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.  

She stood for…

This was another one that came from nowhere, in 15 minutes, from what first appeared to be the most unpromising of prompts. I find these to be the most interesting exercises because they take my writing down totally different paths.

She stood for the thing I hated most – weakness. She sat behind the desk, hair freshly washed and styled, wearing a prim floral dress and made a pretence of consulting her screen and being terribly busy. Why did the force even employ somebody like this? When I’d entered the room she’d checked me off a list, said “Please take a seat, Colonel Tyrone will see you shortly”, offered me coffee and gone back to her ‘work’.

I’d already been sitting there for nearly half an hour, and the sound of her typing was driving mad. The little sighs and tutting noises, the creak of her chair… Where was this Tyrone person, and why was he making me wait so long?

I’d been told nothing in advance of this meeting, simply that I was being considered for a new unit and to present myself to a certain office at a certain time. And not to take my datapad with me.

So here I was in this bloody office with its deep blue carpet and that bloody woman – what was she doing now? She’d taken her handbag from under her desk and was touching up her make up. Probably primping herself for a bit of lunchtime sex with Tyrone. Assuming the fucker ever actually did turn up. The woman took out a comb and started rearranging her dark auburn locks, and I sighed. I’d had just about enough of this.

“Excuse me?” I said.

She looked at me quizzically.

“Colonel Tyrone does know I’m here, doesn’t he? Only I’ve been waiting…”

“43 minutes and 18 seconds”, she said crisply, dropping her hairbrush on her desk and standing up.

“Er… I’m sorry?”

“You should be, Lieutenant”. By now she was standing in front of me, a bit too close, looming over me as I sat in the ridiculously uncomfortable chair.


“You were invited here by the Colonel because this unit needs new people and because you’re reputedly one of the best”, she said, cutting me off again when I tried to speak. Who the fuck did this bitch think she was?

“Now, Colonel Tyrone is very busy and you’ll be seen as soon as possible. So I suggest you just be patient.”

That was definitely the last straw. I started to rise out of my seat, ready to storm out of there and never come back, specialist unit or not.

Then I froze. I’d not been looking at the woman’s face, but more at her feet, encased in ludicrously high lilac shoes, and as I’d begun to raise myself from the chair I’d seen the skin on her feet move. I’d seen it move as a result of the shifting of tendons and muscles under the skin. And I recognised that movement. I’d done it and seen it myself thousands of times before – the very slight movement that indicates somebody shifting their balance to counter an attack.

I eased myself back down into the seat, and this time I did look at her. Really looked. Underneath that girlish floral dress, she was lithe as a whip, but muscled too. I looked at her wrists, her calves, her forearms, her neck. I took in what I was seeing, in probably just a few milliseconds, then I looked her in the eyes. Bingo.

They always used to say that the eyes were the windows of the soul. And if that was true then before me was one very tough soul.

I relaxed back into my chair and smiled at her. She was very good – there was absolutely no reaction from those bright blue eyes. No widening, no twitch. Just the same smooth, professional expression secretaries have always employed.

“No problem, Colonel”, I said. “I’ll just wait here until you’re ready.”

She threw back her head and laughed. “Conroy told me you were good”, she said, then put out her hand. “Welcome to the unit, kid.”

Writing exercise #15 – Sacred moments

This was frequently his favourite time of the day, as the air cooled from the sun’s peak and the smells of evening flowers began to waft on the breeze across the yellow stone of the square. A blackbird called in a nearby garden, and he smiled to himself, as always pleased by the similarities between the bird’s plumage and his own black robes.

He opened the door of his place of work and went inside. The dark coolness enveloped him like a deep, secret pool, and he gave thanks to the magnificent deity who had chosen him. He appreciated how lucky he was, every day. When he saw the ordinary folk of this region, when he realised that he could have been one of them, with a hovel to live in and a few poor fields to farm, with probably 12 or 15 children born to his wife and perhaps four of them living to adulthood to helping with the grazing beasts and the crops…

He was thankful again now as he trod quietly over the age-smoothed stone slabs, and as he opened the lid of a chest to remove the holy accoutrements lying in the finely carved box.

He took the items and laid them out on the table next to the altar. Then he began lighting candles and torches around the altar. He continued his preparations as his congregation began to arrive, the murmured conversation of the faithful rising to the rafters far above.

Finally he was ready, and outside the sun was just dipping behind the tallest mountain. He had timed it perfectly as always. The door opened, and the celebrants were brought in, their white robes forming a startling contrast against the dark clothing worn by everyone else.

The small group halted just before the altar and the escorts stood back a little, just far enough that they could still intervene if the service didn’t quite go according to plan.

But it would be fine, as always, he could tell. The celebrants were thoroughly sedated – still upright but without any fear. And his knives were very sharp.