Realpolitik and Paint

Amidst the backstage politicking of a mediaeval state Machiavelli sat for an official portrait.  He was poised, serious.  “How do I appear?” he asked the painter, who craned around the easel.

“Austere, astute,” the painter remarked.

“Very good,” whispered Machiavelli, barely moving his lips.

“Although… sometimes I long to stop painting surfaces,” the painter moaned.  “Imagine the art I could create if I captured the inner workings of a man for all to see – his beliefs, his conscience!”

“Pah!” Machiavelli almost cracked a smile.  “Then your canvases wouldn’t sell.  A conscience looks like vomit.  So, paint lies and get paid.”

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This piece of flash fiction was written for Friday Fictioneers: a story in 100 words prompted by a picture that Rochelle Wisoff-Fields posts every Wednesday. Here’s the link to the stories and this week’s picture is below, copyright Madison Woods.

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What Sparks

Everything hurt.  The sight stunned the boy and almost knocked him senseless.  His bones shook and his head span; his eyes watered and his skin flushed beneath the sudden flare-up of heat, then shrank under the icy blast of cold that immediately followed.  He stammered out incoherent words in an unending stream – was he trying to apologise for intruding?  He hadn’t meant to intrude.  Was he asking for help?  He wasn’t sure if he needed help.  Or was he trying to express wonder and welcome?

The angels watched him with unblinking eyes.  Their taloned hands clutched the branches of the trees and they hung there, gazing down.  The boy stared up at them and scanned their faces – he saw smiles and he saw frowns.  He wanted to run.

With an effort, the boy stopped himself from speaking that incoherent language he’d never heard in his life before.  At once, he regretted it; the silence that closed in around him felt fathomless and eerie.  Turning, cautiously, he made to go.  Home was nearby and he needed to get back there, but all the while his teary eyes stayed glued on the towering angels, searching for any hint of what to expect.

Seeing the boy’s intention to leave the angels launched into the sky, wings howling with every beat.  All the fields of Peckham Rye shimmered beneath their bright wings, bespangling the clouds like stars.  Dazed, the boy tripped and fell; scrambling along on his hands and knees, eyes clamped shut, he hurried on with his escape.

An oppressive burning smell choked the boy and brought him to a stop.  Sounds of scraping metal clanged heavily about.  Flinching, expecting some impact to come clattering down on his head, the boy’s eyes peeped open, anxiously.  Thick reams of smoke drifted across a landscape he didn’t recognise anymore.  Dense and tangled foliage blocked his path wherever he looked.  The air was cloying in his lungs, tasting sickly and decayed.  He gagged and, with an effort, found his feet again.

Bewildered, he pushed his way through the forest with difficulty.  The angels who had first awed him, then spooked him, were nowhere to be seen.  He scanned the sky for any sign of their blistering wings but it was still now, silent, and suddenly night.  The shadows engulfed the boy’s senses and swallowed him whole.  Arching above him, the symmetry of the bleached tree trunks formed a ribcage that locked him in; the black and orange leaves rustling as they knitted together, tighter and tighter, like a skin.

The boy ran wildly in circles, searching after an exit.  In his panic he tripped and fell over the dreadful heart that lay shrivelled and dormant on the forest floor.  At the impact a spark fizzed across its surface and made the blackened flesh glow red.  Thunderously, it started to beat.

From the dark sky spears of torrential rain flooded down.  The sound of roars filled the forest.  Blinded by confusion, tears streaming down his face, the boy turned and ran directly towards the source of the roaring and there found the only exit before it snapped shut at his heels.  Looking back over his shoulder as he sprinted towards safety he saw nothing but ravaging fires and teeth and claws.

But it was over – the fields of Peckham Rye loomed about him again, sedate and unchanged and welcoming him back.  Returning home with a dazed expression and blood caked on his hands and knees, his parents scolded him for the mess he’d gotten into.  The boy stammered as he tried to explain, tried reporting the tremendous vision he’d seen of bizarre flocks of angels that roosted in every bough.  At that his mother shook her head, sadly, while his father swore and grabbed the boy by the collar. Angrily, the old man said it was too much to stand and listen to those excuses, and it was only through his mother’s desperate intervention that he escaped being thrashed for telling lies.  He didn’t tell about the tyger yet.

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 This story was written in response to the yeah write challenge #176 – The following sentence must be the FIRST line in your submission: “Everything hurt.   You must also include a reference to the media prompt.

 

The other stories in the link-up can be read by clicking on the image below.

speakeasy 176

Football vs. Books

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Once you start publishing your writing, whether online or in book form, it’s only a matter of time until you’re asked about your influences.  Like most people I could happily ramble on for ages about writers and stories that have meant a lot to me, from Marvel comics to William Blake to Philip K. Dick, etc.  However, recently I realised that the first, and therefore founding, influence on my approach to writing arrived when I started watching Glenn Hoddle play football – he made me appreciate elegance of delivery, vision, invention, unexpectedness, poise.  To this day, when I set out to make sentences and stories those are the qualities I aim for.

 

In honour of this abiding influence on my creative instincts, it occurred to me that I should provide an entirely unique and unwanted service, i.e. to make football an absorbing, thought-provoking experience for creative writers whilst turning literature into a fist-pumping rollercoaster ride for football fans, with extensive footnotes.

And so –

In England the new Premier League season began at the weekend1.  It’s only fitting that the team whose adventures we will follow is not only Glenn Hoddle’s former team, but the most literary sounding of English football2 clubs: Tottenham Hotspur (aka “Spurs”).  Note the fine Shakespearean pedigree of the name Hotspur, and the competitive, medal-chasing spirit evinced by the character of that name in this line from Henry IV, Part 1:

“To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon”3

It should be noted, however, that despite the Shakespearean allusions of the name, Spurs of late is a club that evokes nothing so much as a desperate, parodic and hysteria-tinged, version of the condensed works of Jane Austen: always chasing, with panting breast and flushed cheek, after an elusive and shadowy Mr Right who will offer a stable home, steady income, and shining trinkets that will allow the blushing bride to meet the eye of the unbearably snooty neighbours, proudly and without demur.  The latest Mr Darcy wannabe is a smouldering Argentinian gentleman by the name of Mauricio Pochettino.

Jane Austen's crush

Jane Austen’s crush

Daniel Levy's crush

Daniel Levy’s crush

 

Match Report –

West Ham United vs. Tottenham Hotspur (Saturday 16th August)

The 2014-15 season began with the first London derby of the campaign, adding the antagonism of local rivalry4 to an already crucial5 fixture.  Before kick-off Upton Park, the home of West Ham, rang out as always with a cacophony of song:

“I’m forever blowing bubbles

Pretty bubbles in the air,

They fly so high,

Nearly reach the sky,

Then like my dreams,

They fade and die.”6

And on that ringing, teary, yet celebratory note the referee7 blew his whistle and the match kicked-off8.

Match Highlights –

Kyle Naughton of Spurs is Franz Kafka’s “K” sent tumbling into the world of professional sport.  Each time he takes his place on a football pitch I see the bewildered attitude of a man who has no understanding of the nameless forces that dictate his appearance in that location at that time.  Clearly, there are rules that govern his being there but of these he seems to have no real comprehension; pained and perplexed by the withholding of this knowledge, so crucial to his wellbeing and sense of self, he struggles desperately for ninety minutes to find an exit from his excruciating predicament.  Yesterday K’s predicament was ended mercifully early by his being shown a red card and sent off9.

This meant that Spurs were down to ten men and at the mercy of their opponents, who still fielded eleven players10.  But luck was with Spurs on this occasion.

Sam Allardyce, the West Ham manager11, boasts an approach to football that Hemingway would consider overly concerned with the attributes of machismo, physicality, guts – his players are locked in an unyielding, elemental struggle with the opposition, with the forces of nature itself, in a brutal duel that leaves only one still standing. In fact, if Allardyce could slip eleven football shirts onto eleven rampaging bulls and send them onto the pitch on match day, in some bizarre re-mix of Death in the Afternoon, it would pretty much constitute the team of his dreams.

This approach to the game naturally lends itself to rough and illegal play, to countless fouls being committed12 and red cards being shown by the referee.  So it was that a West Ham player was also soon pulped and the match was played out as ten versus ten.

The match descended into a repetitive mishmash of misplaced passes and players running into dead-ends, like one of Gertrude Stein’s dispiriting modernist experiments with cubist prose.

Finally, however, in the third minute of added time13, Eric Dier sprinted into space from the Spurs defence.  Rounding the hopelessly exposed West Ham goalkeeper, Dier slotted home on his competitive debut and was immediately pronounced the latest in a long line of would-be boy wizards at White Hart Lane.  Sadly, in the real world, and even in the utterly unreal world of Premier League football, such magical triumphs tend to be fleeting, soon forgotten.  Meanwhile, another long day’s journey into Thursday night Europa League qualification awaits Spurs over the season ahead.

Final score: West Ham United 0 : 1 Tottenham Hotspur.

 

Footnotes –

1 – This equates to the publication of an all-new blockbuster saga by the most stellar name in publishing: “Bigger, better, brasher – more irresistible than ever before!”  As the blurb would unfailingly have it.

2 – i.e. “soccer” in those parts of the world with curious notions about what constitutes “football.”

3 – The meaning of this particular line of verse was better rendered by a former Spurs captain and poet laureate of White Hart Lane, Danny Blanchflower, who pithily pronounced: “The game is about glory.”

4 – Think of Hachette vs. Amazon.

5 – Hyperbole is the lingua franca of all sports writing and is especially true in the case of football.

6 – Readers will of course note the fatalistic romanticism that is the default emotional setting for the English football fan, making the stadiums of England the rightful home to the spirit of the Lyrical Ballads.

7 – The editor of the text, always attempting to excise the bad and promote the good, although often succeeding in achieving the exact opposite.

8 – Page 1 of the story is begun.

9 – The reviews are in, and so overwhelmingly negative that the entire print run is pulped.

10 – The Spurs chapter has pages missing, while the West Ham chapter still has all its pages.

11 – The team’s author.

12 – Bad grammar, essentially.

13 – Having already finished the last page you then decide to go back and reread it from half-way down.

Hippy Trippy Schadenfreude

Inhale.

“Assembly line of existence whirring on and on, units of humanity rising and falling along the way – punching in, punching out, punching in, punching out…”

“Whole cosmos embraced mass production and planets end up consumed like all the rest.”

“Oh man, homo consumeia!”

“Henry Ford!  See his beady little eyes seething, glaring out from the grill of that old abandoned truck that stinks like piss and depleted ozone.”

“Yeah.  Weeds and thorns and nettles sprouting up inside his entrails.  Gnawing family of rodents burrowing deep, deep, making their home inside his rectum.”

“Karma’s a bitch.  Love it!”

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This piece of flash fiction was written for Friday Fictioneers: a story in 100 words prompted by a picture that Rochelle Wisoff-Fields posts every Wednesday. Here’s the link to the stories and this week’s picture is below, copyright Roger Bultot.

parked (1)

Have You Seen the Rain?

“After I killed my father it got easier, it made sense.”  There was the merest crinkle of a smile playing on her lips as she gazed out of the ornate window, where the rumbling clouds flashed with sheets of lightning in the distance.  “The storm will arrive here next,” she added, to no purpose.

“Miss Harbinger,” the doctor said, kindly.  “Estelle.  May I call you Estelle?”

“If you must.  I never liked the name.  But it is my name, after all.”

“Estelle, you’ve killed no one.  No one has been killed here.  You’re simply distressed, over-tired.  You need bed rest for the next several days.  I will prescribe sleeping tablets and your family will see that you receive the very best care.  Soon this will all be forgotten.”

“I see,” she turned sharply to face him, turning her back on the window and the vast estate outside.  “You think I’m a spoiled heiress with nothing better to do than tell lies and invent murder mysteries.”

“No, I’m sure that you’re not deliberately telling lies, Estelle.  Young persons of your station in life, when they reach maturity and begin to realise the responsibilities they will shortly face, well, it can be bewildering, overwhelming.”

“Of course.  Why is Dr Newson not here, prescribing pills for me?  He’s our usual doctor.  He always cared for me before.  And he cared for mother on her deathbed.”

“Yes, Dr Newson and I are different.”

“How?”

“I’m a specialist.”

“Explain.”

“I’m… a psychiatrist.”

“Hooray,” she clapped her hands.  “So, I am being taken seriously at last.”

“Naturally, everyone views this… episode in an extremely serious, though sympathetic, light.  Your family is concerned about you, rightly so.  But, you have to understand it was your father who called me in to see you, Estelle.  He wants you to feel better, as do we all.”

“Oh, no.”

“You believe there’s a plot against you?”

“No, it wasn’t my father who called you in.  That would be a paradox – is that the right word, paradox? – if my father called you in to treat me with your pills and such because I happen to have killed my father.  You see the problem with the logic of that?”

“Estelle…” his reassuring words faltered and he flinched as a flash of lightning struck directly overhead, the crack of thunder rattling the furniture.  Hard rain could be seen and heard slanting down.  “Mr Harbinger…”

“Is irrelevant.”

“Now, Estelle!” he practically raised his voice, even if she was his patient, and an heiress.

“Mother explained it all to me on her deathbed, in private: our entire family lineage and what it all means.  It was… ‘such a chain of travesty and scorn and judgement,’ she said.  It haunted me to see her like that.  It isn’t what she deserved.  But… have you seen the rain?”  She crinkled that smile at him again.

“Terrible,” he frowned, as he strolled across the plush conservatory towards the window.  “I have to try to drive back into town through that godforsaken storm.  It’ll be a struggle to see more than half a dozen yards ahead.  The rain looks so dirty today.”

“Red.”

“Pardon?”

“Go closer to the window pane.  It isn’t dirty rain; it’s red.”

“But…”  Leaning nearer to the window, his breath made the glass mist up.  He wiped the pane clear with squeaky fingers.  “How would it…?”

“You see, Mr Harbinger is not my father,” she added, casually, as she joined him by the window.  “It took me so long to meet my father.  I searched and searched, ever since mother died, raving and eaten away as she was at the end.  But I was determined.  I inherit that from her, along with so much else.  And finally the search was fruitful.  I invited father here.  No, I lured him here.  This estate is a tempting lure.  It’s so tempting that he decided to remain here as a guest, today, tomorrow, always.  I lodged him in the guttering that runs above this room.  Gutters are where he belongs.  It’s his blood you can see now, streaming down the glass in that red rain that’s got you so bewildered, overwhelmed.”

“No, Estelle, that can’t be…”

“Psychiatrists are a lot like fathers, too,” she said and slashed the blade across his throat; still slashing as he crumpled at her feet, until her arm grew sore.

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This story was written in response to the yeah write challenge #175 – This week’s optional prompt is: Have you ever seen the rain?  The other stories in the link-up can be read by clicking on the image below.

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