Postcards from the Hedge, a guest post by brother Ron


I don’t normally write to agony aunts (or brothers in this case) but I’m seeking advice from those I’m sure will know. At the very least, there’s a short story plot tucked into the back pocket of my dilemma somewhere. Incidentally, I’m wary of giving free plots to the writing community in case they – the plots – turn out to be the last piece in the jigsaw of some budding genius who goes on to take the literary world by storm while I’m trying to sell copies of The Big Issue at their gate. However, as charity is at the centre of one of these fledgling plots, I’ll rely on Bill’s readers to do the right thing.

Rory the Dragon

Take this, for instance, as the final line of a short story set in a model shop; not invented by me but overheard by a friend who was in that shop when the customer ahead of him asked the assistant, ‘That dragon in the window, is it to scale?’

For me, it’s a line that immediately sets off a delicious load of creative synaptic connections and feeds the hungry right half of my brain. (I’ve always treasured the thought that the right half of the brain is the right half of the brain). Alternatively, it’s a neat, finished piece of Flash Fiction which I hereby donate to my brother and his readers.

Here’s another plot, embodied in a piece of ‘found’ material. My neighbour keeps chickens. He gives me their waste for my compost heap. In return, I give him courgettes, strawberries, etc, when they’re in season. So where’s the short story potential in that? Well, because he has a surplus of those charity donation bags which come through the door, he puts the chicken shit in one of those and leaves it by the hedge just inside my gate: just about where I would leave a bag of clothes to be collected by the Salvation Army on, say, a Tuesday morning. So, when my neighbour’s usual ‘gift’ did not appear last Tuesday, I spent a few troubled hours pondering the headlines after my arrest and wondering whether I’d be referred to as ‘elderly’ or ‘pensioner’ or just plain villain:


In my defence, I’d have to say – to the magistrate – that I’d checked the ‘do not include’ on the side of the bag and there’s no mention of manure.

Instead of the germ of a substantial story I mentally felt it might be, the above reads more like an incidental scene from a 1980’s sit-com. Often, what seem in my head to be epic threads turn out to be postcard-length musings.

I was recently having a conversation with my son, Will – who, as you know, also writes – about those epic ideas turning out to be postcards. The conversation went something like this:

ME: It’s like I’ve laboured for months to uncover an aspect of the human condition, only for my reader to notice it was yet another example of… (and here I tried to add a silly, random phrase to elicit a giggle)… I don’t know… Freud’s … Hegehog… Paradox.

WILL: Hey, I was reading about that yesterday.

ME: No, I just made that up.

WILL: No, honestly, look it up. It’s about hedgehogs huddling closer in winter to share warmth but not being able to get too close for obvious reasons. Freud applied this to people and how they seek the warmth of close relationships but recoil if they get too close to others.

Even if that’s not Bill’s old friend, serendipity, it certainly belongs in my ‘weird’ tray.

Which brings me to my dilemma. Dear Bill, I keep getting this pair of junk emails. One asks whether my dating needs are being met and the other invites me to buy a Stannah stair-lift. Are they mutually exclusive? If I bought the stair lift, would riding on it leave me the energy to indulge in whatever might happen at the top of the stairs if I responded to the dating pitch? If I took the dating route, would the consequences lead to a stair lift becoming a physical necessity? If I combined the two…….no, stop it.

* * *

Thanks, Ron. I always enjoy and am grateful for your guest posts. A wee PS, if I may, by way of response to your plea to my ‘Agony Brother’ side. I think your uncertainty about the nature of the relevant processes suggested by your ‘whatever-might-happen’ remark makes your question rhetorical. It did, though, remind me of a friend whose wife suggested recently that they should (quote) ‘rush upstairs and have sex’ (unquote). He had to admit to her that he could do one but not both.


Return to Sender



Yet again, I’m back to the fascination of co-writing stories but this one’s rather different.  I’m not sure how much writing my friend Catriona does nowadays but, in my opinion, she should do more. In a recent email, she referred to the Oscar ceremony cock-up and said The Wrong Envelope would be a good title. In fact, we changed the title, I wrote half a story, sent it to her to finish, and this is the result. The asterisks mark the point at which she took over.

Return to Sender

Reading too much Byron, that was the problem. ‘Oh, that the desert were my dwelling place, With one fair spirit for my minister.’ That’s what coloured Tim’s thinking from the start – the idea of fusing with some ‘her’ into one being to the exclusion of all else and all others. Successive girl-friends tired of his intensity and ditched him for less Manfred-like inamoratos. And each time, despite the fact that none had so far achieved ‘fair spirit’ status, he was devastated to have ‘lost’ them, and loved them even more because of their inaccessibility.

Then along came Deborah, a student at Gray’s School of Art. She hadn’t read Byron, but OK! and Hello! had shaped her conception of romance in more or less the same way, and Tim was soon able to luxuriate in the certainty that she was exclusively his. They did everything they could to protect that purity. They had the usual social media accounts, but only used them in their contacts with other people. Their ‘desert’ was, in fact, a gentle oasis amid all the chatter and fury of Facebook, Twitter and the rest. No alien electronic separators divided them. They had no selfies on their phones, never used Skype or emails, preferring to express their love through tangible media – real letters, notes scribbled on paper, flowers, chocolates – all direct, actual things, things which let them share the touch of the lover’s fingers. And Deborah’s letters were unique, worthy of the greatest romances. The sentiments expressed were relatively trite, but each ‘i’ was completed not by a dot, but by a tiny heart. The tails on each ‘g’ or ’j’ curled into extravagant flourishes, and all around the edges of each envelope crawled a tangle of cherubs, roses, and intertwining foliage.

Only one shadow crept across the image of their timeless bliss. For Deborah it was reassuring, but for Tim it became progressively darker. He accepted that chastity was a natural component of the spiritual vision they shared. Whenever they talked of it, they were quietly proud of the fact that, in a terrifyingly permissive context, they still managed to respect the sanctity of their embraces. Tim still cherished his ‘fair spirit’, but it was a thing of the mind, a chaste ideal which nothing should desecrate. And it was hard to ignore the growing insistence of another hunger.

* * *

Its pangs were increasing dramatically, along with what Tim identified as despair. Longing and yearning were rampaging through him, eclipsing his noblest intentions. and the battle between body and soul was being won by the corporeal forces. Seeking a solution outside himself seemed futile. The violent hailstorm he could see through his bedroom window mimicked the torrential surge of longed-for pleasure in his blood. Even the shape of the table legs disturbed, teased and tempted him. He sneered at his reflection in the mirror.

‘Face facts,’ he told it. ‘You’ve become a pathetic fallacy! Think. What would Byron do? “Manfred! I call upon ye by the written charm which gives me power upon ye. Rise! Appear!”’

Of course, ‘the written charm’. That was it. Honeyed words would beguile her, linguistic caresses would prepare the way for other tongue-related activities.

His reflection was standing taller, shoulders squared.

‘We can do it,’ he told it. ‘We can tread the Byronic path. I’ll write to her, explain, share my longings and torment in beautiful, graceful words. Not the whole hog, of course. I’d need to tone down “into her dream he melted, as the rose blendeth its odour with the violet”. Make it more OK! or Hello!. In fact, leave Manfred out of it. Stick with Don Juan. I know it’s all very well to dream that “a union through the written word would be spiritual perfection”, but our search is for a baser sort of perfection. Right, to work, then.’

At his desk, he pushed aside the various bills and household communications that were waiting to be sent off, and took out a sheet of the Crown Mill paper he’d bought especially for the love letters he sent to Deborah. He looked at his colourful array of writing implements: the long pens which would ooze their ink on to the parchment of his naked soul; the italic nib tracing its ever changing trail over the virgin page; the trusty ballpoint – direct, passionless; the soft, sensitive felt tips for stroking the surfaces. Well, in time they would all serve but, to craft the elegy of his desire, only the italic nib would do.

Hours later, he had finally met his objectives and finished the best, and most important, letter of his life. He gathered up the envelopes, carried them to the garage, wheeled out his bicycle and rode to the nearest post box. The bundle of household things was pushed in first, landing with a soft, papery thud. Only the letter to Deborah remained. He held it to his cheek, kissed it and took a deep breath.

‘I’m being manful now’, he said. And he thrust it into the gaping mouth of the bright, red, erect pillar, hearing the whisper as it fell into the soft darkness, and simultaneously shaking off a momentary fear that the Postal Workers’ Union might call a lightning strike. The die had been cast. Eventually, Deborah would read it and he would be as patient as possible as he waited for her reply.

Forty-eight hours later, that longed-for reply landed on his doormat. He seized it, ripped it open, and saw the familiar, charming, heart-topped ‘i’s’ and the pretty, smiley-faced emojis that punctuated the text. Was this the answer he wanted? The right answer? The answer that would liberate his libido? The letter was less bulky than he’d feared, even brief. Surely that must be a positive indicator.

It took the longest five seconds of Tim’s life for the horror to dawn upon him. Everything. Suddenly. Drooped. An echo of the words of his English tutor at University rang in his ears. ‘It is impossible to separate form and content!’ Appalled, he read once more Deborah’s chilling words.

‘Dear Tim,
Why have you sent me your electricity bill, with a covering letter complaining that you’ve never used that amount of electricity?
Hope all’s good.

The blood drained from his face. Not only had his so carefully chosen words failed to breach the walls of Deborah’s chastity but, in all probability, they were now fuelling the fantasies of one of the electricity suppliers’ clerks in Delhi.


Selfie Love


Two years ago I wrote a blog about co-writing a short story with Eden Baylee for R B Wood’s Word Count Podcast. Eden was 3,330 miles away. She started it, I developed her opening, she wrote a complication for me, and I wrote the conclusion. The end product worked well but the writing experience was interesting in that we each knew that we’d have to relinquish control over the characters and maybe find that when they were handed back they might be totally different from how we’d imagined they’d be.

In fact, it was a satisfying experiment and there were no obvious clashes between our relative styles and the way the whole thing evolved.

But we’ve done it again, and this time the experience was very different. The previous effort was written in the third person (a narrative position we shared). This time, the story takes the form of an exchange of emails between Laura and Ross, who’ve spent an illicit weekend together. That means Eden and I were writing something with two totally separate first person narratives and each of the characters was at the mercy of the other. As Ross, I could start by saying what I liked but, until I heard Laura’s response to it, I had no idea what direction I’d be able to take. It was, of course, the same for Eden as Laura. And although it’s assumed that a first person narrator can offer a fuller, deeper insight into his/her psyche, it’s complicated when another person’s subjective opinion of him/her is thrown into the mix. Paradoxically, the added first person brings more authenticity to each character.

If you’d like to see the full text, it’s on Eden’s website.  And I recommend experiments like this. As well as setting interesting challenges which need to be met to make any progress, it causes one to look more closely at how the whole writing business works, to think more about the thin line between narrative control and chaos. It also illustrates something I’ve said before: writing is like acting. To create a legitimate character, we have to share his/her space, sense his/her reactions to things and act (write) accordingly.

If you have done any of this sort of thing, I’d love to hear how you found it.