Hidden Track: Unpicked


Link to ‘Unlucky Numbers’: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0839FLBMP

The story is about a son exploring his father’s loft after the older man has passed away. To a large extent, that son is me. My dad died in 2015, and as always in situations like that, there is a lot of clearing up to do. I volunteered to have a look in the loft.

I have to admit that I wanted to do it, for selfish reasons. I wanted to find the vinyl. I wanted to pore over all those old records and reminisce, and I wanted the chance to do it on my own. Also, cold though this may sound, I wanted to lay claim to them. I had no designs on anything else my dad owned, I wasn’t particularly bothered about proceeds from the house sale. I had no interest in inheritance. Just the old LPs.

They weren’t there. The stack of encyclopaedias was there, and a few other bits and pieces, but not the vinyl. I assumed they had been sold to pay a bill at some point; Dad’s finances weren’t in great shape. I wanted to ask his wife, but that just seemed callous. So I said nothing about it. I flicked through the encyclopaedias, collected over years as partworks, in huge binders. Part of a bygone age, and in the era of the internet, not much use.

Music was the connection I had with my father, and although I could not hold those LPs physically, I could still play the songs. That will remain my link to his memory: the songs of 1970s Genesis in particular.

The story then. It seemed an appropriate way to pay homage to the moment and the man. And to make the missing vinyl real again. The albums mentioned in the story, they were all from the collection, and I did used to study those covers as a child, and draw my own versions.

The names. In the story the deceased father is called Jimmy Collins. My dad’s names were Colin James. The grandson is called Hayden. My son: Aidan. Not particularly clever, I know. But a touch that I had to include.

My dad was in a band in his youth, but he was a drummer not a bassist. And he certainly didn’t sing. I don’t know what the band was called, but they were not ‘The Storymen’. As the last tale in the collection, it seemed a fitting name. Twelve stories had preceded this one. It seemed inevitable then that The Storymen’s debut album would also have twelve songs, twelve stories.

Not all the songs get a mention in the story, but those that do might give you a clue to this bit. Each song title relates to its equivalent story in the collection. Perhaps that’s the real Hidden Track, and why this story had to be at the very end. Here they all are, side by side.

A Curiosity of KittensCat Got Your Tongue
Romanian RouletteIn A Spin
TaggedTrue Colours
Far From The TreeBrothers and Sisters
HalcyonLove Drug
Call This NumberCall Me
Tower WhiteHard to See
A Door or A Window?Sweet Love
Fainting By NumbersLet’s Talk About It
MixtapeCircle of Love
The Girl at the Bus StopStill Waiting
Hidden Track 

So, a story that’s a little tribute to my dad, and the closing notes to a collection. Gives it a bit of a concept album feel. As Genesis would say: Los Endos.

‘First Blood’ – a classic and an inspiration

I love ‘First Blood’. Both the 1982 film and the 1972 novel by David Morrell. This is not going to be review, as I don’t think anyone should need convincing that I’m right! (My wife would disagree!)

However, I do want to say something about a part of it – in both film and book – that inspired something in my writing. I’m talking about the early interactions between John Rambo and Chief Teasle. What I find intriguing in the set up is that as a reader / viewer you can have sympathy with both parties. Rambo just wants a place to hang, and ultimately pass through. Teasle just wants to keep the neighbourhoods he protects safe and trouble-free. At this point there is no villain; it’s just that the things they feel they are both entitled to conflict with one another.

And every great story needs conflict. It doesn’t have to be good versus evil – just having a different outlook on a situation will do it.

I watched and read those sequences a number of times; Teasle questioning, Rambo being less than co-operative because he feels unjustly put upon. No clear right side, no clear wrong side. I soon decided that I wanted to use something like that in a piece of my own writing. But what scenario could I use? What world did I understand where I could make that happen?

The answer to that is simple. Teaching. Schools. I envisaged a situation between teacher and student where neither of them were technically in the wrong – there was no hero or villain – but their difference of opinion, and opposing objectives, would create a story.

That’s how ‘Peter’s Day’ came about. Now, I can’t put in here chunks of ‘First Blood’ for copyright reasons, but I can give you one of the moments were Peter and Mr Jarrett are conversing. It was absolutely inspired by the David Morell characters.

‘Peter’s Day’ extract:

“Right. You’ve got three and a half weeks with us, Peter, and in that time you’re going to put right all of the wrongs that brought you to us in the first place.”

The boy leaned back in his chair. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“You had a knife and wouldn’t say who it belonged to.”

“It was a craft knife. It belonged to the art department. I was taking it home to finish off some 3D work.”

“That’s not what it says in your file.”

The boy gave out a little huff. “You haven’t read my file.”

Dave had been wavering with his eye contact, but that brought him level with Peter’s face. What was he getting at? And how did he know? “I don’t like that tone, young man. Your role in this is not to question our assessment of the situation. St Simon’s looked at your case, and now it has been decided that this is the best solution.”

“Best for who?”

Jeez, I thought Laney said he was polite? “Best for you, because the other option is that you’re excluded for the remainder of the year.”

“I’d prefer that. I’d be on my own. Nobody would stare. Nobody would wonder what species I was.”

Dave frowned. Had he muttered that word out loud? He hoped not. No, he couldn’t have. “You mustn’t assume that people think like that.”

“Mustn’t I?”

“You might also make some new friends in your time with us.”

Vargas leaned forward. “Do you have an isolation room? For bad kids?”

“Yes, but-”

“Just let me stay in there.”

“I’m afraid that’s not an option.”

“Why not?”

“Because you don’t get to decide, regardless of what…” you look like, he was going to say, but stopped himself. “Of what you think is best. You need to fit in with what we think is best. You are going to join the year group for three and a half weeks and follow a normal timetable.”

“I’m not normal.”

“Yes you are, Peter. Everyone here will treat you normally. The students here are very… empathetic.”

“They’re the same as students everywhere. You think this school is special; it isn’t special, it’s just a school.”

“Like any school, you’ll get out of it what you put in, Peter, so you can make it special.” He liked that line; he fancied his approach might follow that direction from there on in.

But Peter didn’t buy the line. “You’re finding it hard to look at me, but you’re forcing yourself to. Others won’t bother. That Mrs Sillitoe didn’t bother. You also won’t say exactly what you think out loud, because you’re the deputy head, but teenagers don’t care what they say. I’m telling you, you don’t want me mixed in with all your normal kids.”

Dave began to get cross. He slapped his hand on the table. “Listen here, you don’t get to tell me anything, okay? The students here will give you a fair crack: that I can guarantee. Some will feel uncomfortable at first, but I’m sure you’re used to that, and given time there’ll be no difference between you and them, apart from maybe your overly negative attitude unless you address it, and quickly.”

“Are you telling me to get over myself? To get over this? ” His left forefinger pointed up. “Are you saying this is somehow my fault?”

I can’t win here, thought Dave. What is he talking about? Does he want to be treated like a freak? “No, I’m saying you’ll be accepted.”

“As long as I get used to people feeling uncomfortable? You think I should compromise?”

Dave shook his head. “The only compromise expected is the same for anyone on a managed move to another school. You stick by the rules and do as you’re told. We will make sure that you’re treated the same as everyone else.” Unless you like the notoriety of being different.

“Don’t put me in classes with other students, Mr Jarrett.”

If that sentence had ended with please, or had been delivered with humility and a bit of reverence to the organisation that was accepting him for the best part of a month, then Dave might have considered exploring why Peter felt that way. But the tone was that of a command, and he’d just about had enough of listening to this kid trying to tell him how to run things. You’re not the first person with a birthmark, you know. But then he looked again at the eye.

“You attended classes at St Simon’s, so it should be no different here. Just keep your head down, Peter-”

“-So no-one can see my face?”

“No. You know what I mean. Three and half weeks will fly by. I’m putting you with Nick, one of the best lads in the year.”

“Just don’t blame me.”


“When things start happening, don’t blame me. Keep me isolated.”

“Are you threatening to misbehave?” Dave had decided: Peter was definitely going into classes and he was personally going to keep track of him, every bloody hour if necessary.

“I will do what I need to, Mr Jarrett.”

“Well, you won’t need to do anything here but work. Right?”

Peter tilted his head, no doubt just to stretch his neck, but it added to the thought in Dave’s mind that the left side of the boy’s face belonged on some other creature. A velociraptor, perhaps.

“We’ll see,” Peter replied.

Making The Numbers Add Up: 3


Another run through four stories and the ideas behind them. Remember, Spoiler Alert! Read the stories before you venture on…

A DOOR OR A WINDOW?: What do you call the little squares that you open on an advent calendar? This story came from a brainstorming exercise to kickstart ideas to do with numbers. It’s that time of year when we pay specific detail to each day’s number, especially for a chocolate treat. As often with my stories I then think what if? What if the chocolate treat you were expecting behind the door (or window) wasn’t nice at all? It was then just a case of working out how the chocolate could be affected, and why it would escalate the closer we got to Christmas. Hence a ghostly back story. This one also got included in my Christmas collection, ‘Frightful’.

MIXTAPE: This one started life as a bonus piece in ‘A Very Bad Year’ but I pulled it when I realised it had a home in ‘Unlucky Numbers’. After all, the number of girlfriends, the order of the songs and the tattoos – it all adds to the story. Also, in its first version, the story ended when the inspector arrives and is revealed to be Michelle. I wanted to know what happened next, so I had a good think about it and wrote the rest!

FAINTING BY NUMBERS: Another one that was written to a prompt for a forum. It had to start with the first line about the text. Straight away I had the idea that this wouldn’t be a literal warning or threat, but a code for something else. It seemed obvious that it should be a reference to the Jennifer Love Hewitt movie – it was then just a case of why someone needed a coded message that was a horror movie title. The discussion group Fainting By Numbers was born. The numbers reference obviously very important for this collection too. No real surprises for myself (which sometimes happens) as I wrote this one; it turned out pretty much just as I expected.

THE GIRL AT THE BUS STOP: There’s a little bit of me in this one. Not the child murderer bit, but the idea of driving to work and having landmarks that I tried to hit at certain times. On my route to work for one job, there was actually a bus stop, and a girl waiting each morning… that’s where comparisons end! Couple of Easter eggs here: the narrator only speaks out loud to other characters in seven word sentences, and the name of the labs he works at – Felix – actually means lucky.

There is one other story, HIDDEN TRACK. I’m going to do that one in its own little post in a few days time. Special one for me, that little tale…

Extract from ‘Portentous 1’

I know that a lot of people take a peek at Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ function (and rightly so) to get a little bit of insight into the text they’re thinking of picking up. However, openings can only offer so much. So I thought I’d start dropping a few pieces in here, either from stuff that’s already out or maybe even stuff that I’m developing. Here then, is a little bit from ‘Portentous 1: Brothers’.

Portentous 1: Brothers – An Extract

Wexlen was sat on a bench scraping mud from his boots, as a couple of staff spoke to him. She recognised the settlement’s falconer and one of the Ceremony gate sentries. When he saw her and the boys he grinned and urged the men to go back about their business. He opened his arms for Soran to run towards.

Alton looked up at her with his tray of cakes. He didn’t have to ask the question. “Hand them over,” she said. He held the tray up, which she took, and then ran to his father. When he got there, he curbed his excitement and offered Wexlen his hand. He’s trying to be so grown up, she thought. Wexlen took it, but pulled his son in for a hug.

She let them all have their moment, then walked over with the tray. “Frannie’s baking?” Wexlen asked.

“With help from your sons, yes. How are things with Paxlan?”

Wex paused, conscious that he was talking about the children’s uncle and Alton was bound to be listening. “Things are okay, but I think he and Aleska are going to be busy at their farm for a few days.”

“Anything I can help with?”

His face grew a little thoughtful and, with it, stern. “No, I don’t think so. And it is perhaps best that you and the boys leave them to it at Windvane. At least until I’ve checked back to see that their… work is done.”

Gabrella was worried. This was all too cryptic, and the sooner she could get him alone, the better.

“I can help with farm work,” said Alton.

Wexlen ruffled his hair. “No need, son – your uncle has everything under control.”

Gabrella scoffed inwardly. “Has he?” she asked.

“It’ll be fine,” Wex replied, which wasn’t the answer she was looking for. “Come on – let’s go to the gates and say goodbye to Envoy Croke.”

They approached the Ceremony gates as a family, Wexlen linking her arm, and both of them with a boy on their opposite hand. Doster walked behind, holding the cakes.

They walked up the ramp under the arch, past old Edbryn with an armful of yellow sashes, and out onto the smooth road. The caravan of velocers and pods was arranged in single file, the sky-blue markings on the envoy’s showed its position as second from last. All the men were in the pods, save for one stood by each, waiting for the order to leave. The only difference was Croke’s: the envoy joined his guard on the outside of the pod. He looked impatient.

Wexlen led the family towards him.

“Thank you for your visit, Envoy Croke. I hope your journey back to the Centre is a safe one.”

“And a swift one. I have much to share with the Leader.”

“My falconer tells me he helped yours send out a bird. It seems your man was missing the right sized parchment roll.”

Croke was furious that the two birdmen had liaised, but he hid his disgruntlement. “Yes; I had to let the capital know what has transpired here. How uncooperative the governor of Star East One has been.”

“I didn’t act outside of the law. You had no jurisdiction over the civilian’s property, and you had my word that there was nothing untoward. That should have sufficed.”

“The fact that the civilian was your brother clouds this matter somewhat, Dais. Having now examined his property for yourself, are you still maintaining that there is nothing untoward there? No evidence of the storm debris that we are searching for? Last opportunity.”

“I am. There is nothing for you at Pax’s farm.”

“Then at least we know who’s side you are on.”

“No sides, Envoy Croke – just truth.”

“Well, the truth of it is that you can expect a reply from the Centre shortly – I imagine by return of falcon – along with another visit with all the signed lawful documents you could wish for. I just hope that the Leader asks me to come on that trip also, so that you can personally show me around your brother’s homestead, and anywhere else we decide to tread. Your own home for instance. Your own chambers.” With that last point he stared at Gabrella and she felt the hair on the back of her neck rise. She stepped closer to her husband.

“Pass the Leader my regards,” said Wexlen, and pointed his family in the direction of the village. Croke, unamused, clambered into his pod.

Down the ramp, the sound of rolling wheels and thudding paws thundering away, Gabrella cornered her husband. “Are we to expect trouble, Wex? What’s going on?”

He urged his sons to help themselves to a cake from Doster. “It’s under control,” he said. “The less you know, the better.”

This surprised her. “Wex, you’ve never-”

“This is between Pax and me. And Aleska, unfortunately. Until it blows over – and it will – I don’t want anyone else involved.”

“You don’t sound convinced, my love.”

He wore a smile that looked as flimsy as a painted mask. “All will be well; I just need you to trust me.”

“Always,” she said, and stood on her toes to kiss his cheek. She didn’t feel reassured however, and hoped that her husband – and governor – was doing the right thing for everybody, and not just being swayed by the actions of his foolish brother.

Making The Numbers Add Up: 2


Here we have a little bit of insider info on the next four stories in ‘Unlucky Numbers’, having gone over the first four in an earlier post. Just a few thoughts on where the ideas came from and any issues or diversions along the way. I know this isn’t for everybody (a bit like TV shows talking about other TV shows) but it’s here if you want it. Remember, better to read the stories first, just in case there are SPOILERS!

HALCYON: Here was another story written to a forum prompt, but also keeping in mind my quest to have stories that had a ‘numbers’ focus. The prompt was something to do with opening a box, so I decided to stray away from the unexpected gift idea that a number of other writers explored. It made me think what else a box could be used for, and how the same box might be used multiple times. Then I thought of one of those hidden camera TV shows where they tell a kid he mustn’t look in the box but then leave the room. Of course, that wouldn’t give me the creepy, psychological edge I was after, so I relocated it. The ending initially was going to have Carraway shoot Usher, and the purchase done without him, but I had a change of heart. See, I’m a nice guy really…

CALL THIS NUMBER: I’ve often wondered about some of these phone numbers you see, like at accident spots or crime scenes, or even the ‘How Am I Driving?’ numbers on the back of vans; wondered how often they get called and whether it ever leads to anything much. Then, of course, I get to thinking about whether it wasn’t what you expected when you rang… perfect for ‘Unlucky Numbers’. I enjoyed creating Norman – I thought he was quite an interesting character. Unfortunately I always knew the outlook wouldn’t be good for him. What I didn’t know straight away was exactly what was going to happen to him. I’d created the set up but not the punchline. In the end I went with what I did as something that seemed the best fit. I was pleased with Sebastian’s little contribution at the end though.

TOWER WHITE: This is the first story I’ve written inspired by a picture prompt. Here it is:

From this then came the idea of the fog being permanent and that life had to exist purely on the rooftops. Of course, life is likely to be slightly different in the shiny white tower, so that was where my story had to head. It was only in the process of writing it did I decide that the fog wouldn’t go all the way to the bottom. At first, it was going to be the elite still living it up (or down) on the ground, with the lesser classes left above. It was only when I got to that point in writing did it strike me to invert that idea, and I think it makes for a better tale.

THIRTEEN: One of two stories in this collection that I published initially as bonus material in ‘A Very Bad Year’. However, once I started doing this collection, it was obvious – from its title – that this story had to move. The idea? Well, as a writer you’ve always got the personalities of your characters swirling around in your head, particularly if you’re writing a novel. Got me thinking then: what if a writer fell ill and couldn’t distinguish between their personality and one that they had previously created. Then, once I’d decided that this writer would switch to a different character from a different book each day, it was then a case of what could be the worst possible character she could be at the end? What would be the most nightmarish scenario? Obviously, what I wrote is what I came up with. I did toy with the idea of extending it, seeing her in action, but in the end I thought that might be best left to the readers’ imaginations…

There you go: four more. I’ll be back with the last bunch in a few days’ time.

Portentous Book 1 Out Now!

‘Portentous 1: Brothers’ released this week.

I’m excited about my latest venture – my first foray into sci-fi / fantasy saga. Love them as a reader / viewer, and I had a burgeoning idea in my head, so…

Here’s the blurb from the Amazon upload:

“It appears that your brother is being a little unreasonable, Governor Dais. So glad that you have returned to bring much-needed normality to proceedings.”

Wexlen Dais, the well-respected governor of Star East One, is happy with his lot. That is, until he returns from a trade meeting at a neighbouring settlement to find that his brother, Paxlan, has ruffled the feathers of the envoy from the capital.

Something fell from the sky in last night’s storm, and Paxlan isn’t allowing the scholars from the Centre to investigate it. Wexlen has a choice to make: loyalty to the capital or loyalty to his brother? The situation will not allow for both…

Decisions are made, lines are drawn, lives are affected… the world – and Wexlen’s understanding of it – will never be the same again.

Something fell from the sky. Not a rock, but clear evidence of Tech and Machine, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the Great Devastation, some four thousand years ago.

The Centre must control all the secrets. The Dais brothers are in their way.

So begins the Portentous Saga… a series of short science-fiction / fantasy novels that document the trials and traumas of the Dais family; their lives uprooted, their world shattered, their resolve tested to the limit.

Sound okay to you?

I enjoyed writing it, and I’m currently writing the second one, 2: Ghosts. I’m hoping to have that out next month. I have three books in my head, but depending on how the writing goes, it could be 5… 7… who knows?

I guess a lot depends on if anyone reads it!

Here’s the Amazon US link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B083HKKFBW

Flash Fiction – Blessed?


Blessed? (500 words)

Chief Commander Donaldson sat at the chrome desk with his fingers interlocked and resting on the question sheet. A buzzer sounded, indicating that the door to interview room #1 was opening. Two of his officers bustled in, the terrorist suspect dangling between them.

‘Please seat Mr Gonzales.’ The soldiers did as instructed and dumped the prisoner in the chair in front of the desk. Built-in steel cuffs secured Gonzales to the arm rests. He wriggled ineffectually against the restraints but then settled, glaring wide-eyed at Donaldson.

‘They’ve been at you for nearly a week now, and nothing. I’m impressed. But I also know, regardless of your silence, that you’re behind the peace marches and the break-out of those reprobates they call The Freedom Four. So now you’re with me. And I’m going to ask you some questions. You will have heard them before, but I imagine your answers first time around were lies.’

Gonzales’ eyes darted around the room, looking for help that wasn’t coming.

Donaldson cleared his throat. ‘Has he been injected with the serum?’ One of the officers replied in the affirmative.

‘Then let’s begin.’ He displayed teeth, unnaturally white and uniform, and read from the sheet. ‘Welcome potential citizen of the Imperial Blessed State of Great America. In order to assimilate you we require accurate answers to the following questions. Question 1: will you comply with all instructions issued with the seal of the Blessed State?’

Gonzales gritted his teeth. Sweat started to form on his brow. ‘I will.’

‘Two. Will you conduct your life in line with the five laws dictated by the Chief Commander’s Imperial Office?’

Gonzales couldn’t stop his head from shaking but he somehow got the words out: ‘I will.’

‘Three. What is your opinion of what is often described as The Free Media?’

‘It’s… fake.’ Gonzales was shivering. ‘Nothing but lies. Only the broadcasts of the Blessed State are genuine.’

Donaldson paused. Two-word answers were one thing, but stringing a whole sentence together against your natural inclination was something else. He wondered if the serum was working properly. He carried on regardless.

‘Four. What is your view of other states outside of the Imperial Walls?’

‘Heretics! Sinners! Lawless animals!’ The words were spat out, cohesive commentary now becoming a clear struggle.

‘And finally, five. What is your primary duty as a citizen of the Imperial Blessed State of New America?’

‘To… to be vigilant. Watch others. Report… instances… of… unblessed… behaviour.’

Donaldson sat back and took in the quivering wreck on the chair. ‘Very good, Gonzales. I would have thought that impossible if it wasn’t true, which I doubt it is. However, here’s a personal question.’ He leaned forward and grinned as wide as possible. ‘What’s your opinion of me, buddy?’

Gonzales sagged in his chair like the air had been let out of him, but he also offered a wry smile. ‘You’re the biggest dick on the planet.’

‘Perfect,’ said Donaldson. He nodded to the guards. ‘Prepare the prisoner for execution.’