Traveller on the Moor


(Clifton Beard [CC / Flickr])

Horace saw the traveller immediately after the sun dipped below the horizon. A piece of darkness in the shape of a cloaked man, barely visible by the lavender sky as it moved through the heather and gorse toward him.

Horace waited for it to draw close enough to hear his halloo. Otherwise, the traveller might pass by without ever knowing there was another on the moor who did not have the last of the sun behind him.

The figure stopped a hundred paces from Horace. So the traveller was alert. Many a man would have kept his head down, huddled in his cloak against the evening chill. The traveller must have eyes as sharp as Horace himself to see a motionless figure against a dark horizon.

“Good evening.” It was a man’s voice, with enough power to carry a greeting across the distance between them. Horace heard no wariness in the words, but the distance the traveller was keeping spoke for itself.

“Good evening,” said Horace.

“Have you news from the capital?” asked the traveller.

Horace had met many a traveller on the moor, but none who did not have more recent news from the capital than he did.

“Not recently.” Horace allowed no hint that he thought it was a strange question. “By the time news finds us on the moor, it likely ain’t news no more.”

The traveller approached closer. Close enough to reveal handsome features and the best trimmed beard Horace had seen since a troupe of travelling performers crossed the moor.

“Is there a place nearby where a weary traveller might rest his head?”

Horace considered the question. “Aye. You’ll find such a place if you walk with the day at your back until you reach a stream, and follow it downhill for as long as it takes to smoke three pipes.

“Thank you, friend.”

“And none who’ll answer questions from them.” Horace jerked his chin at the horizon behind the traveller, where a band of horsemen had appeared in silhouette against the pale band of light.

The traveller looked over his shoulder. “I’ll be on my way, then.”

He resumed walking.

“There’s sanctuary for everyone on the moor,” said Horace to the traveller’s back. “Tomorrow’s pauper or yesterdays’ king, they’ll all find sanctuary and silence here.”

The traveller paused for a moment, but did not look around. Horace watched until his back had merged with the darkness.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Celeste Loves Alan


(elPadawan [CC / Flickr])

Celeste took Alan’s hand in hers.

“I love you,” she said.

Alan’s Adam’s apple bobbed. He said nothing.

“Do you love me?” asked Celeste.

“I…” Alan withdrew one of his hands to adjust his spectacles. “I’m not sure. I feel a lot. Something happens when I see you. Is that love?”

Celeste frowned. “Alan, I asked if you love me. I didn’t ask for a discourse on definition.”

“Yes, I know,” he said. “I’m trying to answer the question. You know I’m a little, well, awkward.”

“I know you are,” said Celeste, “and you know I tolerate your awkwardness. It’s part of how I know I love you.”

“Right. I see what you mean. Well, when I see you, I feel something – I don’t know what it’s called – in my chest.” Alan’s brow furrowed. “Or perhaps it’s my neck. Or my throat? It’s hard to tell.”

“Good start. Go on.”

“I feel sad at the idea of saying goodbye to you. I want to stay with you. To help you when you need help. To protect you when you need protection.”

“There you go,” said Celeste. “Like I’m trying to help you with the awkwardness. See how I’m helping you say what you mean?”

“I don’t want to change you at all. I want you to go on being Celeste. Forever.”

He reached for his glasses again.

Celeste intercepted his hand and held it in hers. “Don’t do that. It’s part of the awkwardness.

“Oh. Right.”

“See, I’m helping you. Like you say you want to help me.”

Alan’s hand twitched in the direction of his glasses. Celeste held it firmly.

“I’m not sure that’s quite what I meant,” he said.

Celeste fixed her eyes on his. “So do you love me like I love you?”

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Hope’s Firework


(Magdalena Swebodzinska [CC / Flickr])

Jonno held the firework in front of him as though it was a gold medal and the four of them had just won the Olympic relay.

“What do you see here?” he asked.

“A firework,” said Shawn.

“That’s what it is, but can we go better than that?”

“A rocket,” said Kate.

“That’s what it is physically,” said Jonno, “but let’s go metaphysical. Let’s go symbolic. It’s more than a firework. More than a rocket. It’s your ambition. It’s your hope. What is it?”

He brandished the rocket toward them, as if commanding a cheer.

Four people exchanged glances from beneath beanie hats.

“Ambition?” Kate sounded tentative.

“Hope?” Shawn suggested.

“Possibility?” Caroline chipped in.

“Yes, positivity.” Jonno seized the new word. “That’s good. That’s real good, Caroline. Now I’m going to point it at the sky like this. Because that’s what we do with hope and ambition and positivity. We gather them together and send them up. Up into the sky. Shooting for the moon. C’mon Paul, you’re quiet. What are you thinking?”

Paul folded his arms tighter around himself. “That’s it’s cold out here.”

“Right. Realism. That’s good. Can’t have ambition without realism, can we?” Jonno paused, looking aware that his voice had lost its conviction. When he spoke again, the conviction was redoubled. “Now I’m going to light the blue touchpaper and you’re all going to watch your hope streak up. Up and away. And explode positivity over our heads to light the way forward. Forward into the rest of our lives.

Jonno placed the stick of the rocket into a bottle. ” Stand back a bit, Shawn, you’ll get singed. Thanks.”

He struck a match. “Now we get excited, people!”

He touched the match to the rocket’s base, and stood back as a red glow smouldered its way toward the gunpowder. The rocket screamed upward, leaving a trail of green light.

“Now for the explosion of positivity,” shouted Jonno.

The green streak vanished into the overcast. With a pop, a faint glow lit the cloud for a moment before the night grey sky swallowed it.

“Can we go inside now?” asked Paul.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Cyril’s Wife’s Nap


(Henry Burrows [CC / Flickr])

Cyril’s patience ran out in the fourth hour. He shuffled up to his garden fence, swinging his stick in front of him as if clearing non-existent weeds out of his way.

“I say there,” he bellowed into the swirl of children in Alison’s garden. “Can’t you keep the noise down? My wife needs her afternoon nap.”

No one seemed to hear his words, but Alison waved to acknowledge him. Her face said she’d be with him as soon as she’d dealt with whatever crisis was besetting the two children in front of her. Quite how Alison could discern what those two were saying was beyond Cyril. From where he was standing, I sounded like all the children in the garden were blending their voices into a single shrill cacophony.

One of the other mothers marched up to the fence before Alison extricated herself.

“Who are you?” she demanded.

“Good afternoon, madam. My name is Cyril -”

“I don’t care what your name is. Why are you peering at the kids, you old perv?”

“I beg your pardon, madam. I merely wished to ask if you could moderate the noise. My wife -”

“They’re kids. Of course they make noise. That’s no excuse for ogling at them. Eff off or I’ll call the police.”

Cyril’s grip tightened on his stick. “This is my garden and I shall stand where I please within it. I assure you that I have no intention of effing anywhere until my wife can have her nap.”

The other woman’s mouth hardened into a line, but Alison arrived before she could answer.

“It’s all right, Tiffany,” said Alison. “I’ll talk to Cyril.”

Tiffany’s feet remained firmly planted.

“I think little Caspian’s fallen off the bouncy castle,” said Alison.

Tiffany’s eyes snapped open and she was gone with an “oh!” of horror.

“Yes, Cyril, what is it?” asked Alison.

“Nothing,” said Cyril. “Absolutely nothing at all.”

It took Cyril twenty minutes to get up the road to the newsagent and back. He composed himself before he ambled back into the garden and spent a few minutes poking his stick into his cabbages and artichokes, hoping he looked like a man looking for aphids suckling without signed permission. The woman called Tiffany shot him an occasional glare, but showed no sign of wanting to say any more to him.

When a small boy wandered close to the fence, Cyril straightened his back. “Hullo, young shaver.”

“Hello,” said the boy.

“I’ve got a present for you. Something for the party.”

The boy looked uncertain.

Cyril handed him the packet he’d bought from the newsagent. “It’s just some chocolate. Share with your friends. Enjoy yourselves.”

The boy accepted the packet of chocolate-covered coffee beans and ran back to the party. Cyril darted a look around Alison’s garden, but all of the mothers were preoccupied with the children in front of them. He saw with some satisfaction that Tiffany looked as if she needed a lie down already. Not nearly as much as she’d need one by the time the effect of all that sugar and caffeine had worn off.

“If my wife can’t have any peace,” he said under his breath, “neither will you. You think you’re tired now? Just you wait.”

Tagged with: ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Cal in Love


(Rogério Silva [CC / Flickr])

Julia wanted to know why my brother wouldn’t be coming to our wedding.

“Because he won’t leave the Institute of Immersion”, I said.

“Not for one day?”

She didn’t get it. I couldn’t blame her. I didn’t get it either.

“You could at least ask him,” she said.

“I did. Believe me, I did.”


So I told her. I’d met Cal in one of the Institute’s concession cafes, where we got coffee in carboard cups with a loyalty card. He was thinner than when I’d last seen him and when we found a table, he sat on the edge of his chair as if he didn’t plan to use it for long. There was a nervous energy in him, as though he was living on coffee, but he didn’t touch the one I’d put in front of him.

“Can’t make it, Ed,” he said. “I’m in love.”

“That’s great,” I said. “Who’s the poor girl?”

“I call her Angela. She’s here.”

I looked around the café, thinking if that was his cue to introduce her. It would explain why he was so on edge.

“No, not here.” He wasn’t looking me in the eye. “She’s, I mean…”

He inclined his head toward the stairs leading to the Institute chambers.

It took me a moment.

“You mean you’re in love in immersion?”


“I thought the immersion experience was supposed to be tailored for you. The ultimate in…” I bit off the word ‘solipsism’. “I mean there’s only one client per immersion.”

“That’s right.”

He didn’t say anything while I caught up. Just looked into his coffee. “So who are you in love with? A subroutine?”

His head jerked up. “Don’t call her that. Her name’s Angela.”

I didn’t get it.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

In our family, we communicate with each other. It’s what we communicate that is usually the problem.

“I’m in love with her.”

“It’s only for a day.” It was easier to focus on my wedding than on having a line of code for a sister-in-law.

“But I’ll feel so…empty,” he said. “I’ll spend the whole time thinking about her. Missing her.”

“Cal, look at me.”

He was facing his coffee again, but he raised his eyes to mine if not his head.

“She’s not real, Cal.”

“I know that. You think I don’t know that? She’s here for me. That’s what matters. She’ll do anything I want. She doesn’t have to be real to anyone else.”

I nearly asked what he meant by anything he wanted before deciding I’d rather not know.

“She’s not real,” I said again. “I’m real. Julia’s real. We’re family. Family is real.”

Cal tapped his heart with his fist. “What I feel here is real. That’s what matters. It’s the same as what you feel for Julia. It doesn’t matter whether she’s real or not.”

When I finished telling Julia about our conversation, she frowned for some time.

“I think,” she said, “it might be better if Cal doesn’t come to the wedding.”


Happy Valentine’s Day!

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Last Refuge


(Jan Bommes [CC / Flickr])

This place is mine.

From the motes of dust dancing in the light of the cracked windows to the doors hanging from their hinges to the yellowing tiles that once surrounded the x-ray machine, it’s all mine. It’s been mine since the day they wheeled the last patient out and I moved in.

You only found the loose board that let you in a few moments ago.

This whole wing was a gift to me. A gift from Margaret Thatcher herself. She may not have known she was my benefactor, but not a day passes when I don’t give thanks for her hospital closures. You don’t even remember who she was.

You call yourself an urban explorer. You snap yourself standing in front of the mould I’ve watched spreading for the last three decades, and all you’re thinking about is whether your oh-so-trendy beard is properly trimmed. Not a thought that this place might be more than a backdrop for you to pose against.

Not a thought for who might have got here first. For who might have watched the porters carry off the equipment. For who might have been in these shadows since the workmen nailed the boards over the windows.

If you stopped to think about where you are, you’d understand that the muddy bootprints you leave are desecrating the last refuge of so many people. You’d know that people like me have seen the walls and ceiling that you see, knowing it’s the last sight we’ll ever set eyes on.

For you, it’s just another snap of yourself.

You will respect my refuge.

Whether you wish to or not.

You look around at the sound of a door closing. You shrug, laughing aloud at the instinct you should be heeding instead of giving all your attention to the device in your hand.

You snap another picture, capturing more of my place to share with the people you think would miss you.

You’re in my refuge, my friend. Do you like it? I hope so.

Because, starting a few moments from now, it will be your last refuge too.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Jack Liberty’s Son is in the Heinous Concoction

HeinousConcoctionsCoverIt started in front of the Old Bailey. I stood on the flagstone pavement, surrounded by lawyers grabbing coffee from the street cafes. I imagined what I’d have been looking at if I’d stood there two hundred years earlier, when the notorious Newgate Prison stood where Lady Justice now stands atop the Central Criminal Court. The street on which, every Monday, the ‘new drop’ gallows was hauled to edify crowds that sometimes numbered over ten thousand with the spectacle of twenty miscreants being hanged at once. At a time when petty theft was a capital offence, there was never any shortage of miscreants to instruct the masses.

That was the view I gave Jack Liberty at the beginning of Jack Liberty’s Son, which was first published in Space and Time a couple of years ago. Now Jack has a new home in the Heinous Concoction anthology published by Digital Fiction.

I’ve placed a preview and author’s notes to Jack Liberty’s Son on this site, and Heinous Concoctions has its own Goodreads page.

Many thanks to Michael Wills for putting it all together. Heinous Concoctions is currently available on Kindle for a mere 99c (or local equivalent), and is filled with stories by authors who I’m honoured to be published with:

Adramelech by Sean Patrick Hazlett

Murder of Crows by Thomas Kleaton

Angelic by Jay Caselberg

Into Shadow by Stephen Antczak

A Clown of Thorns by Ken MacGregor

Best Friends by Tina Rath

Homeless Zombies by Vincent L. Scarsella

Dreams of Love and Darkness by Gerri Leen

Twitcher by David Tallerman

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Publishing news

Ross’s Office Party


(Martin Terber [CC / Flickr])

Philip knew it was going to be a bad evening when Cally handed him a gold-trimmed paper crown with the company name printed on it. He studied her face but saw nothing behind her dazzling smile. No recognition that having the company name printed on a paper crown was anything but a sign of a benevolent manager planning a glorious evening for his entire staff.

It wasn’t the first time Philip had wondered if Ross had replaced the real Cally with a robot secretary who looked like her.

And here was Ross himself, wearing a grin that spoke of an impending management directive about compulsory fun. Philip slid the hat over his head just in time to receive Ross’s hand to his shoulder, smashing through the invisible wall between the manager and the managed so they were two good blokes together.

“Cheer up Phil, mate, it’s a party.”

If the paper hat had been a bad sign, Ross’s attempt to force his BBC newsreader accent into mockney was a worse one.

Philip tried to lift the corners of his mouth. A look of irritation that flashed across Ross’s face, warning Philip his mouth wasn’t co-operating.

Ross liked direct instructions to be followed immediately and enthusiastically. “Get yourself a drink, Phil. We’re not on the clock now.”

“All right. I will.”

“You might sound happy about it, mate. It’s free booze. What’s not to like?”

“I know,” said Philip. “Thank you.”

“You can use my name, you know.” When Ross wanted enthusiasm, he didn’t let go until he’d crushed, ripped and shaken it out of you.

“Thank you, Ross.” Philip tried. He really tried. “It’s very thoughtful of you.”

“You sound like a turkey at Christmas, not a bloke at a party. Let your hair down, Phil. Drop your trousers over the photocopier. Get off with Cally in the stationery cupboard. This is an excuse for an evening away from the wife. You really want to be stuck at home with her? Be honest with me, Phil. We’re mates, aren’t we?”

Philip thought about that. “Yes, actually. I would.”

Ross’s face darkened. “Get a drink. Now. I’ll ask you again when you’ve got it down you.”

“All right,” said Philip. “I mean, yes, Ross. Thank you very much.”

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

A Man Called Clarence


(Peter Van den Bossche [CC / Flickr])

The Home was where Clarence got his name. That would have been reason enough to go back by itself, even if there hadn’t been so many others.

He stood on the broken tarmac that had once been a driveway, looking at the building that loomed out of his memories and into today.

He passed his hand over his eyes and looked again. He must not permit it to loom as it had over the eleven-year-old he’d once been, seeing it for the first time. He was twice as tall now; a man with a place in the world instead of a boy nobody wanted.

He glared it into what it was instead of what he remembered. A boarded up derelict in a field over-run with brambles.

“I’ve aged better than you, mate,” he told it.

He didn’t need the crowbar he’d brought. The door was hanging off its hinges. The smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke told him the local teenagers had got there before him, and no one had cared enough to nail it closed again.

He remembered the words that had greeted him on the many times he’d stepped into the front room before.

Where have you been, Clarence, and who gave you permission to go there?

What have you done to your shirt, Clarence, you get a smack for that.

Clarence looked at the staircase, reaching upward from a sea of cans and butts.

“Clarence is a stupid bloody name,” he told it.

He smiled to see there wasn’t a single room on the ground floor that wasn’t covered in muddy footprints. What would those voices have had to say about used condoms on the floors he’d mopped and polished so many times?

If you can’t see your revolting face in it, Clarence, you’ll mop it again.

“It’s a stupid bloody name.”

The teenagers hadn’t bothered going upstairs. There was nothing but dust on the upper floor. Piles and piles of it.

Clarence looked at the dust for a long time.

Dust burned.

He’d bought a can of lighter fuel and a box of matches this morning. It was only now that he admitted why he’d done it to himself.

It took him a couple of hours. The brambles scratched him as he gathered up old branches from outside, and his shoulders ached from the effort of tearing up roofbeams with the crowbar.

It was the most pleasurable work he’d ever done.

Clarence waited until he was sure the fire had taken hold properly before he bolted through the door. He stood on the broken driveway and watched. The building didn’t loom with smoke pouring past the boards on the windows. It didn’t loom with the roof falling in to let the flames reach out.

He watched it until there was nothing but a smouldering ruin.

“My name is Clive,” he told it.

Tagged with:
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Non-fiction Review: I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

IContainMultitudesWhen a first chapter persuades me I’m wrong about something, I know reading the book was a good decision. In the case of I Contain Multitudes, that first chapter debunked a ‘fact’ I’ve used in lectures: that the human body contains ten times as many microbial cells as human cells. Apparently not. Most of us have fairly similar numbers of bacterial and human cells although, as the team from the Weizmann Institute of Science reported in the dry terminology of academic writing, ‘We note that the uncertainty…might be too optimistically low, as they…may underestimate systematic errors, omissions of some cell types, and similar factors that are hard to quantify’.

In plain English, we know so little about the vastly complex ecosystem that is each and every one of us that we don’t even know how vast and complex it is. One study identified close to 10 million genes from human gut bacteria, which is around 500 times as many genes as we carry around in our human cells. While we don’t carry all of those bacteria around with us at once, the gut is only one place where our bacteria live and we carry different bacteria species in different places. We don’t actually know how many bacterial genes each one of us is carrying around, but it’s safe to say that only a very small percentage of our own genetic diversity is human.

Ed Yong took me on a journey through current research on the microbes that live in and on not only humans but also many other species – or perhaps it would be more correct to talk about the microbes that form an essential part of every animal on earth. None of us would last very long if we were only human. A particular favourite of mine included the tales of the many ways in which the Wolbachia bacteria mess with various insects, from enabling female wasps to reproduce asexually to speed its transition to new hosts to keeping bed bugs alive by supplying them with vitamins they can’t synthesise for themselves.

Another favourite was the story of Margaret McFall-Ngai’s decades of work on the Hawaiian bobtail squid and its partnership with the bacteria that make it luminescent. I first ran across McFall-Ngai’s work around 20 years ago, when I was first learning about animal-microbe symbioses, so being taken on a tour of her research facility struck a certain resonance with me.

There were some notable omissions, including McFall-Ngai’s signature discovery of quorum sensing: the process by which bacteria change their behaviour if enough of them get together. The bobtail squid’s bacteria don’t burn energy making themselves glow unless there are enough of them to produce enough light to matter. Since McFall-Ngai spurred microbiologists to look for it, quorum sensing has been recognised as the key to a lot of microbial behaviour, including the formation of the slimy biofilms that cover stones in streams and the switch that some bacteria make from being benign passengers in our bodies to making us ill.

I also felt that the sections covering viruses were rather scant, but these are minor quibbles. Yong was taking on a large field, and he’s taken on a book that’s both accessible to the non-specialist and likely to provide insights new to a specialist. It’s well worth a read for anyone with an interest in the little critters that make us what we are.

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification
Follow Cockburn's Eclectics on

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 453 other followers