The Ice Queen Goes to the Basement

My playing around with flash fiction continues. Here is another rough draft that I wrote at the Flash Fiction Festival. Other people were churning out very polished, very accomplished pieces of work but mine needs lot of editing.

The Ice Queen was still quite tall and stately, although descriptions such as portly also might come to mind. She continued to sweep her train majestically through corridors and long ballrooms, although the hems were collecting more and more dust. And, of course, she was still the world’s undisputed champion at standing still, perfectly poised in front of the piano. She leafed through her immaculate collection of musical notes and cast aside any that were too overtly sentimental. She curled her lip sardonically at some of the titles, ignored those that were too agitated.

No one was there, of course, to listen to her playing, but standards had to be maintained.

What followed next, however, did surprise her.

It was not so much that she could detect noise through the floorboards, as a sort of rise in temperature. Quickening of muffled heartbeats, a sudden surge in energy. She pressed her Ice Queen palms to her Ice Queen ears and cheeks in an effort to cool down. But heat was calling to heat. Her earlobes were incandescent. She discovered she had no desire to play any music. She had to go downstairs to investigate.

Contrary to expectations, the cellar was not dark and damp. It had been painted in high reflective white, all the furniture was pale. Artificial light bounced off each and every one of its sharp corners. The floor was opaque milky glass. One slip and you were sprawled. But the Ice Queen could still sweep into such a room with her high heels, and glare at the writhing tangle of naked human bodies she found there.

‘Off with their heads!’ She whispered, and her whisper was all hiss and cold fury.

But the snaky arms beckoned, invited her into the warm sea of want. The pulsing chests offered blissful shade from the harsh strobe lights. How much longer would she be able to resist that invitation?

The Snow Queen. From “Andersen’s Fairy Tales” illustrated by Artuš Scheiner (1934)
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The Past Has a Name and Always Catches Up with Us

A little piece of flash fiction today, inspired by a prompt during one of the workshops at the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol earlier this year.

His voice preceded him.

‘Ain’t this just the quaintest place? Is it Hogwarts or what? Look, it’s even got the date written on the frontispiece or whatever you call ‘em bits.’

‘Bet they don’t have air-conditioning in this old pile of stones, eh? … Mind the step, honey, can’t be having you spraining your pretty ankle, Mary Lou.’

Only then did he materialise in the doorway. He had lost some hair and put on weight, but it matched the Hawaiian shirt he was wearing. His clothes were trying just a little too hard, I thought. Birkenstocks and bermudas, a red bandana knotted carelessly around his sunburnt neck, as if it had just fallen from his head while playing a particularly tricky guitar solo. He still clicked his fingers when he expected everyone to burst out laughing at his jokes.

He was surrounded, as always, by a gaggle of ladies. This time they were elderly and American, to match his newfound accent. They followed his every move with the requisite giggles, gasps and applause. He was their tour guide, their leader, their go-to person. As he had once been for us.

Flash Fiction Festival Bristol 2018

In sharp contrast to the previous weekend, which was dedicated to plumbing, mopping, fridge replacement and the like, this weekend was spent in the luscious surroundings of Trinity College Bristol at the second annual Flash Fiction Festival in the UK. This is an event created by the energetic and benevolent Jude Higgins, who is a writing tutor for flash fiction at Bath Spa University and co-runs the Bath Short Story and Flash Fiction Awards.

I took lots of pictures, but they seem to have disappeared on the way from my mobile phone to my One Drive, so you will have to make do with the small amount below and believe me when I say it was the most peaceful environment high on Stoke Hill in an old manor house (now a training seminary for the Church of England) which appeared in a Turner watercolour at some point.

The Flash Fiction community is a tight-knit one, and everyone seemed to know each other, but were also very welcoming to newbies like myself. I volunteered to help out during the festival, so had the privilege of setting out sumptuous lunches such as these.

The workshops were on a variety of topics, reflecting the rich diversity of the form itself. Almost anything goes with flash fiction: from novella-in-flash, to historical flash, to science-fiction and humorous. In contrast to other literary events I’ve attended, I noticed that flash fictioneers always have a very quick comeback, a witty turn of phrase. I struggled to keep up: I was barely warming up in the writing exercises and they would come up with a piece that sounded very polished. Perhaps it’s like sprinting vs. long distance running. Here, it was all about the twist and the word play – perhaps because they have to condense such a lot, that every word counts. It’s also a way of observing the world: minute details yet very elliptical, leaving a lot out. I also noticed a lot of second person being used in the flashes, which probably would have become wearisome in a longer piece.

Peaceful morning hours before the onslaught of flash fictioneers.

Although I found it difficult to produce something immediately based on workshop prompts, they did plant some seeds which I am going to grow and experiment with. The satisfying thing with flash fiction is that it doesn’t take up too much of your time, so you feel free to experiment more than you might with a novel. The workshops I attended were Dreams into Fiction with Jude Higgins (which led to a triptych of flashes about the Ice Queen going to the basement), a comparison between prose poetry and flash fiction with the enthusiastic and funny Carrie Etter and Michael Loveday (which felt a lot more comfortable and familiar to me as a poet), Vanessa Gebbie on the Weird and Wonderful, Writing Funny Fiction with Meg Pokrass and Jude Higgins was hilarious (although it did make me feel slightly inadequate), a visualisation workshop with Karen Jones (which opened me up to some very unexpected ideas and feelings, but also might lead to 1-2 pieces of flash fiction, Extraordinary Points of View with American poets and professors of creative writing John Brantingham and Grant Hier. I ended up with quite a few books, as you might expect, and wished I could have attended more of the parallel sessions, although my brain would not have thanked me for it!

There were also plenty of readings, book launches, and an opportunity to connect with publishers and magazines that were previously only half-known to me, such as V Press, Ellipsis, Molotov Cocktail and the National Flash Fiction Day anthologies.

Meg Pokrass reading from her new collection Alligators at Night.

Although there were lots of breaks in-between sessions, allowing us time to talk, have coffee and cake, wander around the grounds and generally recharge our batteries, I have to admit I felt exhausted by the end of the weekend. And I don’t think it was just because of all the running around that you have to do as a volunteer, but because of the density of information and ideas that you are taking in all the time. However, it was fascinating to connect with people who were so generous with their time and explained patiently the ‘rules’ of flash fiction to me. I am certainly planning to try it out more in the future. And possibly attend again next year!

Flash Fiction: Pied Piper

A piece of flash fiction for a change. One that I was going to submit for Crimefest Bristol’s competition, but they didn’t have one this year. I want to spend more time exploring this genre, which, like poetry, feels slightly more manageable and portable at this moment in time.

She kicked off her high heels as soon as she got home.

They were well-organised, she had to give them that. They’d been correct in every detail but one. The venue, the target, the weapon. What a shame about the timing! Security details were vague the world over. She was to stay behind the front row, cotton gloves neatly buttoned, the pie hidden by her large handbag. It had been prepared with care, Hamelin vertical fluting on the edges. It looked almost too appetising to waste.

Security ploy or not, his arrival was more than a little delayed. The cream was in danger of turning in the heat, her right hand had started to tremble under the weight. A tiny bead of sweat ran down her forehead and salted her eye.

Then he finally emerged from the limo, all portly disdain, though few would have guessed it. High-colour in his cheeks, a genial smile, shaking hands, relieved at the lack of kissable babies. She had to be patient a little longer. No point in rushing things and getting custard all over his suit and possibly her own.

She lunged forward in the only possible split-second and aimed straight at his face.

Of course she was promptly restrained and escorted off the premises. She knew they feared her yelling out any awkward questions in front of reporters. They were only too happy to see the back of her.  No matter.  She’d seen his surreptitious lick at the corners of his mouth. The greedy rat! She’d seen him wipe off the viscous slow-acting poisonous mixture with bare hands.

She sat down to do her mission report and invoices.

Custard pie, from Kraft Recipes.

The Clock Strikes Twelve

I’m a novice to flash fiction, but have been fascinated with it for the past few months. I’m still not sure I understand the principles. Be gentle with my experiments.

I need to count each chime with my chin up, looking straight ahead, because if I look to the right… the monster might sneak in. The corner of the left of the eye down and under. My greatest fear: missing a chime. All twelve to surround, all twelve to protect.

Then I can wash my hands. Just like my mother taught me as a child, with plenty of suds, not forgetting to scrub between the fingers, above the wrist. You never know where I have been, where you have been. What toil and soil we may have seen. Rinse three times, not a sud to linger. I catch a glimpse of the back of your head in the mirror and I long to touch and unfurl that sweet tendril, the one still moist from earthly exertion. The one that keeps you from being an angel divine.

But then I would have to wash my hands again. Perhaps even wash my mouth out with soap. Oh, the synapses that fire too soon, extend so much further than you could ever want.

We sit down to eat. I dare not touch much, but I can examine each morsel passing your lips. How the red chard leaf ondulates with your tongue, how the beans fall from your fork, how you cut and spear artichoke hearts, not just mine. You lick your lips before and after you drink; your glass glistens with pearl droplets. I count each one, but then you trail your thumb down from rim to bottom. You leave marks too light for memory, too deep for forgetfulness.

Not Roses, Obviously

I shouldn’t have come here really. I had no intention of walking this far. Haven’t got a clue how I’m going to get back home before dark, either. But isn’t this picture-postcard cottage worth the long trek and so much more? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place as quaint and welcoming as this one. The faded red brick, the white paintwork, the upper windows twinkling in the sunset. The bottom two windows seem to be hugging the front door, while those climbing flowers embrace them all.

What do they call those flowers? Not roses, obviously. I do know those.  But I’ve never been very good with more complicated plant names. Aren’t they just the most gorgeous shade of lilac? And don’t they fill the whole earth with the scent of early summer and the promise of things to come?

I can’t wait.

I measure out three steps to one side of the gate, three to the other. Counting calms me down, gives me something to do. I remind myself to stand tall. I have to slow down, keep my distance, remember to breathe. I close my eyes and try to take in all the sounds, the warmth, the aroma of this perfect evening.

So what if I am not wanted here…

Flee the Fire

So no, if you scratch me, I will not bleed. If you stab my heart, your knife will splinter on sheer flint. The calamine-soaked bandages sticking to the pus of my burn wounds neither hurt nor soothe me. I’ve been burning since the night I forgot to check on Freddie. Hell is the only place for me and I dare not leave it any time soon.

The forest fires in Canada may no longer be in the news, but they are still raging (although some rain is making the firefighters’ work slightly easier). That will be a post for another day, about the shortlasting visbility of news stories…