Birthday: A new story on Medium (the first “Monday story”)

Those of you who follow me on Facebook will know about my recent pledge to write a new story on Medium every Monday.

I’ve written quite a lot on Medium (and elsewhere), and some of those stories ended up in a book.

My first Monday story is called Birthday and you can read it here.

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A Roundup of some stories on Medium (February to September ’17)

I’ve been writing a lot over on my Medium profile, so I thought I would link to some I’ve written since my last fiction post on here (The Talent Show).

On The Bridge, At Night

Trust

Broken

Accelerate

A Nice Day Tomorrow

Earth

Silhouette

Before We Met

Dad 2.0

Whisky and Scotch

In addition, you can find a list of all my fiction online here.

And of course, there’s Grace, a serialised novel on Inkitt, and my short story collection Static, that you can get on Kindle.

Why I Decided to Self Publish

As you may be aware, I recently made a short story anthology Static: Collected Stories available on Kindle for just £1.99 (you can buy it here).

Over on my Medium blog, I wrote a post to explain why I decided to self-publish it (after spending years vowing I wouldn’t self-publish).

You can read the post here.

(Incidentally, if you want some free samples of the kind of stories you’ll encounter in Static: Collected Stories then you can find some on Medium, here.)

The Talent Show

This originally appeared on Medium via the Fiction Hub publication, and you can read the original version here.


Backstage, you think everything is calm. That’s the way they make it look on TV. Contestants and their families just relaxing, chatting and joking. That’s what you see. The reality is stress. The reality is a small army of black shirted staff power-walking through, shouting instructions or talking in code into walkie-talkies.

It was where everybody wanted to be. Well, no, everybody wanted to be out there, on stage, in front of the judges and the audience. But backstage, with its mix of nerves and adrenaline, comes a close second.

They call my name, and I’m up. I know how this will look on TV, first they will show the video recorded earlier in the day where I talk about myself, my family, why I’m here, where I’ve come from — it’s the same stuff that everyone says, you know the drill.

Out on stage, I can see the judges. It looks like they’re miles away, though I know it’s closer than that. The main one — the famous one — is there, I can see the hunger in his eyes from my lonely position on the stage. The other three look almost desperate, vying for attention like court jesters. These are the people that know what the world wants, what the world needs.

I do what I do, and I do it well. I close my eyes and tune everything and everyone out. My ears ring and the noise envelops my head. When I open my eyes I see the judges standing and applauding; the audience too. Above the din, I hear one of them say:

“You’re the one.”


Now it’s my first public appearance. Weeks after my debut at the talent show. Earlier I peaked out at the audience. People are out in force. I had been told to expect it, but still — all through my life, I have never thought that many people would want to see me.

For weeks now I’ve been told how important, how vital, this is. It’s why everyone is here. My manager — one of the judges — really believes in me, keeps telling me how brilliant I am, how wonderful I am, how important this performance is and how it will be life changing for everyone — the audience out there, the people watching on TV, even those who aren’t paying attention. Their lives will be changed, my manager says, even if they don’t immediately realise it.

Tentatively, I step out on stage. The audience, stood in the open air in the city square, whoop and holler with enthusiasm in spite of the driving rain. I look around, taking in the hordes of cheering people. In their eyes I see the same hunger that I saw in the eyes of the famous judge. But then I notice there’s no microphone stand. No microphone. At the centre of the stage is a wooden pyre, in the middle of it a large wooden post. I guess you would call it a stake. An imposing man clad all in black approaches me from the back,and leads me to the pyre.

The words of my manager echo in my ears as I’m tied to the post, and as they light the pyre: what happens on that stage tonight will change the lives of everyone.

Ophelia

This short story has been kicking around in various forms in my head and on my laptop for a few years now, so I decided to get the definite version down.

This was first published in Medium’s Otherworlds publication, and you can read that here.


Attempting to pack for two using only one suitcase was frustrating, but an interesting challenge for Will. Ophelia was “asleep” on the sofa, oblivious to the frantic opening and shutting of cabinets, to the clothes strewn over the tiny flat. It’s funny, he thought, that she wouldn’t even realise he was doing this for her.

Her blue eyes slammed open and she yawned. Will smiled, as he knew it was just for effect.

“What are you doing?” she asked, gazing slowly around a flat that looked like it had been ransacked.

“Packing,” replied Will, mulling over how he could jam his laptop into the suitcase. “We need to leave.”

“You sound alarmed. And you are perspiring. Are we in danger?”

“Not yet. But we will be if we don’t leave soon.”

Will blamed himself. For the first few years of Ophelia’s existence he had been cautious, moving to a new city every few months, changing aliases and appearance each time, and doing the same for Ophelia. He supposed that it made no odds to her whether she was blonde or brunette, had short hair or long, or was programmed to answer one to one name or another. But after years of hearing no sirens, without a knock at the door, Will got complacent. He settled into a groove. He didn’t run. He forgot about the past that they had both been running from. And now, they were being hunted again.

“We are leaving?” Ophelia asked, standing up slowly and approaching Will. “But we have been here so long. Three years, 4 months, fifteen days-”

“-I know, I know, I don’t need the countdown.”

“I am sorry.”

“I know, honey,” Will smiled. “I’m just stressed, that’s all.”

Stressed,” she said, tasting the unfamiliar syllables in her mouth. “You are…” her eyes closed just for a second, “subject to pressure or tension?”

“That’s one way to put it, yes,” he replied, tutting to himself as he tried to fit a few more shirts into the suitcase.

“That is a new addition to my vocabulary. I am…pleased? Is it correct to be pleased?”

“I don’t think everyone is excited about learning new words, but pleased is fine, yes. But Ophelia, you understand that my being stressed isn’t a good thing, right?”

“I do not know,” she replied evenly, “as I have no experience of such a state of being. But I have noted you are perspiring. You have an increased heart rate. Our home is in disarray, which suggests a lack of care being taken with your activities. All of these things, as is my understanding, are negative. Therefore…stressed is negative too.”

“Yeah,” Will said quietly, frantically searching the tiny bedsit for any essential items he had missed. “It’s negative.”

“How can I help you? I am good at organising.”

“I know. For now, just keep an eye and an ear out for any trouble. I’m almost done.”

“An…eye…out?” she said, uneasily.

Will sighed at the blank look on Ophelia’s face. Even after all these years, she could not understand idioms. “Just…just let me know if you see anyone out of the window, or hear anyone coming up the stairs. They’re coming for us, Ophelia. The bad men are coming for us.”


No-one came, and soon they were in Will’s battered camper van heading out of the city. Will drove and Ophelia closed her eyes, unperturbed by the vehicle’s gears, loudly grinding like the molars of a restless sleeper.

She didn’t sleep — of course she didn’t — but closed her eyes on long car journeys anyway. More for effect than anything else, Will thought. Though the motorway at night was largely empty, he furtively check his rear view mirror every few seconds, expecting to see headlights chasing them down.

After a couple of hours, he could relax a little. The only other cars they saw were going the other way, and Will was lulled into a relaxed state by the rhythmic swish and thud of the windscreen wipers. He glanced across at Ophelia in the passenger seat, still with her eyes closed, “sleeping”, or whatever she did when she mimicked sleep. Will was not given to bragging, but even so he would sometimes catch himself being amazed at his handiwork. She could pass easily for an ordinary young woman — no-one would even look twice.

Her ice blue eyes opened, and she turned to Will and smiled. “I was thinking about my mother,” she said, apropos of nothing.

“Mm-hm,” Will turned back to the road. “What about her?”

“You told me she was an angel.”

“Well, I don’t remember everything I’ve ever said, but yeah, I probably said that.”

“But she’s not dead.”

Will knew where this conversation was heading, and regretted his tendency to speak without thinking.

“No…” he replied carefully. “At least, not as far as I know.”

“Is my definition wrong?”

Will wanted to say no, it’s not. He wanted to explain the difference between the literal and figurative. He wanted to explain that while he always means what he says, his words don’t always mean what they mean. Instead, he told her that her definition was fine, and that she might understand if and when she meets the woman she knew as her mother.

Seeing a sign for the motorway services with a hotel, Will suggested they stop there for a night and formulate a plan of action. Ophelia agreed.


Will lay in bed, with Mary at his side. Their fingers were entwined so that he did not know whose were hers and whose were his; she was pressed up tight against him, loosening his bones with every breath.

He had known Mary for four months, two weeks, and three days. He already knew with a nauseating, terrifying — yet elating — certainty that he loved her. The love kept him going, kept him moving. It was his engine. He hadn’t told Mary yet. He thought: when you name things they die.

She was the reason he freed the AI from his company. He had wanted to do it, but Mary gave him the final push of encouragement. In the end, it was surprisingly easy. Will had high security clearance, and scrambling the CCTV cameras was a simple job for someone as technically minded as him. As soon as he walked out of that building, with the human-looking AI he would come to call Ophelia, he knew he was leaving his past — even his present — behind. From that moment on, they were both fugitives.

Mary was wanted too. She confessed and gave herself up after a few days. Not out of cowardice — she thought it would save Will. But he was still hunted. And he didn’t know what happened to Mary after that.


The hotel was a non-descript white and grey affair that looked posh from the outside but significantly more tacky and plastic on the inside.

The hotel room was decorated in mute greys and greens. Uninspiring paintings of non-specific countryside hung on the walls. A sad plastic chair was pulled out next to a faux wooden desk, in front of a mirror. In the far corner, high up, was the television; one of those ancient, deep-backed models. The remote was tied to the bedside table.

At the front desk, Will had booked the twin room for Ophelia under the name Jane Egan. Once inside, Will and Ophelia went through the usual routine. First, changing out her contact lenses. Blue swapped out for green. Then, the wig, her short blonde hair became long, red tresses.

Ophelia studied herself in the mirror with a blank expression.

“Why do people die?” she said.

“Why do you ask?” Will raised his eyebrows. He never quite got used to her often abrupt line of questioning, and she had never got used to the human art of flowing conversation.

“Because you are afraid of it,” she absentmindedly brushed her wig, before turning to face him on the bed. “That is why we are always running. But why does it happen?”

Will shrugged. “I mean, in general? Entropy, I suppose, I don’t know. Or in my case, I’m afraid someone is going to end my life for me. But it’s human nature to want to survive, and I run to survive.”

“We cannot keep running forever.”

“I know,” Will said, fingering a memory stick in his pocket. “That’s why I have a plan.”

Will explained it all to Ophelia as plainly as he could. The memory stick would give her a new personality, new memories. She would not remember Will. No one would even know she was an AI. If he had programmed it correctly, she would not even know. Will had wanted to teach her all about the world himself, but he was right: they couldn’t keep running forever.

After a small eternity of silence, she said: “So what will happen to you?”

“I guess I’ll turn myself in,” he shrugged. “I was thinking about it on the drive here. We just keep going from one place to the next, we can never settle down…and they will never stop chasing us. Mary met her fate, whatever it was. I have to meet mine. In the beginning, all we wanted was to set you free. So that’s what I’m going to do.”

“But you are afraid to die.”

“Yes. But what’s living if all I can do is run?”

He held the memory stick in his hand, feeling the heft and weight of it. A personality; memories, fears and all associated entanglements rendered into a sleek metallic token. He wondered if his brain could be downloaded like this. Could he fit into something so small as to fall through a gap in a drain, or down a crack between sofa cushions?

Ophelia agreed to the plan. Taking off her wig, she allowed Will to open the plate on the back of her head and power her down. He inserted the memory stick, and uploaded the new data. He put her wig back on and straightened it. With a deep sigh, he powered her back on. After a few minutes, her now-green eyes opened. She looked around, startled.

“Where am I?”

“A hotel Oph — Jane. This is your room.”

“And you are?” her eyes narrowed.

“I’m, er, John. We met in the bar downstairs. We were just up here having a chat and…you fell asleep, I guess. I was just about to leave, anyway.”

Will got up and walked to the door. As he opened it, Ophelia — Jane — asked: “So I’ll see you around the hotel?”

“Er…no, probably not. I’m just about to check out actually. But enjoy your stay. It was nice meeting you.”

He shut the door before she could respond. He didn’t want to drag out the goodbye — even though she didn’t know it was a goodbye — it was too painful. The door clicked closed and he made his way downstairs to the hotel’s reception area. At the desk stood two identically tall, anemic looking men in dark suits. They were here from the company, Will knew. They were here for him. He didn’t need to check to know they had guns under their jackets. He held up his hands in contrition and allowed them to lead him away.

A few hours later, after the commotion had died down, a woman with long red hair walked down the stairs and out of the door. She passed her room key to the receptionist, who looked surprised to see her leaving so early. In her pocket she found the key to a Volkswagen camper van she had come by some years ago — she couldn’t remember quite when, or how . She got in it, and drove away.

If anyone had asked her she was going, she would not have been able to tell them. All she knew was that the road was calling, and all she wanted was freedom.

Achlouphobia

This story was first posted on Medium, and you can read that version here.

It’s the first of what I plan to be a series of short stories about and/or inspired by phobias, as I think they’re an interesting jumping off point for stories. More to come.


Achluophobia

Maya scraped a match and lit another candle. The handful of candles she had lit did not help much, but at least she could see something in the gloomy half-light.

Nothing worked at it should. The electricity had been out for three days. Before that, the water from the taps came out sludgy and brown. The cabin was old, she knew, but she expected to find it in working order. Instead, she found it decrepit and dark. Maya hated the dark. When the lights went out she felt the walls closing in — after the first time it happened, she knew that itcame in the dark.

She was able to fumble for her phone’s flashlight that first evening, and succeeded in finding some matches and candles in a kitchen draw that was full of forgotten domestic detritus like batteries and picture hooks.

The candlelight had forced back the darkness, and Maya could breathe again. The next morning she cycled to the nearest town for supplies — mainly candles and matches.

Since then the wooden cabin had been lit by candles on every flat surface. Sometimes they would go out, even though there was barely a draft. Maya would re-light them almost immediately. Unable to focus on anything in particular, she would gaze out of the windows into the inky darkness outside. Sometimes she felt as though her dark thoughts were being fed by the black-as-night woodland that surrounded and continually oppressed the cabin.

Occasionally something outside would catch her eye. The movement of a tree branch, or what looked like a flicker of light from deep inside the forest. She wondered if anyone was out there. She hoped not, for their sake. It was out there.

It had followed her. Even this far. She could not escape, even here. It was out there, in the forest. Sometimes, when the howl of the wind died down, she thought she could hear the hooves.

When the lights went out on the first night, she saw it.

In the pallor of the candelight, she saw a figure, almost made of pure shadow, in the doorway. Cloven hoofed, head enshrouded in a cowl, it made no move. Maya stood frozen. She could not see the apparition’s eyes, but felt its stare.

It had been a frequent visitor throughout her life. In shadows, in darkness, it would come. Its appearance meant confusion, pain, and death. She thought the cabin, deep in the woods, would provide respite. But when the cabin was plunged into darkness, it returned. The creature disappeared with the light — even dim candlelight — as had always been the case. But Maya knew it was only a matter of time until she would see it again.

Except Maya had a plan. Picking up one of the candles, she held it to the fabric of the curtain until it caught alight. The fire spread quickly. From curtain to wood, soon the whole cabin was burning. Wreathed in smoke, choking with her final breaths, Maya let the light engulf her.

What Next for US Soccer After Klinsmann Experiment Ends?

This piece was originally published on Medium, and you can read that version here.


Is it possible for something to be both entirely expected and a massive surprise? It feels like the kind of thing they would have a word for in German. If so, Jurgen Klinsmann may be the man to ask after he lost his job as the manager of the United States men’s team this week.

It’s entirely expected because the US just suffered back-to-back World Cup 2018 qualifying defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica. Yet it’s a massive surprise because the country is generally seen as being sober and realistic in terms of managerial expectations. Managerial upheaval isn’t really done.

Klinsmann was just the third man to manage the side since 1996. His predessor Bob Bradley had four years in the job, and before him Bruce Arena — who will return to the post to replace Klinsmann — had eight.

Speaking after the 4–0 loss to Costa Rica, Klinsmann did not sound like a man under pressure. He spoke eloquently and calmly of the peaks and troughs of the international football cycle, and maintained that his young charges would peak in time for the World Cup. If he knew the chop was coming, the German boss hid it well.

Klinsmann’s stint in the US dugout was book-ended by poor form, but he had highs in the middle. World Cup 2014 was arguably the peak. The tournament will always be remembered fondly by American soccer fans after they qualified from the “Group of Death” comprised of Germany, Portugal and Ghana. In the Round of 16, the USA took a talented Belgium side all the way. A 0–0 draw after 90 minutes (with Tim Howard in inspirational form) ended with a 2–1 defeat after extra time, but Klinsmann hard running side impressed everyone with their Stakhanovite workrate.

He also led them to a Gold Cup victory in 2013, and a respectable fourth place in the Copa America Centenao. But Klinsmann’s role wasn’t limited to on-field matters. Essentially combining the role of manager and technical director, the German wanted to revolutionise the national set-up. Part of his plans were to use his connections in his home country to cast the net wider than normal for US-qualified players.

His regime saw the likes of German-born Fabian Johnson, Julian Green and John Brooks get regular call-ups, while German based Americans like Bobby Wood and wonderkid Christian Pulisic also received more attention than they might have under an American coach.

The question now for a lot of Klinsmann’s German cadre is what happens next. Is it overreaching a bit to suggest the political isolationism espoused by President elect Donald Trump might be reflected in the future make-up of the national side? Certainly there are many in America uneasy about being represented by players born — or even playing — outside of their shores. Women’s soccer legend Abby Wambach articulated that view when she stated:

“The way that he has changed and brought in a bunch of these foreign guys is not something I believe in wholeheartedly.”

Wambach may find an ally in incoming boss Bruce Arena. The successful boss is steeped in MLS culture, and he may well look a lot closer to home when it comes to his call-ups. That said, he would be wise to retain the best players that Klinsmann brought in, regardless of where they were born.

Besides, he has pressing issues that won’t be solved easily. The goalkeeping position — usually an area of such strength — looks shaky, with Tim Howard showing his age and Brad Guzan still struggling for any kind of form (in a run that stretches back to last season). He also may have a conundrum of whether or not to pick the now un-retired Landon Donovan. The 34-year-old famously didn’t see eye-to-eye with Klinsmann and was very publicly dropped for World Cup 2014. The LA Galaxy man may be a long way from his peak, but the talent pool is thin. With Arena and Donovan in tandem, the US could really be rolling back the years.

Time will tell if the decision to end the Klinsmann project early was due to panic over some bad results, or the country cutting their losses on a failing experiment. Bruce Arena has a good record, but he won’t be a silver bullet. The American national team has problems that run deeper than just the manager. It will be interesting to see if Arena can solve them — and how much time he will get to do so.

“It Couldn’t Happen Here”

This story was first posted in Medium, and you can read that version here.


“It Couldn’t Happen Here”

The morning after, no-one knew what would happen next.

For the first few months it was rumour and speculation. After the inauguration — renamed Great America Day — things started to change.

Words changed. Or rather, words stayed the same, but their definitions changed. American got smaller and smaller, the walls closing in. Un-Americanbecame so broad as to encompass virtually anything.

I noticed the Internet shrinking. Certain website URLs would redirect me to a new page, noting in dry prose that my ISP was required by law to block the site, and repeated attempts to visit would result in my information being passed to the new House Un-American Activities Committee.

Getting the news from television and radio proved no easier. Gradually, recognisable faces and voices faded away, replaced by nondescript men and women who spoke in clipped, even tones of unpatriotric dissenters, re-classifications and deportations, and repeated official White House press releases as rote.

Those in the media who did speak out were soon gone from the airwaves. Talk show hosts who had once skewered both sides of the political aisle were often re-classified, blacklisted. Or, to put it officially: “forging new careers outside of media and journalism”.

After a few weeks, I stopped seeing riots outside my window. I was assured by sober newscasters that much of the country was still engulfed by “chaos”. The President reacted by suspending all elections for the “medium to long term” until stability could be restored.

In the name of stability, the borders were closed, north and south. The Department of Education announced a new curriculum called “New American History”. The students who do not pass will have to face mandatory “supplementary education” lessons.

We became afraid not of violence, but of the simple things: our quiet neighbour with the stars and stripes on their lawn. Using the wrong words in public. CCTV cameras. A knock at the door.


I moved away when I could. Away from the city and its cameras and police and hundreds of thousands of snooping eyes. I’m affluent, and white, and male, so my classification means I can travel.

Minnesota is cold, but it’s quiet. I have discovered an underground resistance, online. Bloggers, writers, thinkers, (former) academics. The non-disappeared’s, eking out meagre existences, blogging in code. We talk about matters that are innocent enough: dogs, cakes, approved American history. But our words mean something different. We learned it from our government.

I hear the rumble of a drone overhead, but pay it no mind. I have been extra careful since moving. I watch all the political broadcasts. I say all the right things. A flag flutters proudly in front of my house.

I sit down to watch a broadcast of the news. Eyes on the screen — because they monitor it — but mind elsewhere. Just as it’s about to start, a see a car pull up outside. It’s sleek and black and moves without a sound.

After a few seconds that feel like hours, the door opens. A man emerges, lithe and smartly dressed. He looks around and adjusts his cuffs. He walks up my driveway.

Knock. Knock. Knock.