A game of change

I’ve recently taken up chess again, years after learning the rules as a kid, and wanted to take a moment to share a quick observation:

Chess speaks the language of story. 

This was an idle thought at first, but the more I unpacked it, the more connections I discovered. Like screenwriting, chess is a constant balance of multiple conflicts. Like all good antagonists, the opponent can’t be passive. They force the story, constantly shift the sway of the game, forcing plans to adapt or collapse under pressure. Chess is a game of change, of assimilated knowledge, of action and reaction. Like screenwriting, it demands sacrifices to reach the ending — the bigger the sacrifice, the greater the risk and the reward. Chess fosters courage. Like a good screenplay, chess strips away and resolves minor skirmishes as the bigger heft of story emerges. Like a good screenplay, all the pieces are on the board at the beginning. Like a good screenplay, every piece is important — a minor piece played early holds a crucial role at the end. Like a good screenplay, the final outcome comes down to one or two pieces, finely balanced at the end of the attrition. A seesaw of movements, each outdoing the last, building momentum or shoring up defence. Planning. Problem-solving. Acceptance. Final stands. Last gasp attacks. Forced to find and take the least-worst option. Simple mistakes — or opportunities seized and squandered. A lot of thinking and plenty of gut instinct. The ambiguous ending of a stalemate, or the binary of triumph and despair.

Regular readers will know I’m a big fan of an extended metaphor, but come on: there’s a lot there, right? The engines of chess are the engines of drama. There are questions over whether chess can actually change the cognitive function of the brain, but at the very least it’s teaching me conscious patterns of behaviour I find useful in my writing.


The Slump

In the nine years since I started writing fiction, I have completed three novels and a novella. All of them have been written in the first person, and needed me to immerse myself entirely in another character, another world; and so I’ve been a veteran of WW2, flitting between London and Burma; a 17-year-old girl, desperate to escape her Scottish island; an arthritic fisherman walking across Morecambe Bay; and a fortune-teller seeking herself in a world of swamps. My stories are becoming steadily more fantastical. They’re taking me further from myself. That’s fine in terms of what I want to write about, but it also makes it harder to come back. My friend Ali Shaw once compared writing to being underwater, and I think that’s right; the deeper you go, the further you get from the surface.

After finishing each of these four stories, I’ve experienced a few weeks of manic creativity, cartwheeling through handfuls of shorter pieces. Most recently, on wrapping up a first draft of The Hollows, I redrafted and typeset Dare in a week. But then, after these bursts, I’ve always fallen into something of a slump, and that’s where I am now, casting about for what to do, suddenly convinced that all those months of work are worthless.

I’ve talked before about how I write to drown. Over time, that immersion—especially in something as big as a novel—becomes total, until it’s the real world that becomes disorientating. I’m so fortunate to have in Mon someone who understands that stories leave me stoned; she helps me find my way. But returning to the real world feels odd. I’m struggling to get excited about things I should be excited about. I’m distracted and quick to gloom. I suspect that almost all creative work is built on a measure of doubt, and right now that’s all I have, needling and nagging all the time: what if it’s garbage? All of it? Everything I’ve done? The last year was wasted work. What if this year is too? How would I start again?

I would start again, because I have to. But the further I get from The Hollows—and it’s vital, I know, to get some perspective, to put distance between me and it before I go back to redraft—the more that doubt creeps in. Almost everyone I know, and certainly all the writers and artists, struggle with doubt. Carving out and sharing these inside parts of your head is an excruciation. I couldn’t write without that doubt; it keeps me lean, questioning, pushing myself to do better, to be better. Doubt is the compass of when I’m not good enough; and so to cut, rewrite, cut, rewrite, cut. But here’s the crux: when I’m not writing, not working on a story, that doubt—the same doubt I need to write in the first place—has nothing to gnaw on but me. It bites harder than ever after spending so long in another world, and then leaving it behind. That’s the Slump.

So quit wallowing and start something new, right? It’s not so simple. I have several ideas lined up for what I’ll do next, and I’m 2,000 words into my first proper short story in over a year. But from a pragmatic point of view, it’s senseless to start another big project before I’ve polished off the last, and every redraft is distinct and demanding. The Slump goes beyond that anyway. It’s a spiritual anticlimax. It’s hitting a wall after running a marathon. It’s a burn out, an exhaustion of ideas. I don’t really know how to get myself out of the Slump, other than to take heart from the knowledge that I always have before. This morning I played hide and seek with Dora. That helped. This afternoon I’m going back to my short story. That may help too.

Half-a-dozen people have now read The Hollows. They’ve all enjoyed it, I think, and they have all suggested a few things that don’t quite work; thankfully, these things have pretty much been the same for all of them, and they also tie into my own sense of the story, now I’m getting some distance from it. Redrafting would be impossible without that sense of triangulation, which is, in turn, why writing needs community. I’m gearing myself up for potential edits, but I’m not there yet. I think I’ll be ready by the time this slump comes to an end; or perhaps the slump comes to an end because I’m ready. It’s coming closer, but it’s not here yet.

Writing is doubt. Writing is perspective. Passion. Immersion. Empathy—books are empathy machines. Writing is the witch in your kitchen in the corner of your eye. If you spin to look at her directly, she’s gone. Writing is a sideways mirror. Writing is accidents of words, like wind chimes are accidents of music. I don’t know what else to do but play on through it.

john kenn

To The End We Will Go

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.37.46*

After almost two years of work, I have finished making a film about hay meadows. This has been a huge project for me, both professionally and personally, and it has changed the way I think about the world.

When I come to the end of a project, I usually have a stronger understanding of the subject than when I began. In this case, while my knowledge has increased hugely, I’m left with far more questions than answers. In 2013, I was commissioned by Cumbria Wildlife Trust to make a ‘democratic’ film about meadows, tasked with balancing opposing points of view to create a space for discussion and reflection. Within that brief, I started the project with a sense that hay meadows were something like a set of scales, and if only the interested parties could work together better, then an equilibrium could be achieved between food production on one side, and sustainability on the other. I no longer think that’s possible; and I now think of meadows more like a jigsaw, being made by many people all at once, only everyone has a different picture on the box. Every time you place one piece down, another changes. They are mosaics of demand, shifting with the seasons. All the fundamental issues facing agriculture in Britain can be measured in hay meadows: growth, demand, food, want, waste, profit, biodiversity, sustainability, heritage, science, tradition.

Over the course of the shoot, I talked with school kids, beekeepers, walkers, landowners, farmers, conservationists and a 97-year-old farm labourer who worked in meadows between the World Wars. I left a camera in a barn outside Kirkby Stephen to record a five-month time lapse of a meadow in growth. I learned more about slow motion video, and about macro photography. After ten months of searching, I tracked down an astonishing piece of archive film footage from the 1930s. Halfway through it, there’s a shot of an old tramp simply standing in a lane, staring at the camera. It’s haunted me ever since:

old man*

All this was happening in the build-up to the Scottish referendum. Through the process of making this film, the two became inextricably linked around my realisation that if we are to survive – as a species – then it’s by being smaller. We need to reduce. To be less. Less ambitious, less hungry, less wasteful, less oblivious. We will survive in communities and cooperatives, not corporations. This was one of the many reasons I supported a Yes vote in Scotland. For me, the referendum went a long, long way beyond some petty nationalism. It would have swung a sword through the Gordian Knot of a corrupt, venal Britain. I cried my eyes out on the morning it was No. Being small and being nationalistic are not the same thing. We’ll be better as bees in hives, sharing the meadows. (This analogy does not, for me, extend as far as having Queens.)

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.45.32*


I found out this morning that To The End We Will Go has been selected for the CMAC Rural Film Festival. This will be my first ever festival screening, and I’m really pleased. It’s quietly astonishing to think about people on the other side of the world watching my wee film and spending a few moments in Cumbria. The last shot is a drift of swifts exploding past my window against a purple dusk. I love the thought that an audience in Minnesota will look out of the same window and see African swifts in a Cumbrian sky.

Verbalise at the Brewery

Last night was my third reading in a week, returning to Verbalise in the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal. It was a quieter night, after a couple of busy ones, but I enjoyed it. I read from The Hollows for the first time – a draft piece about exploring something like a haunted house, which was a lot of fun to read. I also brought out a couple of older pieces for the first time. Books Like Grains Of Sand and Tank Trap are both flash stories in Marrow. I’ve never read them before, as I’ve always thought they were too weird, too abstract for performance. But after what happened with Dora and The Sea Tiger this week, I also wanted to draw a line in the sand for myself – to remember that magic and wonder is why I write. I’m not going to be scared of reading those pieces anymore. And in the end, I think they went better than I’d dared to hope. I’ve felt just slightly off the boil with my last few readings, but I enjoyed last night a lot. Dora’s given me courage. 

I also sold three copies of Marrow, which was lovely – I now have fewer than ten copies for sale, so if you want one, get amongst it while you can.

Next gig is at the end of the month in Lancaster – Working Title in The Three Mariners – be great to see some of you hobbitses there.


On the rare occasions I’ve been asked for writing advice, one of the things I always suggest is to carry a notebook and a pen. I’ve lost count of the thoughts, ideas, plots, characters and dialogue I’ve let slip through the gaps in my atrocious memory. It’s heartbreaking. I took to carrying a pocket notebook years ago. Sometimes I fill one in a month, and sometimes in six months, until it disintegrates to dust and fibres and I need to tape the spine. I keep them all on a shelf above my desk. Once, while backpacking in Australia, I spilled a hipflask of Maker’s Mark all over my notebook, and the whiskey erased the ink. I lost my bourbon, and I lost weeks of passing thoughts. As my friend Ali said, it was the very definition of two wrongs not making a right.

Notebooks aren’t just for the utility of capturing ideas. It’s important to remember how to write the hard way. I’m a thug of a typist, but I’m pretty fast, and I spend a huge amount of time glued to my computer, whether that’s writing or editing. My default setting is electric, and when I have an idea, I tend to go to the computer first.

This is all relevant because I’m finally dipping my toes back into The Hollows. I started on Christmas Eve 2013, wrote sporadically through the new year, and hit 25,000 words around June. I haven’t worked on it at all since then, but last week I finally had the space to look at it again. On reading it through, I was a little unhappy with some of my work. Parts of it read well, but simply weren’t right for the story any more. No matter how much I shuffled chapters or copied and pasted paragraphs to try and make it fit, the story wouldn’t gel. Instead, I put on some music and sat back with a fountain pen and an old office diary I nabbed years ago to use as a notebook.

The diary was a red hardback day-to-a-page thing, brand new and unused from 2006, a ribbon bookmark folded flat between the crisp blank pages. It was perfect. I started scribbling down my worries and woes. I made lists of characters I liked and characters I didn’t need. I wrote down what worked, and what never could. I drew lots of dots and stars and arrows connecting things that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. I wrote questions and answers. I wrote until my hand hurt and I had a dent in my forefinger. A few hours later, the mist was beginning to clear, and some new ideas were beginning to show themselves.

That night, I talked it through with Mon. She’s so good at giving me space to shape my ideas. Often the act of explaining a story to Mon explains the story to me, too. Vocalising something gives it clarity. After chatting it through, I spent another hour or two jotting down new ideas, new people, new places to explore.

This is all the planning I do when I’m writing. Rough notes and loose association. It works better with ink than on a screen. It makes the process tangible. I couldn’t do what Ali did with his last novel, and write the whole thing longhand – that wouldn’t work for me – but I’d forgotten how healthy it is to make a mark, to scribe into the fibres of the page. The act of writing with a pen has conjured new ideas, too – things that couldn’t have occurred in pixels.

The hardest part is making the decision. I went back to the manuscript, and cut 11,000 words. It hurt, but it was important. There were good scenes in there – good chapters – but they’d sent me off course, and they had to go. Now they’re gone. My draft is 11,000 words lighter, but I’m more confident in what is left. The shape of the story has changed. The characters are starting to stir, beginning to show themselves.

It’s insane to think I’ve achieved so little since starting it almost a year ago. I feel like I should have a finished draft by now. I know, looking back, that we’ve been extraordinarily busy this year, and that I’ve completed a multitude of other things, but The Hollows is back in my life and shouting louder than ever. I’ve spent some time on the wrong path, but now I think I’ve found my way. A pen, a compass.

Flash fiction challenge: Graffiti

Okay, folks. Here’s round three of the writing challenge I’m working on with performance poet Simon Hart, also known in certain Mafia circles as BigCharlie Poet. This is how it goes: we take it in turns to choose a picture, both of us write a response around it, and we post the results up here. Round one was Cathedrals. Round two was Libraries. For round three, it was my turn to pick the image, and I opted for this doozy from my Pinterest short story board:


Although I had some inklings, I didn’t entirely know where to go with this at first. I was also embroiled in a marathon redraft of The Visitors, and so the challenge slid by the wayside a bit. Simon was finished in two days, the swine. Anyway, when I had a chance to work on it properly, the ideas came fairly quickly. My first story was well over a thousand words long and barely halfway in when I decided to put it on ice. It’s going to be a good piece, when I’ve time to finish it, but it’s not right for this. My second attempt was finished in a single session, plus a few tweaks the following day. As with my Libraries story, this feels like it could be the start of something much bigger; since finishing it, I’ve been brewing on a full novel about the characters and their situation, and I have some exciting ideas starting to spark. I think I’ll be taking it a lot further in the future.

It’s interesting, as well, that Simon and I had fairly similar responses to the picture. Our work in the first two challenges was quite diverse; I don’t know whether this image is more specific, and therefore limiting, or whether it actually offers more themes, and we simply happened to choose the same one.

Here’s what Simon has to say about the picture:

“What a difference an image makes! Last time out I (we) struggled a bit under the weight of a well-mined seam of creation for us with my choice of a library pic… I’m glad to say that the responsibility of the choice for this challenge came from Mr Sylvester, and, from my perspective at least, I think he should pick them all! To say that the creation of this piece contrasts with the last process would be underselling it somewhat… I also know that despite the complexity of trying to describe this picture to an audience, I really want to perform this.

This poem came about very quickly and with a very clear idea of what I wanted straight away, and I think it has delivered what I wanted from it. Seeing the image for the first time, I was struck how old monsters are never really old monsters, and they always find their way back somehow. They may change their locale and era, but they continue on…”

With that said, here’s Simon Hart’s response to the picture:

Urban Myth
by BigCharlie Poet

I started my life as a hasty scrawl
Daubed in white paint on a houses side wall
An innocuous way for me to be born
Not really planned, just hurriedly drawn
Against the time constraints of another coming dawn,
The sun creeping almost afraid of my form
And boy did I grow!
There was no way that they could ever know
What i would become, the strength i would show
And each feed of paint gave me a new glow
Though my home was a wall, i still reached for the sky
Never once did i ask for the reason why
I became a creature that makes young kids cry
Which the ancient greeks locked in a maze to die
That people turn their heads away hurts, i won’t lie…
But soon i was so big that single cans of paint didn’t suffice
When you’re twenty feet high, with the head of a bull, who do you turn to for advice?
I couldn’t exactly stroll into a restaurant and say “give me whatever’s nice”
So i had to come up with a solution of my own making
And because i couldn’t do any great british baking
I looked around and saw souls, ready for the taking…
I mean, it’s not as if you lot even notice they’re missing
You still stumble through each day like you’re barely living
Not looking away from what your tv is giving
So now, when you try to open your mind
And use your soul for guidance, you suddenly find
Yourself empty, and you don’t know the reason
But you convince yourself it’s because you watched another season
Of “I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here!”
Or you drowned your brain cells in far too much beer
That i am the culprit will never be clear…
So thank you for giving me what i really need
A simple, quick and nourishing feed
But i won’t let myself give in to my greed
I’ll satisfy myself with the odd soul waiting for a bus
The business professional in too much of a rush
The guy who’s become a 3pm lush…
Just enough to keep me going
After all, this wall doesn’t leave much room for me growing…

…and here’s my response:

by Simon Sylvester

We assembled at dusk and waited, scanning the skyline, binoculars flitting between the sunset buildings. Half the squadron wore night vision goggles, for all the good they’d do. It was only my third year with the division, and I was already the oldest. The kids were tense, but they struggled with all-night shifts. By two in the morning, a couple of them had dozed off. Dew glistened on their spray suits.

“Contact! Contact!”

As the radio crackled into life, slumbering officers stumbled to their feet. I checked the chamber on my gun. It was clean.

“Where are they, Jenkins?”

My voice was calmer than I felt.

“Corner of Gresham and Moorgate.”

I could hear her panic.

“Stay calm, Jenkins. We’re on our way n-.”

Even as I spoke, her scream clattered in my earpiece.

I gestured to the others. Grim-faced, we lined up and marched out, trooping along King William Street at a jog. At Bank, I gestured for the squad to slow and break formation. They fanned out, torches sweeping beams of light across the deserted road. I took point, and we stepped in silence through the Old Town.

Halfway along Prince’s Street, prickles ran down my spine. The feeling turned my bones to ice, but I knew better than to ignore it. That feeling had kept me alive for three years. I raised my fist, signalled to freeze. The squad halted at once. Nothing moved but sheets of paper, cartwheeling through the night.

On the wall ahead was a perfect, life-sized painting of Jenkins, caught mid-scream. I grimaced. She’d only been in the division three weeks. Some animal instinct made me raise my torch and scan the buildings above. The cone of light crawled up the wall into darkness.

I peered into the gloom at the edge of the light.

The top third of the building was graffitied with a gigantic white minotaur. It loomed above the street, unmoving, and for a heartbeat, I thought it was already dead. But then the minotaur grinned, and a fist clenched in my guts. Behind me, Stevenson shrieked and loosed a burst of fixative. The minotaur was too quick for him, melting back into the bricks even as the web of glue spattered across the wall. The beast darted around the corner of the building, pouring across the stone, the molecules of paint sliding from brick to brick. Splashes of fixative showered the empty wall.

“Hold your fire!” I bellowed.

The squad gathered closer together. In my earpiece, someone was hyperventilating.

“Shit! Jenkins has gone west.”

“He’s big. He’s big, sir-”

“I’ve seen worse, son. Be calm. Keep your wits about you. He’s somewhere close.”

There was another yell behind me. I spun round to see the minotaur reach out of the building, pour onto the pavement and swing his vast arm across the road, knocking half my squad to their knees. Redmayne lay closest to him. In two dimensions, his paint poured across the tarmac, wrapping around her ankle. She screamed and kicked, but the paint held fast. The minotaur yanked her to the ground, and began hauling her towards the wall. The rest of the squad were firing indiscriminately. Wherever splashes of the fixative caught the minotaur, fragments of paint were trapped within the brick, but he was big enough to shrug them off, leaving patches of himself behind. Redmayne was almost at the wall when I found a clear shot. I raised my gun, aimed and fired off half a tank. The glue showered across the beast in a net of spray, pasting his entire head. He juddered to a halt, mouth fixed in a permanent, silent roar. His painted hands continued to sweep across the bricks, scrabbling for purchase, but his head was stuck fast. One by one, my squad found targets, and soon every part of the monster was stuck to the wall. Redmayne scrambled free, sobbing, and backed into a knot of her comrades. We gathered together and looked up at the beast.

He was easily four storeys tall, made with gallons and gallons of paint. His creator had been a talented artist. Even fixed fast to the wall, the minotaur wriggled with life. His horns came to wicked points, and despite the fixative now coating his body, veins and muscles still pulsed on the brickwork. He must have taken weeks to make, back in the day. In a sense, he was even beautiful.

It was hard to remember a time before the paintings came to life.

The Cleaners arrived within the hour, all dead-eyed and paint-smeared with their mops and detergents. We watched them scrub the minotaur from the building, watched him dissolve into suds and drip into the sewers. Then they washed Jenkins from the wall, too. I didn’t watch that part. When they were done, we walked back to the depot. The new trainees looked shellshocked. The older squaddies looked harder, meaner. Redmayne wasn’t talking. She was one of my best officers, but this would be her ticket out. Poor Jenkins hadn’t even made it this far.

Every step of the way, ghosts watched us from the walls. The Cleaners worked hard, but every day, new faces stared out from the brick. And no matter how hard they worked, they couldn’t wash the faces from my nightmares.


Flash fiction challenge: Libraries

BigCharlie Poet (the nom de guerre of Simon Hart) and I have been trying out a picture-based flash fiction vs. poetry writing challenge. In case you missed it, here’s round one: Cathedrals.

It was Simon’s turn to choose a picture, this time, and this is what he chose:


I found this one very difficult. With Cathedrals, I had the story in an instant, and writing was a cruise, but this has taken some working around. I guess that’s the way with writing. I can’t turn it on like a tap. Sometimes the stories shimmer into view as though they’d been there all along, and sometimes they come word by word, kicking and fighting, refusing to stay on the page. This one’s been a toughie, and I’ve tried it three times. My first attempt was an illiterate dystopia where an old man found a book he couldn’t read. It spiralled very quickly, and I abandoned it at 600 words. My second attempt was about a haunted library, and that was a little better – I think I can rescue it for a short story – but it wasn’t good enough for this, and I hadn’t the heart to stick at it.

I have written a previous piece that fits this picture exactly, which doesn’t help. The abandoned library is a perfect representation of one of my Twitter shorts. Struggling to get that story out of my head, I posted it again in the hope of exorcising the blasted thing. It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 11.49.06

Having sent that back out into the big wide world, I did feel a little freer, but it wasn’t until I discussed the picture with Mon that I came up with my final idea. She imagined the books dropping away into nothingness, and that was the spark I needed. Time and time again, Mon reminds me of the stories I like to tell the most. She keeps me on track when I’m getting lost. With that image in my head, I sat down and wrote the final piece fairly quickly. It’s the middle of something much bigger, I think. I can see this growing into a novella or even a novel, given time. I’m not done with the characters.

Simon Hart found this one tricky, too, which is a relief. It’s taken both of us longer than the fortnight we’d agreed, but then, hell; we’re busy people. This is what Simon has to say about it:

“Well, it’s finally been written and this has been difficult! I saw the picture and thought it was interesting, suggested it and went ahead with it as the challenge piece… ignoring the fact I have written creatively about libraries before. What it has meant is that those pieces of work have been clamouring at my brain to be let out again. I have refused them, and eventually created this new poem, but not without help. The title and line relating to it come from my Dad pitching me a line far greater than anything my feable mind was coming up with, and I finished only because I cheated and read Simon’s excellent entry on the same photo. Cheers gents.”

Here’s Simon’s response to that troublesome picture:

Engines of Thought

by BigCharlie Poet

There were books strewn everywhere
Left without much apparent care
Though some were in bundles, others in stacks
Most were just left to cover the cracks
In the old dead library’s floor

The words on the pages, scattered like dust
Engines of thought now turned to rust
Childhood stories being lost by the hour
The Tempest losing so much of its power
From the old dead library’s floor

The shelves have been looted for perceived greater worth
And the paper that’s left returns to the earth
The knowledge inside no longer at hand
The words pour away like loose grains of sand
Through the old dead library’s floor

They once taught us magic, and fanciful tales
Told us stories of mad Captains hunting white whales
Taught that being obsessed was a kind of disease
That carried you away on angry dark seas
Not the old dead library’s floor

But now they do nothing, we won’t let them teach us
And where they sit they will struggle to reach us
Abandoned and now out of our sight
They are doomed to their own perpetual night
On the old dead library’s floor

And here’s my response:

Books Like Grains Of Sand

The creature stepped out of the darkness and into the candlelight. It was smaller and far slighter than Morag, and carried itself daintily, as though it was frightened of breaking a limb. Its tiny eyes were black pinheads in the cloth. It had a ragged hole for a mouth. It smelled like coal sheds.

It led her to a door.

“In here, my pet,” it lisped. When it talked, stuffing spilled from the corners of its mouth.

In jerky, spastic movements, it opened the door to the library, and daylight spilled into the gloom. Squinting in the light, Morag peered beyond the creature and saw a vast room. The floor was entirely carpeted in books. Books, books and more books, gathered in loose stacks, strewn by the dozen, piled up in the corners.

“All of them?” she whispered.

The creature’s smile wrapped around its head. Morag heard stitches popping as it grinned.

“All of them,” it said.

It turned the hourglass again, and the sand began to flow.

Morag slung her knapsack, took a deep breath and brushed past the creature into the library. She stumbled to the top of a nearby stack and surveyed the room. The door creaked shut behind her, and the creature’s smile receded to a single line as it melted into darkness.

She was alone in the library. Before her, books lay scattered in their thousands.

“But where to start?” she murmured.

She took a single step, and then she heard the slithering. It was so faint at first, ghostly whispers, but gathered to a rush. Morag scanned the room. The books in the middle were moving. They revolved, and more volumes fell inwards as they shifted, gathering momentum. They spiralled, forming a circle and starting to drop into the floor. It was spreading outwards, increasing speed. It was a whirlpool. With a jolt, the stack beneath her shifted, throwing her to the ground. Morag fell headlong into the torrent.

The daylight closed overhead, grey and fluttering with loose pages. Books battered and struck her as they ground and jumbled in the gyre. The movement was inexorable, dragging her down, dragging her into the centre. Her feet lost contact with the floor and then it all dropped away and Morag was falling, flying, plunging into nothing as the books tumbled all around her. She panicked, flailing and groping for contact, anything to arrest her fall. There was nothing to hold on to. The space beneath her and around her was empty entirely, a sea of nothingness stretching on forever. Books fell around her like rain, covers flapping and pages rippling. As they fell, Morag realised they looked exactly like the sand in the timer.

In a heartbeat, she remembered what Badger told her: about time. About the creature. About this place.

She took a deep breath, shut her eyes, and reached out. Her hand closed around a book. Still falling, she opened her eyes, and turned to the first page. Morag began to read.

Flash fiction challenge: The Cathedral

Simon Hart (a.k.a. BigCharlie Poet) and I have taken on a challenge. We thought we’d each try writing a piece inspired by the same picture and see what we came up with. We’ve had a week or so to work on something; Simon’s poem is called ‘Empty’, and my story is called ‘If All We Ever See Is Cathedrals’ (which I pinched from a Paddy Garrigan lyric I can’t stop thinking about). Paddy sort of makes an appearance in the story, too. Sorry, Paddy.

This is the picture, which I found on Pinterest:


And here’s Simon’s response to it:


by BigCharlie Poet

He stands alone inside the ruined shell
Watches the water flow in a place that once, he thinks, housed God as well
And he tries to convince himself that he is at peace
That he is free from everything, has achieved a release
From the torments of his daily life
The soul destroying work, the unfeeling distant wife
But there is a feeling he cannot seem to shake
Like someone is encouraging him to return to a state
Of conciousness, where he needs to open his eyes
Where he needs to breathe again, before his body dies
So he dulls the uncomfortable feeling by watching the water flow
Sees the plants as they find a way to grow
Through the abandoned cathedrals fallen floor
“Sam! Wake up…” this time he’s sure
That the prescence is more than just his mind
Is positive that someone is trying to find
A way to break into this place of calm
Where God heard raised to the Heavens many different psalms
“Open your eyes for me Sam!” he hears the voice again
And as he hears it, he notices the light shine through the pane
Of glass flash so brightly that it causes him to stumble
“C’mon Sam! Open those eyes” the voice now a calm but insistent rumble
The next flash of light brings a jolt to his chest
He sees briefly a world he thought he had left
He tries to return to where the calm water is flowing
But with each passing second he knows he is going
Back to a place he can’t seem to escape
He wakes to the question “Sam, what did you take?
What did you take, Sam? I need you to say,
Was it pills that made you this way?
If it was pills, can you give me a nod?”
And as his head moves he thinks, “why not this time, God?”

And here’s my response:

If All We Ever See Is Cathedrals

by Simon Sylvester

It was no more than a hairline, running between two tiles, but as the year progressed, the fracture spread into a delta and ran between the squares of the mosaic. Father Garrigan glared, then called in builders. They lifted the mosaic for restoration, and discovered a network of cracks hidden beneath the rotten grout. Upon closer examination, damage was found all over the cathedral. Uneven lines formed between the huge, half-ton coins that split the annex from the nave. By the end of that autumn, it became plain that the pillars were subsiding.

The Father stood in his cathedral, framed by the huge window arches. Surveyors and scaffolders scurried around him, making ruin of the House of the Lord. The cathedral was closed for a fortnight, and then for six months – and then for a year. Whenever repairs were completed, new faults were discovered. One night, while the foundations were being electronically monitored for vibrations, the floor fell in. Father Garrigan found the cathedral exposed from the sepulchre to the vaulted dome. There was a stream running directly through the building, bubbling up from between the broken flags. The cost of repair became prohibitive. The building was condemned and desanctified. The builders withdrew. The cathedral was abandoned.

With time, slates began to slide from the rafters and shatter on the rocks. Birds and bats roosted on the lip around the dome. A tapestry of moss explored the walls, creeping into alcoves where statues used to stand. The light shone green with algae, and the cathedral dreamed to the music of the stream. Everyone had gone.

Almost everyone had gone.

Louder than ever, now, Father Garrigan hears the voice of God. It echoes from the walls. It sounds like water, and it sounds like the wind. It sounds just a little like laughter.