A Frustrating French Exam


I hurry down the long corridor, passing door after door. I’m late. A French exam awaits me, but I can’t find the right room. I quicken my pace. Most doors are unnumbered. Those that still bear numbers have been tampered with. Numbers have been turned upside down or half ripped off with other numbers scrawled in their place. I’m reluctant to disturb the classes within, but I have no choice. Peering into one room, I ask, “Excuse me, where’s the French room?” The occupants turn and stare coldly. A boy at the back whispers, “Three doors down.” Uncertain, I push open that door to find the exam already underway. The few students present are clustered at the front of the class. I take a seat at the back. Any French exam will be a pushover, I tell myself, confident. I speak and write French fluently. I pull the pencil case from my bag and select a black crayon. It’s not very sharp, but it will do. The teacher is talking. When I finally pay attention, I realise she is dictating the questions and has already reached number six. Indignant at the unfairness of it, I scribble the answer. The blank sheet I am to use for the test is dark grey, making my writing difficult to decipher. What’s more, the teacher is talking so quietly that I can barely hear what she says. Am I going deaf? I shift closer to the blackboard, missing two further questions as I do. With growing frustration I scribble the next answer and begin making a note in French at the foot of the page, complaining bitterly about the absurdity of the situation. Engrossed in what I am writing, I miss several more questions. Enough! I get to my feet, noisily pushing back my chair and tear the paper in half, then in half again, much to the alarm of the other pupils who cross arms over their answer sheet to protect them. “I’ve had enough of this nonsense,” I tell the teacher in French, well aware that by doing so I’m demonstrating how good my French is. “You can’t hold exams in these conditions.” Now it’s the woman teacher’s turn to look alarmed. “Please don’t tell the headmaster,” she pleads in broken French. I storm out muttering curses in French.

The hedgehog at the end of the line

Blood red and ink black

“Whoops!” The man gave up prising a lump of wax from his ear and pointed a crooked finger at the page. “There’s a hedgehog at the end of the line.”

“You what?” Bloody fool never could talk straight. She scratched her upper lip. Sweat always made her moustache itch. “You’re bonkers.” 

The tabby stretched and meowed as if to say, “Yeah.” Always did side with her.

“Look. The blighter’s smudged the ink.” He spat out a string of swear words. Being a wordsmith had its advantages. “I spent ages cutting that together.”

“I don’t see no blinkin’ hedgehog.” She squinted at the page, pulling the metal-rimmed spectacles from her nose and rubbing the glass furiously with a snot rag. She sighed. “You bin at that bottle again?”

The blindness of it. After so many years. She still didn’t see. “The only bottles I’ve got are full of ink.” Irritated, he stretched out a hand to brush the thing from the page, smearing ink as he did. “Ouch!” He snatched his hand back dripping blood and sucked his finger. “Spiky brute!”

The woman shook out the snot rag and knotted it in a bow around his finger. “Only you could draw blood from a text.”

Startled, he stared from his trussed up finger to his work. Blood red and ink black mingled in growing disarray. “It’s in tatters.” He screwed up the page. “The scraps I painstakingly pasted together have come undone and all the cleverness has run through the cracks.”

“Scraps of worthless crap, if you ask me.” She strained to her feet, her joints cracking, and ducked the kettle in a bucket of water. The cat jumped to safety. It hated all that wetness. Dumped on the hob, the kettle hissed angrily.

“What do you know about the stuff that makes a story a story?” He tossed the scrunched ball of paper at the cat. It missed and landed in the bucket. Droplets showered the animal which spluttered in indignation. Did they do it deliberately?

“You and your pot of glue and your washed-up scraps.” She scooped up the cat and petted it. “You call that a story? There’s more glue than story.”

He jumped to his feet and strode to the bucket. Fishing out the soggy lump of paper, he shook it out and tried but failed to unfold it. Shoving the pink and grey mess under her nose, he spat, “That’s a story!”

She got to her feet, sending the cat flying, and pummelled the man’s chest. The thud of her angry fists accompanied the kettle whistling violently to the boil. A final thrust sent him reeling. The clump of paper flew from his hand, arced over his head and landed with a squelch on the seat of his chair. Off balance, he tottered backwards his arms flailing till his legs met the chair and his rear plonked down heavily. He let out a piercing scream and leapt to his feet grasping his backside.

Spinning in fury, he raised a clenched fist, expecting to see the cat’s smug smile. Instead, rolled up in a ball, its grin well hidden, sat the hedgehog.

The above flash fiction was inspired by a passing comment from EmJay Holmes during a workshop at the Geneva Writers’ Group.

A War on Dots and Dashes

 Above, A war on dots and dashes read by the author. You can follow the reading below.

A war on dots and dashes

Furious, she scored a diagonal through the page in blood-red ink. When would they learn? Spelling and punctuation mattered. Two out of ten. The mark fell like a death sentence but she had no regrets. She picked up the next composition. “There not their,” she muttered, circling the offending word in red. “Not there,” her parrot echoed. She glared at it, then squinted at the pupil’s name. He was one of the worst. Spelling awry. Punctuation amok. Sentences a shambles. Construction chaotic. Did he do it deliberately? Was there some perverse pleasure to be had in making her blood boil? “Weight!” You’d have thought it was a swear word, the way she spat it out. “Not wait!” she added. “Wait!” the parrot swore. She shook her fist at the bird but it just stared back, unperturbed.

A toffee could have written better English. Now there was an appealing idea. She unwrapped one of the harder sort and, tossing the paper on her desk, stuffed the sweet in her mouth. She read on, chewing with such vigour her jaws ached. If she’d had her way the youth would have been expelled long ago. Were not where she scrawled in red. The subsequent sentence was so drawn out and convoluted it had her gasping for air. “Breathe for God’s sake,” she spluttered. “God’s sake,” the parrot intoned. Such cryptic remarks were wasted on these dimwits. Exactly. Waste, not waist. The page was redder than a battlefield. All dead words and red gashes. She shut her eyes and ran a hand across her brow. Her skin was clammy, a migraine coming on.

In comparison, her feet were cold and wet. Wet? Her eyes flew open to discover she was standing barefoot in a pool of pitch black water. Perplexed, she dipped a cautious finger in the viscous liquid and sniffed. She knew that smell. That was no water. It was Indian ink. She stared in horror at her soot-black feet then flung herself sideways, only just clearing the puddle. Her trajectory left a dirty smear across the smooth white surface. She landed with a jolt, her stained feet skidding sideways, sending her skating along a straight path. It was not wet. To her relief. But black and slippery. Reaching the end, she swung violently to the right along another path akin to the line atop a ‘T’, only to halt on the verge of an immense ‘O’ where she fell flat on her face.

She sat trying to scrub ink from her hands to no effect. Giving up in disgust she scrambled to her feet. The moment she was upright, the nib of a giant fountain pen danced a red circle around her, knocking her legs from under her. She squealed as she tumbled into yet another puddle. Rolling free, she crawled out on all fours. Ink dripped from her hair and trailed from her clothes tracing a rogue path through otherwise neat forms. Hearing an ominous whoosh, she glanced up to see the nib plunging straight at her. She dived to the side as the tip scratched the soft surface where she had squatted only seconds before, splattering her red.

The nib rose, no doubt readying to strike again. Ignoring the black forms crisscrossing beneath her feet, she wove her way, darting left and right at random, her breath catching in gasps in her throat. Again and again, the nib struck, although ink was the only thing that hit her. The blows became ever more frenetic until the nib drove down with such force it buckled and impaled itself only inches from her. Red ink flooded from its broken tip forming an ever-growing pool. Scouring splotches of red from her eyes and face with blackened fingers, she scampered away, careening across the blotchy surface till it abruptly ran out. She had reached the edge of the page and the end of her luck. The notebook slammed shut.

The shock of that thunderous demise and the unending darkness that fell, like a final full stop that wouldn’t swerve from its resolve, undid her. She burst into tears, her whole being wracked by uncontrollable sobs. The fathomless grief jolted her back to the present and she cracked open blurry eyes. Tears rolled down her cheeks and fell on the disconsolate composition, mingling black and red in an incomprehensible muddle. All sense had been washed from it. There was no way she could piece it back together. Nothing of the wayward story had stuck in her mind. For all her strident complaints, she hadn’t really read it. A renewed wave of remorse rolled over her and bore her away. 




Four flash soundscapes

I have published the first four flash soundscapes based on my short stories. I was inspired in doing so by the work of Dirk Maggs who, amongst many other productions, directed and was the sound master of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Douglas Adam’s Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not that I have Maggs talent or possibilities, but it was fun.

 The Blinkin’ Box [460 words, June 4, 2014/Nov. 14 2017]
I peer out, my eyes pressed to the cold metal slit. The brick wall opposite often forms a landscape scarred with shadows, but today it is nothing but a red blur. It stings my eyes as I watch a…

 Dr Freud and the Rabbit [681 words, July 26, 2013]
“Frankly,” the rabbit said after a long silence, making a show of staring off into the distance, “are you sure it’s only my problem?”…

  God be Blown [489 words, February 2, 2015]
The blast flung Scott the length of the corridor, through the back door of the pub and all the way into the yard. When its force finally waned, he crumpled to the ground to a round of applause….

  Oratorio for a wreck [371 words, September 5, 2009]
It was Sunday. An invited Orthodox choir sang in the cliff top church: an Oratorio in memory of those lost at sea. A breeze blew off the bay bringing with it a strong smell of salt and seaweed….




Smoke signals from a wordless world

The following short story was written with Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump and all the trigger-happy, so-called women-loving cowboys of this world in mind.

Whistling tunelessly, a sole figure rides east on an open plain.
His mind roams unfettered over soft curves and moist folds.
Galloping across that formless plain he spots a cloud of dust.
It swirls and grows, hastening westward in the treeless waste.
Abruptly it turns, speeds up and heads unswervingly his way.
Alert amid that endless expanse, the rider ceases to whistle.
Pushing up in the stirrups he shields his eyes from the rising sun.
Little after dawn and already dried grasses rustle in the breeze.
Taking on human form, the pounding of hooves reaches his ears.
The on-coming rider looms ever larger urging its horse to a gallop.
Still in the saddle, his hand shifts to his holster and readies his gun.
That there is a threat leaves no doubt. This stranger wishes him ill.
There can only be one solitary rider in those plains and it’s him.
An arm raised in menace, an outstretched hand pointing his way.
He draws fast, his arm poised, takes aim and fires. A single shot.
The recoil flings him back as a short, sharp detonation rings out.
A gasp of in-drawn breath replies to the imperious bark of his gun.
The figure flies from its horse, arcs upwards then falls with a thud.
Amid swathes of cloth lie the soft curves that peopled his dreams.
Sliding his gun into its holster, he stares bemused at the lifeless form.
The unarmed woman‘s eyes stare back, one hand raised in a wave.
He dismounts, running excited fingers along the curve of her cheek.
Her skin is soft and milky. The curls of her flaxen hair stir in the breeze.
Death has not yet frozen her beauty. She could almost be asleep.
Like admiring a picture, he scans the veiled curves that arose him so.
Wings flap close to his head and outstretched claws whistle by his ear.
Responding to a silent summons, birds of prey circle impatient above.
Her mount has fled, already little more than a cloud in the distance.
He clambers up into the saddle, turns his horse aside and plods away.
Hesitant hooves follow the trail, then he urges his horse into a gallop.
Whistling tunelessly, a sole cowboy rides east on an open plain.

Where was I?

Where did I put that paper? It was in here somewhere. What a mess. Always so much stuff in my bag. No idea where it comes from. A packet of cigarettes. Empty, of course. Shame. Could have done with a cig. No such luck. Against the doctor’s orders. Bloody know-all. Smug too. Young enough to be my grandson. All his diplomas strung out on the walls. Proud blighter. And rich too. What’s this? A glove. One. Where’s the other? No idea. Like me and him. Only one survivor. Pretty useless without the other. Should ditch it. But there’s always a chance a second’ll come along. Even if they don’t match. And this. A lipstick. Used up. Long ago. In efforts to please him. Before he died. Always knew he’d go first. Quirky heart. Just gave up. There he was collapsed on the floor at my feet. So much for looking good. Smells exotic. Bright pink. Not really my colour. Looked like a whore. Might as well chuck it. No use for good looks now. Ah. The keys. I was looking for them. When was it? Yesterday. Or maybe the day before. No matter. Thank heavens they aren’t lost. How will I get in when I reach home? Where was I? Ah yes. That paper. But why? An appointment? The dentist? A doctor? Or maybe a letter? A picture postcard? Don’t get many of them these days. No blighter bothers any more. As if I were tottering on the brink. Going, going, gone. Always was stubborn. Won’t give in so easily. Of course! My address.  On the paper. That’s it. Words. The keys to where I live. Must have lost it. Fallen by the wayside. Here maybe. Look at those feet. Black and blistered. Could have stopped hurting a while back. But the pain got worse when the shoes fell apart. I remember that. It’s the sharp stones that are the worst. The way is littered with them. So many paths to get home…

[330 words]

Protect Net Neutrality

Wednesday July 12th 2017 has been singled out in the States and elsewhere as a day of action in favour of Net Neutrality. If the Trump administration through the FCC reverses earlier decisions and gives the right to Internet access providers to pick and chose how they grant access to the Internet it opens the door to partitioning the Net between haves and have-nots, with ultra high-speed broadband services for the rich and pitifully slow Internet, if any access at all, for the poor and marginalised. In terms of content and content providers, it would give access providers the right to decide what is ‘acceptable’ and what is ‘unacceptable’, where acceptability may depend on the company’s commercial or political interests rather than any concern for the public good or for the underlying democratic nature of the Internet. To learn more about the question see (amongst many others);


On my walk, crossing so many traces of stories yearning to be told.
A misplaced golfball close to a golf course, its owner lost in the search.
The hoof prints of a small horse escaped or out for a Sunday caper.
The tyre marks of a tractor or a four-wheel-drive off the beaten track.
A paper trail of hankies left by a solitary jogger with a snivelling cold.
A family of water droplets having fun in the safety of some spiky leaves.
Finally a lonesome leaf proudly standing out amid brown counterparts.

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Sleepless Knights

A fly settles on the word ‘scar’. I cup my hand. Can’t squash the damn thing. It’s sitting on a book! Look at it! Twitching  its feelers in defiance. I brace myself for action. My lightening scooping movement sends the fly buzzing away and leaves me empty handed. Scar? The jagged mark on Harry’s forehead is a flag the author waves to make us sit up and pay attention, but like Potter, it’s getting a bit weary. The fly buzzes on a victory lap around my head. I wave it away but it lands on the word ‘Polyjuice’, a potion to make you what you are not, then sidles sideways and settles on ‘Scorpius’. Now there’s a name with a bite. Should never have eaten that black treacle chutney with the ham. My liver is complaining noisily. Why do we persist in doing what we know is bad for us?

Knock. Knock. “Come in.” My son stands by his bed enveloped in a cloud of ether. “What’s that smell?” I ask. He points to a small, portable computer on the bed and mimes pouring liquid onto a cloth. “I’m cleaning the jam from the keys.” Why do I have a feeling of deja vu? I look at my inexistent watch. Twelve-fifteen. “Shouldn’t you be getting some shut-eye?” He smiles. Guilty or guileless? Who knows? Who cares? “Try winding down,” I say. “I’m not a watch,” he retorts. “Breathe deeply then,” I reply, “and switch off your brain.” He laughs and picks up the cloth and a tiny bottle, holding them at arm’s length. “No smoking,” I say and smile as I close the door.

I’m sitting on the edge of the bed in my office reading the eighth tome of Harry Potter, the one that takes place nineteen years later. The former heroes have become  long in the teeth. Why do I imagine their children being played by a doddering cast of pensioners? Hope the Beastie film is better. It’s half past midnight. The door opens. My wife enters. “Can anyone explain why no one is asleep in this house?” “The phase of the moon, maybe,” I reply, wondering what phase it is, not having been out for weeks, and continue reading. She’s still staring at me, hand on the door handle, her head cocked to one side, so I add, “I’m keeping this fly company as it buzzes around my room. I’ll go to sleep in a few minutes. If it will.” She shuts the door and I hear her skipping her way across the living room, humming a song.

I lie in bed, mentally massaging my liver, soothing the pain. It’s a play. Plays are riddled with holes compared to novels, especially when there are so many characters. This one reads more like a film script. It’s the extravagant stage directions. A leftover from the novel. Makes you wonder what they’ll do on stage without the special effects. Anyway, the pain has gone. Should have made a career of it. Maybe not. Outcomes are always uncertain with magic. Better to stick to what you understand.

The Empty Box

Empty Box

This story is dedicated to my dentist who unwittingly gave me an almost empty box. Note that any resemblance between him and Hans is a mere coincidence.

“Do you know the one about the man who was balding?” George asked, setting his empty beer glass down on the table. It was early and the pub was still quiet. Apart from the bartender checking racing results in the evening paper, they were the only people there.

Hans shook his head. He certainly had no problem with hair loss. His curly locks hung down to his shoulders. Blond, like many people from his country.

“There was an ad in the newspaper,” George continued, “offering a solution for balding people to keep their hair in.” He couldn’t help grinning as he anticipated the punch line. “Well he sent off a cheque and was delighted when the postman delivered a parcel. But opening the small packet, he found only an empty box.” George burst out laughing. Hans looked at him perplexed.

“An empty box to keep his hair in,” George repeated.

Hans looked at him blankly.

“It’s ambiguous,” George began but immediately gave up. Jokes were never funny when explained.

“An empty box,” Hans said, pronouncing each word as if it were a rare wine to be swilled around his mouth but not swallowed. “It sounds like a koan,” he mused.

“A what?” George asked, waving his glass at the man behind the bar. When he caught the man’s attention he raised two fingers. The bartender shook his head but George motioned to the plaster on his leg. The man nodded.

“It’s Japanese. A pithy saying which doesn’t seem to make any sense. Yet on reflection it’s meaning is profound. That understanding changes you.”

It was George’s turn to look perplexed. How did Hans manage to jump from a joke to philosophy or was it religion when he had hardly finished his first beer? “Give us an example,” he said. “Something I can grasp. Not your airy fairy words.”

The bartender set out two new mats, removed their empty glasses and replaced them with full ones. George pulled out several notes and handed them to the man, saying “Keep the change.”

Hans clapped his hands together startling George who was about to savour his second beer. He hastily wiped the froth from around his mouth and said, “Why d’you do that?”

“You know the sound of two hands clapping?” Hans asked.

“Of course.” Why such an obvious question? Was the man trying to make a fool of him? Sometimes Hans was very strange. Maybe it was all that peering into people’s mouths that warped him. George was glad he was not a dentist.

“Well,” and here Hans waved one hand back and forth in front of him. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

George burst out laughing. “You Germans have such a funny sense of humour.”

Hans was not laughing. He wasn’t even smiling. Instead, his face was aglow. “The sound of one hand clapping reaches the highest heavens above.” He proclaimed the words with such fervour he could have been the vicar culminating one of his most inspired sermons, but unlike the vicar, Hans had no excuse for his madness.

“What’s all this got to do with an empty box?” George asked.

“Everything!” Hans exclaimed, a triumphant grin on his face. “Just like the apparent silence of one hand clapping is full of sound and meaning, so the empty box is brimming over with content.”

George made a mental note to change his dentist. The man was raving mad.

“Have you been sniffing ether again?” he asked.

Hans ignored the jibe and continued. “Silence and emptiness are akin. They are not an absence but a tangible source of richness.”

“I wish I could make money from emptiness,” George quipped, trying not to grin in case Hans thought he was poking fun. His friend could be touchy.

Hans shook his head, a look of determination on his face. “Bartender!” he called out. When the man came, a dish cloth in his hands, Hans asked, “Have you got an empty box?”

When the bartender raised his eyebrows, Hans said, “I’m trying to demonstrate something to my friend here.

“How big?” the man asked. Hans replied by placing his hands about a foot apart.

The bartender shared a knowing glance with George that said something like you have to humour madmen then disappeared behind his bar. They could hear him rummaging about for several minutes before he returned carrying a  plain brown cardboard box that smelt of crisps

“Great,” Hans said and thanked the man. He took the box, peered inside, upended it as if emptying out its non existent contents, then set it upright on the low table between them. “I’m going to show you that emptiness has a feel to it.” He moved George’s now empty beer glass to one side and placed the box in front of him. “To do this you need to close your eyes.”

George glanced around the pub to make sure no one was watching. The bartender had returned to his newspaper. George closed his eyes, all of a sudden feeling vulnerable. He steeled himself against a possible practical joke. None came. Instead Hans said, “Hold your hands out in front of you.”

George did as he was told, wishing he’d never mentioned the empty box.

“Without moving, feel the air around your fingers.”

George could feel nothing. Air was air. And unless it was moving or you were, it didn’t feel of anything.

“Take your time,” Hans said softly.

George’s thoughts wandered and he had to force his attention back to the air. He wasn’t sure if it was his imagination but he had the impression the air was thick and a little oily. If he moved his fingers they might produce ripples.

“Now I will put the box round your hands,” Hans explained. “Without touching them.”

George’s was surprised at the difference. He chuckled but kept his eyes closed. There was a tang about the air in the box. Salt, he told himself, and grinned. No. That was probably just the faint smell of crisps. So he searched further, peering behind the smell and beyond the image of the box he had in his head.

A thrill fluttered in his stomach as he realised there was something there, just outside his reach. Each time he stretched for it, the illusive presence slipped away. Frustrated, he gave up and just let himself sense the ungraspable. He was startled to discover his senses spreading out in every direction till he felt he could embrace the whole universe. No. He was the whole universe. He was connected to everything and everyone. He hung there not wanting the feeling to end, but his arms began to tremble and his eyes fluttered open.

With a jolt he saw that he was seated on a bench in a pub with his hands thrust inside an empty crisp box. How disappointing. He reached out for the feeling he’d just had but it was receding like a dream leaving only regret and nostalgia.

Hans put down the empty box and raised his glass, saying, “Prost.”