Tag Archives: stories

Cusp

23 Mar

Snapping bubble gum between her teeth in a way that annoys even herself, Al steps out of the front door, half registering that it’s warm enough to not need a coat.

She’s wearing one anyway.

Key lodged under the plant pot by the steps, her rubber soles thwack on concrete and she’s off down the hill. Her friend Lucy is waiting at the end of the road, as promised.

Lucy carries her awkward bundle of bones in her uniform. They stretched before she was expecting them to; adolescence and all its unreasonable anger poured into a glass like a dropped can of Coke, fizz rising to the top and spilling out before she could stop it.

They call out things that feel like normal teenage words. Perhaps “Hey,” or “Yo,” definitely nothing like OMG or LOL. This happened before all that.

They pass the woods on the left. The air hums with the start of summer.

New green things unfurling, becoming tall in the silence.

Chlorophyll flooding venation, a viridescent tide swelling underfoot and overhead, sweeping everything on it, under it, in it.

Damp earth warming in the already-potent morning sunlight and fermenting like wine. Photosynthesis everywhere.

Normally they chat. Boys, girls, teachers, TV. Not today.

The woods start to thin out and a hill rises in front of them. To their left, a gap in the hedge and beyond it: fields. They stop. They both know that they can just carry on and the other will go with it. That would be easier.

Each of them half wants the other to just walk forward and carry on up the hill so they can follow, but the plan said now or never. If you could have asked them afterwards, each would probably lay claim to being the first to turn away from the inevitable and towards the unknown.

There were no witnesses so early in the morning, no dog walkers or postmen. If there had been, they would have reported no sass. No teenage bravado. No jostle to be first through the gap.

Just two friends, disappearing.

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Image: @Jadhill98 on Instagram

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Blank

24 Feb

Here’s a new short story that crept up on me last night.

Blank
By Gemma Critchley

I just saw it stuck there.

Last Tuesday.

I’d never seen it before; or at least I’d never noticed it. Not sure why I would have, in fairness. I mean, I go down this corridor at least twice a day. I suppose you end up on autopilot a lot of the time. I bet you can’t remember every step you take whenever you leave the house, can you? I sometimes get to wherever I’m going without any real recollection of how I got there. Know what I mean?

I half-notice other people doing it too. In my peripheral vision on the train, getting their post from the mailroom of my hastily-erected and ill-planned block of flats, drifting around the co-op with a tin of tuna in their basket. People moan about how nowadays, no one knows their neighbours and that common courtesy is dead. I don’t think that’s true, I think people just cram so much more into their lives than they used to that there’s no room for noticing those that spend their lives in the boxes around yours.

But still, I’d have thought I’d have noticed something like this before. A smooth, white, flat rectangle tacked to the wall opposite the door to my flat. Almost a direct mirror of my front door, in size and shape. But white, really white. Dazzling. Brilliant. Blinding. All of those other adjectives used to describe all the colours of the visible spectrum when simultaneously deciphered by the human eye.

The rest of my corridor, my scrap of London, was grey. Of course. Zone 3 Grey, like a Pantone in-joke gone sour. That’s why the rectangle stood out. It shone.

If you looked at it too long, it seemed to be capable of adjusting its texture. Of bristling and rolling and swirling; contracting and expanding and rippling. Rising. Falling. That makes it sound alive. Sorry.

What I mean is: sometimes it looked a bit like an empty picture frame, smooth, glossy, expectant. Other times it appeared to fizz; white on white, like Alka Seltzer dropped into milk.

I’m number 217. I could have sworn 202 was across from me where the rectangle sits. But I never paid that much attention to it, so I could be wrong. Sometimes you imagine stuff was there that you’ve never seen, you know? It’s not like I ever saw a person around this end of the corridor. Or, if I did, I never noticed them. Never knocked on to introduce myself to my neighbours. If there were any in the first place.

I had actually done that a few times since moving to London, mind. On the whole I’d been met with wary, bemused looks. And no neighbour ever knocked on my door to say hello.

So, after carrying my ironing board on the tube from one different flat to another for four years, I suppose I stopped trying.

Did I stop noticing stuff too?

Probably.

But not this.

The first time I noticed the rectangle, last Tuesday, I had one of those weird, unsettling shudders – a cross between those two mythical, everyday occurrences of someone ‘walking over my grave’ and ‘déjà vu’. The left hemisphere of my brain poured logic on the feeling like Gaviscon on heartburn.

After mushroom soup – from a carton, not a tin – I went to bed but stayed there and awake, an inexplicable dull ache where I imagined my heart was. When I Googled the pain, it suggested I probably had a heady cocktail of no-doubt incurable illnesses, including but not limited to: lung cancer, heartbreak, breast cancer, dysphagia, psychosis and rabies.

I lay in the half-light glow of the takeaway signs on the street outside and prepared for my seemingly inevitable demise as I willed sleep to settle uncomfortably over me, like an airline blanket.

I doubt I’d have even given it a second thought if the next few days had it not panned out the way they did.

The second day I saw it, I was getting home after a particularly bad day at work. I almost thought I could hear the hiss of it as I slid the teeth of my key into the Yale lock and turned it sharply to the right, faster than I normally would, to put wood between me and the world. Staring hard at the dull blue of the heavy fire door, my blood turned my heart into a bat inside my rib cage, rabid from the transfusion after yesterday’s webMD session and frantic to escape. I scolded myself for being ‘daft’ and turned on all the lights in the house. I went to bed, but for the second night in a row, I didn’t sleep.

By Thursday, the pull of the white shape was like an itch in the centre of my back, just out of reach thanks to years of missed yoga classes. I poured myself a mug of gin, drank it neat, wretched. Sleep came.

On Friday, I woke up in front of it.

I don’t know how that happened. I’m not a sleepwalker. I backed away from it into my flat, Yale on the latch, me on my knees; dazed and dizzy. I vomited hard into the 80s avocado green porcelain bowl of my rented toilet until I saw stars.

Saturday, I had the fleeting freedom of not having to leave the flat. I didn’t have to see it if I didn’t want to. I sat, ripping through cup after cup of tea, telly off, curtains closed, seated then standing, panicked, like a commuter on a train in front of a pregnant woman. Rings from my mug making two, six, nine damp crop circles in the MDF of the coffee table.

Pacing.

Itching.

Nail biting. Nail biting! That isn’t something I do. I must’ve picked it up from a film.

I couldn’t leave it alone. All that lay between me and it was fifteen feet of cheap laminate flooring, a heavy fire door, the Yale lock and a peep hole. It would be so easy to just take a look. See if anything had… Changed.

Looking never hurts, right?

Feeling the rush of release that comes with submission, I crossed the crumbed tiles of the kitchenette to the door. Pushing myself onto slight tiptoes, I levelled my right eye with the circle of glass, designed, no doubt, as a forerunner to call screening.

The pain in my eye was both immediate and not obvious. But I knew how to fix it.

Move forward.

Before I knew it, I was fumbling with door chains, Chubb and Yale turning in my hands like pottery on a wheel.

I pulled the door inwards and stepped into the corridor, illuminated like someone had pressed pause on the double pulse of the flash that precedes a nuclear explosion. The width of the corridor would have been easy to clear in two steps, I took three, four, five strides towards the rectangle.

Everything.

Hurt.

At primary school, a boy in my class had once taken a piano tuning fork and whacked it hard across the knuckles of my left hand. That’s what this felt like. A sustained, crackling current of pain; vibrating through me from the most bony of my extremities to the yellow and red slop that makes up insides.

Then: whiteout.

And now this.

Sitting here, telling you all this, feels a bit ridiculous. Although it probably doesn’t feel that way to you, right? I couldn’t believe it how many of you were in here when I arrived. And some of you have been around for how long? 12 years? That’s as long as the flats have been here for. Imagine! All the neighbours from the second floor, stuck together here. All with the same story. Drawn out of autopilot by a stinging longing to make a connection with something.

And now we have a connection. A glowing white tube of neon glass, looped around the left wrist of each of us, linked together and buzzing with a sticky undercurrent of dread. Four white walls, connecting a white ceiling and a white floor. And each other.

That’s all we have.

#30days30stories

4 Sep

Task 1: A story about a journey.

Mission

Standard issue backpack, check.
Communication devices, check.
Access cards. Access cards? Where are they? Did I lose them? Surely not…

I tap my pocket for the third time that hour, feeling that hard, rectangular shape respond solidly to my touch. Almost reassuring. Almost, but not quite.

Don’t panic.

I’m lucky. My vessel is in a part of this quadrant that sits out in the open. Rare, these days. Most of the air around here is too thick to breathe, makes most people sick. I find that standing and sucking on the standard issue AirTubes helps. It’s worth the mild headache and creeping nausea to catch the last bit of AirTime before I’m shuttled away. Kind of helps with the nerves. The AirTubes even come in different flavours, now. This one is reminiscent of some sort of synthetic mint that rings a bell from what I assume to be my childhood, but I’m never sure if memories are real, these days. They say they’re not. They’ve done research.

The vessel arrives, or should I say, appears. Always that same breathtaking, break-neck speed, a whoosh and a snap and where there once was nothing, there’s a shuddering mass of soft grey metal, once sparkling, when I first joined The Alliance; now peppered with rust and pock-marked by dents where Things have hit it. I try not to think of that as I board.

I’ve done journeys like this a million times before, or at least that’s how it feels. My access card would say it’s more like hundreds of times, but still. When it’s a new route, I can’t help but feel a little light-headed at the prospect of some variation in what could be considered by some to be a dull, grey, dot matrix printout of a life. Considered that way by some. Not by me. Obviously. Not if The Alliance is listening, anyway. Which it is, of course.

I’m trembling. Part fear, part excitement. I try to steady it. Even though I have my instructions for the journey, I’m never fully sure that I’m going to make it. You just can’t be, these days.

I feel other agents attempting eye contact with me, and I avoid it. I’ve been down that road before and it never ends well. It starts with eye contact and before you know it, The Alliance is ‘advising’ you to avoid that route at all costs, forever. If you’re lucky, they sometimes assign you a new one like they did to me; or they’ll close the old one down completely if they have to. That’s bad news. For everyone. Eye contact just makes life harder. Head down, focus on the floor.

This vessel feels no different to the others I’ve been on. The Alliance isn’t big on diversity. Spacious enough in cubic millimetres to invalidate any complaints but cramped enough to make you pine for the thick, bilious smog outside the cruelly-tinted windows that block out any hope of light. Not that there’d be any to see, even if the windows allowed for it. Not down here.

A metallic crackle through a public address system confirms our destination and the airlock starts to contract, ready to seal the vessel. As the beeps counting down our take-off increase in urgency, I spot the hazy shape of an agent running towards the air lock from outside. I feel a collective tightening of nerves as the realisation that he’s not going to make it spreads through the capsule; the crackle of dry grass consumed by flames on a hot day. We watch him fall back as we’re sucked into a black unknown; ever faithful, onwards and sideways, autopilot on; inevitable, regretful, resigned.

The vessel hurtles through thick darkness, as dusty as a bran tub lucky dip at a village fair in an old film – or maybe a memory, who knows? The air in the capsule is tepid, almost wet in contrast to the parched atmosphere outside, sponging me down with its disconcerting warmth. I try to breathe in as little as possible, sucking in tiny gulps of air from the side of my mouth, avoiding the ribbons of carbon dioxide streaming from the mouths of my fellow travellers.

We take off.

Some of the newer agents stumble as they acclimatise to the velocity of the vessel. I’d heard this section of the network was faster than the rest, but even as a seasoned agent, I’m shocked at how our heads whip back – just a fraction, but enough to scare us – before we’re stabilised to that same, maddening pace as everything else in the quadrant: fast forwarded nonchalance, a fake slipstream current sucking everyone along like a creek, hungry to send its waters out to sea. Godspeed!

Through the scruffy, constructed night we hurtle, nothing to indicate we’re moving at all, other than the odd jolt here and there and the assurance from the public address system that we’re entering or exiting another quadrant. They say it is so, so it is so.

My new quadrant is announced as the next destination. Mission control will be expecting me any time now. Of course, The Alliance runs the faction that’s responsible for delivering me and millions of other agents safely to our destination pods for each day’s labour, so they know exactly what time I board and leave the vessel, even as my feet are stepping into the travelator.

I fix myself in position and prepare to be ejected. A mission indeed, and one I’ll be doing again in reverse in eight hours. But for now, it’s okay. As I break the surface of this new area, the air feels lighter, thinner. Space lies between me and the other agents now, instead of just millimetres. The panic abates, albeit only slightly.

I’m out.

I’m okay.

I survived my commute.

#NaNoWriMo 2011

2 Nov

Okay, so those of you who know me well will know that every year since 2003 I have participated in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it is affectionately known. This is where you challenge yourself to write an entire novel of 50,000 words in a month.

Nanowrimo national novel writing month gemma critchley literary abandom dystopian fiction

I’ve got close before, I even did around 30,000 words one year, but have never yet managed to complete (or ‘win’, as it’s known) NaNoWriMo.

This year I’m giving it another bash, just because I love what it stands for: 30 days and nights of complete literary abandon, where it doesn’t matter what you write or who reads it or how good it is. You end up throwing self-editing caution to the proverbial wind and just writing for writing’s sake. I love it.

This year I’m going for dystopian future meets Mills & Boon. It’s called ‘Speculate on a star’. The synopsis is:

“Romeo meets Juilet meets 1984. Think Dystopian science fiction meets Mills & Boon, with consequences that are not always as ridiculous as you might think.

The year is 2111. Vona works for ADCORP, processing advertising for the government which has since taken over from law enforcement. Police are no longer required as people simply do what adverts tell them to.

Otro is one of the last people left who practice ‘Ignorance’, an ancient skill left over from the turn of the new millennium, when people could simply choose to ignore what they do not want to see. This rare skill is highly sought by the world’s leaders as it is the one way they are able to make clear decisions without being swayed by the advertising of other countries.

Otro doesn’t care about the government; he chooses to ignore them and wants to spread the word of how Ignorance can be the path to enlightenment. He is on a mission to find other Ignorants who can join him in his quest. He stumbles across Vona who has the gift of Ignorance and the power to change advertising, and thought, forever.

But will she?”

I’ll probably use my One a Day blog to write some of it too, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Have you tried it before? Leave a comment and tell me all about it!

A story for #sharethelove

28 Oct

This is a story inspired by #sharethelove, a movement on Twitter that encourages people to show a bit of human kindness and to help those reaching out to them, and that encourages people who feel like they need help to be able to ask for it.

It can be something as serious as feeling depressed and needing someone to talk to or something as simple as wanting to make people smile. I fall into the latter category and so, here’s a story, specifically requested by Ralph Razor, which is designed to make people feel a bit better about the world.

lovely books pretty ribbons gemma critchley story writing #sharethelove twitter share the love Ralph Razor razor stiletto beatifnik

Ways

Holding tightly onto the rail, I inch a step closer to the edge.

Rather than have my eyes squeezed shut against the ugly, dark wall of fear that rears up, black and brazen, building itself in front of me, I have them snapped wide open. It’s as if they’re held wide with stitches or hooks or some other medieval way of making me act against my instincts.

But this isn’t force. Oh no, this is all self-inflicted.

Well, I say self inflicted. It wasn’t as if I had planned to end up in this position. It had started as a normal day, wake up, hit snooze on the alarm clock, sleep for another twenty minutes, wake up late, dunk self in shower, scramble around the flat for the outfit that at least remotely resembles office attire. Get on bus, snooze on bus, get off bus, sleepwalk to office.

But that’s where the normal day ended.

As I walked from the bus stop to the office, I passed the same closed down cafe, the same run down post office and the same falling down church. I looped around a corner and then towards the path that takes me along the river to my office.

Now, I make this trip five days per week at roughly the same time (give or take five minutes depending on how much I struggled with the whole ‘waking up’ debacle) and never once have I ever noticed the delicate-looking wrought iron foot bridge that gracefully – and curiously – arced across the water. It rose from the footpath at the side of the river and branched out across the water just before I reached work. It is entirely possible that in my headphone-muted bubble of morning haze, I had simply failed to take in my surroundings. Many people do it, very few would be found ‘not guilty’ on a charge of moving too fast to stop and appreciate what’s around them. But something about the bridge told me that this simply wasn’t a case of Commutus Oblivious. For a start, the bridge was humming at me. That’s right. Humming.

I don’t mean the bridge was happily going about its business, humming a merry little tune. The bridge itself seemed to be vibrating so quickly that it was filling the air about it with the gentle buzz of its movement. The longer I looked at the bridge (and I’m fairly sure I had been standing and staring open-mouthed at it for a good five minutes by this point), the louder the hum got, until it was almost making a high pitched ringing noise, like the sound you get when you run your finger around the edge of a crystal wine glass.

As the sound swelled, the bridge itself seemed to glow – a warm, golden pulse that could easily have been a reflection of sunlight on water – only it wasn’t sunny in the slightest. It was grey and damp and cold all around me, not a chink of ethereal light coming from anywhere else. In front of me the bridge glowed, beckoning me onto it, giving it the old mermaid siren song and I, of course, was a sailor in my answer to its call. Like a pin to a magnet, I couldn’t help myself. Casting a short, sidelong glance toward the dull tower of concrete I had been sentenced to spend the next eight hours in, I felt a pull inside my stomach, tugging me towards the golden light and warm hum of the alternative route that had somehow presented itself to me. The other aspect of this bridge that grabbed me was that it didn’t reach the other side, or at least I couldn’t see it. Despite it only being a few feet away, the end of the bridge seemed to tail off into the unknown.

It feels ludicrous to think of what I must have looked like as my colleagues and fellow commuters pushed past me. Their collars high against the wind, their eyes fixed on the ground, not one person seemed to be seeing what I was seeing. I got the odd dirty look and one person even tutted as he pushed past but I hardly noticed. It must have looked like I was staring out into the churning steel of the river below, when in fact the bridge in front of me was not only tangible, but it was also inviting me to take its path.

Despite the dubious (and possibly imaginary) grounds for my decision, I stepped off the bank of the river with a conviction that I have never felt before in anything I’ve ever done. I don’t think I could have stopped myself, even if I wanted to. There was a moment when my head pulsed and I felt sick with the adrenaline that surged through me. My body screamed that I was possibly doing something incredibly stupid, but that was simply the physical reflex reaction to an completely emotional action. I had to walk along the bridge. I was born to do it. I had half expected to be tossed down the 20 foot drop onto the rocks and swirling grey water below, but the bridge held me. I kept on walking, half terrified, half serene, walking further and further towards the place where bridge became air and solid ground became certain death.

And here I am. The warm iron of the railing against my palms. The low hum of vibrating metal all around. The choice, to walk or to stop, all mine to make.

My eyes are still wide open, and excitement is hammering out an elaborate drum solo in my heart. My feet failing to fail me. I move forwards, onwards and upwards. My head is high, my fear is as real as the bridge I’m walking on.

I keep walking.

I keep walking.

#oneaday 16: short story Sunday

16 Jan

Today’s one a day blog post is brought to you from bed via a hangover. It is a short story. Short being the operative word.

Once upon a time, a girl lived in a big house by the sea. She lived there all by herself and her windows faced out into the bay of the small seaside town and she could see the waves from her bed. One day, she decided to take a walk along the cliff path to the nearby town just a few miles up the coast.

She put on her boots, coat and hat and strode out into the bracing sea air. A little way down the path, she heard a mewing noise. She looked down to see a tiny baby kitten following her. She said hello and the kitten carried on following her. He followed her all the way up the path to the town and then all the way home again.

The girl wondered if the kitten had his own home to go to, but night fell and he was still sat on the front door step, not going anywhere. The girl opened the door and the kitten poked his head into the hallway. He gingerly stepped up to where the girl sat and then jumped up onto her knee and curled into a ball, purring contentedly.

The kitten grew into a cat and the girl grew into a lady. Now they both lay in bed watching the sea together and the girl no longer lives alone.

#oneaday 9 – Short story Sunday

9 Jan

So, I said I’d use Sundays to post some short stories. Here’s one from a while ago, it’s a bit cheesy but I shall endeavour to write more, and more often. Here it is:

Tunnel
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