Richard

I haven’t used my feet for centuries – I find they are no longer attached to my mortal remains – and it is amazing how my back has cleared up. Divorced from my spine, I am released from the affliction that caused me so much pain.   The agony I faced on a daily basis affected my temperament; I know it did, and so I prayed and prayed for a clear mind when it came to policy-making and affairs of both the state and the heart.

Now, I am as free as the air. I roam around this city of Leicester, marvelling at the changes and the expansion of its borders. The people here too are unrecognisable to me, and it is not just their strange attire with its symbols and names that I know not. Their complexions are of the widest range of hues imaginable and they speak tongues I have never heard in England. They are lining the streets as horses pull my remains on a bier. Some of them throw roses – white ones, of course. It is a touching tribute.

I am feted, it appears, centuries after my murder. I am the last king to die in battle. What a cossetted bunch must have followed me! Dying safely in their beds! Weaklings! I overcame my physical deficiencies and redoubled my efforts – I had more to prove and everything to lose.

And I lost it.

And then, my humble grave, defiled! My remains pored over and analysed by quacks and charlatans. And a descendent appears! With my sister’s blood in his veins but none of my courage, it would seem, and nothing of my will to succeed. He is no leader of men.

What has happened to my country, and to its people? Where is their fire? And where is their piety? Their church is diluted, fragmented and irrelevant. Are they prepared to burn for their beliefs? Do they believe in anything at all?

And a hollow show follows as my remains are sent back to the soil. I am an attraction, a curiosity to bring people to the town to spend their pennies and say they were there. Where is the honour in that? It is hardly Bosworth Field.

But for me there is no eternal rest. I am bound to this Earth just as a tree is fixed to the ground. I am doomed to roam, to hear my name blackened and my defenders derided. I am doomed to spend forever in Leicester, forever avoiding the shades of two little boys who seek me in the darkness. I cannot face their angelic countenances. I cannot bear to hear them crying, over and over into the night, Why, Uncle, why?

King_Richard_III

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Making Sacrifices

I wish I had not been called to this exalted position. Mind you, it has kept me alive for decades longer than my contemporaries. They were all bled years ago, their entrails fried and their bones pulverised. I would have undoubtedly met the same fate because I was not built to be a warrior. I had no proficiency with the hammer and chisel and so I could not be a stonemason, carving effigies and tributes to the mighty Quetzalcoatl – glory on his name! I would most definitely have been altar-fodder, like the others from my region.

But instead, the High Priest took a shine to me. He kept me apart from the others and spared me the narcotic in my maize, the drug that makes the chosen ones compliant and subdued. Like cattle strolling off to slaughter.

He taught me the mysteries of his role. I was his apprentice. There was a lot to learn. And every night, I had to sharpen the great stone daggers in readiness for the dawn sacrifices.

I saw hundreds of young men come and go. The honour of their selection meant their families would eat well. For about a week – after which, they would have to try to survive with one less mouth to feed, but also one less pair of hands to till the soil and reap the harvest. They arrived awestruck by the palace – although they saw precious little of it, confined to quarters that are only one step up from dungeons. The drugging begins at once; any insurrection is quickly quelled and quashed. Only the willing will give up their hearts to Quetzalcoatl (glory on his name!).

But now, as I scan the cartloads of new arrivals, seeking out an apprentice of my own, I question the whole gory business – and not for the first time. It does not seem to do any good, this bloodshed on the grand scale. The crops are never more bountiful. The wars are no easier to win. And the Emperor is insatiable in his quest for victory, his hunger for power. He sips wine thickened with the blood of the innocent and feasts on bread made from the flour of their bones. I am quite sure he is insane.

But what can I do? As High Priest serving Quetzalcoatl (glory to his etc etc) it behoves me to carry out the grisly task, the ritualised massacre of so many of our nation’s youth. I am as trapped in the tradition as any of the hapless victims who prostrate themselves across my slab. And all I can do is to try to be as quick and efficient as I can, like a fisherman’s wife gutting a catch; I strike just beneath the rib cage, slicing once! twice! so the guts tumble out like a nest of snakes and then I reach in and pull, ripping out the heart and holding it aloft. If there is a beat of two still left in it, this is regarded as a propitious omen. I have learned how to make them jiggle on the palm of my hand – There is no shortage of propitious omens.

But still, nothing gets better. Nothing ever gets better.  And the populace is told they must face yet more cuts.

And I tire of the whole squalid business. Let Quetzalcoatl (blah blah blah) find his own bloody victims. If there is such an entity as Quetzalcoatl. I have serious doubts.

A trumpet blares, calling the people to the foot of the ziggurat. And I must get to work. It is not the work of appeasing a god; it is the work of keeping the Emperor on his golden throne.

If I am to keep my head upon my shoulders, I have to swallow my qualms and ignore my queasiness and suppress my questions.

At least I can take pride in my stone blades. I keep them nice and sharp.

Quetzalcoatl_magliabechiano

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Worried about Tommy

I am worried about Tommy. He’s becoming unmanageable – and I don’t just mean his hair, which he won’t let me clip anymore. It’s in your eyes, I keep telling him but he snarls and snaps. At me! The hand that feeds him. And his clothes. They could do with boiling. They must be crawling with fleas and I don’t know what.   You should take more pride in your appearance, I tell him when he sits there scratching but my words fall on deaf ears. Oh, you used to be so smart, I remind him but I’m wasting my breath. You were always the best-turned out in the area but look at you now!

He’s becoming more – animal. It’s as though all those years I spent civilising him and making him presentable were all for naught. It’s like his true nature is coming out, reasserting itself despite all my efforts to make a man of him. A gentleman’s going a bit too far, but a man, just a man, was good enough for me. And for him, or so I thought.

What a cute little boy he was! Others spurned him – and those were the kind ones. There were those who hurled abuse and all manner of filth at him, like it was his fault, like he had a choice in being the way he is. Cost me more than a pretty penny to buy him from the circus but I couldn’t leave him there, not after I’d seen him, not after he’d looked at me with those big brown eyes of his. I asked who his parents were but Scratch O’Halloran had no idea. Nobody knows, he said. I said I hoped the cash I’d paid him would go some way to improve conditions for the other poor buggers in his charge but I suspect he pissed it all up the wall or tucked it in the suspender belts of many a painted whore. Oh, if I could have rescued the lot of them, I would have. But it was Tommy who looked right at me and broke my heart.

Where would I be without him? Nowhere.

Folks tend to be a sight more obliging when you’ve got a companion like Tommy. The jackets he’s split just by flexing his muscles! The tailor made a fortune out of us. The jackets were always too tight across his chest, and the trousers too long. We had to have his clothes made special, and Tommy loved to look good. He’d comb his face and brush his teeth, slicking his mane back with brilliantine. He practically bathed in pomade.

But not no more. He’s become slovenly. Maybe it’s because it’s been a while since I’ve had to call up his services as a pacifier, you might say, as a placater of those who seek to oppose me, of those who obstruct my business, of those I just plain don’t like.

What he does with them afterwards, I never ask. Buries the bones, I expect. Maybe he gnaws on them a little bit – I don’t want to think about that.

But, like I say, it’s been a while since I had to sic him on anybody. And it’s like he’s lost interest in himself and in me. Like he doesn’t have to pay me back for the clothes and the food and the love. I don’t know; who can say what goes on in the mind of a dog-headed boy?

But I’ve a feeling I’m going to have to let him loose on somebody before much longer or I might lose my Tommy forever.

businessman-md

 

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Presto Bongo

When the Great Fantoni changed his act, he came to me. No more the top hat and cane. Gone too were the cloak and the white gloves. “I’m beginning to resemble too much of the audience,” he blustered. “A stage magician should be distinctive. Exotic!”

With that, he rifled the wardrobe department, opening every trunk, every armoire, and tossing costumes over his shoulders in his search for his new outfit. No prizes for guessing who would have to tidy that lot up, I thought.

He settled on a floor-length robe of midnight blue silk, suggesting, with an arch look in my direction, that it would look even more resplendent if ‘someone’ were to stitch on a moon and some stars… He fashioned a turban from a length of gold fabric, for which I found a jewelled brooch and a feather for decoration. He seemed delighted with the overall effect as he admired himself in the mirror but then, his face fell.

“I look too much the gent,” he said. “My face is still the Great Fantoni’s. I need a new face.”

I got to work on him with the crepe hair and the spirit gum. He fidgeted in the chair. “There hasn’t been anyone asking for me? At the stage door?”

At first I took this to be a rather desperate query. The man was hungry for admirers and recognition, I thought, but the truth turned out to be quite the opposite.

“You must let me know if anyone asks for me – for the Great Fantoni, I mean. Especially if they sport suspenders and flat caps. And if they have Irish names. Promise me, you’ll let me know right away.”

I gave him my word. He examined his new reflection. I had given him a long, drooping moustache, like a Chinese mandarin. And he nodded in approval.

As well as his appearance, the Great Fantoni overhauled his entire show. I was recruited to stand in the wings and while he, having dispensed with his white-tipped wand, wiggled his fingers around over his props, it was my job to shake a sheet of metal suspended overhead, simulating rolls of thunder. It was a thrill for me, a step up from the wardrobe department – for I had always wanted to be in show business. But, up close to his act, I could see what he was doing. How he misdirected attention so he could stash playing cards in his voluminous sleeves. How he stored doves and rabbits in compartments in his table. How, in fact, the whole thing was rigged. It was all built on lies and deception and, from this close angle, seemed to me tawdry and vile, and lacking in the glamour I had craved all my life.

But as I watched, I learned. I even took to practising in my spare time, developing my sleight of hand and my patter. I would out-magic the Great Fantoni, or Presto Bongo as he was now calling himself. Every night he demanded to know if anyone had asked for him. I pieced things together: Fantoni owed money – gambling debts, most probably – to one of the gangs that operate in this side of town.

One night, two roughs in suspenders and flat caps appeared at the stage door. They gave old Jim a lot of hassle until I placated them with two complimentary tickets and directed them around to the front entrance of the theatre. I hurried to Fantoni’s dressing room. “They’re here!” I gasped. He nodded; he had been expecting this for weeks.

“The show must go on,” he said. I think he was attempting to sound noble.

If he was nervous, I couldn’t see it. He handled his tricks and illusions as though nothing was wrong. At the climax of his routine, when he raised his hands aloft, I reached for the strap to rattle the thunder-sheet but it was not there.

Two men in the front row got to their feet. Two gunshots rang out and the magician fell to the floor. Quickly, the curtain was closed. The gunmen tore from the building. I dashed to Fantoni’s side. His robe of midnight blue had fallen open. There was the sheet of metal, strapped to his chest.

But the magician was dead. I had told the men in flat caps to aim for the jewel on his turban. After all, we McNallys must stick together.

And now I’m top of the bill.

magic-hat-and-wand-md

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“Bad” Language

The novel I’ve just finished is undoubtedly the “sweariest” one I’ve ever written. One of the characters, Chief Inspector Wheeler, has always been foul-mouthed (an aspect of her management style that was addressed in an earlier volume) but on this occasion she’s worse than ever. She’s under pressure to make a decision that will affect her team, the Serious Crimes division, and so she lets the F words fly, even more than usual.

I’m sure no one is naïve enough to believe that the police do not swear. Like other people in stressful jobs, they must find swearing a way to let off steam and also as a means to distance themselves from some very disturbing subject matter. Like gallows humour, I suppose.

I’ve used swearing in my Brough & Miller books to heighten the language for humorous effect. In their world all sorts of horrible and farcical things happen – the way the characters express themselves perhaps shows their world is not like ours. While at the same time reflecting ours…

I suppose I want to have my cake and eat it too!

The main point is to be funny. Swearing can be very funny, when used correctly. I’ve tried to vary Wheeler’s exclamations as much as possible to surprise a laugh out of the reader. I know there are people who find swear words offensive – I would say it’s a matter of context. And, frankly, there are more important things in society that require our offence and outrage: the thousands of children going hungry in this country, for example, or the way this despicable government is selling off our NHS from under our noses.

But for the squeamish, I have written several books in which no one swears at all. The Vultures’ Moon stories, for example, have no swearing because in them I adhere to the rules of the traditional Western (albeit in a science fiction setting). My fairy tale Someday My Prince is also profanity-free. It’s context, you see, ladies and gents. My new series (I’m currently writing the second) of Hector Mortlake adventures is riddled with innuendo but no swearing.  I’m a writer who likes to adapt his voice to suit the story.

I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘bad language’.  But there are words and phrases that can be inappropriate, given the context.

I’ve more cases lined up for Brough and Miller, and so Chief Inspector Wheeler will carry on turning the air blue with invective – and good for her, say I.

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Meanwhile at the coffee shop…

For Colin Dobson…

Mr Davies waited patiently in the queue. He had hurried through the mall to get to the coffee shop but now that he had arrived, he was enjoying the opportunity to watch ‘him’ at work.

Behind the counter, shrouded in steam, the young barista blew his blond locks from his brow and made the umpteenth cappuccino of the day. Davies enjoyed the way he shook the canister of chocolate sprinkles on the foamy surface of the drink. He watched, holding his breath as the young man, whose name badge revealed he was called Steven, gave the customer her change and spouted the company script, imploring her to have a great day and, of course, to come back soon.

Davies stepped up to the counter.

“Yes?” said Steven, mechanically and then he saw who it was. “Oh! Hello! If it isn’t my best customer.”

Davies found his voice wouldn’t cooperate, his words were thick and caught in his throat.

“And how are you today, Steven?” he managed to get out.

“OK, thanks. Somebody sounds thirsty. Usual?”

Davies nodded.

He watched Steven prepare the skinny latte, transfixed by the ripple of muscles beneath the polo shirt and the play of tube lighting on the fine hairs on the barista’s forearms.

“Three pounds twenty.”

Davies fumbled with his wallet, pulling out a five-pound note. He wanted to say keep the change, but the branch manager was lingering in the doorway to the storeroom. Watching.

Davies paid, thrilling as Steven’s fingers brushed his palm as they deposited his change in his hand. He picked up the drink and shuffled over to a table that would afford him a clear view of the counter.

A few minutes later, Steven emerged from behind the counter and began a tour of the floor, wiping tables and straightening chairs.

“Here,” he whispered, leaning over Davies’s table. He slipped a couple of extra biscotti onto Davies’s saucer. Then he winked at the older man and went back behind the counter and into the storeroom.

Davies relished every crumb of those illicit biscuits. All sorts of ideas began to blossom and bloom in his imagination.

He likes me! Steven likes me! He actually likes me back!

He spent the rest of the afternoon, wandering the mall with its gaudy shops and blank-faced customers. He too was in a daze. He couldn’t believe it. Steven actually liked him back!

He lingered outside the coffee shop. Closing time couldn’t come fast enough.

At long last, the staff filed out. The manager pulled down the metal shutters and padlocked them to the floor.

Steven walked away, stuffing his arms into the sleeves of his jacket. Davies had to hurry to catch up.

“I say, Steven!” he called out.

The young man turned. “Oh. Hello,” he said, but kept on walking. Davies struggled to keep abreast.

“I just wanted to thank you. For the biscotti.”

“It’s OK,” said Steven, but did not slow down.

“Listen,” said Davies. “I was wondering if you’d let me repay you with a drink. Something stronger, of course – and I don’t mean espresso!” He laughed, but Steven didn’t.

But at last he had the boy’s full attention. Steven came to a halt and looked Davies in the eye.

“I’m busy,” he said. “Sorry.”

“But – but – the biscotti – I thought…”

“They were past their Best Before date anyway. Look, I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong idea. I’m straight, by the way. It’s just that – and I mean this in a nice way – you remind me of my Dad. Sorry.”

He continued on his way, out of the mall and into the night.

Davies’s face burned hot with embarrassment and shame. How could I be so foolish? He scolded himself. It’s true: there is no fool like an old fool.

Feeling ridiculous, he stumbled out into the fresh air. There was no sign of Steven.   Oh, well, I can’t show my face in that coffee shop again, Davies cringed.

I know, Davies perked up as he waited at the bus stop. I’ll get some chips on the way home. They always cheer me up. And, because it’s Tuesday, I reckon that hunky Tony will have started his shift there by now…

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ALL THE FEELS

R4769 trundled along the thoroughfare. He was in a rut – and not just the literal, electrified one that powered his castors. Every day the same routine, the same tasks, the same files accessed by his processor.

He was joined at an intersection by F8223 and they bleeped at each other in greeting. They had known each other for years, had travelled through Robo-City along this same groove and had developed a kind of compatibility that went beyond docking USBs.

They conversed in unspoken messages, data appearing in each other’s circuits.

HOW ARE YOU

SAME OLD SAME OLD

DITTO

WHAT YOU GONNA DO

They travelled like this until their ways parted. F8223 worked at the Admin Centre, processing digital information. R4769 was an assembler, putting together upgraded versions of himself and sending them off to be programmed. They arranged to meet after their shift at Oiler’s Bar for a swift lubrication.

With each new model he put together, R4769 believed he was closer to the scrap heap. I am fabricating myself into redundancy and obsolescence, he thought.

He turned a corner and tried not to see the heap of dented, scarred and scratched components at the side of the road.

SPARE A DIODE

R4679 ignored the plea, keeping his photo-detecting sensors fixed firmly ahead.

SPARE A DIODE. WILL FIND WORK AGAIN IF I CAN GET THE DIODES

R4679 kept going. He even sped up a little.

His shift passed slowly. Hours of mindless, monotonous labour. It seemed as though he’d never get to Oiler’s, never be able to unwind with F8223.

On his way to the bar he stopped off at the automated teller. He plugged himself into the keypad and a window opened. In her box, the human operator woke up.

“What can I do for you today?” she asked, in a pleasant sing-song voice.

ALL THE FEELS said R4679. GOT A BIG NIGHT OUT PLANNED.

“Of course,” said the human.

And as the Robot drained her of emotions, her eyes rolled back in her head.

robot

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Three Bears

“Porridge is ready!” Mommy Bear called up the stairs.  Daddy Bear waddled into the kitchen, tucking his newspaper under his arm.  “Will you tell him, love?  I’m sick of shouting myself hoarse.”

“He’ll have that music on, I expect,” said Daddy Bear.  “Bloody racket.  In my day, it was proper tunes and words you could hear properly.  Not this shouty rubbish.”  He threw back his head and roared.

In his room, their son Teenage Bear lifted his headphones off one ear.

“I’m coming!” he roared back, embarrassed by the little squeak his voice made at the end.

He shut down his laptop and left his room, taking care to lock the door behind him.  Having reached a certain age, Teenage Bear valued his privacy.

The porridge was just right – that was one thing his mother could do: make decent porridge although Dad always complained about the temperature, and by the time Mom had sorted him out, hers had gone cold.

“We’re going for a walk in the woods later,” she looked at her son with hope in her eyes.  “Perhaps you’d like to come too.”

Teenage Bear sneered.  “Got homework,” he said.  It was his all-purpose excuse for getting out of family things.

“Perhaps the weekend then,” said Mommy Bear sadly, stung by his rejection.  What had happened to the joyful bundle of fur he used to be?

“Actually, love,” said Daddy Bear, “I’ve got some things to sort out in the shed. Lend me a paw, Junior?”

“Oh, but Dad!  I’ve got homework!”

“This won’t take five minutes.  Come on.”  Daddy Bear stared at his son.  Junior was growing up fast but he was still no match for his old man.  With a theatrical sigh, Teenage Bear capitulated.

“Come on then,” he pushed away from the table.  “But only five minutes.”

He followed his father out to the shed at the bottom of the garden.

As soon as they were out of the house, Mommy Bear hurried upstairs.  With one swipe of her mighty paws she dashed the lock from the door.  She went into Teenage Bear’s room for the first time in years.

Her nose was assaulted by a wall of smells: the usual teenager stuff like forgotten socks and mouldy plates but there was something else…  It did not take much snuffling to find it out.

At the foot of the bed was an ottoman.  It had been used as a toy box when he had been a baby but now… With trepidation, Mommy Bear lifted the lid and peered inside.

Her scream could be heard at the bottom of the garden.

“What the hell?” said Teenage Bear. His father shoved him roughly to the floor then sprang outside and locked the door.

Daddy Bear tore across the lawn and into the cottage.  He bounded up the stairs to find his wife, gasping in horror and pointing at the box at the foot of their son’s bed.

Daddy Bear saw for himself.

Bent double, beneath some old comics and football kit, was the rotting corpse of a human child, a female with curly blonde hair.

brown bear

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Meanwhile at the Ball…

“There!” the fairy godmother stepped back to admire what she had done. The girl was pretty to start with – that always helped – but now she was truly beautiful. She would take the Prince’s breath away as soon as she walked in.

She walked around the girl, inspecting her from every angle. “That gown is the best I have ever created. It seems to trap the starlight and twinkle as you breathe. And those glass slippers make your legs look so elegant, my dear. Right, so: gown, coach, horses… I believe that’s everything. Just one more thing: whatever you do, you must, you absolutely must, leave the Palace when the clock strikes midnight. For that is when my charms must end and you will be the lowly scullery maid you were when I found you. Is that understood? The very stroke of midnight. Not a second later.”

“Yes!” enthused the girl. “That should be plenty of time.   Thank you so much, Godmother. I could never have dreamed a girl like me would ever go to the Royal Ball.”

The old woman beamed. “Tush, child. And hurry you to the Palace. You must make the most of the opportunity.”

The girl stepped into the glittering coach of sparkling diamonds and the team of white horses bore her away to the Palace.

The Ball was well under way when the mysterious Princess Starlight made her entrance. She strode down the grand staircase with her head held high, for she knew in her heart that beneath the fancy clothes and the glamour, she was just as good as anyone there. The other guests parted, leaving her a clear path to the Prince who was holding the Ball in order to find himself a bride.

“Charmed, my dear,” he bowed low in greeting. He reached to kiss her gloved hand but instead found the blade of a kitchen knife slashing his throat wide open. The guests cried out in alarm as the Prince toppled. A pool of blood that was undeniably red rather than blue, spread from the dying heir to the throne. The girl had taken his breath away, right enough.

Starlight wasted no time. She curled a finger and thumb in her mouth and whistled. Her army of peasants and fellow servants swarmed the ballroom, hacking and slashing at the startled aristocrats.

It was a bloodbath but it was also the party of a lifetime.

As the grand clock struck midnight, and the chimes rang out heralding the start of a new day, Starlight’s trappings faded and fell away but she made no effort to flee from the Palace.

“Comrades!” she cried as her tattered clothes reappeared. “We have seized the seat of power in this land. No longer will we be oppressed by greedy, unelected tyrants who exploit us and deny us our fair share. Join me now and drink champagne from my slipper of glass!”

The peasants and the servants cheered, brandishing their blood-drenched weapons.

But when Cinderella took off her slipper, it crumbled to dust.

Oh well, she thought as the corks popped all around her, can’t have everything.

She surveyed the carnage, the hacked-off limbs, the bloodshed and the gore.

Someone’s going to have to clean that up, she thought.

princess-md

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Author William Stafford speaks to Jason McCrossan

williamstafford:

Here’s the interview I recorded the other week, babbling about KISS OF THE WATER NYMPH

Originally posted on Jason McCrossan:

Seeking inspiration, hack writer Hector Mortlake embarks on a journey across late 19th century Europe. He invites the people he encounters to submit short stories to a contest but soon the travellers find themselves at an isolated hotel and caught up in a series of suspicious deaths. Could there be something to the local myth of the water nymph after all?

William Stafford lives and writes in the Black Country. After working in libraries and teaching Drama in schools and colleges, he now devotes much of his time to his novels, which blend his irrepressible sense of humour with science fiction, historical fantasy, or whodunits.

He speaks to Jason McCrossan on 106.9 SFM www.sfmradio.com about his latest novel Kiss of the Water Nymph: A Hector Mortlake Adventure.

Seeking inspiration, hack writer Hector Mortlake embarks on a journey across late 19th century Europe. He invites the people he encounters to submit short stories to a contest but soon the travellers find themselves at an isolated hotel and caught up in a series of suspicious deaths. Could there be something to the local myth of the water nymph after all?

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