The Playboy And The Bog Man

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My essay on Margaret Atwood’s short story The Bog Man was a runner-up in the Threshold’s Feature Writing Competition. I am very happy with this – I specifically set aside some time to write for this competition this year and it really paid off. The story was published in Playboy in 1991 and I speculate on why Atwood would have accepted the invitation to do so. You can read  it here

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I’ve got a busy week. There is a wonderful Rattle Tales show at Brighton Fringe on Wednesday, hosted by brilliant poet Deborah Turnbull and featuring a fantastic line-up of authors. If you’ve not been before you should go – like bedtime stories for adults in a candle-lit bar with wine!

On Saturday I will be at Wordstock at Brighton Open Market. A free all day literary event with publishers, authors, spoken words groups and workshops. I’ll be wearing my Brighton Prize and Unbound hats on the day and it looks set to be a great event.

On Saturday evening it’s the Saboteur Awards. The awards got a great write up in The Independent a couple of days ago and were described as, ‘here to shake up the literary establishment’. It certainly needs a shake. I am very excited to have been shortlisted and want to thank anyone who voted for 15 Minutes! Producing this book was one the hardest things I’ve ever done and it’s very nice to see it getting some recognition. I’ll keep you posted!

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/sabotuer-awards-literary-prize-festival-poetry-spoken-word-indie-publishing-sabotage-reviews-a8345536.html

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Vote For Fifteen Minutes!

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I’m having a great week! After many months of plugging away at promoting Fifteen Minutes things are finally starting to happen. It’s quite difficult to promote a short story collection, generally bloggers don’t want to know and short story journals want finished reviews. This week I found out I had been shortlisted for a Saboteur Award, a big deal in short story circles. I am beyond thrilled that people took the time to vote for my book, thank you to anyone who did so. I now have another favour to ask – the shortlist is open to the public to decide the winner so even if you voted to nominate me you have to vote again. It’s really easy though, just click on the link below, you don’t need to vote in every category but you every vote counts.

https://www.saboteurawards.org/

Awards like this ensure that short story collections get a much needed publicity boost.

I got back from a lovely holiday in Lyme Regis to find that I’d been longlisted for The Thresholds Feature Writing Competition. I try to enter this every year but failed to do so for the last couple because I’ve been so busy with Fifteen Minutes. This year I specifically set aside some time. I do think that if you practice any craft you should examine the way the masters work. If you were studying art you’d look at Picasso’s methods or DaVinci or Monet as a short story practitioner I find it extremely helpful to look at great writers in depth and try to work out how they do it. I really enjoyed researching and writing my feature for Thresholds and it certainly paid off – the shortlist is published on April 23rd so fingers crossed, I’m in very good company on the longlist.

Last night I was part of a panel event at Brighton Waterstones on crowdfunding with Unbound. Editor In Chief Mathew Clayton chaired and also on the panel were fellow Unbounders Lulu Allison and Pierre Hollins. It was a lovely evening, not least because it was about the books rather than funding or promoting them, Mathew got us all to talk about how and why we’d written them, the audience asked questions and bought books and there was a little wine. Brighton Waterstones are brilliant at events, they host loads of different authors so keep an eye out for what’s on next. A big thank you to Richard and the team there even if we don’t agree on The Dry!

Also this week three excellent reviews for Fifteen Minutes. It’s so nice when people like your work but it’s even more rewarding when the reviews show that they know exactly what you are aiming for and fully appreciate it. Please have a look at them here.

http://thresholds.chi.ac.uk/when-will-i-be-famous/

https://www.theshortstory.co.uk/the-short-story-review-fifteen-minutes-by-erinna-mettler/

https://storgy.com/2018/04/07/book-review-fifteen-minutes-by-erinna-mettler/

Don’t forget to vote!

Saboteur

 

 

The Problem With The Frida Doll

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The sun sets on International Women’s Day with the news that when toy maker Mattel launched their set of inspiring women dolls on Tuesday they hadn’t asked the Kahlo family for permission to use the painter’s image. The Frida doll was authorized by the Frida Kahlo Corporation. Mattel issued the following statement;

Mattel has worked in close partnership with the Frida Kahlo Corporation, the owner of all rights related to the name and identity of Frida Kahlo, on the creation of this doll. In addition to the Frida Kahlo Corporation being an important part of the doll development process, we have their permission and a legally binding agreement to make a doll in the likeness of the great Frida Kahlo.”

There has long been an ongoing argument between the corporation and the family about the commercialization of the Kahlo image. While there is no suggestion here that Mattel have done anything illegal, it might have been politic to ask Kahlo’s descendants what they thought about it.

When I first heard about the doll I thought, ‘great, where can I get one?’ I am the proud owner of a pair of Frida Kahlo socks after all. The range, which also has the sub-branding ‘Shero’ (cringe), includes snowboarder Chloe Kim, Amelia Earhart and British boxer Nicola Adams. All the dolls in the range are skinny armed, even Adams who is very evidently muscled in reality. This is my problem with the Frida doll, putting aside the fact that she was a Communist and would not take kindly to being commoditised in this way, it looks nothing like her!

frida socks

I am a disabled woman. I have had numerous surgeries and had to learn to walk over and over, my body is scarred; Kahlo has always been an inspiration to me. She was a woman who rejoiced in her difference through her art. She painted the casts she had to wear to straighten her back; she revisited the tram accident and the spearing handrail hundreds of times in her paintings. Many photographs of Kahlo show her seated, sometimes in a wheelchair, sometimes lying in bed undergoing one of the long periods of rest that were part of her recovery before the next surgery. In the photographs where she is standing, she is often leaning against something, a wall, Diego, her face is impassive, a look I know well because what she is doing is holding back the pain in order to stand. This anorexic prettified plastic is an affront. Kahlo’s great niece, Mara Romero had this to say;

“I would have liked the doll to have traits more like Frida’s, not this doll with light-coloured eyes.”

If the Kahlo Foundation was as involved as they say they were they should be ashamed; this doll is about as far removed from Kahlo as it is possible to be. I cannot comment on the ethnicity of the doll, there are many women far more qualified than I am to do so, but anyone who paints out Frida’s mono-brow is surely missing the point of her strength entirely.

The BBC article on the row with a picture of the doll is here, the relevant page on the Mattel website is down.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-43339428

 

A Story For International Women’s Day

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I wrote this story some time ago and a version of it is included in my new collection, 15 Minutes. The premise of 15 Minutes is to look at ordinary people in the midst of a world of celebrity. Ruby is the sort of woman who is overlooked in age, who used to be noticed because of her looks but is now almost invisible. A woman who works hard in spite of misfortune. Also, I really want the Lego diner pictured here because it is basically this story in brick form! Happy International Women’s Day everyone.

RUBY OF THE DESERT

Ruby was just 16 when Mr Simms built the Coyote Diner on the edge of town, where Main Street seamlessly transforms into Route 58. The town was small and perpetually covered with a thin layer of pale desert dust, as if it had been kept in storage for a long, long time. Entertainment was one bar on the outskirts, frequented by drunks and farmhands, and no place for kids or women. The excitement among the bored backyard teenagers grew with the building site, as out-of-town workmen levelled the one-pump gas station and erected eatery Eden. The kids watched its progress from porches and pushbikes, standing in huddles to gawp at the passing trucks and rising walls and speculate on how the place would look when it was finished. It was 1962, and those workmen left behind more than just a building, they left the tiny dirt-track town the much-needed hope of rock ’n’ roll glamour (and more than one illegitimate child).

Ruby went to see Mr Simms before the work was completed, the main shell having been constructed but the inside not yet beautified. She peered through the glass door, still with its protective plastic, and watched him scan the local paper and slurp back coffee. He was a big, grey-haired Texan, complete with the regulation Stetson and spurs, even though his Chevrolet Impala was parked outside.

Men were a mystery to Ruby. Her daddy had left when she was nine – preferring hard liquor and gambling to providing for a family – and then it was just her and her momma, who spent her life sitting silently on the porch in her rocking chair, mending the town’s clothes for a meagre living. From this spot Ruby’s momma squinted at the desert, which stretched out between the peaks punctuating the town, as if she were waiting for somebody to ride over the horizon. Somebody she knew, deep down, would never come. Money was tight. Sometimes Ruby dreamt of going to Vegas and winning big on the gaming tables she’d seen in the movies so that she and her momma wouldn’t want for anything. Whenever she mentioned this, her momma would reply that ‘money was better when it was earned’ and that Ruby should ‘concentrate on her studies instead of spending her time daydreaming about things she’d never have.’ Ruby never was one for schooling. Her momma was right, she did spend most of her time in the classroom gazing out of the window, the teachers’ words getting lost in the mist of her daydreams. She wouldn’t ever be college material, but she did have the savvy to walk up to the Coyote’s door before any of the other girls in town and ask for a job. She stood a good while at that door before Mr Simms got the feeling he was being watched and spilt his coffee on himself as he started up and beckoned her in. As soon as she stepped over the threshold she knew she belonged.

In 1962 the Coyote seated a hundred and fifty. It had the smooth chrome lines of an express train complemented by deep red leather booths and bar stools. Each table had a mini jukebox, ensuring that the music was always on. When Ruby arrived for her first day, in her short pink uniform and regulation lipstick, the Tornados blasted through the outdoor speakers and grease monkeys in newly pressed overalls tuned up cars on the parking lot. They stopped and whistled as she passed and she felt more like she was in an Elvis movie than starting work in her home town.

In the back room, in a fog of competing perfumes, the girls fixed their make-up and hair for the grand opening. Ruby knew a couple of them – Cherry, Marlene – but mostly they were from out of town, and Ruby blushed with pride when they complimented her on her legs as she tied the laces of her roller skates. They became the sisters she never had and Chet, the grill cook with movie-star looks, became her first husband, though none of them knew what they would mean to each other on that first day. Back then, they shared an unconscious immortality, certain only that the next day would be better than the last.

The Coyote’s fame spread. The last stop before the desert, it drew customers from far and wide on their way to the natural wonders of the valley. It was also the place to hang out if you were young and looking for love. Ruby was its star, a whizz on roller skates, Mr Simms’s favourite girl, popular with customers and co-workers alike. It was no wonder; she was very striking, tall and thin with the friendliest of ice-cream smiles. Her hair flowed in unruly auburn curls that kept coming loose from the bobby pins she used to keep them up. She considered it her best feature, even if it did smell of burger grease.

 

All that was nearly 50 years ago; and on almost every day since – barring the few taken for funerals, childbirth and holidays – Ruby has looked out across the parking lot to the desert at sunset. There is a particular moment she likes best, when dusk begins to dissolve into night and the sun tucks itself beneath the covers of the horizon. She always takes a minute to stand and watch its progress, awestruck as the orange light casts lengthening cactus shadows across the plain. The Coyote’s vast windows give her the full Panavision experience. In these moments, she feels at one with the world. Today is the last day she will witness this spectacle as a waitress and she has a lump in her throat as she watches a lone car move slowly away towards the infinite.

From her first day at the Coyote, Ruby remembered everybody’s name. It came naturally to her, as if the brainpower needed to retain all the arithmetic and fancy words in school was just waiting for a purpose. She added up cheques in her head and remembered the favourite dishes of her customers, even if they had only visited once or twice. If folks were new to town, she greeted them warmly as they settled into a booth and made sure to ask how they were doing. Sometimes it was hard. Sometimes her heart felt like it would break. In her time at the Coyote, she has gone through two husbands (and her fair share of lovers). Chet ran off with another waitress after 10 years together. Her second husband, a refined older man named Mitch, died of lung cancer a few years after they wed. Each left her a son, Eddie and little Mitchell. Even when they were babies she managed to work full time, night shifts and afternoons, leaving them with their gramma until they were old enough for school. Later, they came to the diner after class and Mr Simms always gave them a jawbreaker while they picked something from the menu for supper and did their homework in the back room. Mr Simms was a sympathetic boss, more like a grandaddy to her boys. He said they were as cute as pie with their mother’s red hair and Opie Griffith freckles and he taught them their first magic tricks, and then poker, over the counter as Ruby worked.

Mitchell was killed in Iraq. He was 29. They flew him home in a coffin wrapped in the stars and stripes. The army presented her with the flag at the funeral. A young man with a straight back and a square jaw placed it on her upturned hands and then saluted her. She had no tears left to cry. She keeps Mitchell’s flag folded in her dresser drawer, out of sight but never quite out of mind.

 

Eddie didn’t cope too well. He got deep into to drugs, and the crimes that go with them, and ended up with a 15-year prison sentence for armed robbery. Neither son had married. There are no grandkiddies to dote on. Eddie isn’t young any more; his red hair was shaved to the skin last time she visited and his face was puffy and grey. Ruby wishes she could visit him more often but he’s in a cross-state penitentiary and the bus fare is more than she can afford. That’s her business though. The customers don’t need to know about her personal dramas. For them, she has only a smile and a few words of encouragement when it looks like they might be suffering.

In the 1970s the music changed. Approaching 30, Ruby adapted her roller-skating technique, swishing in time to heavy disco beats with a tray poised preternaturally on one hand. The diner still buzzed and Ruby still wore her smile. Mr Simms bought a new sign; as well as the original roller-skating coyote he had the words Ruby of the Desert added in flashing red neon. He said he wanted people to see the place as they drove across the plain at night. He said that Ruby deserved recognition for all the years’ service she’d put in. Ruby was speechless. She stood below the sign and squeezed Mr Simms’s arm as the electrician flicked the switch for the first time and bathed them in a scarlet glow. Sometimes (and this was one of those times) she wondered if Mr Simms wanted more from her than friendship, but if he did, he never said anything about it. He watched her work her way through a few of the Coyote’s regulars, and some of those passing through, and he never judged her, never told her to stop. He was more than 20 years older than her and she didn’t want to offend him by suggesting his motives were anything but honourable. When she looked back on her life in the cold, lonely nights of old age she figured that if Mr Simms had wanted more it would have been below that neon sign that he would’ve told her.

The sands seemed to shift under Ruby’s feet in the 1970s. Most of the original Coyote girls had left, married or gone South to seek fame and fortune. Ruby was older than the new girls and more like a mother than a sister. She gave them advice when they had man trouble – God knows she’d had enough herself – and provided a shoulder to cry on when they needed it. Mr Simms looked after her; made sure she was eating right and had enough shifts to pay the rent. She thought of him as the father she never had, another bond unspoken but acknowledged in the cheery ‘Mornin’, how are you?’ they exchanged each day. When Ruby’s momma passed he paid for the funeral and afterwards sat with her until dawn sharing bourbon and memories.

***

Another decade passed under the unforgiving desert sun and Ruby’s skin began to wrinkle. She had good genes but the laughter lines ran deep, turning her mouth down at the edges so, unless she was fully smiling, she carried an air of sadness about her. She still loved her job, though it wasn’t the same after Mr Simms had his heart attack. Right there in the spot she’d first seen him, almost 30 years to the day. He slumped to the floor and his coffee spilt on the table, seeping into his newspaper and blurring all the stories into one. The Coyote passed to a nephew, who never came near, and the management of the place was taken over by a young man called Gregory, who had a sour face and a silent manner. A Starbucks opened on Main Street and a drive-thru McDonald’s across the road. People wanted their food fast. Custom dwindled quickly and within a year of Mr Simms death half of the booth space in the Coyote was given over to slot machines. The music was turned way down.

***

Today, Ruby shows her replacement the ropes. Carmine is her name; it doesn’t suit her. She is a tiny, mousy thing with glasses and acne, just out of school. She has to be shown how the staff lockers work several times. God knows how she’ll cope out front, but that’s not Ruby’s problem any more. At least the roller skates have long been replaced by sensible sneakers, rubber-soled so as not to mark the floor. As Carmine stows her outdoor shoes in her locker, Ruby looks at herself in the back-room mirror. She smoothes her hands over her belly, noting how her uniform stretches across her bulging middle, and then touches the tight grey perm peeking from under her hat. The auburn curls are gone. For some time now she has been squinting at her order pad through bifocal lenses. Her smile is the same though, a little puckered around the edges maybe, but still as radiant as a desert morning.

 

Ruby’s last order is a rush. At 6.30 the door is opened by a stranger wearing blue jeans and a pressed white shirt. She saw his pick-up drive in from the valley, sunlight reflecting off the wing mirrors like fallen stars. It’s unusual to see an unfamiliar face at the Coyote these days. He carries a Stetson and, though he bears no physical resemblance to Mr Simms (he’s too short and dark), he reminds Ruby a great deal of her former boss – perhaps it’s his soft Texan accent and twinkling eyes. He orders coffee and blueberry pancakes with canned cream and, as she pours, Ruby asks on the off chance if he is related to Mr Simms. ‘Wouldn’t that be something on my last day?’ she says. But the stranger smiles and tells her he’s just passing through and there’s no connection at all. Ruby is as attentive as ever but her co-workers spring a Happy Retirement cake on her so she doesn’t have as much time to talk to him as she would like. Gregory – now middle-aged but no more communicative – makes a short, embarrassed speech about her being their longest-serving employee. There is applause and tears and they present her with their gift – a china model of a cowgirl riding bareback. It’s pretty, hand-painted, with fine detail on the long red curls sticking out under the cowgirl’s hat. Perhaps they thought it looked like her in the old photographs that now adorn the Coyote’s walls. It’s a lovely gift, planned, thoughtful and completely useless. Ruby hides her disappointment under her usual enormous smile. A Greyhound pass was what she wanted, so she could visit Eddie more often. She was sure she had dropped enough hints.

After the party, she places her cowgirl safely under the counter and insists on clearing her last table. The Texan is long gone. He smiled and tipped his hat to her during the celebrations. She watched him walk to his car as the waitresses set off party poppers and sang ‘For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow’. Ruby pocketed his tip with barely a glance, assuming from his smile that it was a more than generous note. She goes out for a farewell beer with her colleagues, knowing she will see them rarely. She doesn’t think she could bear to come back as a customer. The Coyote is as much her diner as it is anyone’s; it wouldn’t be right to be waited on.

It is only when she is home, sitting alone in front of the TV rubbing her stockinged feet,  that her mind returns to the tip. She sits up and fishes into her coverall pocket. She is surprised to find that the folded paper in her palm isn’t the twenty-dollar bill she was expecting but a lottery ticket for that night’s county draw. She thinks about her momma, sitting on the porch mending clothes, telling her that money is better when it’s earned. She remembers her teenage dream of winning big in Vegas, a city her momma never got to visit. A smile crosses her lips as she reaches for the TV remote and changes the channel just in time to catch the jackpot draw.

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Snowmageddon!

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As we’re all snowed in, well in Brighton there is less than a centimetre but it still counts, I thought I’d post my short story about snow, Footprints. I wanted to write a traditional English ghost story and it really works best read aloud in a warm candle-lit pub – but as none of you can get out…

FOOTPRINTS by Erinna Mettler

The blizzard resulted in a lock-in. The Druid’s Head was at the edge of the village, a good half a mile away from the first houses. At eleven Ryan, its landlord, looked out of the window at the thickly falling snow and declared we’d all freeze to death if we tried to walk home.  Settled by the fire with freshly poured pints, someone said we should pass the time telling ghost stories. And so, as the blizzard rattled at the windows, five grown men set about trying to scare each other silly.

Most of the tales were bad movies re-located to the Devon countryside, deaths foreseen, cannibal farmers, The Dartmoor Witch Project and Ryan’s nonsense about the poltergeist that drinks all his profits. No-one was in the slightest bit frightened, but it was fun and even as the snow stopped, we lingered, reluctant to leave the cosy camaraderie and trudge home in deep snow. The hours passed with each story. Beer flowed, heads became fuzzy, words slurred. Alex, our local teacher, went last. He’d been reluctant to join in when normally you couldn’t shut him up.

‘There is one story I could tell,’ he said when pressed, ‘it happened right here in this pub, well outside anyhow.’  He looked over at Ryan who was tidying the bar. ‘Years before you took it over.’

‘Go on then Alex,’ said Ryan sceptically, ‘do your worst.’

Alex put down his pint and began his tale with an earnest expression.

‘I was eighteen. I worked here then for the owners, Marianne and Valentin Fomitch. They were a bit weird. He was Russian, if you can believe it, and she was a hippy. Valentin always wore purple – cords and a poncho usually – and he had piercing green eyes, long grey hair, a pointy beard and a pentagram tattooed on his neck. Marianne floated around him in diaphanous dresses and hardly spoke. Valentin was so brusque he quickly alienated himself from the village. He refused to pay bills for honest work, barred regular customers and was generally as rude as he could be, so hardly anyone came in here in those days. They probably didn’t need me here at all but Valentin was always taking off for days at a time and said he wanted a man around.’

‘But you’d do, eh?’ interrupted Ryan.

We shushed him crossly, eager for Alex to go on, for as you can see he had a way of telling tales.

‘There was a lot of gossip about where Valentin went and what he did when he got there. My brother Denny, who was prone to a little night wandering himself, said he’d seen Valentin in the woods at full moon carrying out some sort of naked ritual with a dead deer and a hunting knife. He’d heard the deer’s squeals and hidden in the trees to watch. He said he was sure Valentin had seen him, that he stopped mid stab with the knife held high and turned to look in his direction. It creeped him out so much he didn’t go poaching again for months – not until he was sure he wouldn’t run into our Russian friend again.

This one night, Valentin came back almost as soon as he’d set off because a blizzard had suddenly blown up, much like this one.  At 10 o’clock, when the snow had stopped and there still weren’t any customers he said I could go. As I went to the door it crashed open and a man ran inside. He rushed up to the bar and looked over his shoulder as if he expected someone to follow him inside, but all that came in was the wind and a cloud of powdery snow.  He was young man, trendy and not at all dressed for a blizzard. He wore a thin suit jacket, jeans and sneakers not even gloves or a scarf. He was soaked through. Snow clung to his clothes in clumps that he began to brush away as if it were alive. He was jittery alright; when I shut the door he nearly jumped out of his skin then held his hand to his heart. His upper-class voice shook as he spoke to Valentin.

‘Do you have a phone? Damn car’s broken down – a couple of miles back.  Completely dead.’

Valentin nodded tersely at the pay phone by the window but when the man saw what he meant, he hesitated.

‘Don’t suppose I could have a drink first?’ he said glancing nervously at the door. ‘Had a bit of a shock, need something to steady the nerves.’

Valentin made no attempt to serve him so I went back behind the bar and poured him a brandy. He downed it in one, his hand quivering as he put down the glass.

‘What happened,’ I asked, ‘did you hit something?’

I figured he must have run over an animal in the snow, you know what mess a deer can make.

He shook his head.

‘Damnedest thing. I’m lost. Must’ve taken a wrong turn and then couldn’t find my way back to the main road, drove through the snow for an hour at least. The car gave out in the middle of a wood.’

Marianne moved over to Valentin and hung onto his arm, pale and wide-eyed like a frightened child.

Our guest went on, words rattling from him like hailstones.

‘Everything died instantly. Engine. Lights. Radio. The snow had stopped so I decided to walk up the road, thought I must be near a village, or a house at least, and that I’d freeze if I stayed in the car. City boy you see, no food or blanket in the boot. The clouds had cleared and moon was bright so I knew I’d be able to see the way. I stepped out onto snow a foot deep. I hadn’t passed any houses for miles so I decided to go on into new territory and walked away from the car.

A few yards along the road, I realised there was another set of prints beside me. I don’t mean that someone had walked up there before I had – I mean another set of footprints was being made next to mine as I walked. I could see the snow depress as my feet sank into it just as if someone were walking along with me but – there was no one there.’

He shook his head again and frowned.

‘I stopped and they stopped.  It sounds crazy I know. There was nothing special about them. They looked like human footprints; a man’s shoes but with a long pointed toe. I looked behind me and saw that they started by the car as if someone else had got out of it when I did. I stood for a while trying to make sense of it and then I heard the breathing – quick, and in time with my own but very definitely not mine. Then I saw the vapour.

Well, I didn’t hang about, practically ran the all the way here, fell over a few times – that’s why I’m covered in snow. My ‘companion’ matched my pace right up to your door.’

At this point Ryan knocked over a half empty glass, splattering its contents over the bar onto the stone floor. We all turned to him and tutted, but he just laughed and came to our side of the bar with a mop and started to dab away at the mess.

‘If I may?’ said Alex.

‘Don’t mind me,’ Ryan smirked, squelching the tiles with the mop.

Alex sighed and carried on.

‘I poured the stranger another drink and this time he sipped it. Valentin and Marianne didn’t move.

The man laughed softly. ‘Must have snow fever,’ he said.

Warmed and fortified by the brandy he called the AA from the payphone, taking care not to look out of the window while he talked.

They took a couple of hours to reach us. I sat with him while he waited. He was a nice chap. His name was Sebastian and he was a record producer down to work at some pop star’s country house. I played bass in a band back then so we talked about music. By the end of the wait we’d decided that his mind must have been playing tricks on him, that logically there couldn’t have been another set of footprints, that the woods and the full moon on the snow must have worked their magic on his imagination. I even went outside to look, just to make sure. I looked up and down the road as he stood in the doorway – there was only one set of prints in the snow. Sebastian seemed to relax after that, put the whole incident down to tiredness and the effects of the blizzard. I told him I was going to study in London the following year and he gave me his number; said he’d show me around his studio when I got there.

Valentin and Marianne didn’t speak to him once. Barely even looked at him. But they didn’t go to bed either – they just sat in a booth away from the fire whispering to each other.

The AA phoned back and said they were waiting by Sebastian’s car.  I left with him and Valentin closed the door behind us. As he bolted it I thought I’d heard Marianne say,

‘Valentin, for pity’s sake.’

Outside, the snow seemed to reflect the stars above, glowing like diamonds in the moonlight. I shook Sebastian’s hand in farewell as I was going right into the village and he was going in the other direction – back towards the wood.

For a moment I wondered if I should go with him, but it would have been silly to walk him to his car and then to have to walk all the way back again. I looked over my shoulder at him when he was on his way, and for a second I could’ve sworn I saw another set of footprints beside his own and heard the double creak of decompressing snow.’

Ryan rubbed a glass quickly with his tea-towel so it squeaked and everyone looked in his direction and laughed nervously.

‘What happened to Valentin and Marianne?’

‘Never saw them again – they did a moon-light flit. The pub was locked up for months until the new owners arrived. The estate agent said there was all sorts of weird stuff left in here, black candles and voodoo dolls, symbols drawn on the floors upstairs. Funny,’ he said looking at Ryan, ‘but people don’t seem to stay here long – maybe there’s something in your poltergeist story after all.’

We looked at each other as they clock ticked loudly and the hairs raised on my forearms despite the heat of the fire.

‘What about the guy,’ I asked. ‘Sebastian? Was he okay?’

‘As far as I know he met the AA and went back to London. They didn’t fix the car though; my brother saw it the next day and it stayed by the roadside for a week before someone towed it away. It was odd, but there was no story in the local paper, no missing person reports or police investigation so, after a while, I just forgot about it.’

‘You called him though, when you got to London?’

Alex looked at the floor.

‘No, No I didn’t.’ He mumbled. ‘I never dared to.’

‘Even though he was a record producer and you were in a band?’

‘I thought about it a lot but was I scared. What if I called and found out he was missing, last seen in Devon? But I have always wondered…’ he swigged at his beer, ‘if there was another set of footprints in the snow, what kind of being was it that could have made them?’

Everyone was silent for a while, the only noise the spitting of the fire and the wind shaking the windows.

Clyde, the policeman, spoke first. He quickly finished his drink and said, ‘that’s me done.’

‘Yeah, me to‘And me.’

‘And me.’

And in a flurry of coats and downed drinks we all said goodnight to Ryan – who bolted the door quickly behind us – and were soon standing outside on the thick glistening snow as the wind wailed up the lane. We turned right to walk into the village and I pulled my coat around me, surreptitiously looking back over my shoulder so the boys wouldn’t see me do it and take the piss. What I saw stopped me in my tracks. I pulled at Clyde’s sleeve and we stood and watched them moving after the others through the snow – footprints with no owner.

THE END

snow Feb 2018

A Short Story Thread

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#AuthorInTheSpotlight – @ErinnaMettler

Portobello Book Blog

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I’m pleased to be joined today by author Erinna Mettler. Her collection of short stories, Fifteen Minutes, is available now from Unbound and you can order a copy from Unbound here  or from Amazon here

Welcome Erinna – first of all, would you tell my blog readers a little about yourself?

My name is Erinna Mettler and I’m a short fiction writer from Brighton. I co-direct a spoken word group called Rattle Tales and a short story prize, The Brighton Prize, which is open to short stories and flash fiction. My first love is short fiction, my first novel, Starlings, was a set of interlinked short stories.

What inspired you to start writing?

I didn’t write a word of fiction until I was 39 years old. I’d moved from London to Brighton with my husband, my father had just died and I’d had a second son, I felt like I…

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Class Act – Working Class Stories

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Happy New Year! I’ve just pledged to Common People, An Anthology of Working Class Writers, crowd-funding with Unbound now. I’ve been thinking a lot about class in literature lately. Last year I read Allie Roger’s book Little Gold, set on an estate in Brighton in the 1980s. It was moving and stark and cleverly used its 30 years ago setting to shine a spotlight on the injustices of the present.  Common People’s editor, the campaigning writer Kit De Waal, said in an interview last year with The Guardian that working class representation had declined over the last decades.  “I really see a gap in white, working-class stories – it’s a massively neglected area. I don’t think the experience of the white working class is valued enough.”

Allie’s novel is just the sort of book that should be being published to address this inequality but, apart from a few token titles from the major publishers; working class literature is left to the independents. To the companies without the marketing budgets to push their titles forward, or to crowd-funders like Unbound. Gone are the glory days of Alan Sillitoe, David Storey, Barry Hines, note that even in the 1960s they were almost all men, I don’t think this has changed much. Perhaps some shift of focus is now underway but it’s painfully slow.

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Class is a subject close to my heart. I worry about not being working class anymore. I’ve got an MA and I work from home, my oldest son corrects me on my pronunciation of the word ‘bath’. In fact my sons are so well spoken I sometimes wonder if they are cuckoos. At what point do you stop being one thing and become another? Is it when you go to university? Own a property? Marry Prince Harry? Some people would say, once working class, always. Can that really be true? I’m very, very lucky but I remember my Dad working two jobs in order to pay the bills and my mother was born in a two roomed cottage in rural Ireland and went to work as a maid at the age of fourteen. I feel constantly guilty about what I’ve got, never buy anything that isn’t in a sale and hate waste in any form. A room full of publishing types with cut glass accents brings me out in a cold sweat and I have to remind myself that I’m just as good as they are and also that their class doesn’t make them bad people. A friend laughed a lot recently when I told her that I had to make an effort to afford the upper classes equal rights. In order to make amends I consciously try to write about class. In my collection, 15 Minutes, half of the stories tackle class in some way, either with characters or by highlighting societal inequalities. I’ve got an ex-miner, a hobo, a sous chef, a failed Big Brother contestant, a Mexican maid in the US, two disadvantaged kids and an ordinary family watching a royal wedding. It was almost impossible to get this collection published. I have no idea if that was just because of publishing’s fear of short fiction or if the subject matter played a part too. The story I’m most proud of is Carbon In Its Purest Form, which is about an ex-miner on the day Margaret Thatcher dies. It was subbed to every competition and journal going and never got anywhere so I’m absolutely delighted that it wound up in this collection.

Here’s to 2018, may it be the year of working class fiction.

I will be swallowing back my insecurities and talking at the wonderful Bookish Supper Salon on Feb 9th at The Regency Town House in Hove. Tickets available here.

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Twice The Speed Of Dark

I have an advent treat for you today – an extract from the very wonderful Twice The Speed Of Dark. I met the author, Lulu Allison, when we were both crowdfunding our books through Unbound Publishing and realised we both lived in Brighton. We met for a coffee and she has been a great support ever since. Here we both are, after many months of campaigning, with real books in our hands!  I picked up a copy of Twice The Speed Of Dark at the book launch last week and was instantly hooked. The writing is beautiful, the subject moving and life-affirming. Lulu is currently on a blog tour featuring interviews, reviews and extracts. Buy this book!

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Twice The Speed Of Dark by Lulu Allison

Caitlin, killed by violent boyfriend Ryan, tells her story from the perplexing realms of death. Ten years on, her mother Anna is still burdened by suppressed grief. Dismayed by the indifference in the news to people who die in distant war and terror, Anna writes portraits of the victims, trying to understand the real impact of their deaths. It is only through these acts of love for strangers that she can allow herself an emotional connection to the world. Anna’s uneasy equilibrium is disrupted when Ryan is released from prison. As her anger rises will Anna act on her desire for revenge, or will she find freedom at last from the terrible weight of grief? And will Caitlin reclaim herself from the brutality that killed her?

 

This is an excerpt from chapter four. Caitlin, trying to remember and rebuild her own story is thinking about her mother.

 

Sometimes I have felt Mum’s grief pulling me, pulling me into her. I am on the end of a rope; she is the post to which I am tied. She is so firmly set, so deeply anchored in that place that however far I am, I start to circle, circle, circle, at first with a carelessness that seems to have no direction or destination, but as the circle winds in, as the rope shortens, I speed up, I feel the pull, I feel the reducing arc of my movement. I feel the dizzying rush as I am pulled and pulled until I move so fast and so tightly pulled that even without weight or body I am eviscerated by it. I become lost in a tunnel, a funnel, a wind-sucked shrinking spin that ends suddenly at my mother’s feet. I look up and see that she is as still as rock. Bound tight from head to foot by a million miles of grief.

Mum – I feel it spooling out from her even here – is reshaped by sorrow. When I died it broke her heart. Her heart has stayed broken; that break has handicapped the rest of her. It is terrible to see that pain-filled vastness inside her. She has pulled tight around herself to keep it all hidden, the sorrow that marbles her bones, coats her organs, decides her fate. She is diseased with sorrow. Yet I see her smile, talk, laugh. I have seen her with the usual group of old friends, laughing and having fun. It felt as comforting to me as if I were a child going to sleep in her lap. Those adult faces that accompanied my childhood, contributed guidance and steps and gifts to my growing up. And my darling mum, loved by them and laughing happily in their company. But I could still see her disease. It glittered through her skin like the darkness waiting. Sophie knows her so well; I think she sees it too. She is such a gentle worrier, such a kind and loving friend, she would know what is plain to see. I wish I knew what to do, to pull that blackness out. The blackness is for me. Not for Mum.

There. I catch, suddenly, a thread. A time when I was younger, sullen in that ordinary way of a teenager, but not opposed to walking in the woods with Mum. As we walked through the part of the woods where the bluebells were thickest, Mum suddenly turned off the path and walked into the middle of them.

‘Look, Caitlin!’

‘I can’t see anything.’

‘No, I mean just the colour, look at it! It’s wonderful.’ She stood with her arms vaguely lifted outwards to encompass the yearly manifestation of colour that billowed across the woodland floor, buzzing in an ecstatic hover between purple and blue. Her face held a blissful half-smile of idiot pleasure, and for once I could see what she meant. The colour was wonderful. For the rest of the walk and when we got home, eating our pizzas and cheesecake that Dad went out to buy specially, Mum was in a happy, almost elated mood. It was easy to absorb her joyfulness, and soon Dad and I were as elevated as she. It was a very happy evening. Today’s happy evening was brought to you by the colour purple.

She would do that quite often. She would stop to absorb the sight of something that she suddenly found irresistible. She would always offer up what she was seeing for us to share, but I knew that in those moments she was expressing part of herself that didn’t need company. As an art history lecturer, she spent her life looking at paintings, artworks, filling her eyes with arrangements that had been created, if not inevitably to please the eye, to fill it. To be made sense-full by the cast of a human eye. She was serious about her work, absorbed, critical, excited often, irritated or angry at least as often. But it was only with scenes that happened by accident, or without the human view in mind, that she seemed to have this welling-up of wonder. She rarely articulated any thoughts about what she was looking at, certainly never subjected it to the dismantling analysis that in her work life she applied like a knife to various artworks, both to revere and revile. But she did offer the chance to share in her looking. Look, Caitlin, how beautiful it is! It might be a distant view, the accidental coincidence of building materials in an old part of a town, a decaying leaf. It might be something I couldn’t spot at all.

It tears at me. To see my mum like this, to know how unhappy she still is. As weak as he is, as ineffectual in life as he is, he remade my mum. He tore her inside out and remade her. She is remade by the consequences of his acts. She is battered by my death. My death, my death, my death. Not even my absence, but my death. My death has killed something in her. As death has caused me to cede all of myself to hurtling and rushing, it has caused her to be bound in rigid stillness, held immobile under weighted coils of grief.

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Tears In Rain – The First Time I Saw Blade Runner

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Blade Runner 2049 is almost upon us and I can barely conceal my excitement. Blade Runner is one of my favourite films. They better not fuck it up; but going by the trailers and previews it looks like they’ve managed to get it right. We’ll know for sure on Friday. When I’m not working on my novel, or marketing my collection, I’ve got a sideline in movie memoir. I’m collecting together pieces about films I’ve seen with family. Here’s a shortened version of the one about Blade Runner.

Tears In Rain – The First Time I Saw Blade Runner

We made and odd couple, my Dad and I, walking into the dilapidated late night cinema. I was fifteen and he was in his mid-fifties. I had Sun-in hair and too much black eye-liner, waif-like in the way that only teenagers can be, while he was tall and solid, his bulk made bigger by his sheepskin coat.  It was winter 1982 and we’d gone to a midnight screening, both of us wanting to see different films on the double bill. In 1980s northern England there no instant movie streaming like there is now; if you wanted to see an obscure American movie you had a window of about a fortnight and even then only at selected cinemas. If you missed this opportunity you sometimes had the chance to mop it up at a repertory screening. And so it was that Dad and I braved the Yorkshire winter to go and see a double feature of Blade Runner and Firefox. You’ve probably only heard of one of those films, and with good reason, but in December 1982 I first had to sit through Clint Eastwood’s mediocre cold war offering in order to experience one of the greatest films ever made.

I was a film mad teenager. I consumed movies the way other people ate food – they were necessary for my survival. Severe hip-dysplasia had meant a childhood of surgeries and immobility. I spent a lot of time watching television, lying in bed or, when I was feeling up to it, on the sofa in the lounge, from which I’d watch mid-morning reruns of classic Hollywood movies. I was born late to my parents, my mum was 46 and my Dad 40, we were not just one but two generations apart. A love of cinema helped Dad and I bond. He introduced me to all the greats, John Ford westerns, Busby Berkley musicals, screwball comedies. He liked both Marylin Monroe and Ingrid Bergman, James Stewart and Robert Mitchum. His all-time favourite was Humphrey Bogart. I suspect that as a young man he’d been told he looked like the morose movie star because he often emulated his idol; in any given film Dad knew many of Bogart’s lines by heart and often wore a Philip Marlow mackintosh and chewed a match. There was indeed a striking resemblance. Dad had the same pleading eyes and thin upper lip, a square jaw and a slightly dissatisfied expression. We’d watch the movies together over and over; Key Largo, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, To Have and Have Not, The Caine Mutiny and, of course, Casablanca.

Most of the films we watched were on TV, trips to the cinema were rare, especially as I moved towards adulthood and away from a love of Disney. I began to go with friends to see modern horror movies and comedies. I’d read about Blade Runner in my beloved film magazines and was intrigued – a sci-fi movie in film noir style!  I watched for the listings at my local cinema but it never appeared. I’d just about given up hope of seeing it when I saw the ad for the double bill in Leeds. I showed it to Dad knowing he liked Clint Eastwood and to my surprise he said we could go.

‘It was strange thing to do,’ said my sister, home from college a week later, when I told her about it. It had been an experience. As you can imagine, those attending a Saturday midnight screening were not the usual cinema audience. It had been freezing outside, a few scant snowflakes making an appearance as we walked up the stone steps to the old-fashioned picture palace, slightly out of town. The doors were art deco, their brass handles worn from the many hands that had held them open. Inside we were hit with a blast of acrid heat and the odour of stale popcorn mixed with cigarette smoke hung in the foyer. The bored looking woman at the box office eyed us suspiciously as she sold us our tickets. We opted for the balcony because they were the best seats in the house. There were a few single men dotted around the aisles, some obvious junkies in from the cold and a row of drunk students at the back. Firefox was on first. It had a ridiculous cold war plot about Clint Eastwood stealing a spy plane from a Russian airbase. My Dad loved it, I watched his face more than the film, saw the delight on it, the joy when the hero saved the day.

‘That was fantastic!’ He declared and nipped out for a cigar in the interval, leaving me to sip my cola and stare at the patched velvet curtain closed in front of the screen, even at that age aware that it would not be a good idea to catch anyone’s eye. He arrived back in his seat just as the camera panned across Los Angeles 2019, accompanied by the first notes of the Vangelis score, and I decided that I was going to be a film director.  I sat open-mouthed throughout. Here was a movie that had managed to incorporate all my beloved classic films into something shiny and new. It felt like it had been created specifically for me. I must be the only person who likes the original voice over version the best because it’s the most like those old Bogart movies my Dad loved so much. Dad wasn’t so keen. He snored softly at one point. Afterwards as I enthused he said it thought it was ‘a bit boring and so damn dark you couldn’t see anything’. Within a week I’d dyed my hair auburn, started smoking and wearing vintage clothes and put the poster on my wall. I still have an antique VHS version of the film somewhere, though nothing to play it on.

I never became a film director. But I did study film at University and managed to get a research job at The British Film Institute in London where I stayed for fifteen years. During that time I went to West End premieres, special preview screenings and Q&As with famous directors but still nothing beats that screening of Blade Runner in terms of raw cinematic experience.

Now I’m a writer I use cinema a lot in my work. I often write about people going to the cinema, using the way they respond to certain films as a way of developing character. In my current collection (15 Minutes) I have two stories in which films feature heavily. The first is Lost In Translation which sparks an unhealthy Scarlett Johansson obsession in my protagonist and the second features a teenage boy obsessed with Blade Runner. He listens to the soundtrack, talks like Deckard’s voice over and smokes unfashionable Marlboros.

As we walked from the cinema in the pre-dawn, the snow had turned to rain. It pattered on the car windows on the silent drive home, windscreen wipers creaking.  Dad concentrated wearily on the road ahead while I watched the city lights flick past and imagined that I was riding into the unknown with Deckard, searching for immortality. My Dad is no longer with us. I often think of the night we went to that midnight screening. I sometimes imagine the times he went to the cinema as a young man, on dates, to shelter from the rain or just because he wanted to catch the latest Bogart before anyone else. Only he knew about those times and now they are gone – moments lost in time, like tears in rain.

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