Faces and fringes

I’m a bit late posting this as I wrote these last Wednesday evening during Cat Rambo’s writing games session. But I’ve spent the intervening time working on the third piece, which I shan’t be posting here, as I liked it so much I’m going to submit it for publication!

Here are the other two pieces, with the prompts that generated them:

  1. What I saw in the mirror was not what I expected.

Over the years of Switching, I’ve got used to seeing other people’s faces looking back at me. There’s always that moment of shock, of readjustment, before my brain reasserts itself under the influence of the spell and I think “Right, yeah, that’s them but it’s not me, I’m just here to do a job. And somewhere, at a far deeper level, there’s something of the other person looking back at me, seeing exactly what they’ve always seen. I don’t know how that works, so don’t ask me, but there’s always a faint sigh of relief that things are as they should be. They aren’t, of course, so whatever it is that’s feeling it must be something pretty primitive.

But I digress. When I looked in the mirror this time, what I saw was not myself inhabiting someone else’s body. It was someone else inhabiting my body. This time I was that primitive something lost under the layers of someone else’s consciousness. And they were looking back at me and grinning.

2. This image (embedded here, but follow the link to the original Twitter posting).

A telegraph pole with wires, all of which are covered by fringes of short icicles

Originally tweeted by Isabel Salvasilha (@salvasilha) on January 25, 2023.

On Elvis World everything has white fringes. No, I’m not kidding. Everything.

Look, here’s a picture I took of a telegraph pole. Or is it an electricity line? Anyway, you get the idea. Everything – and I mean everything – has white nylon fringing hanging off it. The sheep don’t look too weird, but the cars were most peculiar, and you don’t even want to know about the toilets. I mean, that can’t be hygienic, no matter how many times a day they fill in the little card to say the facilities have been cleaned. And refringed.

But at least you’re never far away from a defibrillator. There’s one in every cubicle. Not just in the loos, like next to the tampon dispenser or something, but actually in each cubicle above the cistern. I suppose it’s statistically possible for two people in adjacent toilet cubicles to have heart attacks at the same time, and for two defibrillators to be required simultaneously in close proximity, but it can’t be very likely.

Apart from that? It was OK, I suppose. I mean, you’d really, really have to like Elvis to pay to go there rather than winning tickets like I did, but I think, if you were a fan and you wanted to add to your rhinestone-covered Elvis funko pop collection, you’d be in heaven. I was extremely glad I’d remembered to take my noise-cancelling headphones, though. And I don’t ever want to see another peanut butter and banana sandwich as long as I live.

Breathing into your writing

I’m just out of another Cat Rambo writing games session (this time ably hosted by Jennifer Brozek), and once again I’m astonished by the creativity you can stimulate from your writing brain with a few simple prompts.

Today’s exercise was simultaneously very simple and very complicated, but it goes like this:

  1. Take a sentence. Jenn suggested three: one about making coffee, one about taking your pet for a walk, and one that apparently came from one of Cat’s ‘story seeds’, which immediately spoke to me. “The ghost of a nurse walks the streets of Glasgow.”
  2. Spend 15 minutes writing a paragraph that expands on that sentence.
  3. Spend another 15 minutes writing a number of paragraphs that expand on that paragraph.
  4. Use each expansion to tell the reader about the character, the environment, emotions, motivation etc.

I’d add a sub-instruction here, which is “5. Do this exercise using a keyboard because otherwise you have to write the text out twice so you can fit things in between the original lines.”

Anyway, this was a lot of fun, and immediately brought to mind a ghost mediator I’d conjured up from somewhere when I did the Iowa writing course waaaay back in the mists of time. He’s one of the watchers in the expanded version. Maybe one day I’ll string these various fragments together and give him a longer story.

Original sentence:

The ghost of a nurse walks the streets of Glasgow.

First expansion:

The ghost of a nurse walks the streets of Glasgow. The hem of her dress brushes the cobbles as she walks. Her clothes are well cared-for, but far from new, and her only outer garment a thin shawl, scant protection against the raw chill of a Glaswegian October night. The woman is of medium height, medium build, with medium brown hair and medium grey eyes. Her boots are neither holed nor squeakily new. She holds herself with confidence, but not arrogance. No easy target, this, but equally not a fighter. Her name is Mary, baptised like hundreds of others in the city for the Holy Mother. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about this nurse from Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Save that she is dead.

Second expansion:

The ghost of a nurse walks the streets of Glasgow. And two people watch her progress. The hem of her dress brushes the cobbles as she walks. Her clothes are well cared-for, but far from new, and her only outer garment a thin shawl, scant protection against the raw chill of a Glaswegian October night.

Her watchers do not feel the cold; their breath does not cloud the scene before them. The woman is of medium height, medium build, with medium brown hair and medium grey eyes. One of the watchers stirs as her face is yellowly illuminated by her passage beneath a gas lamp.

“She looks like me. Don’t you reckon? I think she does. Why does she look like me?”

The woman’s boots are neither holed nor squeakily new.

“How did they manage to even walk wearing those long dresses? I’d have gone arse over tip within five minutes.”

They follow her course with their eyes. She holds herself with confidence, but not arrogance. No easy target, this, but equally not a fighter.

“She’s got street smarts, aint she? Don’t meet anyone’s eyes, get where you’re going as fast as you can, but don’t draw attention to yourself. Yeah, she’s not bad. What’s her name again?”

Her name is Mary, baptised like hundreds of others in the city for the Holy Mother. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about this nurse from Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

“Bit boring, though, isn’t she? All that public service bit and slogging your way home in the rain. If she’s half as special as you make out, I’d expected something a bit more glitzy.”

There is nothing remarkable about this woman. Save that she is dead, a ghost from 130 years ago and yet alive and standing beside him, intensely curious and endlessly fidgeting, clad in skinny jeans and a puffer jacket, huge earrings swinging as she noisily chews her gum.

A tiny ocean

As I explained in my previous post, I’m going to be posting some writings produced from prompts from Cat Rambo’s weekly writing games.

Why not try the prompt yourself before reading further? Or you can join Cat’s Patreon from just $2 a month to write live with the group!

Prompt: A tiny ocean is in a Turkish garden. A woman writes a notebook about it.

Writing time: 10 minutes

Wooden bowl with resin ocean decoration

It makes me wonder how many of these things there are, around the world. If it hadn’t been for the owner’s unusually observant nature, this would too could have just slipped by, unnoticed.

You often hear of sinkholes, and they’re always measured in units of largeness. Cubic metres, or the width of the White House or the length of an American football pitch.

But this… this tiny ocean contains, as far as my instruments can determine, all the things you’d expect to find in a normal-sized ocean – fish, islands, coral reefs, whales, icebergs, even… but all microscopically tiny.

“It leads to some interesting questions, does it not?” says Professor Yavuz, shoving his hands deep into his pockets as he paces back and forth across the lawn.

I lean back in the flimsy folding chair and rubbing my aching neck.

“It does indeed. I’ve just discovered a shipwreck.”

[In case you’re wondering, that gorgeous bowl is by Ilka Abbé, price 75€.]

More writing prompt pieces to follow!

Anyone who knows anything about modern SF will have heard of Cat Rambo, the author and former President of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. What most people don’t know – indeed I didn’t until I signed up as a Patreon – is that Cat has an incredibly lively, supportive, inspiring Patreon community. There are discussions of all things writing and beyond, plus some amazing interactive sessions every week.

One of these – and you get access to this even if you’re only a Tier 1 Patreon like me, which I think is phenomenal – is a weekly writing games session. This takes the form of a Zoom session at which Cat sets three prompts, two with a 10-minute writing time and one with a 15-minute limit. Then anyone who wants to can read out what they’ve written.

As always with these things, it’s absolutely fascinating to hear what everyone produces from a single prompt. It’s also a really good way to realise that it’s not at all easy to bring your story to a satisfactory end in such a short time.

I won’t be able to make the session every week, but with three prompts a time I’ve already come up with the seeds of a couple of stories that please me and I’m keen to continue the habit of weaving something from (apparently) nothing. So watch this space!

True grit

A spot of murder to start the day, inspired by Charli Mills at the Carrot Ranch.

They dragged her into the brightly lit interrogation room, struggling and spitting, and forced her down into a chair.

Once they’d read her the standard caution, the words flooded out of her exhausted frame. How she’d put up with his violence for years until she’d finally snapped and decided to kill him. How she’d set up an alibi and learned the patrol patterns at his heavily guarded office so she could slip between them unnoticed, in and out like a ghost.

“And I’d have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for that stupid pebble in my shoe.”

Writing exercise #22 – Hands up

“Hands up!” I shouted, and the people in the room all froze. Then, a second later, they all burst into laughter, and looking down I realised that the black, vicious-looking object I was holding in my two clasped hands wasn’t in fact a Tariga pistol – or even a good old-fashioned Uzi or anything useful like that. Instead it was a crow. Again.

The bird cocked its head, did an eye movement that on a human would be both sarcastic and impossible, and gave me a sharp stabbing blow with its greyish beak.

“Ow”, I said, and dropped it. Well, I let go but it didn’t drop to the ground. Instead it soared over the ducking heads of the still amused spectators and took up a position on the gilded head of a cherub amongst the ornate marble of the Embassy’s entrance hall.

As for me, the security guards either side of the door weren’t slow to explain – demonstrating excellent non-verbal skills, I thought, although admittedly I was probably somewhat biased – that my attempting to hold up the Swiss Embassy, whether or not armed with a crow, was not being seen as a joke.

They really don’t have any sense of humour, you know – security guards, that is, not the Swiss.

So anyway, I was marched fairly unceremoniously through a side door and into the bowels of the building, then deposited in a small windowless room with two hard chairs and a grubby grey metal table – all clamped to the floor, I couldn’t help noticing – and left there, presumably to reflect upon my sins. Which, admittedly, were many.

I took advantage of the peace and quiet, climbed up onto the table and went to sleep.

Some time later, I was woken by the door opening to admit a tall, lean man with a shaved head and wearing an expensive suit. He looked rather like the more skilful kind of Italian footballer shortly after he’s become a manager for the first time. I half expected him to start talking about how “the lads all played well”, but sadly he was more interested in my little corvid jape.

Sadly for him, that was. Because a croak in the implant in my inner ear let me know that the entrance hall was about to be filled with the most hideous smelling gas, and as the sirens went off and the man turned his head to the door, I tried out my line again.

“Hands up!” I said, making him look back at me instantly, a half smile on his lips. Only this time I really was pointing a Tariga pistol at him.

Writing exercise #21 – Mapping her moves

He’d been mapping her moves for days. Just like all the other bitches, she was so fucking predictable.

She always left her brownstone at 8:15 am. She always walked three blocks to the subway in eight minutes, plus or minus one minute. She always got the second or third subway carriage, because they stopped where she always came to rest on the platform, head buried in her smartphone, earbuds in, totally unaware except of potential threats to her purse.

He grinned as he flipped through his notes. Money wasn’t the prize he was after.

Then she always got off the subway at the same station, walked up the same stairs leading to the street and stopped on the corner to get a soy caramel latte to go from the same coffee shop. Then, still immersed in whatever her headphones were feeding her, she’d walk a further four blocks (eleven minutes, plus or minus one) to her office building, never sipping from her coffee mug with “Magen” written on it in sharpie until she was half way there.

Once she’d disappeared into her building he knew she’d be there for the day. To begin with he’d hung around at lunchtimes, trying to pick up her trail again, but after a week or so he’d realised that she probably didn’t often – if ever – leave the building to lunch. This conclusion was confirmed first by a quick bit of research (he’d rung the building’s management company pretending to be from city’s health department and asked for the contact details of the catering manager), and then, with a big stroke of luck by overhearing two of the woman’s colleagues commenting on her eating habits as they left the building.

“That Magen who works at your office. Does she never stop working?”

“She does, just not for long. She eats a sandwich at her desk so she can go home a bit earlier. We’re on flexitime and the boss doesn’t mind if we do that.”

“Well why don’t you, then? You’d get home at least half an hour earlier, have more time with Roy and the kids… Oh right.”

“Yeah, it’s because I’d have more time with Roy and the kids.”

So after that he hadn’t bothered waiting for her in the daytime during the week. But he was there again every day at 4.30 pm when she emerged from the building and did the whole route in reverse.

Occasionally she stopped off somewhere on the way home. Sometimes she went out again to the gym or to meet friends. But pretty often the only other time she left the house after returning from work was to go for a walk. To the park. On her own. The stupid bitch was just asking for it.

So tonight he was sitting in his van, right by one of the park entrances. He wore a pair of Parks Maintenance Unit overalls and a baseball cap pulled low over his face. And his van had the right Parks vehicle paint job. It had taken him to a while to get that right, but it had been worth it. Nobody would look twice at either him or his van now.

Just as he looked at his watch again, she appeared in his rear view mirror. He slipped quickly out of the driver’s seat and had his hand over the woman’s mouth and her dragged through the van’s side door and into the soundproof interior before she could even begin to think about drawing breath to scream. He held her limp body closely against him, inhaling her scent. He was going to get to know how she smelled real well real soon.

And then suddenly, he wasn’t quite sure how, he wasn’t holding her and contemplating what he was going to do next. He was lying on his back on the floor of the van while she held him by one wrist with a force only just this side of breaking the bone. He couldn’t see her face very well in the gloom, but he could tell from her voice that she was smiling. “I’m so glad you invited me in”, she said. “I was beginning to think you were never going to get up the courage.”

And then he felt her teeth graze his skin, and he was suddenly very, very afraid.

Writing exercise #19 – Paper patterns

Nicola could hear it as soon as she got through the front door. The snip snip snip of her mother’s steel scissors.

Fuck. Not another one of those awful bloody creations. It had been bad enough when she was a kid. Although – and Nicola couldn’t prevent a small moan of shame escaping from between her lips – she’d actually like some of the fecking things at the time. But then when you were six you liked all sorts of shite, she reminded herself. Now she was older. Now, in fact, since her birthday last week, she was an adult.

She went into the kitchen quietly, hoping her mother would be too preoccupied with cutting out whatever horror she was making to leave the living room. She was right.

“Is that you, Nicola?” Nicola rolled her eyes. Who else would it be, for fuck’s sake? Her dad had died when she was three, and neither of them had many friends. Or at least not friends she’d bring back here.

“Yeah, got loads of homework to do, Mum. I’m going to make a start before tea”, she shouted, grabbing a handful of biscuits out of the tin.

“But I just need you to help me with…”

“Sorry, busy!” And she stamped upstairs, slamming the door behind her and reached for her headphones. Anything to block out the snip snip snip and that horrible metallic scrabbling noise the pins made.


She thought she’d escaped when her mum didn’t mention the garment, whatever it was, over tea. Maybe it was being made for some other poor unfortunate sod. But before she could flee back upstairs, her mother insisted she came into the living room to see it.

“It’s a very special dress for my very special girl”, said her mum, holding up a paper envelope of the type Nicola had become only too familiar with over the years. Sailor suits, dungarees, pinafores… she’d had them all, each in more garish fabrics than the last.

She peered at the image in her mother’s hand. Actually, this didn’t look like the others.

“I know you’ll be having that prom thing soon”, said her mother, passing the envelope to Nicola, who studied it intently. “Though why it has to be a prom I don’t know. In my day it was just the sixth form disco, and that was it. That was the first time I kissed your dad, you know.” She smiled in reminiscence, looking away into the distance, seeing something other than the tidy living room and the paper pattern spread out on the table. Nicola raised her head and cleared her throat, eyes suddenly moist. “It’s… it’s beautiful, Mum”, she said, looking back at the illustration on the cover of the pattern. The dress was dark red and long, with a draped bodice running up into a single strap, and a skirt that was neither too full nor too narrow, and with an over skirt of dark red gauze.

“With your hair up in that Audrey Hepburn style you do, you’ll be the belle of the ball”, said her mother.

“Oh mum, it’s perfect!” said Nicola, surprising herself by throwing her arms around her mother’s neck and kissing her on the cheek. Her mother hugged her tight, then let her go and stepped back, her own eyes suspiciously bright.

“Well, you’re a young lady now. It’s time I made a really pretty dress instead of all those awful things I used to make you wear. What I was thinking, I don’t know.”

“Oh don’t say that, Mum. They were cute, some of them…”

“They were awful and I’m sorry. But now I’m going to make it up to you.”

Stroking the gorgeous red satin fabric, Nicola could only agree. And to think that earlier that evening she’d happily have stabbed her mother with those bloody scissors.

Then again, a few days back she’d seen a programme about a woman’s prison; the kind of place where female murderers were sent. And to earn money they’d worked in a big factory-type space. Making clothes using paper patterns.

Writing exercise #18 – Filling pages

On the dangers of telling someone to write what they know….

I do it dutifully, every night, and in the morning. I fill my pages as I’ve been told.

“It’s very useful. It’ll loosen you up, help you flex your writer’s muscles”, says Ken, my writing tutor, and everyone else in the class always seems to be fine with this. One of them has already had a story published, for God’s sake, that she first wrote during her daily pages. “It only took me an hour to write it. I just couldn’t stop once I’d got into the flow”, she simpered. I hate people like her, Sylvia, with her exotic looks (half Chinese, half Spanish or something), and her cute little pink notebooks with cartoon animals on them and her always perfect hair.

In class, when she announced her publication news (in a magazine I’d even heard of too – she didn’t even have the decency to be published in the Wisconsin Monthly Advertiser or something equally obscure) I’d sighed and looked down at my latest attempt to fill pages – three half sheets from one notebook and a piece of kid’s stationery found marking a recipe for meatballs in a second-hand cookery book, all framed by my equally scruffy hands; chewed nails, torn cuticles, scratched from trying to tame the feral cat that lives in the empty house down the street.

My sigh had been so loud that everyone around the table had turned to look at me and I’d had to explain that I was thinking about something else.

“Yes, remember that too folks; inspiration can strike a true writer anywhere, anytime”, trilled our tutor, and everyone laughed at me. I think it was about then I decided to kill him.

Since then I’ve actually had no problem filling my pages. I bought a tidy notebook with elastic to keep it shut when I’m not plotting his demise. Actually I’ve bought two – the ideas just come thick and fast, just like he always said they would. And I’m struck by plot ideas all the time – on the subway, hanging upside down during my pole dancing class, under water in the swimming pool (injection of air into a vein, strangulation, drowning). So I suppose just because a lot of his trite ideas did finally come true I should let him off. But I’m not going to. “Write what you know”, he says, over and over again. Well I want to write a book about a murderer and I don’t know how my character feels as she kills her victim. So he’ll just have to die for his craft.

Writing exercise #17 – Autumn shapes

I hesitated about posting this one, because several people close to me are seriously ill at the moment. But that felt like pretending it’s not happening to them, that their pain and fear and courage and determination aren’t real.

And surely if we’ve learned anything in this millennium so far, it’s that life is short and even the world we live in is uncertain. That you have to enjoy it while you can. That you have to grab the little smidgeons of joy (thanks again, Allison!) wherever you see them.

As I drive away, the maize in the field next to my house is now brown and brittle where once it was leathery and green, rustling drily instead of softly shushing above its deep purple-blue shadows.

The bones of trees are starting to show through, some of the branches already bare, and drifts of shed skin beneath them.

I walk by the sea, empty now of people – as indeed is the beach, a long expanse of white sand and marram grass undisturbed except by the odd seabird and the waves. And even they don’t venture far onto dry land here. The sky is pale blue behind me, but clouds are gathering quickly out to sea and the light is failing, dwindling. I comb the beach, searching for the amber that should be here but never seems to be. I find instead chewed-looking plastic bottles, pieces of wood, seaweed and the odd small half-smashed shell.

My fingers are turning what would be a rather attractive shade in a flower – but isn’t quite so fetching in fingers.

I stagger up the sand dune and into the woodland behind the beach, suddenly deafened by the silence of the pines around me. No longer resinous and heady scented, they stand dignified, waiting for the arrival of the first snows, their greyish pink bark apparently no defence against the cold. Actually, of course, they are perfectly adapted to their setting, and it’s more likely to be I that won’t be here by the time spring finally comes around again.

I walk along the winding path and back to my car, solitary occupant of the car park I last saw full of family-friendly vehicles and people emptying the sand from their shoes.

I hesitate for a moment before I turn the key. And then I drive away to yet another doctor’s appointment.