a treasure begging to be stolen.

He asked me to fly away that night. I pretended to refuse. A week later I was on a train to Gretna Green.

His house was small, damp, wooden. But it was filled to the brim with plunder- gold and silver, sparkles and shimmers. There were expensive marble statues next to tinsel covered cushions, mirrors and tin, rubys and glass. I loved it when I first saw it. We would laugh and dance naked, the fire reflecting from our skin, our eyes glowing in the mirrors and silver around us. When he smiled my world stood still, his teeth so white against the tan of his face and the black of his beard. His belly was covered with hair as soft as feathers. We tasted and took and gave until the dawn.

We were happy for a while. But all silver tarnishes with time. He stopped listening to me. He was gone all day and came home with little but bread. He left me while I was still damp with his sweat, aching from his touch, his eyes looking through me as if I wasn’t there at all.

I tried everything to keep him. I put on rouge and powder, gilded my eyelids and made my lips glisten. I worked to bring him trinkets and presents to show him my love. I would wrap myself in his silks, wear his velvet coat with nothing else. His eyes would snag on me, but they never stayed.

He stopped coming home every night. So one day I followed.

She was a treasure begging to be stolen. She glittered like glass and gold in the sunlight. His velvet coat was so black as to be blue: his eyes so blue as to be black.

Magpies steal. And they never have enough.


Sea horses – a poem 

I rode my horse to the field, bare back and with only a halter. It made me feel like a child. So I wrote a poem.

Sea horses

Waves of mane

Hold tight

Crest muscle flex


Waves of memory


Black becomes brown becomes surf

Hands clutch



Ears flicker

Always sunlit

Salt crust lip

frost whisker

Sea horses chase us home

Flashfiction: Lipstick

Sarah carefully outlined her lips in scarlet. The pencil was hard and dragged at her lips. Her hand movement was practiced, ensuring that the right pressure and shape would result in a smooth, accurate line. She paused; checked out her face in the dirty mirror. Rummaged in her handbag perched between two taps, dangerously close to a filthy sink. The lights were too bright for the stained ladies room.
She relaxed slightly when she curled the red curve from its bullet casing. The colour was bold, bright. She placed it deliberately, the heat from her skin melting the red into her lips. Blot with tissue. Reapply another slick. The ritual calmed her – after the tension of getting the perfect line, this was easy. Too soon she would be finished here, and would be back playing cheerleader for his band. He was busy: sound checking, tuning, drinking. Maybe once or twice he would gift her a glance, or a smile. He had said she was indispensable before a gig, that he couldn’t function without his muse, his luck. That was the first lie she had discovered. She added more needless mascara to delay returning to the light stained space in front of the stage.

Later, the mirror was darker, and she was jostled by slim arms and faces, orange armoured, tipped with knife sharp hooves guarding their space. The red was missing a little from the centre of her lips. The small room echoed with excited squeals.
“How hot was the guitarist?”
“John, his name is. He’s single, you know. It was in NME.”
“I loved that last song”
“Sarah? wonder who she was.”
Sarah wiped a tiny smudge from her top lip. The greedy crowd had sucked and gobbled at their song until there was nothing left. She remembered the first time she heard the beginnings of it, woken up by the whine of the guitar. He was sitting on the only chair in the bedsit, sun lazily describing his bare skin. She had sat up in the bed, wrapped her arms around her knees and watched his hands stroke the fret. He looked up, dark hair flopped over one eye and crookedly smiled. Her heart had contracted, and she stood and danced naked in the yellow room, feet neatly avoiding the rubbish on the crowded floor.
He had the same look in his eye on stage, watching the crowd sing the refrain he had made for her. Or at least, the refrain he had made for the girl in his room that night. The red coated her lips again, and she stared at her pale and unsmiling reflection.

Early in the morning now, the lights were awkwardly bright again. Sarah sighed at the tiny lines that bled into the skin around her lips, the blotchy patches of colour. In the harsh light she could see the bags under her eyes, the fine fine lines near her mouth.
The crowd was jubilant, elated. The band were smiling, humming and wired. John had red lipstick over his mouth, and Sarah could still feel his hot hands under her dress. She wondered exactly when it was that her delight in owning him had left her. He was still the intense beauty that moved like sex onstage and held the attention of all the women and some of the men. He was still the man who only really loved his guitar and the music he created. She was still nothing, and still loved nothing.
For a moment she nearly understood the difference between himself and her. Nearly understood why she always fucked musicians, good ones. Those that lived so fucking brightly it hurt to look at them directly. But the insight vanished as she pulled the red tube of lipstick back into its black case. She was done with musicians, she decided. She had a ticket for an exhibition opening tomorrow night. Maybe 2013 was the year of the painter.

The grading of a Romany boy and his colt

I clicked at Belle to encourage her off the ramp. She raised her proud head and her pink nostrils flared.
“Come, lass, it’s your big day. Just a few steps and a run, with little George at your side.” She was still not sure of the other horses and people, and was less bold than usual with her colt so new.
Carefully, turning into her neck so that no one saw me, I stuck my gloved hand through the neck of my fleece and into my arm pit. I pushed my sweat covered fingers into her nostrils, and she sighed and bowed her head. This meant she trusted me and would follow into the chaos, my scent calming her. My Da had me do that when she was first born, her white nose covered in foal down, me a sunburnt kid shorter even than her spindly legs. That was eleven years ago, and she still would sigh at my scent, her ears would prick and her brown eyes soften.
The mare walked off the trailer, her mini-me at her rump. The sunlight glinted through the baby-oiled black and white body. I had been up before the sun this morning, washing her in fairy liquid (the blue one bleached her white patches); combing the special conditioner through her feathers, mane and tail until the heavy hair was silky soft; scrubbing her hooves and wiping them in pig oil. I’d be for it when sis found out that I had used all her best conditioner, but it was worth it to see Belle so fine, to show them what she could do.
Da, in his best suit, the one with the narrow lapels like a gangster from the 90s, met us with her special leather halter, the one that she’d worn when she’d won at Appleby.
“She’ll do.” He said as his clever fingers worked the heavy buckles. I wanted very badly to smile at the rare compliment, but someone might see. Surely I was a bit taller. I fussed over her and the colt, fluffing the feathers that hung like flared trousers round her oiled hooves, untangling the odd knot in her floor length tail. George was scared of the other horses and people, and he kept getting in the way as he tried to stay as close to me and his mum as he could, his tiny pink tongue licking his busy chewing lips. That touch of fear would make him shine in the grading, he would float in front of the judges.
“It’s time. How’do we look?” Da struck a pose, hand on hip, blue eyes laughing.
“You’ll do.” I said.
“Cheeky.” He made as if to box my ears, but I grinned and ducked away.
We walked through the other horses, mostly tall scared things that danced in their groom’s hands. Most of the owners were women, as expensive and well cared for as their horses, their grooms thin and tan. Belle was the only coloured horse here, the only one with so much hair on her head, and legs and tail. But she was beautiful, and George was beautiful and I was as proud of them as if they were thirty grand warmbloods.
When we got to the ring, I left them and Da at the entrance, and I ran to the gallery where I could watch the judging.
The mare and foal before us were both bay, with black points. The mare was a thoroughbred, but registered with the dutch warmblood society. Her foal didn’t seem to touch the ground, but ran around and around as the handler trotted up her dam. I liked them, this big brown pair. When they were finished, the two old women judges walked to near the gallery and I overheard them talking about the horse’s movement.
Then it was us. My breath caught as they came in. The sun was less bright in here, but still it seemed to light my horses as if they were in a film. They were so beautiful.
“What’s this, my big fat gypsy wedding?” The taller judge said in what she clearly believed was an quiet whisper.
“Damn pikeys get everywhere. Like rats. Do you think he last wore that suit in court?” They grimaced at each other.
Red seemed to fill my eyes, followed by tears. I could hear the blood in my veins, pounding. I seemed to be underwater, watching a man that was suddenly a stranger, in his shiny suit, and a couple of cart horses. I had to get out of there.
I ran to the van, pushing through the snooty fucking bitches and their big fucking horses. I could barely see, as I wrenched open the sliding door and huddled in the pile of rugs, against the warm smell of horses and leather and hay. It had always given me comfort before, but not today.
I had to stop crying before Da came back. He hadn’t seen me cry since I was six years old. He wouldn’t now.

I snuck out of bedroom when I Sis started snoring. Like I had so many times before when I couldn’t sleep I got out my old bike and raced to the field. I thought of nothing as my legs pumped and the orange streetlights faded into moonlight as I left the estate. I hid my bike in the hollow under the tree like always to stop someone taking it. I was glad of the silver glow of the moon, but I knew my way.
Belle and George were under the big hedge. She whickered a welcome. I petted her neck, then vaulted onto the warm back. She picked at the hedge as I lay across her, legs and arms hanging and my head cradled by her soft rump. I looked at the sky as I often had before.
The words spoken at the grading repeated through my mind. I had heard similar, of course I had, and worse, at school and in the street. But for some reason they had never touched me like this. Da had told me it doesn’t matter what they think, that George was the best we had bred, that he would stay entire and be mine. That our family lived through and with these horses and always would. That even though they had taken our roads and our caravans and forced us into static houses that we would still be us as long as we had these horses and loved them.
Still the women’s high voices rattled in my mind and I could not quieten.
My fingers jerked as George started suckling them. I tried to push him off but he reached up with his soft nose and he snuffled into my ear. After a while I stopped resisting and I watched the stars and the moon. My mare shifted beneath me and my colt breathed beside us as we waited in the dark.

Flashfiction: A murder of cows….

I found this in an old file, I wrote it last year at an Arvon course. Enjoy!

Tires squealed and a large engine growled with sharp acceleration. Ignoring a large sign proclaiming ‘Keep Out’, Gemma stomped across the verge and jumped over the gate straight into a large puddle of cowshit. She swore as it splashed her Russell and Bromley leather boots, much more used to striding through London than this remote part of Cumbria. A splash of cold stung her thin legs through her skinny jeans. He had chosen this hotel, near to where he grew up. She did not know why, it was wild and gloomy, miles away from civilisation.

The wind lashed her long brown hair against her set face. The sky was blotchy grey, threatening rain at any moment. Despite the damage done to butter soft leather and designer denim, Gemma set off across the brown green field.

Cows sullenly watched her attack the springy beige grass and sink into the secret patches of muddy swamp that littered their windswept home. Her cashmere jumper was itchy against her skin, and she impatiently pulled up the sleeves of her clean Barbour jacket to scratch her wrists.

It was going to be a long walk to the hotel in this clammy pale imitation of a morning. She could see the battlements of the great house through the trees merely two miles and one valley away. She strode towards it, at least she would have a large g and t when she got in. And she had a phone call to make. A very important phone call that would prove extremely embarrassing for that smug bastard.

She smiled grimly and picked up her pace. Should she start with the kinky sex? Or the lies about the missed dinners and weekends, dance recitals and football matches. Once she knew he had been late for his anniversary celebration. She had made sure that he would not want to get undressed for his wife that night, not after she had marked him with her nails and teeth.

She heard stomping and snorting, but in her anticipation of the grenade she would detonate in the bastard’s life it was background fuzz and no more. She moved quickly over the ground, getting a bit better about spotting some of the more boggy bits, although her boots would be ruined. She would get a new pair with the money from the journalists. Two new pairs.

Something made her glance backward. Was it the crackle of the bracken? She jumped. There were more cows that she thought, in a curious herd behind her, merely feet away.

They seemed bigger close up. She stumbled against a tuft of grass, jogged a step to keep upright. The lead cows – or were they bulls? Surely they were too big for cows – fell into a lumbering trot.

Her breath started to come in shallow little puffs in the grey fog. She broke into a run. The lumbering behind her became a rumble of feet. Truly panicking now, Gemma sprinted towards the fence. She scrambled over the tufts of spiky grass, stumbled into shallow ditches. She could hear the cow’s laboured breath. Was that the puffs of warm cuddy air against her hair.

She ran though ground that sucked and clawed at her boots. Her boot sank, nearly to her knee, and she fell face first into cold stinking swamp. She struggled but her thrashing seemed to sink her deeper into the icy wet mud. Her boots and legs disappeared, and she tried to swim, as the weight of the Cumbrian ground settled onto her chest.

The cows, calm now, watched the interloper gasp into one of the many spot of quick-sand like mud in their large brown green field.

The man watched the placid animals for a while from the penthouse window of the castle-like hotel. He smiled slightly, phone in hand, as he pressed dial, his wife’s number already punched in.

“Good news, darling. The conference ended early, so I will be home tonight for that special dinner after all.”


Useful words of advice from Film Crit Hulk…

So, last week I thought a lot about structure. About plot, and character, and action and what made a thriller work, what made fighting set pieces interesting. The answers I came to were obvious (character drives plot, characterisation makes you care about the cool action scenes, you can’t cheat on the character stuff). I read a lot about screen plays mainly from Film Crit Hulk, who is thoughtful and insightful. If you ignore the all caps.

Useful links: (and two, natch)


But his back catalogue is also useful – a lot about why films work and why they DON’T work. Interesting stuff.

You may note i haven’t updated any more. This is because it actually just stresses me out, so that experiment did not work.

Thoughts on writing no. 3001. The goal keeps shifting. Hope I keep up.

My novel is not where I thought it was. What my initial read through had thought was a missing chapter full of bits turns out to be where I broke the novel. Cry.

The first 11 chapters work (ish) there are a few scenes that need inserting, or smoothing, a few details that need to come up. The last 11 chapters work. They work on wheels, each leads to the next, there is plot and fun and character and it seems to flow (although I need to polish and smooth and reshape some of it). Last year I had trouble with a chapter, (chapter 12 as it happens) and plonked in a linking chapter and got on with the bit I thought was fun. This not only needs tweaking, however. I think I need a new chunk of novel. I have words to play with (its not already a doorstop or anything) so I have a bit in the middle to rethink. While this is scary, and disappointing (I have a mental timeline of how long it takes to write a novel – I am already over that deadline) I am much less stressed. Because now I have a problem I know how to tackle rather than Just Being A Terrible Writer. So onward.

26 days of work is continuing. Just what the end point is has shifted.

Keeping some sort of public record here is useful to me. It changes the nature of this blog, however. I understand if no one wishes to read going on!