More Than Three Chickens And A Fox

I want to share with you a very personal yet truly illuminating experience. Today, I received an email from my son, whose own son, Axl, is surpassing his grandfather with ease. It read:

Axl 2015 bdI thought you might be interested in reading Axl’s first ‘book’.

It’s a simple tale that touches on a variety of themes, innocence, violence, hunger, parental devotion and, without giving away the ‘ending’, murder.

Of course, as with many of his works, there is a subtext.  It skilfully deals with sensitive issues of religion and, for me, reading between the lines, its conclusion surmises that there is no afterlife and, controversially at this time of year, absolutely no possibility of resurrection.  The author leaves one in no doubt of his view on this final point. It’s a real page turner.

He’d attached the story, formatted as a four page book. Here it is:

The 3 Chickens and Fox

By Axl Kirton

When it was morning Tru, Pat and Coter decided to go to the playground.
At the playground there was a fierce fox.  He was called Plat.

The fox said to Tru, Pat and Coter, ‘do you want to eat in my house?’.

‘Yes’, they replied.

When they finished their lunch it was getting late.  The fox said ‘I will eat you’ to them.

Tru, Coter and Pat yelled to mum and dad.  They ran home and dad killed the fox.



(All the formatting, including the upper case at the end, is Axl’s.)

Then, grabbing the excuse of a unique displacement opportunity and being totally self-indulgent, I started to write a quick answering email which I began to enjoy so much that I let it grow out of all proportion into the following excrescence:

A true page-turner indeed, structurally reminiscent (with its clipped, spare sentences) of the early Hemingway or later Beckett.

I agree completely with your analysis. You mention the tale’s ‘simplicity’ and thematic layerings, which do indeed bring an edgy tension into the narrative, but the real source of the existential anxiety which grips the reader is the underlying metaphysical angst which you apprehended so perceptively.

The importance and inevitability of temporality is established in the opening phrase and the time pressure drives relentlessly onwards. Near the end, there comes the menace implicit in ‘it was getting late’, and then we experience the devastatingly abrupt and unquestionably terminal upper case conclusion. Flowing through these points on the time-space continuum, the tale develops without ever acquiring the psychological density and structure of a conventional story. Of the enigmatic Coter, Pat and Tru (the latter so cunningly named to hint at the tale’s underlying veracity), we know nothing. Their idiosyncratic names are worthy of Beckettian archetypes and, like his characters, their back stories are unknown and their relationships unspecified and fluid. They are entities (in fact, chickens), which can only be given substance through their actions, and the only evidence of actions we get from them relate to hunger and fear. It’s the most complete allegory of the human (and chicken) condition I’ve ever read.

Baptising the fox Plat is a masterstroke at so many levels. At its simplest, being derived from the French word for ‘flat’, it confirms the character’s two-dimensionality, challenges novelistic conventions and, in the dynamic implicit between it and the name ‘Tru’, questions the whole notion of reality. Indeed, placing a character named Tru in a fiction is a direct challenge to our perceptions of the world. They contradict and cancel one another to leave us with … nothing, the void.

Next, there’s the near parallel between Plat the fox and Pat, one of the chickens, the only difference being the addition of ‘l’ which, when spoken aloud, gives us ‘Hell’, so we can add Sartre to the pantheon the story apes and reflects.

And, as a final cryptic association, if we take his void, his zero, and add it to his name, we have Plato, whose rejection of the ‘real’ (or ‘Tru’?) world is well documented. What richness in a name of just four letters!

The final twist is worthy of Edgar Allen Poe himself. Having brought his protagonists to the brink of destruction, mere nutritional items destined to be consumed by Plat (i.e. to be re-absorbed into ‘flatness’), they yell to the shadowy parental figures, run home, and the ‘flatness’ is peremptorily eliminated, thereby setting the stage for the traditional ‘and they lived happily ever after’. But this author has no intention of offering such a false vision. He prefers to confirm the absolute, comprehensive victory of nothingness.



If any of you have other readings or insights to offer, they will be gratefully received.

The Draw of Anachronisms

Not Helen but a contemporary. Wikimedia Commons.

Not Helen but a contemporary.
Wikimedia Commons.

In my WIP, which is set in 1841, one of the threads sees Helen Anderson becoming involved in her father’s business. He’s a rich Aberdeen merchant whose ships sail back and forth between Scotland and North and South America. Helen is determined to show him that she’ll be an imaginative, active partner in the enterprise. As part of her learning process, she’s determined to join one of his ships as a passenger to experience conditions on board at first hand and be in a position to offer a better service than shipowners who only know of such conditions through hearsay. Reluctantly, her father agrees to let her sail as far as Thurso. Her mother, Elizabeth, however, is appalled at the idea and, at the moment, I’m stuck at the scene where, with the voyage imminent, the subject crops up as the three of them sit together. The draft goes as far as this:

‘Don’t remind me of that foolish enterprise,’ said her mother. ‘I still haven’t forgiven your father for agreeing to let you go and I’m not sure I ever will.’
Helen saw the concern in her face and went to sit beside her.
I know, Mama,’ she said. ‘I’m not treating it lightly. When I think of being out there at the mercy of it all, I’m very fearful.’
‘Then don’t go,’ said Elizabeth.
‘I must. It will teach me so much. And I shall be back with you in less than a week.’
‘A week during which I shall have no rest.’
And that’s where I’m stuck. The advantage of writing crime novels set in the 1840s is that

Helen's father with iPad circa 1841. Wikipedia Commons.

Helen’s father with iPad circa 1841.
Wikipedia Commons.

there’s no DNA profiling or any of the other sophisticated forensic (and highly technical) procedures available, so the sleuthing is of the imaginative, intuitive variety and focuses more on people and motives than on blood spatter, fibre analysis and the like. On the other hand, in this specific instance, some of today’s ‘advances’ would have been helpful. For example:

‘…A week during which I shall have no rest.’
‘Oh Mama. I promise to text you every day.’
Her mother shook her head and, discreetly wiping a tear from her eye, opened her vinaigrette to inhale its soothing mix of lavender and apple blossom.
‘But my darling,’ she said, ‘you know how reluctant I am to place my faith in any discourse reliant upon the vagaries of HTML.’
Her father unrolled his iPad Scroll, tapped its surface and held it for the two women to see.
‘Besides,’ he said, ‘the long range meteorological predictions are for perturbations in the ionosphere. Reception will be intermittent.’
‘OMG,’ said Helen. ‘You are so, like, negative.’

See? It would be so much easier. Ah well, back to the half-formed world of early Victorian Aberdeen.

The Wrong Shoes

The Wrong Shoes

EB(This is a follow-up from the last blog. It’s the story I co-wrote with Eden. You can hear us reading it on The Word Count Podcast.)

The playground of the elementary school, which Jackie crossed on her way to the bus stop, or to anywhere for that matter, had turned into an ice rink. Normally a cushion of grass, it quickly froze after the temperature dropped to minus twenty following a night of freezing rain. The grounds had become a dangerous place for unsuspecting pedestrians.

It was the weekend, and she was at her local until closing time. She’d had one too many, as was her habit most Saturday nights. Leaving the bar, she had to walk across the schoolyard to get to her apartment building. She’d done the trip a thousand times, even when drunk, and made it home without any problems, but that night … she fell. The advantage of having had too much to drink was she fell limp and boneless, like a rag doll. There was no resistance, which meant no broken bones anyway. She was lucky in that sense. Instead, she had stumbled and dropped face down on the frozen ground.

When she came to, she heard voices and an instinct warned her to keep quiet. She smelled cigarette smoke and soon murmurs formed hushed words. The voices were male, with at least three of them from what she could tell as the conversation ping-ponged above her.

“Darren, how about we take her to your place? No one will see us there.”
“Are you crazy? I may live in the basement, but my mom would kill me! She hears everything.”
“Steve, you still have access to that empty warehouse on Merton Street?”
Jackie’s entire body heated up beneath her goose-down coat. Even her face, painfully pressed against the ice, turned fire-poker hot.

She was in big trouble.

They say fear or trauma sobers you up quite quickly. They’re wrong. Her mind was still cloudy, slow. Even as she’d downed that last whisky, a double, she knew she was already way over any sensible limits. It wasn’t just her words she was slurring, it was her thoughts, too. So she lay there, trying to clear her head, trying to understand the plans being made by the voices.

“How the hell are we going to get her to Merton Street?”
“Carry her. Drag her. She’s pissed.”
“So what?”
“Well, Saturday night, innit? Everybody’s pissed, staggering about. We’ll just look like all the rest.”
The one called Steve wasn’t convinced.
“It’s too far. She might come round. Start screaming. How about the school? Maybe we could find a door open round the back, a window.”
Silence. Then “Yeah, Okay,” and other muffled sounds of agreement.

As two of them grabbed her arms and hoisted her to her feet, she knew she had to do something. In the school, even if they were stupid enough to let her scream, no-one would hear. Somehow, she had to stay where there might be others around, people who might hear her, save her. She shook her head and forced out a laugh.
“Aw thanks, guys,” she said. “I was bloody freezing down there.”
It silenced them, gave her a tiny advantage. She stammered on, her mind racing.
“I need to be in my bed. Cuddled up. Warm. Don’t suppose you could help me home, could you? It’s not far.”

She saw them looking at one another, uncertain. But smiles were creeping into two of the three faces. She nodded her head vaguely in the direction of her apartment building.
“Other side of the school,” she said. “Just there. Ground floor.”
The one on her right said “Anybody there to look after you?”
The cold was helping to clear her head.
“No,” she said. “Just me.”
“Bingo,” he said, and they set off through the darkness of the slippery playground.

Steve hated this. He didn’t want to be here. He had only suggested using the school with the hope they wouldn’t be able to get in, that the cold would eventually deter them, and they’d leave the girl alone. He wanted no part in what his friends had in mind. It turned his stomach to even hear them chat her up, trying to make her feel at ease, no doubt.

“Good thing we came along,” Darren said, his arm around her waist. His six-foot-two frame towered over her. “We’ll take care of you, honey, don’t you worry.”
“Oh yeah,” snorted Kenny, supporting her on the other side. “We’re your knights in shining armour!” He turned to look behind him. “Hey, Steve, keep up, will ya? We’re all gonna get nice and warm real soon.”
Steve bowed his head so he didn’t have to meet Kenny’s eyes. “Yeah … I’m coming …”

It was then he noticed the girl’s shoes. Even while propped up by Darren and Kenny, she teetered along like a child wearing ice skates for the first time. No wonder she fell. She wore the wrong type of shoes for this weather—the heel much too high, the material too thin. There was no support at all. His younger sister had the exact same pair. She had also fallen, fractured her wrist. For the past week, she’d  cried with the pain, night after night. Kept Steve awake, hearing those sobs from her room. Made her sound so … lonely. And now here was another lonely, silly woman, out getting pissed all on her own, nobody waiting for her at home. He speeded up, overtook the others and turned to face them.

“Listen guys, we can’t.”
“What?” said Kenny.
“Her,” said Steve. “We can’t.”
“Why not? Look at the state of her.”
“That’s what I mean,” said Steve. “She’s pissed. It’d be like shagging a side of beef.”
“Cheeky bugger,” Jackie said. “You gay or something?”

Her voice was loud, penetrating, and coarse. Kenny hoisted her higher against him. The sudden pressure must have brought on a wave of nausea because she gagged and threw up on the path. Darren and Kenny let go of her and stepped away. She staggered but managed to stay upright.

“See?” said Steve. “D’you want to go home stinking of that? What d’you think your mom would say then, Darren?”
“Hey, gay boy, listen up,” she said, sounding as if there might be more where that just came from. “Nothing wrong with me. I bet you’re talking about that HIV test. Am I right?”
Steve just looked at her.
“Am I right?” she said again, louder, almost aggressive. But, as she spoke, he saw something else in her eyes. Not aggression: a stare, fear, a plea for help.
“You are, aren’t you,” she said. “Bloody Angela’s been tweeting it. Well, she’s lying. It was negative. Right? The test. Negative.”
“What’s she on about?” said Darren, staying well clear of her.
She turned to him.
“Chlamydia, that’s all it was. Bloody Chlamydia.”
“See what I mean, guys,” said Steve. “We can’t.”
Darren and Kenny looked at each other, then back at Jackie. Darren spat on the ground.
“Slag,” he said, and started walking back the way they’d come. Kenny reached out a hand, grabbed her breast, squeezed hard then turned away to follow his friend.

Jackie watched Kenny and Darren disappear into the darkness. She pulled her jacket more tightly around her chest, wincing as her fingers touched against her breast. She turned back and looked at Steve. The fear was still there and tears were beginning to form.
“Thanks,” she said, her fingers gently probing her bruised flesh. “I… I don’t know what to say.”
Steve shook his head and said, “Buy some decent shoes.”