All Work and No Play

IMG_9595When I was young, I loved to draw, paint, cut, stick, glitter, build, mould, splat, scrunch, fold, print, sew, write, doodle, smear, cook, read, knit, dig etc., but somewhere along the line, I grew-up, stopped playing and started working, and those activities that couldn’t be classified as ‘work’ (or as ‘of benefit to others’) were left behind in childhood.

One of the bestest things about having little people in the family is that play becomes part of everyday life again. On Monday, I sat down with my four-year-old niece and a pot of playdough, and within ten minutes we had created a swarm of butterflies. We hadn’t planned to; we’d just squeezed the dough from its tub, rolled it flat, grabbed the first cutters that came to hand and while we chatted, the butterflies simply fluttered into existence. It didn’t matter that in a few minutes they’d be squished back into their pot and it would be as if they’d never existed – we were enjoying the moment and having fun.

When my own children were little, I spent hours and hours and hours playing with them, but now they’re older and more independent, we don’t play together nearly as much, and it wasn’t until I was cutting out our butterflies that I realised how much I missed it, how much I missed messing about, how much I missed making something just because I could. Sometimes it seems that everything we do should have a point and purpose outside of itself, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that that’s a lie. (I hate the term ‘educational toy’!) Yes, play is an opportunity to learn about the world and to explore our passions and creativity, but it’s also an opportunity to be and do without the pressure of performance. Play for the sake of play is part of what makes life worth living, and I want to do more of it.

Do we really need the excuse of being children, or being with children, to make time for play?

#LastLineFirst – A #FlashFiction Challenge: Week 2

last line firstHello, and welcome to Week 2 of Last Line First!

In the spirit of flash-fiction, I’m going to keep this brief.

Thank you to everyone who participated last week. It was great to have you aboard for our maiden voyage. I enjoyed all the stories, and I hope you did too. It always amazes me how so many different tales can arise from the same prompt. If you haven’t had a chance to read them yet, you can do so here.

This week’s last line prompt is from Time Enough by Voima Oy. I picked it as my favourite because it immediately conjured an image in my mind, and that image is already turning itself into a story.

So without any more waffle from me. Here is this week’s last line prompt.

His eyes are full of the things he’s seen, his mouth is full of stories.

Now … go turn it into a new first line!

As always, you have until midnight (GMT) on Sunday to comment on this post with your ≤200 word flash-fictions. Remember, you can tweak the last line however you see fit. For a full run-down of the rules visit this page.

Outliers and Misfits: Search and Rescue

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Image by Walt Stoneburner. Some Rights Reserved. CC BY 2.0.

Outliers and Misfits is a collection of stand-alone flash-fictions all set in the same universe, a universe where there’s no such thing as normal …

Kelsey McCLellan: Obituary

Kelsey McCLellan, who died at the age of 47 while on a mission in Scotland, was probably the most loved and respected member of the international Search and Rescue community.

Having lost both her parents at a young age, Kelsey moved to Wales to live with her grandmother. After an unsettled start at secondary school, she took up climbing, and by the age of thirteen, to the surprise of everyone who knew her, she had earned a Golden Karabiner and been invited to join the International Rock Climbing Federation. Over the next three years, Kelsey won medals for Great Britain in the IRCF Championships, and, in the year that she gained twelve GCSEs, she also successfully lobbied for climbing to be included in the next Olympic Games.

Even with all of Kelsey’s sporting achievements, it wasn’t until she was seventeen that she entered the awareness of the general public. When a family became lost in extensive hill fog on Mount Snowdon, Kelsey led a group of volunteers up the mountain in near-zero visibility, locating the family – which included two children under the age of five – in less than an hour. That year, she was honoured for outstanding courage at the Britain’s Pride Awards.

After leaving school with A-Levels in Geography, Physical Education and Human Biology, she moved to Cardiff and joined the city’s police force. Following an exemplary four years on the beat, she was promoted to the Missing Persons Unit, where her case clearance rate was “second to none”. During this time, Kelsey’s love for climbing had to take a backseat, but after twelve years, she decided to combine her two passions and joined Search and Rescue UK, where she quickly earned a reputation for having “unbelievably unerring instincts” and a “whatever it takes attitude”.

During her seventeen years at Search and Rescue UK, Kelsey’s instincts and attitude took her on missions all over the world. She found people who had wandered off the Machu Picchu trail; she found more than one group of school children whose boats had capsized while white-water rafting in Austria, and she found airliners that had gone missing over mountain ranges in Canada, America and Nepal. Most famously, she located the whereabouts of the Atlas IV reentry capsule after it was lost by NASA. This January, Kelsey was recognised in the New Year’s Honours list, but sadly did not live to receive The Queen’s Commendation for Bravery.

When news of Kelsey’s tragic death was announced, tributes poured in from around the world. Among the most poignant, were the words of Jeanette Harrow, mother of one of the schoolboys saved by Kelsey on her last and fatal mission. She said, “if it wasn’t for her, my son wouldn’t be alive today. Words can’t express how grateful we are. She was a true hero.”

Kelsey did not marry and had no children. Her funeral was held outdoors at the foot of Mount Snowden. Nearly ten thousand people were in attendance.

(This story first appeared on Ether Books.)

#LastLineFirst – A #FlashFiction Challenge: Week 1

last line firstHello, and welcome to the first ever Last Line First!

Last Autumn, I ran a flash-fiction workshop in which I asked attendees to write a piece of flash using as their first line the last line of an existing short story. As an exercise, it worked well – everyone jumped in and came up with original and inspiring tales – so I thought I’d offer it as a challenge here at my blog.

Every Monday, I’m going to post the last line of an existing story for you to use as a prompt. The challenge will then be for you to write, in 200 words or fewer, a new story that starts with the last line I’ve provided.

The aim is to give you a prompt from which to write and a place to share what you’ve written. There will be no judging as such, but, for the competitive among you, each week I’ll be picking my favourite last line from the stories submitted and using it as a future last line prompt. Stories may be in any genre (except erotica and graphic horror) and do not need to reflect the source story. You may tweak the prompt however you choose. Comments on other people’s stories are more than welcome.

Here are the basics:

  • Every Monday, I will post a new last line.
  • Any time over the next seven days, you may write a ≤200 word story that starts with the given last line and submit it as a comment to the challenge post.
  • You may tweak the last line prompt in any way you like.
  • Each week, I’ll pick my favourite last line. Authors of the chosen last line will receive the Last Line First badge (pictured above) and see their story’s last line used as a prompt in the future.*
  • Each challenge closes as the next one opens.

So, with no further ado, here’s this week’s last line:

He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.

From Frankenstein; or, the modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

On your marks. Get set. Go!

(*To keep things simple: by submitting your story here, you’re agreeing to let me use its last line as a future prompt. Thanks!)

Outliers and Misfits: Never the Same Again

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 18.26.08Outliers and Misfits is a collection of stand-alone flash-fictions all set in the same universe, a universe where there’s no such thing as normal …

The first time it happened was in my one and only university interview.

‘Why did you pick A level Biology?’ the tutor asked from behind his desk.

‘Um.’ I glanced at the clock. 11.15am. I’d been there five minutes already. ‘I … er … picked it … um … because … ‘ The truth was I’d picked it because my mum had told me to. ‘Working in a shop is fine for a holiday job, Josie, but if you want to make something of yourself you’ll need to study proper subjects, not wishy-washy subjects like accounting and business studies.’ I didn’t think that was the answer the tutor was looking for though, so I said, ‘I picked it because I … um … really like enzymes? They’re really … er … interesting?’

The tutor sniffed. ‘In what way?’

‘Um … in the way they work?’

‘Could you elaborate?’

‘Well … they … um … work… like … um … locks and … er … keys? Which is … um clever?’ I felt like kicking myself. The last thing my mum had said as she’d escorted me to the interview was, ‘don’t let your sentences sound like questions. It’s an indicator of insecurity and emotional weakness.’

‘I see,’ said the tutor, peering at his notepad. ‘And what are your career plans?’

‘Well,’ I said, thinking back to the statement my mum had made me memorise. I was supposed to say that fewer than 10% of managers in the STEM industries are female, and that once I gain my degree, I intend to work my way up the career ladder and become part of that 10%, but what actually came out was, ‘fewer than 10% of females in the STEM industries are … er … female and … um … once I have a ladder … I intend to be one.’

The tutor blinked. Silently wishing I could turn back time, I bit my tongue. For a brief moment, my insides did a loop-the-loop, and I felt like I was floating.

‘Why did you pick A level Biology?’ the tutor asked from behind his desk.

I frowned. ‘Sorry?’

‘Why did you pick A level Biology?’ he asked again.

‘Didn’t you ask me that five minutes ago?’ I said.

He returned my frown. ‘No. You only came in five minutes ago.’

Again, I glanced at the clock. 11.15am. Odd, I thought, it must have stopped, but then I saw that the second hand was still moving.

‘So.’ The tutor’s voice recaptured my attention. ‘Your choice of Biology A level?’

With my mind busy processing what had just happened, all I said was, ‘Er …’

After that, it took me three more times of biting my tongue and wishing I could turn back time to realise that turning back time was exactly what I was doing, but once I finally cottoned on, I finally found my voice. ‘I didn’t pick A Level Biology,’ I told him. ‘My mum did. What I really wanted was to study accounting and business studies and then run my own shop.’

And you know what? That’s exactly what I did.

My tongue was never quite the same again though.

(This story first appeared on Ether Books, hence the Ether Books swirl in the above image.)

Outliers and Misfits: Chatter

Fireworks Composite
Image by jeff_golden. Some Rights Reserved. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Outliers and Misfits is a collection of stand-alone flash-fictions all set in the same universe, a universe where there’s no such thing as normal …

As the sun slips behind the hill and casts the river into shadow, Jared steps onto the bank and takes a long, deep breath. Planting his feet hip-width apart, he lets his arms hang at his sides and his palms brush his thighs. Slowly, he breathes out and remembers what he’s been taught.

Stay in the present. Stay calm. Allow the sounds around you to enter your awareness, but don’t focus on them. Let them float by, like clouds in the sky.

Again, he breathes in, and then, as he pushes out his next breath, he tries.

Wind. He can hear the wind. It’s only a breeze. Only a whisper. Leaves rustle. Branches creak …

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Water. There’s water. The river. Rushing. Bubbling. Gushing. Hissing …

Just breathe. Breathe in. Breathe out.

A bird. Tweeting. A robin maybe. Calling. Crying …

Come on! In. Out.

I’ll be home by six. What are we having for dinner?

Gush. Creak. Rustle …

What do you mean you forgot to buy milk? Do I have to do everything myself …

Whisper. Rush. Hiss. Call …

You won’t believe what he did next! He only went and kissed … Don’t be late … Call me … I keep meaning to watch that but … Mine’s a beer … Don’t ever call me again … Can you pick Layla up from school … My sense of direction is terrible … There’s a tree down … No. I’m allergic to dogs … If you’re there, pick up …

With a cry, Jared drops to his knees. The pebbles fire arrows of pain up his thighs. He pounds the dirt, over and over, until his fists bleed. It’s been twelve months since he left the city, twelve months since he came to this valley to escape the constant noise, the constant voices, but he still can’t do it, he still can’t not focus, he still can’t tune them out. Even here, the chatter finds him.

This is pointless, he thinks and lets himself topple. He rolls onto his back and stares up at the sky.

For a while, he stays there, making wishes on the clouds that saunter into view, but as the air begins to cool, Jared begins to shiver, so he climbs to his feet. This really is pointless, he thinks. I may as well go home. With that, the decision is made. Jared closes his eyes, and this time, when he pushes out his breath, he pushes out his mind – out and up.

On the backs of his eyelids, fireworks explode. Lines of every colour score the darkness, twisting and turning and shooting this way and that. Resolved now, he reaches up, grabs one and yanks it down. It fizzes and cracks, but his mind holds on tight. It’s been ages since he’s done this, so he’s not sure how long it’ll him take to untangle all the lines of communication, but once he does, he’ll be able to call home and tell them he’s finally on his way back.

(This story first appeared on the Ether Books app.)

Outliers and Misfits: Healing Hands

If You Could
Image by jakub. Some Rights Reserved. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Outliers and Misfits is a collection of stand-alone flash-fictions all set in the same universe, a universe where there’s no such thing as normal …

Gary walks into the kitchen, puts the tray on the table and pulls out a chair. As he sits down, Sarah looks at the bowl. It’s still full of soup, and a thick skin has formed on the top.

‘Did he even try it?’ she asks, already knowing the answer.

With a shake of his head, Gary says, ‘He’s still hiding under the duvet. He wouldn’t even let me pull the curtains.’ His shoulders sag, and he sighs. ‘This is ridiculous. At this rate, he’ll waste away.’

Sarah lays her hand over Gary’s. It feels so cold. ‘He won’t, love,’ she says gently. ‘He’ll be all right. Wounds like this take time to heal.’ That’s what she keeps telling herself anyway.

‘How much time? It’s been three weeks already!’

Sarah manages a smile. ‘You remember what it was like to be young and in love and then have your heart broken.’

‘Of course I do, but I never took it this hard.’

She nods. ‘He’s always been a sensitive soul.’

Gary shoves the tray out of his way and slumps forward. He rests his head on his arms. ‘This is all my fault,’ he says, his voice muffled. ‘If only I hadn’t been so soft on him when he was little. Children trip over and graze their knees every day. They fall out of trees and break their ankles all the time. It’s part of growing up. If I hadn’t been so quick to rush in and make it all better, he might have developed some resilience.’

Sarah rises from her seat and walks around the table. Leaning over, she wraps her arms around Gary’s shoulders and kisses the top of his head. ‘Oh, love,’ she says. ‘I hate to see you like this.’

Gary sits up straight and draws her arms further around him. ‘You’d have done the same if you could’ve, wouldn’t you?’

‘Of course I would’ve,’ she replies. ‘I love him as much as you do. Forget about resilience. I just want him to get better. If only his heart was actually broken.’

For a minute, Gary doesn’t say anything, but then he grasps Sarah’s hands, and dislodging her embrace, he stands.

‘What?’ asks Sarah, as his chair scrapes backward across the kitchen floor. ‘What are you thinking?’

Light sparks in Gary’s eyes. ‘What if it is actually broken? What if it’s that Broken-Heart Syndrome thing? You know when people who’ve just lost someone they love have a heart attack or something.’

Sarah’s own heart leaps within her. ‘You think it could be that?’

‘Maybe. There’s only one way to find out.’

Stepping out of the way, Sarah points through the doorway. ‘Go,’ she says. ‘Try.’

Gary doesn’t need to be told twice. With his hands beginning to glow, he runs out of the kitchen and toward the stairs.

(This story first appeared on the Ether Books app under the title Outliers and Misfits: If You Could.)