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. 

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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….

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God be blown!

 Above, a flash soundscape of God be Blown! You can follow the reading in the text below.

God be blown!

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. Looking up, he saw a row of people arrayed along the wall grinning. What had he done wrong? And what was this clasped in his hand? A brick! Where in blaze’s name had that come from? He clawed his way up the wall then squinted at the object in his hand. Apart from its excessive weight, it seemed quite ordinary, a dull orange pitted with tiny holes. Scratching his head, he tended the brick to the young woman leaning against the wall a few feet from him. “What do you make of it, Louisa?” She might once have been an acclaimed Miss Chichester, but for all her bold colours Louisa was no hero. She shied away, her glass sloshing its sherry over the bank clerk parked in a wheelchair next to her. But Scott insisted. Pulling a hanky from her pocket, she dabbed the sherry from the clerk’s knees then took the brick and, feeling its full weight, almost dropped it before she deposited it in the clerk’s lap. He manoeuvred his wheelchair into a patch of light and examined the brick as if it were a holy relic. “‘Ere. Give it t’ me, Mate,” a young man in paint-stained overalls said, plucking it from the clerk’s lap. He stroked its bevelled edges, a broad smile on his lips. “Now there’s a good un. What d’yer think, Louisa?” She scowled and sipped her sherry. Flexing his biceps, he tossed the brick a short way into the air, sizing it up. “It’s a good un, Reverend,” he said and bowing deeply proffered it in outstretched palms. The vicar grasped it with both hands and shook it vigorously, no doubt expecting a tiny devil to fall out. “If you didn’t drink so much, Walter, you wouldn’t be so amazed by a mere brick.” He looked like he wanted to dispose of it as fast as possible, but that wouldn’t be very Christian, so he bestowed it on the last of those propped against the wall: a boy whose feminine features and frail form were almost angelic. The youth cringed at the feel of the brick as if it might bewitch him. Flicking the long hair from his eyes, he pulled away from the wall and watched the others slink towards the pub door as if they wanted to have nothing to do with him. Shifting uncomfortably from one foot to another, he screamed and hurled the brick, shattering the window at the back of the police station. The resulting blast blew out the window, frame and all, and hurled the boy back across the yard where he landed at the feet of an astounded group, the brick firmly clasped in his hands.

Alan McCluskey
Words: 492 Text: Feb, 2, 2015 Audio: Nov. 2, 2092

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The Blinkin’ Box

Box-window

 Above, a flash soundscape of The Blinkin’ Box. You can follow the reading in the text below.

The Blinkin’ Box

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 beetle scuttle across, willing it on with silent words. When it reaches the other side, I leap for joy. Well I would if I had the room.

Early every morning, patches of deep blue trudge by. Then come the greys and blacks, hastening in a sole direction. But it is the flutter of colours filling the remaining daylight hours that delights me most, bringing with it delicate scents and whispered voices. Then, finally, as night falls, the whole ballet rewinds, ready to repeat again.

Not all is routine. From time to time, thin wedges of paper get shoved into my face through the narrow slit. Only yesterday, I got one in my ear. Damn sharp it was. Can’t complain though; they bring welcome sustenance, something I can chew on for hours.

It is time for the colours. My breath comes in short, sharp bursts and my mouth goes dry. I shift to squint out, biting my lip as I do, but the slit is obscured. Blast! A long drawn-out groan close to my feet, like metal straining against metal, has me scrambling to get away. But there is nowhere to go.

“‘Ere give us a ‘and with them bolts,” a rough voice calls out. It is so close, it could be in my head. “Pillar boxes ain’t no blinkin’ use any rate. Who’d be postin’ flippin’ letters these days.”

The shifting of metal on metal takes up again. Once, twice, three times in steady succession, only to stop, then start again. When it finally ceases, a metal object clatters to the ground and the voice calls out, “Right yer go! Lift ‘er up. Steady as she goes.”

The walls around me tremble and the unthinkable happens. Light streams in at my feet. I clench my eyes, wrap my arms tight around my chest and hold my breath, every muscle tensed to flee. But fleeing is no option.

Air swirls about me, setting my hairs on end as a stark light probes my every inch. I sway sightless. Exposed. Vulnerable. Seeking reassurance, I crack open my eyes. The world stretches away in every direction. Its sheer immensity has me blinking in amazement. People of all shapes and sizes stand frozen like grotesque statues, ogling. Their expressions shift from disbelief to disdain to disgust. Then the muttering begins.

With no box left to sustain me, I sag, then sink, till I am but a formless mess that flows out across the pavement, lost and bewildered, like spilt water far from its cup.

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Dr. Freud and the Rabbit

Freud & the Rabbit

 Above, a flash soundscape of Dr Freud and the Rabbit. You can follow the reading in the text below.

Dr Freud and the Rabbit

“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?”

Despite the small cushion placed behind its head, the couch was hardly comfortable. Lounging about like a human being was not a thing it chose to do often. If only it were back in the snug safety of its warren.

The sound of Freud’s pen scratching across the paper was all that came by way of reply. As always, Freud was impeccably dressed in a suit and a tie, his grey beard neatly trimmed. He’d even made sure his glasses were properly cleaned. Appearance was of extreme importance when dealing with patients, leaving no rough edges for them to wheedle their way under.

“What if …” the rabbit hesitated, then changed its mind. “I’m a rabbit. I presume we agree on that.”

A flurry of scratching indicated that Freud had not fallen asleep. That was a relief. Although it gave no indication as to whether the man was listening. He might well have been writing about his mistress or the flatulence that the mixture of freshly baked bread and home-made raspberry jam invariably gave him.

“How often do you get to talk to a rabbit? Not often I’d wager.”

Freud almost sighed at the thought of the smoke he’d had earlier. He just stopped himself in time, knowing his reactions would invariably be misinterpreted. Professional in all things, he thought, wagging a mental finger at himself. He reined in his wandering thoughts as he began to speculate about the significance of an upraised finger.  All the same, he’d have to see if he could get some more from the same supplier, it was dreadfully good.

“Was that a sigh I heard?” the rabbit asked. It was probably jumping to conclusions, but it ploughed on, regardless. “What if my being a rabbit were a problem for you rather than me?”

The rabbit cocked an ear in Freud’s direction, but the man made no sound as if he were holding his breath. Then the scratching resumed.

Didn’t little babies suck their finger for comfort? Freud mused, his eyes fixed on his notepad. He preferred not to look at the patient. Experience had shown that doing so could be a distraction. It was so easy to get drawn into the follies of his patients. Despite his efforts, he could have sworn he glimpsed a rabbit on his couch. He smiled to himself. That smoke really had been strong.

He shook his head, trying to clear it of the silly idea and glanced at his watch. To his relief, it was time. Freud got to his feet. “That will be all for today,” he said, closing his notepad and setting it on his desk. “Give the money to my housekeeper on the way out.

“But I have no money,” the rabbit explained.

“Don’t worry. I’m sure the housekeeper will find a suitable arrangement,” Freud called out over his shoulder as he hurried out.

In the library, Jung was waiting for him, browsing through the larger books about art and primitive societies. Freud glanced at the title. As he’d feared, it was about some mystical subject. What a waste.

Taking the book from Jung’s hands, Freud took him by the arm and led him into the dining room. “Why don’t we eat?” he said. “All this listening makes me hungry.”

Once Jung was seated, Freud poured them both a glass of wine and sat down across the table from his colleague. “I had a most curious case this morning,” he told Jung. “A fellow who was convinced he was a rabbit…”

Jung looked up at him, startled, then smiled. “I trust you had carrots for it.”

They were both still laughing when the housekeeper carried in a large tureen and a plate of roast potatoes.

“This is delicious,” Jung said, tasting the succulent meat, tender in its rich wine sauce. “What is it?”

The housekeeper beamed at the compliment. “You’re so kind Dr Jung. I made it fresh this morning. It’s rabbit stew.”

To read other short stories by the author see the list here. And his novels here.

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Blinking hell!

 Above, Blinking Hell!, read by the author. You can follow the reading below.

Blinking Hell!

“Next!” the doctor called out.

An old woman entered, closed the door and shuffled forward, unsteady on her feet. Her old-fashioned dress hung loosely over her emaciated body, swaying at each step. She halted hesitant in front of his desk.

“Take a seat,” he said. He’d never seen her before. If he had, he would have remembered those sunken, haunted eyes.

“What can I do for you?”

She laid her hands slowly in her lap, linking her gnarled, bony fingers in a cradle. “I can’t go on,” she said, her voice cracking as tears formed in her eyes.

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

He must have misheard. “Sorry?”

“Eighteen,” she repeated.

“You like to joke, I see,” he said, smiling.

“It’s no joke, doctor. I was eighteen three days ago!”

He’d seen a few cases of premature ageing, the proximity of a massive chemical plant had some unfortunate consequences, but nothing like this. He leant forward as if compelled to get closer. “When did it begin?”

“On my last birthday.”

Had she been exposed to the plant? Or maybe it was in her family. “What happened?”

“Nothing much at first. I just felt tired. My muscles ached.” She ran a hand over her eyes in a weary gesture. “Then I saw the wrinkles and I was a so tired even the simplest activity exhausted me. I thought I’d caught a virus.”

She was tense as if every muscle strained to hold on. He had the impression she was struggling with an invisible enemy.

“It’s time,” she whispered. “It’s not running right.”

Her words alarmed him. The idea was terrifying. Of course, he couldn’t rule out craziness. Her story might be an invention, a pathological nostalgia for lost youth.

“You don’t believe me,” she said, shaking her head. “Nobody believes me.”

He was reminded of a joke about two psychiatrists trying to convince each other the other was crazy. “Tell me,” he said, hoping he sounded reassuring as he leant across his desk and laid a hand on her bare arm. Her skin was icy cold.

She didn’t reply immediately. “Every time I blink,” she said, “time flashes by. Minutes, hours, days.” She stared at her hands. “It’s not the ageing that’s the worst,” she said after a short pause. “It’s missing so much. My life is full of gaping holes. It takes an enormous effort to have even a short conversation.”

All of a sudden he understood why she appeared so tense. She was battling to stay with him the length of their conversation.

“Where do you go during the holes?” he asked, acutely aware how misplaced his curiosity was in such circumstances.

“Nowhere. It’s as if I didn’t exist.”

What a nightmare! He hadn’t the slightest idea how to help. He looked up, another question on his lips, only to find the chair empty. She’d gone, blinked out of existence.

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Oratorio for a wreck

wreck-s

 Above, a flash soundscape of Oratorio for a wreck. You can follow the reading in the text below.

Oratorio for a wreck

Sunday. An Orthodox choir sang in the cliff top church: an Oratorio for those lost at sea. A breeze blew off the bay bringing with it a strong smell of salt and seaweed. The sound of the waves crashing on the beach below mingled with the tenors and altos. She bent forward and laid her posy of wildflowers on the cliff edge. An age-old tradition in her village, it was her way of honouring the memory of her grandfather. He had died several years earlier in the shipwreck of one of their finest boats.

She moved forward gingerly and peered over the cliff. Below lay a tiny beach covered in small pebbles all various shades of pink. It was unreachable, even at low tide. The waves crashed onto the beach and transformed into a churning mass of pink that surged upwards until it finally sighed to a halt then receded sucking pebbles back to the sea. Beyond, torn asunder amongst the rocks, lay the jagged remains of a fishing boat.

As she stood there, a small boy joined her and stared down at the wreck. She felt his hand reach out for hers. His welcome touch was warm and comforting. He was one of many orphans of the sea. They stood for a long moment holding hands, listening to the eerie counterpoint between the choir and the waves. Tears formed in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks.

Then abruptly the kid let fall her hand, lurched forward and flung himself off the cliff. Horrified, she peered over the edge to find he had not cleared the beach. His body lay face down, unmoving, his arms and legs splayed on the pink stones as the following wave broke over the beach, engulfing him.

She opened her mouth and screamed and screamed and screamed. Alerted by her screams, a man who’d been working nearby came running. He leaned forward to see what had happened.

We must do something,” she beseeched, shaking his arm violently.

No point, Miss,” he replied, as he freed his hand from hers. “No point.”

Alan McCluskey
Words: 360 Text: Sept. 5, 2009 Audio: Nov. 1, 2017

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