Watching The Birds (Short Story – New Version)

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[Note: A while ago I wrote this as a much shorter story for my book– I’ve since expanded it into a much longer piece and I’m really happy with the result. Feedback always appreciated!]

The crow was back on the bird table.birdies

Eddie sat in front of the window, staring blankly past his own translucent reflection, asit landed in the midst of a group of sparrows and let out an aggressive squawk. The sound of wings flapping was muffled by the window pane as the sparrows scattered en masse, heading off in search of a more hospitable feeding place.

In days gone by, he’d have tottered out to the garden and banished the crow with a broom or a loud yell – now, though, his legs wouldn’t hold him. Instead he was perpetually confined to his rocking chair, only able to sit and watch.

“Eddie, love, I’m home!”

Nora’s voice echoed through from the hallway, promptly followed by the slam of the door and the rustling cacophony of plastic shopping bags.

“Tesco’s ran out of chicken noodle, so I got minestrone instead,” she trilled, patting the top of his chair and setting it off rocking gently as she bustled her way past him and into the kitchen. “Is that alright? It’ll have to be, I’m not making another trip ‘til the weekend at least. My poor ankles have had quite enough for one day, they’ve been driving me up the wall since lunchtime. Getting as creaky as your old chair, there.”

Eddie’s chair creaked loudly, as though in response, as the muted thunks of tinned food being stacked in the kitchen cupboards drifted through into the living room. Nora appeared in the doorway with a mug in one hand, tucking a few stray strands of wispy hair back behind her ear with the other.

“Ran in to our Bev on the way back from book group this morning,” she said conversationally.  “Do you remember our Bev? The tall one, nose like a ski slope–cup of tea, love? Actually, I’ll do us both one,” she corrected, disappearing back into the kitchen and continuing to talk over her shoulder.

“Anyway, you’ll never guess what—she’s gone and got married to that George from down the post office! Just got back from her honeymoon. You should have seen her, she was brown as a nut—said they’d had a lovely fortnight in Madrid.”

Outside, an intrepid sparrow was making its way back to the bird table, beady eyes watching the crow from a distance.

“I said, Madrid? That’s where me and my Eddie had our honeymoon; always so lovely and warm, the locals were so friendly, and the view from the hotel window… d’you remember?” she asked as she shuffled her way through into the living room, plucking a photo frame off the top of the dresser and dusting off the glass with the corner of her cardigan. In the picture, a man and woman in sepia tones stood with their arms around each other on an ornate balcony, the sun setting in various shades of brown behind them. The bell boy had been kind enough to take the photo for them as he brought them up a bottle of champagne – Nora had giggled as Eddie explained, in stilted schoolboy Spanish, how the camera worked.

“’Course, they’ve put in that bloody great telly tower since. Great big eyesore if you ask me, it ruins the skyline something awful.”

They’d spent every day wandering around the city, Nora crossing off landmarks from a dog-eared brochure she’d swiped from the travel agents’ office until they were sure they’d seen every last one. No matter how sore their feet were, how much their bones ached, Eddie had insisted on carrying her over the threshold of the hotel room every night. He used to have such broad, strong hands, Nora thought—but over time, she’d watched them lose their steady, self-assured touch until they withered and shook. These days, he couldn’t even hold a pen.

“Anyway, listen to me, prattling on… what’ve you done with yourself this morning? Been watching the birds again?”

The sparrow edged further across the table, taking a couple of furtive pecks at the edge of the patch of bird seed.

“You’re always watching the blasted birds,” Nora tutted, reaching over the back of his rocking chair to tuck his tartan blanket closer around his shoulders. It was starting to get a rather musty smell to it, she noted making a mental note to add it to the laundry basket later; it had probably been due for a wash for a few days now. She glanced down at the tray on his lap and the untouched bowl of ham and pea soup on it, and let out a low, exasperated sigh.

“Darling, you’ve not eaten your dinner again,” she pointed out, shuffling around the side and leaning down to retrieve it, a little of the thick green broth slopping over the side.

“What’s going on with your appetite these days, eh?” she asked softly, patting his arm. “You never touch your food anymore. Need to keep your strength up, you know.”

When he didn’t respond Nora simply sighed again, taking one of his hands in hers and giving it a gentle squeeze as the crow, finally twigging that it had company, hopped forward and jabbed its beak towards the sparrow in an unmistakeable threat. The smaller bird hopped back towards the edge of the table again, but held its ground.

“Gordon Bennett, your hands are cold… you should’ve said something, you daft thing!” She shook her head fondly, fussing with his blanket again before shuffling off back towards the kitchen, tray in hand.

“I’ll call that lovely man in to have a look at our heating tomorrow,” she promised, setting the tray down by the sink and filling the kettle. “You know, the one with the accent and the hair. For now, a nice hot cup of tea will just have to do.” She set the kettle boiling a moment before the electronic ringing of the landline sounded from the hallway.

“Back in a minute, love.”

There was the familiar click of the phone being taken off the receiver followed by the tinny voice from the other end, the volume turned almost all the way up to accommodate Nora’s gradually failing hearing.

Hello, is this Mrs Barker?”

“Speaking, dear.”

Hi, this is Julie from Ivy House Care and Support Services…”

            “Oh—didn’t you get the form I sent in?”

“Mrs Barker—“

“You’ve been absolutely lovely to my dear Eddie but we won’t be needing you from here on, I can do just fine.”

Outside, the crow let out an aggressive squawk and lunged for the sparrow, beak snapping. It let out a plaintive cheep of alarm and tried, a split second too late, to hop out of the way.

“Actually, Mrs Barker, I’m calling about one of our care assistants. Zahra Fischer? She was assigned to your husband for two visits a week.”

            “Oh! Yes, lovely lass. Did wonders with Eddie’s sleep schedule. Recommend her to anyone—does she need a reference?”

I’m afraid it’s a bit more serious than that. Zahra hasn’t signed on since Monday and she’s not answering her phone, so we’re a bit worried about her.”

            “Oh, dear. I do hope she’s okay—though there’s some nasty flu going around at the moment. Last time my Eddie got ill with the flu he near enough passed out for three days on end.”

The crow made another jab at the sparrow, this time coming away with a clump of feathers in its beak. A third, and the smaller bird fell silent.

“It may well just be that she’s ill, Mrs Barker, but for now we’re just doing a quick ring-round of all the patients she had on her roster. The last person to see her so far was Mr Rahim, a couple of roads away from you on Norris Avenue—did she make it to your 11am appointment?”

“Afraid not, dear, we haven’t seen hide nor hair. Just as well, really—my Eddie was getting quite attached to her, I’d have hated to tell her it was our last appointment in front of him. Best he finds out when he’s ready.”

She didn’t ring ahead to say she couldn’t make it? You’ve not heard anything from her?

“Afraid not. So sorry, I wish I had more to give you but dear Zahra’s not been round.”

“Ah. Well—thank you for your time.”

“My pleasure. Do ring back if you hear from her, won’t you? I’d hate to think something happened to that lovely girl. Besides, Eddie’s been missing her terribly, he’s been so quiet recently.”

Will do. Take care, Mrs Barker.”

Nora replaced the phone, heading into the kitchen as the kettle let out a well-timed hiss. The crow on the bird table revelled in its new meal, a mixture of blood, bird seed and stray feathers clinging to its beak in clumps.

“That was Ivy House,” she said, over the clinking of mugs on the countertop and the sloshing of water as she poured the tea. “Said that your lovely Miss Zahra’s not been coming to work. Poor lass, probably just a bit under the weather— she did seem a bit off-colour on Monday, bless her heart. I’m sure she’ll turn up sooner or later, though.” A few moments later and she was back in the living room, a mug in each hand.

She set her drink down on the window sill, placing Eddie’s in his lap and carefully arranging his hands around it, hooking his fingers through the porcelain handle.

“There you go, you get that down you,” she said. “You’ll warm up in no time, just you watch. Nothing like a good cuppa to warm your bones, eh?”

Nora retrieved her mug and took a long sip, following Eddie’s gaze out of the window and tutting as the crow tore off another mouthful of its kill and swallowed it down.

“Oh, now, that’s a bit grim.” Her lower lip jutted in a disapproving pout. “That’s the third one I’ve seen this week– maybe it’s the rubbish that’s attracting them,” she said, giving a little indicative nod towards a bulging bin liner propped against the side of the shed. “Should probably get rid of that… but the bin man doesn’t come ‘til Friday and I’ll put my back out if I try lugging it around myself.” She took another long sip. “Ah, well. I’ll sort it somehow. Got to unload the rest of the shopping first, anyway. You drink up, dear.”

Patting his shoulder, Nora bustled off into the kitchen once more – always busy, always moving.

Eddie remained in his chair and the tea remained in the mug, slowly forming a thin skin over the top as it cooled. His eyes remained unblinking, fixed on the bird table outside as the crow – having eaten its fill – squawked loudly and flew off into the darkening sky.

It would return early the next morning, and Eddie would be there waiting for it.

Day Fifty-Seven – “Susurrus” (In For A Penny)

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Two o’clock in the morning. She woke, as usual, to thebaby cot distorted audio from the monitor on the bedside table, the little green and red LED lights flashing in time with the baby’s wailing.

“S’your turn,” she mumbled, nudging the husband-shaped lump of duvet next to her before rolling back over onto her side.

Several minutes passed and she lingered somewhere in the limbo between sleep and consciousness; when she woke again it was to a blessed lack of noise from the monitor. The only sounds that came now were a voice whispering calming little nothings and the gentle susurrus of the baby’s breathing.

“Thank god,” she murmured, dropping her head and letting her eyes drift shut again just as her husband let out a muffled snore into the pillow next to her.

For more information on “In For A Penny”, or for further entries, click here. 

Day Fifty-Six – “The Real One” (In For A Penny)

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doppel“When’s Mummy coming back?” your daughter asks, kicking idly at the table leg and pushing her cereal around the bowl with her spoon.

“What d’you mean?” You sit down across from her, bemused. “Your Mum’s here, sweetheart—she’s upstairs.” Before you even finish the sentence she’s shaking her head, pigtails swinging.

“Not that one. I mean the real Mummy. That one just looks like Mummy, but the smile’s all wrong. And the eyes,” she adds, chewing on the inside of her cheek for a moment. “I don’t like her.”

“Don’t be daft,” you tell her, making a mental note to bring it up with your wife in the evening. Perhaps she was right—a child psychologist might be worth considering after all. “Your Mum’s the same as she’s always been. Now, c’mon, finish your breakfast. We’ve got to get going in fifteen minutes.”

At the top of the stairs, just within earshot, the thing wearing your wife’s skin pull its lips back in a wide smile.

For more information on “In For A Penny”, or for further entries, click here.

Day Fifty-Five – “Scarecrow” (In For A Penny)

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scarecrowAlec tramped through the mud, last night’s rain still lingering in a stifling mist, the kind that could soak a person to the bone within minutes. He stopped at the gate to adjust the sign– it was hanging wonky again, swinging from a single nail in the rotting wooden post. Trespassers will not be tolerated, it read.

Once he was satisfied he set off across the field, following his usual trodden-down path towards the new scarecrow. Just as well it had come along when it did—the old one had been falling apart at the seams, well beyond repair. Instead of warding off birds, though, it seemed to be attracting them; the black feathery bastards were swarming around its head and shoulders, beaks tearing at whatever they could reach.

Alec waved his arms with a yell and the crows dispersed, one of them with a stringy clump of red meat and sinew hanging from its maw. He gagged a little at the smell—that was getting worse by the day, he noted, covering his mouth and nose with one gloved hand.

At least the damned thing had finally stopped screaming.

For more information on “In For A Penny”, or for further entries, click here.

Day Fifty-Four – “Unsavoury Practices” (In For A Penny)

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In For A Penny is back! Sort of. Hopefully. In an attempt to make it easier to update this project more often I’ve made the word count a bit more flexible– instead of being a rigid 100 words, it just has to be between 100 and 250. To get the ball rolling, the next few entries will be from a collection of super short horror stories I handed in recently for my Short Story coursework. Here’s the first of them.

June 14th, 1851.

The St Edward’s Road Sanatorium for the Criminally Insane casylumlosed today. They’re knocking the whole damned place to rubble, and if what I’ve heard regarding their unsavoury practices has any truth to it, then it’s about time too.

Nobody knows what’s to happen to the remaining inmates, nor do they care to ask – I suppose very few of those lost souls have any family or friends left to spare a thought for them, and the kindness of strangers is so rare nowadays. I keep them all in my daily prayers, however.

In lighter news, Howell’s Butchers down the street has reopened, and what’s more the prices are lower than any other in the city by a whole four pence. I must remember to buy more of those divine sausages for dinner with Mother on Sunday.

For more information on “In For A Penny”, or for further entries, click here.

Halloween Tag Questions!

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Continuing the list of “videos to make when you run out of ideas”, I’ve put together a list of Halloween tag questions for any vloggers/bloggers struggling for material this October. The rules are simple: answer all thirteen, and tag an unsuspecting friend or two to do the same. SPREAD IT LIKE A PLAGUE, PEOPLE.

Ahem.

The questions are listed  below the video. Enjoy.

1) What’s your favourite horror movie?

2) If you were in a horror movie, how far do you think you would get? (Five minutes, halfway, all the way to the end credits…?)

3) Favourite scary video game?

4) Favourite scary story?

5) What’s one unusual thing that you’re afraid of?

6) What’s your first memory of Halloween?

7) What’s your favourite Halloween memory?

8) Best Halloween costume you’ve had?

9) Worst Halloween costume you’ve had?

WHICH IS SCARIER:

10) Werewolves or vampires?

11) Ghosts or zombies?

12) Creepy dolls or creepy clowns?

13) Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers or Leatherface?

Top 5 Tools For Writers (That Are Absolutely Free)

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This post is a counterpart to a video I did over on my YouTube channel, detailing some useful pieces of writing advice I’ve picked up over time. Here, I’m going to look at some of the best free websites and programs for helping with the writing and editing process– I know it says top five, but really they’re not in any particular order.

#5 – Oneword.com

oneword

Oneword.com is a brilliant exercise in flash fiction/microfiction. You’re given one word as a prompt, to be interpreted any which way you choose, and a single minute to write as much as you can in the text box provided. It’s great for writing short stories and poems in a very limited time frame – several of the In For A Penny entries came from this website – but you can also take what you’ve written and use it as the opening paragraph or stanza to a longer piece.

#4 – Hemingway App

hemingway

The Hemingway App is one of the most useful editing tools I’ve come across. Using Hemingway’s writing style as a model, it highlights common mistakes and elements of the text that might hinder it like overuse of the passive voice, adverbs, and overly complex sentences. Not only that, but it also grades your writing on a scale of reading difficulty and suggests alternative word choices where necessary. It’s not one hundred percent foolproof– while often inadvisable, adverbs and complex sentences can have their uses– but it works under the principle that if a piece of writing can be simpler or more concise, it should be. You can paste in previous work or write from scratch, using the app to edit as you go. Hemingway app is available both online and in desktop form.

#3 – Writesparks!Lite/WriteThis2

writethis

Okay, so I’m cheating a bit by lumping two together but these two programs are very similar in design and function, and both equally good. Both of these programs are first line and prompt generators with their own built-in text box and timer. I think of these as more advanced versions of tools like oneword (above). Writesparks!Lite has a smaller range of prompts to generate than WriteThis2, being the free version of a purchasable program, but there are more options as to what kind of prompt you want. All in all the difference between them is negligible and they’re both useful for getting the creative cogs turning again.

#2 – WritePlus

writeplus

It’s very easy, when you have work you’re procrastinating from, to spend ages fiddling about with the formatting or minor changes and feel like you’ve accomplished something. Write is completely simple and uncomplicated, with the bare minimum of options which does wonders for combating distraction and maximising the amount of time spent writing. It’s only available through Windows 8 (boo, hiss) but it’s still pretty decent.

#1 – Storybook 2.1.15

storybook

Holy wow do I love this program. This is built for far longer projects, and if I were to try to list the vast number of functions it has we’d be here all day. Put very simply, however, Storybook is a database designed to help you organise every single little facet of your story – characters and their relation to one another, locations, time frames, background details, the list goes on. It makes it so much easier, when piecing together a longer project, to keep track of what you’ve written and how it fits into the story; making it easier to write out of chronological order. It can be complicated to use at first, the user interface being rather crowded with a million and one options, but once you get the hang of it, it’s so so worth it.