Category Archives: Short Stories

Lockdown Fiction: The Symphony of Love (or Screw You, Vivien)

I’m back at the Improbable Press fiction prompt coalface, last week urged on by the words ‘A broken instrument’, ‘single’ and some pictures. The broken instrument made me think of how PG Wodehouse is always quoting Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Idylls of the King about ‘the rift within the lute’. And so, here we are.

Pop over to Improbable Press and try your hand at the prompts. It’s a great way to get the brain moving.

The Symphony of Love
(or Screw You, Vivien)

It’s a pretty phrase, the rift within the lute. It sounds minor and musical.

It is the little rift within the lute
That by and by will make the music mute
And ever widening slowly silence all

And there’s the terror in it. That music will lose its voice. That our music will lose its voice. That will we lose each other. Because of a tiny crack, some inconsequential, infinitesimal hair fracture, we will be rendered voiceless, silent, alone, singularly single and bereft.

Tennyson was writing about Vivien seducing and imprisoning Merlin. Manipulating him so he’d teach her spells. And trust me not at all or all in all.

What bullshit.

Be perfect or be done.

The slightest disagreement is the end of everything.

What utter bullshit.

I’m not a lute, made for just one purpose, with one kind of voice. You’re not my minstrel, made to play me only just so. Nor, of course, the other way around.

We are, both of us, an orchestra and also the symphony. We are the conductor and the first violin and the one who hits the triangle; we are brass and wood and wind and wire. We change as we play the music of our lives – the same song never sounds the same twice; the same instruments make different music over and over. We’re the silence between notes, too.

And if our lute sometimes has a little rift in it, if our orchestra pauses, if our song sometimes stumbles and isn’t always harmonious.

Well. We’ll find new notes, and sing again.

We’re as mutable as rain on glass, shiny as diamonds, with as many facets.

Screw you, Vivien.

Lockdown Fiction: The Dancing Bees

Improbable Press’s latest prompt included bees, and then I thought of that old tradition that the bees must be told when their keeper dies. And then I thought of Sherlock Holmes being away during WWI as a spy. And then I thought of John Watson. And then I thought of this.

The Dancing Bees

It is spring and we bees work, we fly, we gather pollen for our colony, for our queen.  We nourish, we protect, we select and serve our queen.

Our Keeper is away and in his stead, his own worker-drone-queen protects the colony.

The wingless four-limbs are nothing like the hive; and our Keeper and the Other are sometimes like a bee, sometimes like the flowers. We know, from springs and summers and some sunny autumn days that they have stamens, and pollen, which they gather or sometimes let fall to earth (though no new flower ever grows from this seed).

Our Keeper and His Other are not like bees at all, and for many turns of the sun now, our Keeper has been gone.

Soon, soon, His Other will come to tell us. He will keep the tradition.

He will tell the bees that our Keeper is dead.

We are puzzled that he has not already done so. His Other sits wilted among us, many days. He Keeps us as our Keeper would, with faith though less skill. He sighs our Keeper’s name among the hives.

“Sherlock misses you.”

The Other means that he misses our Keeper too. We know this. He sighs. He wilts. Sometimes he leaks, wet salt on his face. This leaking he shares not with other wingless ones, but only with his fellow workers (fellow drones, fellow Queen; our Keeper mates with him, so the Other is maybe a Queen; or maybe our Keeper is the Queen of his colony-of-two. As we say, the four-limbs are peculiar and will not succumb to correct roles).

We the bees know that far away is danger. Dances waggled from the unfathomable distance tell us.  The dances come from the colonies near the stone hive, which is clustered by the river up north and filled with four-limb drones and workers (and a male Queen; we will never fathom them at all). The stone hive is smashed by falling black clouds, and the air is filled with dust and great cries. Such danger!

Our Keeper is in the danger, further even than the stone hive; across the Great Salt Wet. He told us before he left, that he would fly far, so far, to gather strange pollens, to waggle the dance of its knowledge to his Male Queen and the Drones and Workers of the stone hive.

We miss our Keeper. His Other misses him. We wait for the telling. For word that it is time to Farewell the Keeper with the solemn, grave dance of goodbye.

Here he comes today, the Other. Today he comes to tell us, and become our new Keeper.

Take courage, Dear New Keeper.

He walks on his two back limbs (so ungainly, more than ever today, poor unbalanced drone-worker-queen without his Keeper. He will Keep us now our First Keeper is gone, but who will Keep him now?)

His Sorrowing Other comes to wilt and sigh and leak among us today.

But no! The Other sorrows not, though he leaks and sighs. He does not wilt. He stands tall as a tree, that little hedge upon his face stretches happy with his mouthpart.

“He’s coming home. The war is over and he’s done his part, and Sherlock is coming home. Today, tonight, soon! By God, he’s coming back to me. To us. Sherlock is coming home!”

He sits among the hives, a flower waiting for the sun to shine on him; waiting for his drone-worker-queen to gather his pollen; waiting to be whole with his colony-of-two once more.

Around him, we bees dance, we waggle the news to all our kin and to our queen: Our Keeper returns!

No need for the Goodbye dance now, no. Today we dance a greeting, and rise up in a cloud as we see him arrive through the garden gate. His Other rises with us, and walks, then runs (unbalanced still, his hind limbs stiff with age and with sitting) to his Keeper.

Like bee to pollen, like flower to sun, like the colony to the hive he goes, they go, and embrace, and we dance, we dance, for our Hive is whole again.

Lockdown Fiction: Stand LIke Stone

This week’s prompt from Improbable Press made me think of Australian poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon, and how I’ve often wished there had been somebody to rescue him.

Gordon’s poems are generally much more glum than his most famous few lines suggest, but I’m glad he’s known best for the hope than the despair.

Stand Like Stone

Cal knew it wasn’t done to climb statues, but he did it anyway, there in the middle of a Melbourne night. The metal was cold – colder than the night itself – but Cal was so cold already it hardly mattered.

Being held, or at least holding someone, that’s what mattered. Months of alone, months barred from touch. Months in an inverted world.

His chest ached and his breath wheezed on the ascent, but he made it.

Some joker had attached a mask to the statue’s face. Adam Lindsay Gordon, bush poet, his noble features concealed behind the message: breath was dangerous, lately. Cover up, protect yourself, protect others.

Gordon’s statue depicted him sitting loosely in a chair, the accoutrements of his riding days underneath the chair, a pen in one hand, a book in the other, his index finger marking a page. On the verge of writing another poem.

Poetry had been the death of him. The printing debts, and the acquired brain injury of one fall too many from the saddle.

Cal sat in Adam Lindsay Gordon’s lap and leaned his head against the metal folds of his shirt. Cal was still cold on the outside, but he felt warmer inside, and he recited his favourite of Gordon’s lines.

Life is mainly froth and bubble
Two things stand like stone
Kindness in another’s trouble
Courage in your own.

Clumsily, Cal removed Adam’s mask and fixed it on his own face. It was a kindness in others’ trouble; it was courage in his own. Homeless, hungry, haunted. But he could do this. Protect others. Protect himself.

‘You all right up there, son?’

Cal, cradled in metal arms, looked down towards the face looking up at him. A man in a puffy coat, a beanie pulled over his ears. A big fellow, with broad shoulders and big arms. Masked.  Maybe like a bandit; or like a superhero. Hard to tell which these days.

Cal coughed behind the mask, a nasty, chesty cough.

‘Do you have a home to go to?’

Cal shook his head and coughed again, a terrible fit of it that left him exhausted. He leaned against Adam Lindsay Gordon’s solid torso and closed his eyes.

‘How about we get you somewhere warm?’

Cal was surprised the man was still there. Coughing fits were a sure way to clear a bench, a room, a whole fucking side street these days.

‘I’m sick,’ Cal said.

‘I’ve already had it,’ said the big man. ‘You shouldn’t be out here in the cold.’

‘Nobody wants me,’ said Cal, and wheezed again. ‘I’m not safe.’

The big man didn’t ask why, so Cal didn’t have to tell him about the shouting at home, the hitting, being trapped indoors with a father who hated the difference in his son, who was mainly only different to him. There were loads of people just like Cal, really, out in the world. There was nothing wrong with him, really, except, of course, for the obvious.

‘Come on. Let me take you somewhere warm.’

Cal peered over Adam Lindsay Gordon’s arms to the big man. His eyes had adjusted to the gloom and dear god, the man was huge. Like a bear. Like a statue come to life. His eyes seemed kind, but Cal had been fooled by kind eyes before.

On the other hand, here he was, sitting in the arms of a statue, waiting to die of cold and loneliness. Might as well take a punt. Courage, Adam Lindsay Gordon urged. Maybe the bear man would be kind.

Cal tried to climb down again, but a coughing fit seized him. The mask protected the Bear Man but made it harder for Cal to catch his breath.

But then the Bear Man climbed up the statue too, and helped Cal. Arms around that thick neck, across those broad shoulders. Bear Man was warm, the heat soaking into Cal’s chest and belly and it made him want to cry.

‘Hold tight. Here we go.’

The bandit/superhero reached the ground again and scooped Cal into his arms.

‘You’ll be safe with me, I promise,’ he said to Cal, walking across the park to the blocks of flats on the opposite side of the park. ‘We’ll get you fed and warm and work out if I should take you to hospital.’

Cal should have had an opinion, but all he felt was safe as this stranger took him home and wrapped him in a doona and gave him soup and pillows and paracetamol and care.

Then there was sleep, deep and long, and fourteen days in isolation, during which Cal learned he had a chest infection but not a virus, that some people really were as kind as they looked, and that the hero-bandit’s name was Adam.

Of course, Cal thought, smiling. Of course the strongest, safest arms he knew belonged to Adam.

Lockdown Fiction: The Only Daughter of Time

Here we are again, with a story prompted by the Improbable Press blog. It seems my mind lately is rather fixated on metamorphis.

The Only Daughter of Time

The sun blazed hot outside but within the colonnade the air was cool and fresh. Outside smelled of hot dust; inside of earthy stone and antiquity. Ruins, partially reconstructed for the delight of the tourists, made them all feel small in the scheme of time, large in their self-estimation. They had lived to see these sights, and had the gumption to travel far to places where habits, beliefs, language, all different.

Excited travel chatter faded and the group stood in the cool stone cocoon and gazed up, up, up at the paint that clung, centuries later, to the ceiling. Ochre reds and pale greens, the hint of yellow and, in one large, stubborn patch, a blue ground from lapis lazuli made a faux sky on the stone that blocked the real sky.

Ameenah sneezed into the silence, mucus membranes agitated beyond endurance by the colour blue. The floral origin was neither here nor there. Ameenah was allergic to blueberries, blue skies, the blue moon, the Moody Blues. Blue got right in amongst her cells and niggled till she sneezed. Every. Goddamned. Time.

Dr Mason, back home in London, insisted the allergy was psychosomatic. Ameenah insisted that her imagination had never been that vivid, let alone powerful enough to actually manifest sinus pain, irritated nasal passages and actual snot.

Ameenah, sneezing, as remarked, into the silence, and the explosion of it bounced off the marble walls and around the pillars and from the stone floor to carved ceiling and all in all, there was nothing discreet about it.

A tiny flake of blue split away from the ceiling, and another, and a third: drifting down like falling ash.


                 onto Ameenah’s red-eyed face. A flake into her left eye, a flake onto her lip (and licked unconsciously away) and a flake below her nose so that when the next sneeze began, she inhaled it sharply into her sinus cavity.

Blue. Right there. In the centre of all the trouble.

Ameenah, who was not a believer in crystals, was not aware that lapis lazuli was associated with self-knowledge, with intuition, and with past lives.

Well, not to begin with.

But as she stood on the flagstones, blue in her nose, in her eyes, on her tongue, a much older part of her self turned over. The blue that invaded her body woke up sleeping knowledge and woke up the blue in her blood and the blue of her skin.

The sleeping part of her blinked, took a deep, deep breath and …

Maat, Goddess of Truth, awoke.

Ameenah was not, it turned out, allergic to blue.

Truth had just been waiting for the right blue to rise up.

La verità fu sola figliola del tenpo.
Truth was the only daughter of Time.

~ Leonardo Da Vinci, from original manuscript “Moto, colpo