All posts by Mark Hj

Cat-whisperer; writer of SciFi and fantasy.

Lost For Words

We had a really terrible day at work today. The very first thing, as I was hoovering around the offices, was great excitement over an email that came in overnight.

“It’s Stephen King!” Mr X, the boss, literally danced around the office. “He wants us to build the entire infrastructure for his next novel. This could totally put us on the literary map. We can have a whole new marketing campaign. Wordsmyths, book fabricators to the stars.”

I got nosy and read the email.

“Mr X… it says Steven with a V and Kinge with an E.”

“It’s just a typo. Get on with the hoovering.”

“But it says it’s for a parody novel to be called The Gleaming.”

Mr X read the email more carefully, which certainly took the shine off the morning.

“Dammit,” Mr X shouted. “That’s the fourth one this week. A serious outbreak of plagiarists. Right check the spam-traps, stop the devils from emailing us, man the barricades and batten down the hatches.”

It’s a busy job, cleaning up after a bunch of mythical plot engineers, who probably believe that the rubbish gets put out by magic and fairies sweep the floors. Not that I’m knocking it – I’ve had stranger cleaning gigs and the pay is decent, something about problems with staff retention.

I got on with my hoovering and then went to do the rounds, emptying the bins, only to find that the company resource manager had muddled up the store room and the stock room.

“I must be having an off-day,” he said to me, just staring at the tangled mess. Really he should have just taken the day off.

The store room is where they keep the stock lines, stock ideas, stock phrases and stockinged feet. According to Mr X, that latter item was an ordering error, but we keep them in the hope of a Sherlock Holmes revival when the game is a foot.

However, the stock from the store room was now muddled with the twists, holes and ever increasing climaxes from the plot elements in the stock room. The whole mess was now tangled into a complete deadlock, which would have been bad enough but some clown had opened a barrel of laughs at the same time. Really, stock-phrase spillages are a menace.

Mr X took one look and told me to clean it up. “Throw it all out, lock, stock and barrel.”

I took few hours to clean up the mess because it was too big and rambling to move all in one so I had to untangle a plotless incoherent jumble that was all middle, with no beginning or end to get a hold of.

As I returned from throwing out a ring of opening hooks that were leading each other on, I passed the tensioning room and there was a blood-curdling scream. On a normal day it might have been a mild scream but there were still spilled stock phrases that I hadn’t swept up. I know Mr X has warned me about going in there. You have to pay attention because anything can happen quite suddenly, but I opened the door anyway to see if I could help.

A recently spawned plot was on the bench where Miss Y had been trying to put in a dismembered corpse at the end of the first chapter. Her assistant had been careless with a whole box of tenses making the plot explode in new directions. The walls were covered with indefinite articles, gritty particles, burst participles and past participants. Grammatical errors crawled over each other in the corners of the room, like similes on a metaphor.

A barely-formed denouement burst with a mournful pop, no longer able to sustain itself with so much narrative support taken away.

I thanked my lucky stars that the stock-phrase spillage hadn’t reached this far.

Mr X arrived, out of breath, and stared at what was left of the plot. I was more concerned about the dismembered corpse – is it a store item or stock item, and where did we get it from? Best not to ask, I think, in case it’s the last cleaner who asked where we get our corpses from.

“Dammit,” Mr X growled. “Barely any plot at all. Finish up as best you can, and put it to one side and I’ll advertise it amongst the bargain-basement literary novels.” Then he turned to me. “Right. Sweep this up carefully. Don’t want to compound the errors.”

Usually when something goes wrong like that, Mr X tells me all about it, chapter and verse, but I think the sheer number of disasters had exhausted him.

As I was taking out the debris I passed the plotting shed and noticed that someone had left the inspection hatch open on the idea incubator. Several had banded together to make an escape, leaving a detailed diagram on the wall, and a mark on the floor for where a body should go. Clearly the ideas had no idea where we keep the spare corpses.

I shouted for Mr X, who did a quick count and then sat down bone-weary and with a hint of spilled stock-phrases.

“Weeks of work,” he said grimly. “So many ideas gone all at once, even some originals, and we probably don’t have copies. We must have lost several plots.” Then he looked at me. “Have you cleaned out the nest boxes yet? Go, now, and check them over. With so many ideas on the loose there’s no telling what damage they might do. I need to issue a spoiler alert.”

I went straight to the nest boxes, each one with a nearly-developed plot maturing inside a tightly sealed binder, except for number five which was jumping and twitching. It might just have been a particularly fast-paced plot, or one packed with surprise twists, but I didn’t like the look of it. I called Mr X over, who stroked it softly, lifted it carefully to glance at the synopsis, and then laid it down with a smile on his face.

“Perfect,” he said. “We’re about to hatch a plot.”

At the end of the day, Mr X took us all out for a drink. He raised his glass and solemnly thanked us all for our hard work on a day so overwrought with disaster that no-one would ever take it seriously as a plot outline. I blame the stock-phrases spillage.

“Now, let us put all of this behind us. Tomorrow is a new chapter.” And then he drank. “Down the hatch.”

# # #

This punfest was written in response to the #BlogBattle prompt of Hatch.

(Of course, Jasper Fforde does this so much better.)

Images from Pixabay

Dream Machine

I walked along a string, high above the savannah, paused to dance a jig, and ran for the knots at the end. A pair of nodding dogs gave me a steadying hand before I poured another champagne for the lifeguard polishing my toenails.

Increase realism index to point-eight-five.

The cobbler pushed the offered coffee aside and polished my toenails some more.

“Can’t drink on the job, mate,” he said. “Now hold still while I… damn. Sorry, mate, just cut your toe off. That’s gonna leave a mark.”

“Well glue it back on.” I sipped his coffee, but the bubbles had gone flat. “Other way up. No, come on, seriously, other way up.”

“Who’s the cobbler here, mate?”

“But the nails go on top.”

Reduce frustration coefficient to six-point-two.

“There you go, mate, just don’t wriggle them until the glue sets.” The cobbler put down his glue and tested the iron. “I’ll do the creases on your knees next, right?”

I hadn’t noticed the creases, a thick, crumpled line across both knees. “Does it have to be done?”

“Look, they bend like this along the line.” He pulled out a pencil from his ear, marked the line with an arrow, and folded my knee forwards. “And like this.” All the way backwards. “And if I keep doing it they’re going to tear along the creases and then… oops, sorry, mate. You just hold still and I’ll get some tape. You just hold your leg.”

He handed me the lower half of my leg. I could see all the clockwork inside my knee, and a pair of hamsters working hard with hand-cranks to keep everything turning. They both fell out when I held my leg upside-down by the ankle.

“Other way up,” the mechanic shouted. “Don’t let the cogs drop out.”

A rain of tiny gear wheels tumbled out and the hamsters started juggling with them.

Increase realism index to point-eight-seven.

The carpenter swept up my hamsters and dropped them in a bin. “Don’t need those, sir. Modern legs are entirely wooden. Let’s just draw a line under that.” He marked where my knee had to go with his pencil. “That looks straight. You don’t want to be walking funny. Do you prefer nails or screws? I can do wooden pegs if you prefer. Peg-legs are all the range.”

Who turned on that experimental sarcasm injector? Someone shut down those spontaneous puns.

“I’ll go with the peg and the eye-patch,” I decided. “Pieces-of-freight, pieces-of-freight. Just box me up and send me out.”

Warning, paronomasia surge detected. Boost logical consistency to point-nine.

“Here you go, sir, I’ll just screw your leg on. Couple of turns should do it. One, two…”

“Toes to the front,” I told him. “To the front.”

“Stop shaking your head, sir, it’s starting to come loose. I can’t put heads back on. Never learned how. And it always leaves a glue-line.”

“No, no, no…”

Emergency stop. Isolate short-term memory.

I reached up to make sure my head was still there, catching my knuckles on the rim of the cerebral influencer.

“Ow.” I opened my eyes as the platform eased out and checked my head again. The dream-machine was humming quietly to itself and Professor Boojum… no, Professor Bodkin hurried in from the separate control room.

“Are you all right? That got a bit out of control.”

“Yeah. Fine. Just a bit…” I sat up and pulled my shoes off. “That’s good. That’s… does that look like a line? On my toe?”

“Nothing there,” the professor said.

“But I can see it. It’s like someone cut my toe off and glued it… Am I still dreaming?”

The dream-machine hummed, not menacing, but perhaps contented. A happy purr. I’ve got you, and you’re all mine.

“You’re awake. There’s nothing to worry about.”

I rolled my trouser leg up and there was a crease-line across my knee, and something I initially mistook as a very large mole.

“Is that a knot?” I peered more closely. “Or a nail head?”

“There’s nothing there.”

I sat on the edge of the platform and swung my leg backwards and forwards a few times, but there was no sign of my knee tearing along the crease. The hamsters squeaked softly.

“Professor, I’ve got scars. Are they all in my head?”

“There’s nothing physically wrong,” he assured me. “It sounds like a few residual memories from the dream have made it into your long-term memory, but that will fade.”

I rubbed the crease across my knee and the hamsters wriggled under the skin.

“It will definitely fade?”

“Trust me, Rachael. It’s just like any other dream. You remember fragments.”

“But I’m Anthony, Professor.”

Professor Boojum frowned. “No, Anthony was in here this morning.”

I rubbed the crease on my knee again and the dream-machine hummed contentedly.

# # #

This was written in response to the #BlogBattle prompt of Scar, and a very strange dream.

Images from

Tender Mercy

We’ve been keeping a few chickens for some years now, but last week I discovered one of them is masterminding a plan for world domination. Anyone who knows chickens understands that they are destined to rule the world, it’s just they’re not big enough. You only have to see one pounce on a careless mouse in the yard, stun it with a savage peck and swallow it whole, to realise that there is no mercy there at all. When a hen pecks, it hurts – I’ve still got a tender bruise on my thumb from one yesterday. The best anyone can hope for that mouse is that was at least unconscious when it went nose-first down a chicken’s throat.

We only have five hens, and a pair of ducks that I never really wanted in the first place, but my eldest insisted. The hens are white, except for Ace of Clubs, who has this black blob on her back, between her wings. Mostly we just call her Ace, and she spends her life pecking around the yard and plotting how to get inside the netting that protects my little vegetable patch. Before last week I didn’t worry about anything more serious than defending my tender shoots.

Last Tuesday, just after breakfast, Ace slipped out of the yard and headed into the centre of town, which I thought was odd and so I followed her. It’s a small place, and we live near the edge, so you have to ask yourself, why would a chicken bother with the mile or so walk to the shops? It’s not like feathers or chicken-poop are legal tender.

She spotted me following and flew up on to a low branch of a ragged sycamore.

Who? Me? Heading into town? No, just gonna snooze here. In the sun. Maybe count the buses.

There’s only four a day of those, so probably even Ace can manage it.

I went to work, but used my lunch break to check on Ace, who was still perched in that sycamore. When I was done at the end of the day, and scattered corn in the yard, she bustled back to peck with others, but definitely giving me the eye.

See, good bit of tree-sitting. Very fine. I’ll do something different tomorrow.

On Wednesday morning, I went to work as usual, and then doubled-back. I parked well down the road and waited, and sure enough, Ace marched past with a very determined stride, and headed into the little 70s housing development a quarter of a mile from our house.

I followed carefully, and saw her peck on the door of number nine, Piccolo Drive. A young woman opened the door and Ace went in, which for anyone who knows chickens it’s perfectly normal. One of our previous hens used to nip two doors along and tap on the window, persuading our tender-hearted neighbour to put half a biscuit out for her.

Even so, I was suspicious and moved closer. Fortunately, the home owner was one of those corporate event wait staff, you know, white blouse, black skirt, and easy to spot through a lounge window. Along with five other, apparently identical corporate event wait staff.

Anyone who knows corporate wait staff could tell you whether or not it’s weird. I know it’s definitely strange when all six waitress clones sit and pay attention to a small white hen.

That’s when I knew that Ace was planning world domination. I didn’t know exactly how, but I am sure a chicken mastermind can achieve anything it wants, one corporate event at a time, one insidious contract tender after another.

Once I thought about it, the plan was obvious genius. A team of zombie waitress clones influencing business leaders, one at a time. I’m sure someone who really knows wine and canapés can tell you how it’s done.

Now there’s no way I can allow Ace to achieve world domination, but then I can’t kill and eat her either.

Actually, I can, but that’s not an easy option to sell to the kids.

The next day, I shut Ace in the coop and went to watch the zombie waitresses at number nine. They were obviously confused by the loss of their leader, and I saw them pacing in what I can only call an agitated way. Finally, they all emerged, all identical, and drove away in completely different cars, which might have been weird, or maybe normal. I’m sure someone who really knows zombie waitresses could tell.

The next day, my youngest accidentally let Ace out and she was off to number nine before I knew what had happened. I didn’t bother to follow because I knew she would just hop up into a tree and pretend that nothing was happening. So I told my youngest not to let her out again, because Ace was sick. That was a stroke of genius, because if she was sick, she could suddenly die, and that was the end of her plot for world domination,

I watched Ace very carefully on Saturday, and she was obviously watching me in return. In fact, I realised that I had been rumbled, and the next time she got the chance to give orders to her zombie waitresses, I was a dead man. Probably choked on a cocktail stick and buried under a pile of disposable plates.

We had Ace for dinner on Sunday. The kids were upset but I promised them that she was really ill, and it was a quick death, and she really would want us to enjoy a chicken dinner. We cooked her long and slow, and even the kids stopped crying once they tasted the amazingly tender meat.

On Monday morning, one of the ducks gave me a funny look. When we got her I was going to call her Rubber, but my eldest insisted on Mabel. The other one is called Beaky and, as anyone who knows ducks will tell you, is obviously as dumb as a peanut, but Mabel has that spark of malign intelligence in her eyes.

At that moment, I realised that I had been quite wrong about Ace, who didn’t have the brains for the whole zombie waitress scheme. This was all Mabel’s doing, the only real contender for criminal mastermind, using Ace as a patsy so that if it all fell apart we would have chicken dinner, not duck a la foiled plot.

I had no choice. I had to warn the family and deal with Mabel, but it turns out that they were all involved with the world domination scheme. I did try to tell them that there would be no place for them alongside the ruling duck, but they absolutely refused to believe me and, well, that’s why I’m here.

I need help. Serious help. It’s not just the ducks, you see? The turkeys are behind it all, not only seeking world domination but also outlawing Christmas. I know, because a sparrow whispered it in my ear. At least, I think it was a sparrow. Certainly a little birdie told me.

Just one thing I’d like to ask, Doctor. Do you keep any sort of poultry? Or budgies? Have you recently fed pigeons in the park? Do you, or any of your family, have contact with parakeets? Or have ostrich feathers in the house?

Please sit down. This is important.

Could you loosen these handcuffs? My wrists are getting tender.

# # #

This is a work of fiction.
Yes, we keep chickens, but none of them is called Ace and the nearest corporate event waitress lives at least three miles from here, which is further than even the most determined chicken is prepared to walk in pursuit of world domination.

This story was inspired by the #BlogBattle prompt of Tender, and a very strange dream.

Images from

Illegal Parking

While strolling through the park one day…

Some days I just can’t help singing that one. I came across it when I was first learning the language on this world and it was just so fitting. And now that I live in something almost like a park, that song is just there, in my head, refusing to go away.

I was taken by surprise, by a pair of roguish eyes…

Except I was waiting for them, and there were four pairs of eyes, a group of the local militia or some such, there to tell me again that I was trespassing at Pencarrick Manor. I already knew that. I am a trespasser and squatter, but since the rightful owners of Pencarrick Manor have been off sunning themselves for years, no-one much cared.

The militia hammered on the door and I opened it, because no matter what world I am on, and no matter whose empire, I still remember my manners. Now, if the warlord Arakaro had manners I wouldn’t have fled to this forgotten world in the first place.

“Mr Berto?”


“I am Mister Green, a High Court enforcement officer.”

He held up identification, as do most who come to see me. It’s a fascinating innovation, one that Arakaro’s men should adopt along with the courtesy, but I couldn’t imagine Arakaro paying artists to produce so many tiny portraits. The picture was not an unreasonable likeness, although as with so many of these identifications, Mister Green was clearly in a state of mortal torment when it was painted.

“Mister Green, sure.” I had to trust his word. I can speak some of their language, but not read it. “While strolling through the park one day…”

That song. It just won’t let me alone.


“Sorry, Mister Green. Just a passing… Never mind. What do you want?”

As always, he wanted me to leave. I complied, of course, and stood to one side for them to work on the door and make the property secure. Then they turned their attention to the gardens.

“Are these your elephants, Mister Berto?”

While strolling through the park one day…

“Pardon? It’s not a park… OK, it’s a deer park but…”

“Sorry, Mister Green. It’s just a song. I didn’t know it was a deer park. If I had known that the deer were also granted sanctuary here I would not have eaten any of them.”

“Eaten…” He shook his head wearily. “About the elephants…”

“Yes, they are my elephants.”

“They’ve got to go, mate. All of them.” Mister Green waved at my elephants, and one of his comrades walked over and kicked Kam Dakka, the nearest one. “You made a hell of mess of the lawn bringing them in. No, they have to go. And the rightful owners will want compensation for the damage. If you can’t arrange to move them yourself, we will bring in our own contractors, but we can’t be held liable for any damage…”

“Bill!” The kicker was scratching at Kam Dakka’s leg. “It’s granite. Gonna be a right devil to shift these. Must weigh five… ten tons.”

“This is not a kiddies’ safari park, Mister Berto. You really need to move them,” Mister Green told me. “If we have to do it, the costs will be added to the judgement against you, which currently stands at… wow! That’s a lot of money you owe, Mister Berto.”

I shrugged. “I have no money.” Just elephants. “I will go now. While strolling through the park one day…

I walked away. Mister Green shouted after me, “The road is that way,” but I ignored him, went round the back of the house and walked down to the stream. I have a door down there, hidden in a clump of trees. It brings me out inside the house. Fortunately, the militia know nothing of my doors or the way between worlds.

While strolling through the park one day…”

I watched as Mister Green and his militia searched for me. Once they had gone, I checked that they had not damaged my main door, because I thought I felt it shift. In the early days of my tenure, the soldiers would come, ask me to leave, and seal the doors, but once I was back inside, it was easy to open them again. In recent years, they have changed the locks, and now it requires a token they call a key to release them from the inside. I have simply created one of my doors either side of the timber door at the back of the house so that I may step in and out easily. So, I checked, but whatever it was I felt, there was no damage.

Finally, I went out and checked my elephants. It took time to visit each and release them. Kam Dakka assured me that her leg was fine, but I checked, because that granite transformation is complex, imperfect, and only just enough to confuse hunters.

The matriarch, Poh Mara, thanked me and led the herd through the opening I had long-since made to a farm some miles away. They cultivate a grass native to the lands from where I rescued Poh Mara and her kin. The elephants have a phrase for it – the taste of home. They are careful not to eat too much for fear of arousing the anger of the farmers.

In a few more years I will be able to amass the power to open a proper distant doorway and take the elephants somewhere better. I have read of a far-off land called America with great grasslands where they do not hunt elephants.

That song was in my head again. “While strolling through the park one day…”

Poh Mara rested the tip of her trunk on my shoulder for a moment. Warlords and soldiers are a menace, but I will keep my elephants safe, as I promised them, strolling in parks until I can reach a proper home.

# # #

I’ll just take a moment to talk about the elephant in the story…

I wrote a first draft of elephants ages ago, after a very strange dream, but then the January #Blogbattle prompt of Park popped up. I couldn’t get an old, old song out of my head, and it just belonged with my elephants.

One day, maybe, I will write the whole of the elephant novel.

Images from


My feet started to itch and I blamed the wet weather. The flooding has been at least ankle-deep for the last few weeks, only easing in the last few days, so boots are essential just to step out of the house. I’m sure that any day now, I’ll need them inside the house as well. When the itch started I immediately thought of trench foot, but that’s probably because our Ted is learning about the first world war at school.

I went to my GP because my toes were red and sore. At least the surgery is on slightly higher ground, above the flood levels.

“I think what you have is most probably a fungal infection,” she said, writing a prescription.

“So, not trench foot.”

“No. Not at all. But come back if it gets worse.”

Every time I see my GP she says that – come back if it gets worse. I never do, because it never does, except this time. I applied the ointment and my toes got worse, a deepening red and maddening itch. I would have given it a day or two, but then my eldest sat at the kitchen table and presented his right foot just when Margi was getting ready to lay out supper.

“Dad. Think I got athletes toe or something.”

I took a look and saw the same red mess as my own toes.

Margi looked.

“Get your feet on the floor where they belong.” Margi set out the plates. “I’ll take you to the GP in the morning.”

Translation. Dad will take you to the GP in the morning. It was a good thing, though, the way my own feet were getting worse.

“I could still be a fungal infection,” the GP told me with all the reassurance of a politician denying a scandal. “But it’s seriously infectious and we are seeing more cases. I am going to prescribe a stronger anti-fungal treatment. Nip it in the bud.”

Honestly, the new ointment stings a bit, but I toughed it out for Ted’s sake.

“You know it’s working when it stings,” I told him and got a derisive grunt in reply.

I dropped him off at the top of the hill to walk down to school because I don’t drive a Chelsea tractor that can handle water that comes part way up my wheel arches. Then I went home to find a different pair of shoes because my feet were being crushed in my wellies.

That was when I rang my boss to say I was taking the day off. My feet were puffed up, my toes so swollen they were no more than a big, continuous ripply blob. I put more of the ointment on, which stung like crazy, and Googled for what to do. The only answer that made sense was to elevate them. I lay on the floor with a couple of cushions to hold my ankles up.

It’s really hard to watch the TV like that.

I had to crawl to the kitchen to get lunch because it was just too painful to put any weight on my feet, which were both the size and shape of a melon. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse my feet literally went pop. I felt a pain like the day I dropped a concrete block on myself and heard a wet snap like an elastic band.

It’s best not to look, not straight away. When something that bad happens, give it a moment or two to settle, let the pain go down. The moment you look, it’s real.

I looked.

My feet were still there.

When I say feet, I mean something more like a duck. The swelling wasn’t gone, just spread sideways. I could see the bones splayed wide, and scaly mottled skin stretched between them. My toes were no more than stubs.

I think I may have screamed. There was certainly a lot of noise, and then I vomited. There is a gap in my memory after that. Perhaps there was more screaming. I’m really not sure. In the end I crawled to the kitchen to get a bucket and sponge to wipe the mess off the carpet.

I had to stand to reach the tap, putting as little weight on my feet as possible, but surprisingly there was almost no pain. Cautiously, I stood properly, filled the bucket and walked back to the lounge.

Or waddled. My feet were too wide to walk comfortably.

Once I had cleaned up, I phoned the GP, but the receptionist said she had been taken ill. I thought about calling for an ambulance, but duck feet didn’t seem like an emergency. I decided to drive to the nearest hospital instead, but quickly discovered that the pedals in the car were mean for a human foot.

Ted came home a bit after four. I was calmer about my feet and showed him what had happened.

“Wow. Greg was right. Duck-foot virus.”

Greg is Ted’s best mate. He’s also trouble and a bit wild where my boy is steady. If Ted influences Greg then I bet they will grow up to be best mates, down the pub for a beer, taking their kids out to the park and all that. If Greg influences Ted, I expect they’ll both end up in prison.

“Duck-foot. Right.” I could hear Greg’s troubling influence. “Just so long as I don’t start quacking.”

Naturally, Ted got his phone out, took a photo and set it to Greg, quacking and giggling alternately. Greg answered almost immediately, and that wiped the grin off my lad’s face.

“Greg’s got it bad,” he said and showed me his phone.

“That’s duck-foot alright,” I agreed. I would definitely be screaming if my feet turned into a plaited mess of stretched out toes all merged into one. “I reckon I’m going to catch the bus. Get myself to hospital. You stop here until Mum gets home.”

Ted nodded. “Right, Dad. Right.”

I rolled my trousers up to keep them dry and stepped outside. Water lapped up over my toes, but my feet felt fine. I walked with a bit of a shuffle because those duck feet were meant to have legs further apart, but apart from that it was fine.

Then I stumbled, half way down the garden path. It was nothing serious, and I managed to not fall, just took a couple of clumsy steps on to the lawn.

Just a matter of practice, I told myself. Just got to take a moment.

I tried to take another step and my feet were fixed down. The water was murky so I got my phone out to get a bit more light. My feet were spreading wider and merging down into the mud. In moments I went from being able to rock from side to side, to being completely stuck. The lawn actually bulged upwards out of the water as my feet put down swelling roots.

I tried to bend down to look more closely, but my knees locked up.

At least I had my phone out. I called for an ambulance.

“I got that duck-foot virus,” I told them. “But it’s not duck feet. I’m turning into a tree.” I looked down, which was a mistake. I was part of the lawn now and my toes re-appeared, growing upwards, five eager saplings. “I am going back to nature. I am the forest.”

My hips seized up and my toes were as high as my knees.

I don’t want to be a forest.

# # #

This was written in response to the #BlogBattle prompt of Merge.

Conjuror Girl


Eight years ago I began using a method of visualising my characters whilst preparing for the writing of a novel, a technique I thought I’d never used before. It turned out however that I had. Decades before my Factory Girl trilogy was published, when I was a young man living in the south east of England, I’d met the fantasy artist John Howe at a convention, and he drew me a picture of a woodland goddess I’d created for some fantasy project I was involved with. I was thrilled to see his picture, which somehow made this enigmatic figure a bit more real.

Almost thirty years later…

When sitting down to prepare for Factory Girl, it occurred to me that if I found images online of real Edwardian people it might make thinking about them before writing them easier. The main character Kora having a British father and a Nigerian mother, I had to search for a while, but in due course the perfect photo appeared. I used this in my notebook to help me visualise her. Having realised that this method was helping me imagine Kora, I did the same for other characters.

For my new Conjuror Girl trilogy, I did the same thing. Before I thought about Monique and Lily in detail I browsed photographs of young Victorian women, coming across the perfect Monique and an especially good photo for Lily. I think this latter image in particular gave me a strong sense of who Lily is. Look at those eyes! And that face. Steely and determined, I think it would be agreed. As for Monique, she looks as though she’s half in reverie, her mind’s eye focusing elsewhere. Edward’s photo was of a slight, pale-looking boy, while Mr Goldgate – the villain of the novel – looks to have all the arrogance and domineering spirit I wrote into him. He looks proud of himself in the photo I found. Mr Parryman meanwhile was also a terrific match: old, cantankerous, dismissive. As for Henri Manguin, he being a real French painter it was easy enough to track down a photographic portrait.

This technique of finding photographs to match characters pays big dividends. I think it works because, when authors prepare for the writing of a novel, they usually don’t know much about the details. Certainly, I don’t – that’s where a lot of the enjoyment and satisfaction of creation is. I recently stumbled across a great author quote: “A writer is somebody who, sitting down to their task, does not know how to begin.” So by allowing photographs or other images to bring concrete visual details to a character, the author has a head start. Does the photograph for Lily show determination? This aspect of her character comes out strongly in the book, albeit tempered by her vanity and desire to rise above her station. Does the photograph for Monique suggest a somewhat dreamy young woman? This is very much the Monique of the novels. Yes, both characters developed as I wrote the books, occasionally into unexpected areas, but their central characteristics were founded on my imagination and that photographic detail available in real Victorian portraits.

Of course, this technique can’t work for future times – but authors do have pencils and pens…

# # #

Stephen Palmer’s new ‘Conjuror Girl’ trilogy is being supported and promoted by a blog tour, the author’s first.

Beginning with Jude Matulich-Hall, the tour covers a range of authors and official genre venues, including SFF World, Sarah Ash, Keith Brooke, Tony Ballantyne and Craig Hallam. Most of the tour hosts are British, but there’s American support too from Jude and Juliana Spink-Mills.

Stephen said: “I’m trying different ideas to see what works in terms of promotion and marketing – by far the most difficult part of having a novel published. Because the ‘Conjuror Girl’ trilogy is set in an alternate version of my home town of Shrewsbury, I am trying local publicity as well as the blog tour. When I was putting together the tour I wrote all fourteen host names down then chose a subject suited to them. These include: attitudes to children in Victorian times, photography, colours, women in patriarchy, and naming characters – a nice big range of subjects, some light, some heavy…”

The Conjuror Girl trilogy is available through all online booksellers.

Way To Go Gnome

I turned up to do some general tidying around the gardens at the Duckwater residential care home and noticed that someone had installed a garden gnome over the weekend. It’s not unusual – friends and relatives often do things like that to liven the place up – and someone had spent a bit of money on this one. Every so often, the little fishing rod dipped twice, flicked from side to side and bobbed once more. It was an eye-catching rhythm, bob, bob, swish-swish bob. I couldn’t tell whether it was battery-powered or had a cunningly disguised solar panel, but I caught myself nodding my head in time with it. Bob, bob, swish-swish bob.

Even so, it was a stupid place to put it, causing awkward wheelchair access right where the path around the pond was narrowest, between the safety rail and a bench where friends and relatives could sit with their resident and watch the ducks on the pond.

I did my job, working round the little statue – all green trousers and a sloppy pointed hat, perched right on the edge of the pond, fishing rod doing its bob, bob, swish-swish bob, but no smile. I don’t like garden gnomes, and their inane cheery disposition, but a frowning gnome with lips pursed into a grimace is even creepier.

That bob, bob, swish-swish bob got on my wick after a while. An annoying movement that kept catching my attention and then got me nodding along to it.

When I was done for the morning, I mentioned it to Laura, the manager, just in case she wanted it moved. Whoever originally installed it ought to be the one to shift it somewhere better, but moving a garden gnome meant being paid for another hour’s work.

“Ugly, grumpy-looking thing,” Laura decided. “Can’t stay there. I mean…” bob, bob, swish-swish bob. “Aw, look at that, waving his fishing rod around. I mean, really, it only needs to move a little bit.” She nudged it with her foot. “That’s heavy, John. Is it going to be difficult to move?”

I crouched down to get a grip on Grumpy’s elbows, which was tricky because he was partly under the safety rail that stopped runaway wheelchairs or zimmers ending up in the water. I tried to lift him.

The fishing rod went bob, bob, swish-swish bob, BOB, BOB.

“Someone must have cemented him down.” Which was odd because the concrete edge on the pond was encrusted with moss, but there was no sign of anything scraped away to make a clean surface. “I can bring a pry bar on Wednesday and try to shift it.”

“Yes. That would be good. Thank you, John.” Laura shook her head. “People are just so inconsiderate.” She shook her head again. “That’s odd. Where are the ducks?”

I hadn’t noticed their absence. Sometimes, depending on the day, I sit on one of the benches to eat my lunch and throw the odd crust for the ducks.

“Foxes?” I had never seen the pond without a single duck visible. “But there would be feathers, right?” The fishing rod went bob, bob, swish-swish bob. “Grumpy probably scared them away.”

Laura sighed. “Something else to deal with. And…”

“Coming through, coming through.” Mrs Patterson announced herself, arriving at a stately pace with her walker, and one of the nursing staff at her elbow. “Well he’s an ugly little devil. Just let me sit.” The nursing staff folded down the seat built into her walker. “Thank you, dear.” She gave me a grin. “Silly place to put a gnome, John. I’ll sit and have a word with him. See if I can get him to smile.”

The fishing rod went bob, bob, swish-swish bob, bob-bob.

“Oh look…” Mrs Patterson manoeuvred closer to Grumpy. “Tick-tock, tick-tock, like a little metro-gnome.” She chuckled to herself. “So, what do you call yourself, little fellow?”

Laura nodded, smiled, and made a decision. “John? Could you come and shift that gnome this afternoon?”

“Yeah, yeah, no problem.”

I drove into town, bought a couple of sarnies, and dropped by my lock-up to get a pry-bar, bolster chisel and hammer. I parked in my usual spot and headed down to the pond, and walked into a developing crisis. Laura was there, pink and flustered, and at least half the nursing staff were out and about.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“John? Can you help us look. We’ve lost Mrs Patterson. Her walker is still down by the bench, but no-one has seen her since this morning.”

We searched for probably an hour or more, and I finished up at the bench, where Mrs Patterson’s walker was still parked beside Grumpy.

“Did you see anything, mate?” I asked the gnome because there was no-one else to talk to.

Grumpy’s fishing rod went bob, bob, swish-swish bob.

Laura appeared at the far side of the pond and walked round, shaking her head as she drew close.

“It’s time to call the police,” she said wearily.

“Yeah. And tell them to question Grumpy. Little beady eyes, no fixed abode, fishing at all hours.”

Laura managed a weak laugh. “Except he’s got a very fixed abode until you move him… probably tomorrow now. Don’t suppose the police will want you touching anything.”

Tomorrow became the day after, and then next week, and finally let’s just wait and see, because Mrs Patterson had done more than just wander off. The police wrapped everything in blue-and-white tape, asked endless questions, mounted a major search, and did television appeals which included phrases like possible abduction and very concerned for her safety, because even with her walker frame, Mrs Patterson had a top speed of snail’s pace and coming down to the pond was a major expedition.

The police tape eventually came down, their investigation became ongoing, and I had more than two weeks of catching up on grounds maintenance to do. Not that I mind. They’re paying me by the hour. It’s surprising how much there is to do, weeding, a bit of light pruning, and a couple of barrow-loads of crisp packets, coffee cups, drink cans and miscellaneous rubbish. I’m sure some of it was down to the police search teams, but honestly most of it is from the residents and their visitors.

I divvied up the rubbish into general and recycling, and finally took the weeds, clippings and stray banana skins to the compost heap which is hidden in a clump of rhododendrons. I keep nudging Laura to let me grub those out and plant native shrubs, but the words noxious foreign weed just don’t register with her.

Someone had been messing with my compost. The heap wasn’t just kicked around, but dug up, flung far into the shrubbery, and where it had stood there was now a deep pit showing ripped rhododendron roots.

I called Laura.

“Probably just teenagers,” she grumbled.

Seriously? If I find a teenager prepared to dig a hole like that just for a lark, I’m gonna take them on as an apprentice.

“Thing is, Laura, that hole…”

“You can just fill it in, right?”

“Yeah, but it’s big enough for a body, isn’t it? And see that there, half way up the far end…”

“Bit of stone?”

“I think it’s a finger bone,” I told her, because I’d already walked round and looked closely, so I was very sure it was a bone. “And then there’s the really weird thing…” I pointed to a gap in the rhododendrons where three Grumpy clones were gathered together, fishing rods doing an occasional bob, bob, swish-swish bob. “That’s more than just a prank, right?”

“Um.” Laura stared, fishing rods flicked back and forth, and she just tuned out for a while, lost in the beguiling bob, bob, swish-swish bob.

“Probably ought to get the police back,” I prompted. “Because this is just freaky.”

“Yeah. Right. I’ll go call them.”

She walked away and there was a sudden rustle in the depths of the rhododendron. It was probably just a cat or squirrel, spooked by four Grumpy clones going bob, bob, swish-swish bob.

That movement, it catches the attention. I could lose myself just staring at it.

Bob, bob, swish-swish bob.

I hurried after Laura. I was certain there were only three of them a moment ago.

Way To Go Gnome was written in response to the November #BlogBattle prompt of Hypnotic.

Image from

Gaps~~by Mark Huntley-James


Not too long ago, we watched a documentary on Japanese art, which highlighted negative space as one of the key concepts, the unmarked paper around the subject, enhancing and defining, creating detail from nothing.

Recent events and anniversaries have drawn my attention to some of the negative spaces in my life. Perhaps those gaps help to define me, and they are most certainly empty spaces left, but the are far from being unmarked paper.

As I write this, it is almost exactly twenty-nine years, to the hour, since Grandpa Stepney died, forty-four years since Grandpa James died, and almost twenty-four hours since our cat Oatmeal had to be euthanised by the vet.

There are plenty of gaps in my life, but those three will do for the moment.

It’s also eighty-one years since Grandpa Huntley died, but that was more than two decades before I was born, and leaves…

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Tricky Treats

I am hopeless at anniversaries, but then I have been avoiding my own birthday for more than thirty years. I have missed sending a card for various family birthdays over the years, but perhaps the most memorable was the year I sent card and flowers to my mother in plenty of time. A few days early I might have got away with, but sadly I had the target day exactly right, but October instead of November.

That did not go down well.

In one of those quirks of fate, probably because my partner made a random observation on the practicalities of taking kids out trick-or-treating, my mind drifted on to those many anniversaries that I so easily forget, and one that sticks.


The last day of October.

Cast my mind back to 1992. That was a mixed year of significant events. There was this woman, you see, at work, and I quite liked her, but as it turned out we were both very bad at dating, or at least highly idiosyncratic, and we had a few ups and downs. Somewhere in there, she was dealing with her father having health issues, I was coping with my grandfather having health issues, and then there was that tricky experience of introducing the new girlfriend to my family. My father’s sense of humour can be a rite of passage, if you’re lucky.

Oh, and early in 1992, some thieving ratbag stole my car.

I liked that car and never saw it again. This was at a time when I was routinely driving a hundred and fifty miles to visit my grandfather. Somewhere we have photos of his garden in Spring 1992, and specifically the untended vegetable patch, a clear indication that my grandfather was not well because in a normal year it would have been dug over, with perhaps even a few rows of potatoes already planted.

The other hint that he was not well was my mother moving in with her parents for a while to help out.

As I recall, by October 92, I had finally bought a decent replacement for my stolen car, because I’m not sure that the cheap piece of junk I drove whilst the insurance settled had that many long journeys left in it. It would certainly have been cramped and tricky on the day in mid October when I picked up my grandfather and drove him home after a spell in hospital.

On the last day in October 1992, which happened to be a Saturday, I was having a quiet evening in with the now well-established new girlfriend (quiet apart from the trick-or-treaters at the door), relaxing on my awful sofa and watching a film, probably from the video hire round the corner. My mother phoned in the middle of the movie, but that was OK, because we could just hit pause.

I’m not sure if we ever finished watching, and I don’t remember the title.

The last day of October 1992 was the day my grandfather died.

Some anniversaries do stick in my mind.

# # #

(I had mostly written this before our cat, Oatmeal, had to be euthanised yesterday.)

Silent Paws

Oatmeal was a cat with big paws, big body, big personality and short legs, which created a distinctive fast drum-roll on our wooden floors when he came jogging in. Even in the last few years when his health was poor and one leg refused to work properly, you could hear the determined patter of tap-tap-tap-tick, tap-tap-tap-tick.

A few weeks back, he had one of his downturns and stopped eating, which took a determined effort and a week or more of patience on our part before he resumed and all was well. However this time the upturn lasted less than a week and this morning we had to take that final decision.

After more than eight years of those thunderous paws, we have some unwelcome silence in the house.