Friday Story: 6) I Want to Go to Russia

This is a little story of mine which was originally published in Vine Leaves Literary Journal Issue #01, January 2012  It’s difficult to imagine winter, cold or snow in the UK just now, but perhaps this will help to cool us down!

I Want to Go to Russia

It’s winter now. The man on the radio said so. It’s because of the clocks going back, he said. I don’t know about that. I’m warm, under my duvet. I wiggle my shoulders and push down in the bed.

Then I think for a bit, and what I think is that it would be nice to be in Russia. The man on the radio said that the clocks hadn’t changed there. The president, not Putin, the other one, said they were going to be on summertime all the year round there. I’d like that. I reckon it must be really quiet in Russia, ‘cos there’s miles and miles of nothing there. I’ve looked at it in the atlas. Hardly anything there, just a big shape. Not loads of names, like there are in England. I hate England.

I’ve turned the radio off, ‘cos the news came on and it’s all about bad things and I don’t want to hear about bad things. You can scare yourself thinking about stuff like that.

Talking of which it’s Halloween tomorrow. That don’t scare me though, not At All, but I know it scares them old biddies down the end of our road. They got net curtains in their windows, like they was posh or something, and they’ve put out little cards that say “NO TREATS OR TRICKS”. The writing’s all shaky. Shirl just sent me a text about it. Hang on a minute, she’s up early! Don’t she realise the clocks have changed, silly moo?

Any road, those old ladies – Mum says I has to call them ladies, as if – don’t know nothing, ‘cos it ain’t Treats or Tricks, it’s Trick or Treat. Course, they never did it when they were young did they? They did something called bobbing for apples, according to Mum. I mean, bloody hell, sticking your head in a bucket of water to get your teeth round an apple. P –lease. It’s gross.

Now Mum’s yelling at me to get up. I bet it’s not like this in Russia. Mind you, it must be weird at Halloween. It’s so cold people can’t go out, I reckon, even if their president tells them it’s summertime all the year round.

I get up and turn on the TV. Daytime TV’s rubbish but you never know. There’s kids jumping and screaming and running round with pretend witches’ hats on, so I flip around the channels and that’s when I find it, this programme about Russia. Only it’s not about presidents or armies or any of that stuff. It’s about nothing much happening. Just pictures of woods, and snow in them. And there’s kind of the sound of people breathing. I like that. I like it a lot. I’ve texted Shirl to tell her, but all I get back from her is WOT U ON??????????????

Then something does happen. These really, really old people, all muffled up in zillions of clothes, they walk down this track through the snowy woods to their bread shop. And when they get there they have to stand and wait and wait ‘cos there ain’t no bread. Some shop person comes out and yells at them and they just keep on standing there. And eventually the bread comes out and they get it and they slam money down on the counter and they trek back home. And I’m sitting there watching and watching ‘cos it’s foreign and I like foreign.

If I was a witch I’d get on my broomstick and go to Russia and wait in a bread shop. That would be a cool thing to do at Halloween.

 

 

The joys of collaboration

I often take inspiration for my writing from pictures, but it was lovely to come across an opportunity to do it the other way round, to put forward a story to be illustrated. Seeing a call on twitter from artist and illustrator Bonnie Helen Hawkins for crow folklore stories, I wrote this story, Crow world. I was delighted when Bonnie choose it to inspire a drawing for week 2 of her 52 crows project. The illustration of my story is reproduced here by kind permission of the artist.

Crow world

Crow pic.PNG

With a final stab, the crow got hold of a long strand of sinew, drew it up and carried it away. It flew out behind him like a red flag, its ghastliness too far away for the watchers to make out. The new year’s day was as if it were the first, the world a scrubbed blank canvas on which to draw afresh. The two men, who had stood for a moment watching the dark of the bird against the icy pale of the morning sky, rubbed their hands.

“Too cold to stand here,” said the one, pulling his hat down over his ears and looking up at the clouds scudding above the hill “Let’s get up there. Before.”

If he said more the wind whipped away his words. He strode out and the other followed. Both had their heads down. They were intent on reaching the summit. It was, from one to the other, a dare, the sort that men make without regard for the consequences. Behind them, unseen by either, three more crows descended to the place the solitary eater had left.

In the valley the woman had stoked the fire. The smoke from the damp peat made her cough. She drew the pot down; the soup would simmer the day long until her man returned. She threw in the few vegetables she had. There was no meat, hadn’t been for a month now. She wasn’t like the crow; wouldn’t pick up something killed by another. She went to the door, looked up at the hillside. Her eyes were still sharp; she could pick up the movement of a rabbit in the dead bracken. But there was no ripple of beast or man on the brown curve of the hill, only the downward flight of the three crows. And they and their judgements were not her business. She closed the door against them and took up her pen. It was her time to write, the annual attempt, the record in case he returned.

It had been nine years since he’d gone up the hill with nothing but his ordinary clothes. For all they knew a crow might have pecked his eyes, but crows don’t eat bones and the search had been thorough, the men beating the bracken and the heather for all the days of a week, covering the width and the depth of the valley.

“You’ll be careful,” she’d said to her man that morning, as he and the other stood on the door mat, as if waiting for her permission. He wouldn’t meet her eye. And they’d left, between two blinks of an eye. There. And then not there.

The commotion outside distracted her from her writing. Crows cawing. It felt as if the world belonged to them more than to men, these days. Then the bang against the window. She stared at the smear of blood, her hands grasping the table, her breath coming in gasps. To the door, flinging it wide. On the step the dead bird. The three flapping into the distance. Their cries of triumph.

Her man and the other had reached the summit, heard from there the noise of the attack down by the house, but couldn’t see it. Or see the woman come out. See her dart into the bracken.

When they got back the house was dark and the fire had all but gone out. They searched, but their hearts told them the truth. And the one cursed the other for the dare, himself for accepting it and the crows for their part in the ills of the world.

Story © Cath Barton, Illustration © Bonnie Helen Hawkins

My twelve days of Christmas – 11 – The short story

As a writer of shorter fiction I obviously hope that readers will want to buy and read short stories. I’m currently reading Elizabeth’s Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which you will see described as a novel but is actually made up of short stories. All feature the character Olive Kitteridge, but each can stand alone. I wonder if the book would have been so successful if it had been promoted as a collection of short stories rather than a novel!

Anyway, I look forward to reading new short stories in 2018. The longlist for the Galley Beggar short story prize has just been announced, and all are available to read here.

I also greatly look forward to the posthumous publication in June of a new book of short stories by Helen Dunmore:

Girl, Balancing and Other Stories

The Christmas season is nearly over, but  before you let it go enjoy Helen Dunmore’s story  A House by the Sea, published by The Independent in 2008.

Helen Dunmore story illustration.PNG