Thursday, 20 December 2012

Christmas Holly-day Challenge

To warm us up, let's start with something ridiculous.

The challenge is to write a short piece either
a) filled with as many puns as you can muster while still largely making sense
b) the premise of the story is itself a pun

Pun-wise, the weaker the better in my books.

I have no idea what to write for this so let's all suffer together.

Deadline is the 5th of Jan.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Sorrow croons as love begs

Posted this on my own blog too, just a quick prompt I found me on the interwebs. Enjoy.

When I was a grumpy child, my Uncle Sebastian used to tell me “Vera, happiness is a choice”. I used to reply, “Uncle, if everyone chose happiness all the time, life would be very boring”. It might have been boring, but at least it would be safe, at least it would be bearable, at least it would be. When my Aunt Mabel passed away without warning, I should have forced him to eat his words. At least then he would have eaten something. Mabel had been a sweet lady, always ready with a mug of cocoa and a storybook, but it was Uncle Seb’s death that had been a defining moment of my young life. I remember wishing he would snap out of it, his depression I mean. He didn’t die in a flash of glory like some heroes, but slowly faded a bit each day. Each time I saw him, he’d be a shade lighter. They say people get the blue’s when they’re sad, but he didn’t gain anything; he lost a little bit of himself every time he spoke her name, when he got her mail in the post, when he lay in the bed they’d shared. The man that was once my hero disappeared piece by piece, washed out like a watercolour, deflated like an old balloon, until quietly, fifteen months, two weeks, three days and seven hours after Mabel died, he died too.
Depression gets you like that you know, it’s seductive. Sorrow croons softly to you with one face while it eats your heart with the other. The funeral was ghastly. I was nine, but the pinched and blotchy faces of relatives stuck with me. Apparently “It was to be expected”, “He hadn’t been the same since...”, “At least he was at peace now”. I wanted to scream at them. What did they know? The priest, with his pallid yellow face and ghostly white hair drifted over to me as I sat on my Grandmother’s uncomfortable chintz sofa, silently sipping at something resembling flat lemonade. “Do not worry child, Sebastian is with God now.” I wanted to hurl abuse at this man’s generically pious face, sneer at his kind words. But I didn’t. I bit my tongue and remained silent. He took my bowed head for youthful acceptance or maybe resignation a drifted away again to mingle with the other relatives. Crowded around as they were in huddles of black, they reminded me of carrion birds, picking at the memory of Uncle Seb, dissecting everything he’d ever said or ever done, weighing the merit of his devotion to Mabel against his disregard for the blessing that was life. I felt sick and stumbled bleakly towards the front door, abandoning my lemonade to make a sticky puddle on the chintz sofa.  
In the cold November morning, bunched up on the front steps on my Grandmother’s semi-detached bungalow, I cried. I cried, and then I prayed the hardest I have ever prayed. I prayed for my Uncle Seb to come back to me, to be able to hug him one more time and smell the cigarettes and aftershave on his wooly jumper, to laugh at his awful jokes and steal the biscuits from his private stash while he wasn’t looking, to spend weekends locked in scrabble tournaments because he refused to lose to a nine year old. All the love I had for the best person in my life begged him to be alive again. Then, just as suddenly as I had started crying, I stopped. The tear in the fabric of my childish heart was sealed over with a cold and waxy sense of calm. The tears on my cheeks cooled, leaving frozen tracks that I scrubbed at with my frost-bitten fingers. I might not be able to choose happiness, but I sure as heck was choosing not to feel this gnawing sense of loss. The waxy calm hardened into a resolve that encased my inner being, creating an armour impervious to all the teenage angst and adult heartbreak I was due to suffer hereafter. I understood now why he chose this mantle of numbness, but I wasn’t going to give into it completely, I was just borrowing it for a while. At least that’s what I told myself. I was Vera Mason, ice maiden.

Friday, 31 August 2012

The new thought

My parents want to redecorate their bedroom. I went with them to the hardware shop. Brigid wouldn’t let me have a turn on her playstation or even play two-player so there wasn’t much else to do. My mum put the radio on while she drove. All the songs were terrible. My seatbelt cut into my neck. I’m worried I won’t grown anymore. I hate being short. Brigid always hides my stuff on top of the wardrobe or above the bookshelf. She only does it when I annoy her. I usually don’t mean to.
The shop was busy. The kind of busy where there is always at least one person hurrying by you. Not the kind where clogs of people mean you can’t move anymore and you have to just wait and stare at the same tap fixtures for ages even though you didn’t like them in the first place.
We found the paint samples quickly enough. Mum tutted at Dad when he wandered off to look at tools. She shouted after him that he’d be no help anyway and she started asking me questions about colours. She laughed when I made a face at some horrible orange-brown she liked. I suggested turquoise. She told me I could wander off too if I liked. I don’t think I was much help either.
I found Dad looking at an electric saw he could never use. He liked to pretend he could and it’s just the price that stops him from buying one. I walked the length of the aisle a few times, dragging my feet along so they scrapped and then slapped the floor on my next step. I do that when I’m bored. I stopped doing it when a man with faded blue tattoos on his arms looked at me all angry. Dad wandered off again and then so did the angry man. By my feet was a tray of little screwdrivers with yellow handles. I thought something new. I thought, I could take one of those. I could hide it and steal it. No one would know. No one would see. I could move it from here to outside of the shop, all in secret and then it would be stolen. I knelt down and picked two up in one hand. I slid one down my sleeve and pretended to look at the other one. No one was around to see but I pretended anyway. I put down the not-secret-screwdriver and stood up with my hands in my pockets making sure to hold my sleeve closed. Then I looked around at the other things on the shelf for a while as though I cared about what they were. I walked to the end of the aisle while a boy who worked there showed a lady where the power drills are. Mum was waving at me from a till so I ran over and kept my hands in my pockets. I didn’t look at the cashier. We left.
Just before we went out the doors I almost cried. I realised how bad it would be if the alarm went off and Mum and Dad knew I was a thief and then maybe the police would come. I didn’t even want the screwdriver. Then the alarm didn’t go off and we were in the car park. I stopped to pretend to tie my shoe. I put the screwdriver in it. Once I started walking to the car I knew that was a bad idea. It hurt my foot but it was too late so I tried not to limp.
Now we’re at the last traffic light before home. The sky is orange, getting ready for sunset. That song I like, with bells at the start, is on the radio. Mum and Dad even sing along. There is a screwdriver in my shoe. My seatbelt still cuts into my neck but if I lean forward I can see a big grey cat walking across a rooftop as though it owned the world.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Is it secret? Is it safe?

I initially proposed another fiction challenge to the various contributors of this blog around the theme of ‘secrets’ but being a bit fickle and a bit sneaky, I took it upon myself to write an article similar to those we began with. The title of this post may be a tad misleading (I promise it’ll make sense eventually), but I am in fact going to talk about homoeroticism in the media, ‘queer readings’ and audience ingenuity in creating slash fiction and the like.
This article was actually inspired not by fan fiction per se, but by one particular fan made YouTube video about LOTR (which has unfortunately since been deleted - sorry folks). Some clever troll had edited together suggestive selections of footage to imply a clandestine relationship between Gandalf and Frodo. I say one particular video because as any self-respecting Ho-yay* fan will know, YouTube is rife with such videos, featuring television, literary and film characters. Objections to such material are often argued with statements such as “But the characters are obviously straight” or “The author clearly didn’t intend for it to be read that way”.  To them I say two things: where is your sense of fun? And who says there’s a right and wrong way to read things?
When describing how an audience might interpret “straight” characters as being homosexual or gain pleasure from suggesting a homoerotic viewpoint, academics adopt the phrase ‘queer reading’.  This of course opens up a whole can of worms about dominant and oppositional viewing positions and authorial intent as well as ongoing debates on heteronormativity**. Personally, I think a significant proportion of meaning is generated and owned by the audience of a text rather than the author. There is no way of embedding a message at the creative level of making a book, artwork, television programme or film and guaranteeing that it will remain intact at the level of dissemination, because of course, in the words of the immortal Monty Python, ‘We’re all individuals’. Incredible creativity is bred from people’s different displays of appreciation, so why would you possibly want to discourage potentially subversive readings anyway?
Well, perhaps now would be the time to examine some examples. First, let’s take the BBC series Merlin (2008-) which was intended as three generation television viewing, a programme you can watch with the whole family, but has found an unexpected audience with adults who claim the gay subtext is hard to miss. The central b/romance, although since the introduction of Camelot’s knights there is unfounded potential for several others, is between Merlin (Colin Morgan) and Arthur (Bradley James). Within the context of the narrative, having magic is something which is feared and punished. As such, it can be equated to being gay in that many people feel they have to hide their non-heteronormative sexuality for fear of persecution. This analogy is especially poignant in scenes when Merlin is on the brink of telling Arthur he has magic, or ‘coming out’.  However, rumours abound on the web that the programme was delayed being picked up by NBC due to all the romantic Merlin/Arthur fan tribute videos spreading across the web.
Contrastingly, Eric Kripke’s series Supernatural (Warner Bros., 2005-)  actually acknowledges the slash fanbase and he often manipulates the narrative to signal he is aware through homoerotic subtext. Season 4, episode 18, The Monster at the End of This Book, parodies the real-life fan base of the programme. The brothers, Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles), realise that their lives have been recorded in a fictional book series and encounter a fan who writes slash fiction, embodying the online writers of ‘Wincest’. By including the audience of the programme within the narrative, Kripke has exposed the ‘in-joke’ that the Production Code previously kept hidden.
Of course we might also discuss why most (not all) of these fan made pairings are between men. In legitimate representations of homosexual pairings, male-male relationships arguably dominate because gay men, like straight men, have more spending power than women and they are seen as the more established, organised audience. You’ve all heard of pink money, right? Well that’s what commercial television is interested in attracting, s’all about the profit, not so much about the equality of representation. Although of course one could argue that the man-on-man image is more provocative (politically or otherwise), it’s possibly more about fears that depicting lesbianism on screen, particularly sex scenes, might be pandering to heterosexual men, displaying the woman as object. To explain this convincingly, one probably ought to be familiar with Laura Mulvey’s work Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (Originally Published in Screen 16.3 1975)*** but I’ll try to keep things simple...ish. 
Mulvey proposed that the spectator is addressed as male by the text by being asked to adopt the viewpoint of the male protagonist, aligning his control, aggression and power with the ideal ego. As such, images of homosexuality between men could be seen as a threat to the masculinity of the spectator, resulting in castration anxiety.
So why do homosexual male pairings dominate in fan made materials? Well, most creators and readers of slash fiction and its visual counterpart, appear to be women. But I can’t say definitively why that is. Speaking as someone who watches a lot of slash videos and visits many a slash Tumblr site, the ridiculously simple answer might be that there’s twice the man to ogle at. However, Musing Marvin, pointed out to me that:
the natural progression of Mulvey's argument is that women create gay pairings between men because it makes them less threatening; they are no longer a sexual threat but purely a fantasy for these women. Therefore the objectification of gay men by straight women is just as common and trivialises homosexuality just as much as the objectification of lesbians by straight men.”
My only comment here would be that in my experience, straight men who enjoy watching/reading about gay women are not only titillated by their sexual orientation, but somehow seem to think that such women also will automatically also desire them. Whereas on the other hand, my experience of women who write/read about/watch gay male pairings do so most often from the perspective of a voyeur, maintaining a sense of distance.  
Speaking about television in particular, Gwenllian Jones (2002) argues that slash originates with the distance between certain cult fictional worlds and reality which erases the dominant social processes of heterosexuality. Such texts also provide perceptual depths that invite and tolerate diverse speculation about characters’ ‘hidden’ thoughts and feelings. This perhaps chimes more with my observation of female voyeurism. Female creators of slash see and reveal to the audience those feelings that must, by the demands of an oppressive situation within the narrative, remain hidden and secret.
Whilst gay liberation and acknowledgement of the LGBT market has supposedly increased the visibility of homosexuality and improved their position in the media, does this change the reasoning behind ‘queering’ supposedly straight texts? In a time of marginalisation, ‘queer readings’ were the only way for LGBT audiences to see themselves reflected on screen, but now ‘queering’ texts seems to be less about identification and more about taking pleasure from subversion. However, there also seems to be a lingering sense of secrecy, about something not to be shared. Although there are large online communities where people can publish and discuss slash pairings, the subject still seems a bit taboo for some to share in everyday life. And then there’s the pairings themselves.
In both Merlin and Supernatural there is a sense that the slash relationships need to be kept secret because they are somehow forbidden: Merlin fears revealing his ‘magic’ to Arthur due to the threat of persecution; Sam and Dean could never be lovers in reality because of society’s attitude towards incest. It may sound clich├ęd, but there seems to be something that’s added by the threat of discovery, which makes the illicit pairings more exciting.
So Gandalf, in answer to your question, yes, your secret is safe with me... and about another billion ho-yay fans.

*Sidenote: As I’m sure Urban dictionary would tell you, Ho-yay means ‘Homoeroticism Yay!’ and is used approvingly to describe the occurrence of homoeroticism and homoromanticism within the wider media, particularly male-male pairings. This term supposedly originated in online discussions about Buffy and Angel.

**Sidenote 2: Throwing all my jargon at you now. Heteronormativity is the belief that both sexuality and gender are biologically defined, that heterosexuality and separate male and female genders are what is “normal”. This attitude contributes to under representation of LGBT identities in all cultural mainstreams.

***Sidenote 3: It is actually quite interesting and worth a read if you’re interested at all in film theory. This is the work that all other works reference, so start here.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Some things are best kept secret, but not this :)

New fiction challenge!
Well, doesn't have to be a story really, it can be anything you fancy, based around the theme of 'SECRET/S'. It's up to you where you want to go with it and I'm not putting a time limit on this one. Ready...Set...GO GO GO!

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

I'm being lazy

He always spoke of his son as 'the little one'; always spoke of him mournfully rather than hopefully. Cruel shouts and words moved the boy not; not even when he was a babe did the looming figure of authority have any sway over his temperament. Disappointment was the little one's only mentor, an old man's attempt to hold out a hand and guide him without raising the fist, without cutting the nose.

He tried, but he knew he was lost.

He spoke of the little one mournfully, but the little one did not speak of the old man at all.

Little one

"He always spoke of his son as 'the little one'; always spoke of him mournfully rather than hopefully."

His puckered face screwed itself into a new twisted arrangement of tired features. His tight lips twitched as if on the verge of spilling forth secrets. You could see his tongue running along his teeth, bulging across the tiny space between his mouth and squashed, ill-set nose. His left eye drooped and the right swung wildly around the tavern, lingering on the backsides of rotund and bosomy barmaids. Some squawked whilst other patrons slapped and pinched, grabbing at their flesh, others sauntered slack-jawed and glazed between tables. He swallowed the dregs from his glass, braced his hands against the edge of the bar and issued forth a deep belch, ripe and fetid from low grade spirits.
No one paid a blind bit of notice. His kind, the drunken, unsociable, crotchety, unwashed and aging group of men, made up a small proportion of the clientele on an average night, but they were the most persistent and familiar. There were always a few patrons who wandered in blindly and sat awkwardly in a corner, merely observing the revelry around them; the younger fellows, made bold by drink, oftentimes managed to steal kisses before being thrown out; there were the scholars who gathered in close-knit academic, philosophical debates and lastly the soldiers who feared nothing, who were well-equipped to fire bullets into the ceiling should the place become too rowdy, and to fire the same bullets into a man’s chest should he choose to become their enemy.
He swung around on his barstool and attempted to remain vertical once his feet hit the ground. He stared at the grubby toes of his shoes on the sticky wooden floor and tried to find some inner sense of balance. He contemplated the way his feet were aligned with the grain in the wood and wondered how many coins were lost in the cavernous gaps between the squeaky boards. Taking one deep breath he looked up and strode forward, towards the exit, the length of his legs eating up the distance. Emboldened by alcohol, he felt invigorated, he felt like a conqueror, he felt he’d fought his demons and won, then it all came crashing down with one glimpse of fiery red hair.
Ettie wore her hair like all other barmaids, scraped away from the nape of her neck, piled on top of her head. It was for practicality and comfort rather than fashion, nonetheless she was often gawked at for its hue; in this part of the country her colouring was rare. But she little knew that her screaming scarlet locks would spark such a painful memory for a stranger who she’d barely noticed. From the corner of her eye she saw a sullen man stewing in his own thoughts, then galumphing towards the exit. She sped up her pace so she could get out of the way, but he’d stopped for some reason. Whatever it was she was far too busy to hang around and find out.
This stranger’s name was Silas, and so acute was the pain caused by the ignited memory that he froze in place while his heart continued sluggishly thumping. Once, twice it echoed in his head and then he crumpled, his frame so completely weakened that he collapsed in a pile of useless flesh and aching bones. He was carried outside by some gallant soldiers who misread his distress as the foolishness of a drunk. He was then ceremoniously tossed into a large pile of discoloured snow that had been shovelled off the road in a vain attempt at keeping them traversable.
Silas stared skyward as the heavens shone down. Through pinpricks in the fabric of reality, the blessed afterlife shared its light. Just as the snow cooled the feverish heat emanating from his body, the hypnotic patterning of stars burning in his retinas seemed to clarify and distil the harrowing memory that had welled forth so suddenly. In the blink of an eye he was back in the brothel, in the bed that smelt of sweat and violets. Ruth had loved sugared violets so much that the scent seemed to envelop her. Her sticky breath gusted across the bed clothes, but Silas could also smell them permeating her skin and perfuming the titian ringlets that haloed her angelic face. The youth in her sleepy eyes mirrored his own. So young, too young really. He spent every penny he made as a tailor’s assistant keeping her. He’d hoped to put aside money for a house of their own but it was all he could do to secure her as his own under the ever-watchful madam of the house. They were in love, but he was foolish for thinking that was enough.
The day Ruth told him she was expecting had been the happiest day of his life. Of course they were troubled about how they’d manage, but nothing could overshadow the joy they felt in those golden months. As Ruth’s stomach expanded with the life growing inside her, Silas scrimped and saved, planned and schemed to free them from the financial trap they were in. It took until the child was big and almost ready for the world before Silas could afford a deposit on some rooms, but no sooner had he shaken hands with the landlord than he was pummelling up the stairs of Madam Beaufort’s to share the news with Ruth. He found the girls crowded around the door looking sorrowful and teary. They tried to stop him going in but his panic and adrenaline had him pushing them aside, scrabbling at the door.
He’d never forget the look on the doctors face. There was nothing they could have done he said, the baby came too soon. He spoke in hushed tones, and with a firm, sympathetic squeeze of his shoulder, he left. Silas could see her, a pale ghost of her normal self, propped against the pillows. She lay limp like a rag doll, except for the small bundle clasped in her arms. She wept, and then she started crooning softly. It was a lilting, haunting melody. He crept to the bedside and laid his forehead against hers. They shared their sorrow with a silent communication of tears.
“I called him Henry.”
Silas lay sombre and still as the snow soaked his coat and winter stole into his body. He never could bring himself to say his son’s name. He referred to him as ‘the little one’ in the rare moments that he spoke of him at all. Two days later, Ruth had followed their son into the afterlife. The pregnancy and then the fruitless hardship of labour had destroyed her body and dissolved her will to live. He had found her cocooned in her bed sheets, cold as stone but still smelling of violets. He buried them together in a small, simple plot and thought he had buried the memory with them. He didn’t know that thirty years on all it would take was one glimpse of red hair to unearth the grief and the loss and the sorrow. He let the pain wash over him, he was numb now. With thoughts of his lover and his lost child flooding what was left of his consciousness, he let go of his life. Between the stars and the snow Silas found peace.