Fox Holes (A Winter’s Tale in Winterthur)

We were on a foolish quest for wildlife in Winterthur – a place better known for its heavy iron and railway industry, not the natural world.

Undeterred, Tom and I climbed the woods on the edge of the town to the Eschenberg tower and continued on up the spiral staircase, until 170 steps and seven platforms later, we’d reached the top. Maybe we’d catch sight of deer, a woodpecker or an eagle owl? But no, there was nothing – not even a wood pigeon.

Disappointed we made our way back down the hill. The light was fading out, the charcoaled ash trees closing in as the winter sun sank behind the forest. There was a stillness in the air: of life, no trace.

Then I heard the snap of a twig. Looking around, I saw a young fox emerging from a fox hole. She began to follow us on the path. Then stopped; black-gloved paw comically suspended in mid-air. Our eyes connected. She tilted her head to one side, her snout quivering, holding my gaze all the while. I tried to outstare her – but the vixen wasn’t to be outfoxed. Fox 1: human 0.

I continued down the track, the cub padding behind, her thick tail with its white tip sweeping the ground like a feather duster. I stopped. She stopped, her bright eyes holding mine as if to say, “Human, you ain’t no big deal.”

When I halted again, the fox continued on towards me, all the while eye-balling me. Her black-laced trumpet ears twitched nervously, but still she came. Slowly I moved towards her, speaking quietly in German: “Es ist schon gut, kleine Füchsin. It’s all right.”

“Careful,” Tom called a warning. “This fox is so fearless it could have rabies.”

But the world had become reduced to this young fox and I. I edged closer, the cub unflinching, such curiosity in those eyes. I was so close now I could smell her animal body and see her breath looping the chilled air. I reached out … and she was gone, bounding off the path and into the undergrowth.

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Fox Holes (The Vixen’s Scream) by Suzy Pope

Foxholes or The Vixen’s Scream

Golden discs of sunlight play across the forest floor. I slink through the trees while birds call warnings to each other. Horns blast. The fox hunt.

I spot another one of us through the trees, fur the colour of autumn leaves. He raises his pointed face, yellow eyes frozen like marbles. He ducks his head and pads off, quietly, quietly through the forest. I follow.

The horns. The bark of foxhounds. Foxy breaks into a sprint, flying across the forest floor. Even now he smiles. He always smiles like he knows something I don’t. My stupid flat feet clomp and stomp as I try to keep up. He darts into his hole, nestled in the great roots of an ancient tree. I’m too slow. I’m too big with stupid sticky-out limbs that won’t fit. They’ve never fit. The dogs are on me, snarling and snapping. All I can do is cover the hole with my great weight. I will protect you Foxy, and your cubs.

Hooves like thunder all around me. I let out a vixen’s scream. Danger. Short. Sharp. Screams.

“What the f…” red coat, voice like oil.

“A woman?” black boots glinting like beetle shells.

“What should we…” they stink of manure.

I snap my sharp little teeth at them, filed to points. Raw meat was hard on human teeth. Hard for the old me. The horses pad, unsure. I leap up, snapping and snarling. Their faces are twisted masks of disgust.

A bark from behind me. Not a dog’s. Foxy. They have him by the throat, but he’s still smiling like he knows something I don’t. I pull out my hunting knife, but the dog is faster than my stupid human legs. The world turns a blur of forest green and deep brown, leaves and sticks all melding together in a soup of colour. I can smell blood, hear shouting, feel something warm trickle down my arms.

I remember how warm it was that day. How it came out of me and wouldn’t stop. It wasn’t just blood, it wasn’t just tissue and a heartbeat. It was everything. Everything leaked out until I was just skin skulking on the fringe of this world.

Night falls. Somewhere another vixen screams like the cry of a woman who’s just lost her child, just lost her everything. I couldn’t save him. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I curl up in my leafy den, my little fox hole and I hear it again. The hunt. The crackle of branches under foot, the crackle of a walkie talkie. The man hunt.


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An interview with Suzy Pope

Suzy, you work at the National Library of Scotland. How do you get any work done, surrounded by books all day?

Well, the job I’ve been doing for the past year actually involved reading some of those books for research, so that helps! Sometimes I do get a little distracted into reading things while listing a collection, but it’s all in the name of “a greater understanding of what we hold” or so I keep saying…

The National Library of Scotland houses the Patrick Leigh Fermor archive. To what extent is your job an inspiration for your writing?

I’ve read a lot of 18th and 19th century travelogues by travellers that are not necessarily “writers” because they’ve never been published, and I think there’s something more special about those ones because only a few people have seen them. The handwriting is often dire, but that makes it more of an achievement when you finally figure out what’s going on. I read one about a woman snorkelling off Mauritius for the first time in the 1890s, describing it as if no one had ever even thought to do it before and in ways that we wouldn’t even think of these days because it’s almost commonplace. That inspired me. I’ve had a look at the PLF archive and got a little rush looking at his old passports full of stamps. We’ve got some great stuff on Isabella Bird as well.

You clearly have a love of books. Where did that come from? How did it all begin?

I blame my mother. She read me all sorts when I was little. I know that’s a fairly standard response, isn’t it? I guess the short answer is that I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t into books. It was Roald Dahl, E. Nesbit and C.S. Lewis when I was little, which turned into Jacqueline Wilson, JD Salinger and Iain Banks when I was a teenager and now EVERYTHING as an adult.

When did the love of reading transcribe to a love of writing?

Again, this is my mother’s fault. She’s always been going to creative writing courses, or joining writers’ groups as far back as I can remember. When we wrote stories in Primary School I would spend hours at home finishing them and ignoring all my other homework. I wrote plays when I was younger and performed them with my friends. I mean, really performed them. Lines learned, lighting cues, story arc and everything. That started when I was about 11. Then I did a creative writing module at university when I was studying English Literature, even though everyone said it was a dangerous choice to let something so subjectively marked count towards my final degree. It was the only thing I got an A for! That got me into doing a Creative Writing Masters and that’s it.

You studied literature at Edinburgh University. Is the process of dissecting literature a help or a hindrance to your own writing?

Classic answer: it’s both. On the plus side, I know when I’m writing drivel. But on the down side, I know when I’m writing drivel. It’s hard to get started when you’ve read and analysed too much good writing. But it’s also hard to get good at writing if you don’t read or analyse any good writing. You just have to remember that all writing probably starts off as drivel in the first draft and what you’ve been analysing is probably draft number 364 or something.

You have primarily focused on travel writing. Why is this?

By accident mostly. I was set on becoming a novelist (I probably still am to be honest). The travel thing is my Dad’s fault. He took me and my brother to ridiculous places where he was working throughout our childhood. So just like reading and writing I’ve also always travelled and never known how to…not. I never thought of putting the two together until an advert for student travel writers was sent round our Creative Writing class. Once I started it was like the dam had burst and all these stories I’d had rattling around my brain for years came out. It was really satisfying, being able to produce all this writing without thinking too hard about whether or not a certain character would do or say something, because it’s all based on real things.

You won the Pure Travel competition. Unsurprisingly – your writing is strong and tinged with humour. What tips would you give to anyone thinking of entering a travel writing competition?

Keep entering them. Even if you’ve entered 40, 50, 100 and still don’t win, just keep doing it. As with any kind of writing listen to feedback, don’t fight it. In the Masters when we were getting face to face feedback from fellow students we weren’t allowed to say anything to defend our work. In fact, we weren’t allowed to talk until the feedback was over. This was really good because when submitting pieces in the real world you can’t sit with the reader (or competition judge) and defend your work.

Also edit. Edit edit edit until every word is vital. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I edited that Pure Travel piece, probably about 25-30 times. Read it out loud – that seriously makes a difference. Join a writing group and get it workshopped by people who are actually interested in writing. Being part of the IWC is a great help when it comes to travel writing competitions.

You have mentioned some travel writers in your bio that inspire you: Jan Morris, Paul Theroux and Chris Stewart. Which fictional writers inspire you and why?

I love anything involving fringe characters. Any writer that can do really good characters is an inspiration. The best ones can make you empathise with a terrible human being. I love that. Writers like John Fowles (I’m thinking of The Collector specifically), DBC Pierre, Iain Banks and Liz Jensen. That’s a pretty dark list, isn’t it? The thing that they all have in common is dark but vulnerable characters.

What’s the difference between travel writing and fiction writing? Or are they the same thing fundamentally?

I don’t think they are the same thing. It might be stating the obvious, but fiction has no boundaries. I know people say “write what you know” but that’s bollocks. I’ve never been a woman living in the forest thinking I’m a fox, but I still wrote about it. The novel I’m working on is told from the perspective of an eighteen year old boy. I am not, and have never been, an eighteen year old boy. Travel Writing does have to be “write what you know” though because it’s all about your real life experiences. Sure you can embellish and rearrange things, but essentially it has to be at least based on something that actually happened, and that can be restricting. Of course there are similarities in how to be successful at both – strong imagery, sense of place, characters, using all the senses etc.

As in your travel writing, in Fox Holes (The Vixen’s Scream) the imagery is very strong and the experience is very immediate – such as ‘yellow eyes frozen like marbles’. How do you create that sense of immediacy?

It probably comes from my tendency to write in the first person (goes hand in hand with travel writing, doesn’t it?). I’m not sure why I prefer it, but I find it difficult to write in third person because it feels too much like…I don’t know…storytelling? Yes, I think that’s it. When I try to write in the third person it comes out like a story that I’m detached from. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading third person narratives – I don’t notice the different when I’m reading, only when I’m writing. Also, what I learned doing this flash piece was how many redundant words I use usually. I think removing anything that isn’t completely necessary helps to give a sense of immediacy.

Part way through the story, there is a surprise – the human protagonist rather than a fox. How did you come by the idea for your story – and why the hunt?

After I’d chosen the theme “Fox Holes” I started seeing foxes everywhere, in the names of pubs, at Japanese Shinto shrines, reading about military fox holes at work, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox came on TV, and I think my subconscious took little pieces of description from all of these things. I’ve been watching a lot of Bear Grylls and Ray Mears (don’t judge me!) recently and I think that could be what sparked the idea of a person isolating themselves from the urban world and living in the forest. I just drew that out past its logical conclusion and into the realms of slight madness. The protagonist was originally a man, but I somehow I couldn’t quite get the right backstory for a man to end up living in the forest, protecting the foxes. Well, not in less than 500 words anyway! The hunt was what I started with because it provided its own structure, if that makes sense? I grew up in the countryside where fox hunting happened so I thought of it as soon as I saw the words “fox holes”. The hunt also gives an automatic sense of tension and pace, which is handy.

In the penultimate sentence, you write: ‘How it came out of me and wouldn’t stop. It wasn’t just blood, it wasn’t just tissue and a heartbeat. It was everything. Everything leaked out until I was just skin skulking on the fringe of this world’. The language is very powerful here. Is this a passionate response to the fox hunt – or is it something more?

A passionate response from me about fox hunting? Or the character? It’s something more from the character, it’s a memory from her ‘previous life’. I suppose I wanted a little window into why she was skulking around the forest with the foxes. It’s hard to fit backstory into flash fiction when there’s only just enough room for front story, so it’s a bit vague…

Suzy, thank you very much for writing a flash for Double Espresso. It’s great to have you as a contributor.


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Rattle by Andrea Brittan

Only one shop on the High Street held an echo of home. It was called ‘Asian Dreams’ and each evening Mei Fen called in and browsed amongst the shelves. She found comfort in the landscape paintings, scenes so familiar yet out of place, dislocated.

At the back of the store she picked up a box of fortune sticks in a black lacquered bamboo tube. Many times Mei Fen had visited the village temple with her grandmother, a tap-tapping sound and the smell of incense accompanying her petition to the gods.

Mei Fen paid for the fortune sticks and placed them in her backpack. With every step the sticks rattled together, reminding her of sounds from home: the clack and rustle of mah jong tiles from the tea stall in the village; the roar of propane under her grandmother’s blackened wok; the grind of metal on whetstone. Every step took her nearer her rented apartment but further from home, further from the sigh of the wind through the paddy fields and the soft, sibilant voices she loved.

Her apartment above the nail salon had no shrine to the Kitchen God and no space for an altar to long dead ancestors. Instead, she propped a photo of her family on her bed and knelt down in front of it. Both hands clasped around the bamboo tube, she tipped it downwards at an angle and gently shook the container. She closed her eyes.

The rattle of the sticks was mesmerising but Mei Fen kept her thoughts focussed. Slowly, a single stick separated itself from the rest. It inched towards the lip of the tube until it toppled over onto the floor.
All things are difficult before they are easy.

The message bewildered her. But then, like a voice from the gods, she remembered her father’s wisdom.
“Go to England. It is an honour and a great opportunity. Time will pass. Soon you will be home.”

She sat back on her heels and smiled. A year wasn’t very long after all.

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An interview with guest writer, Andrea Brittan

Andrea, thank you for agreeing to write a flash fiction for Double Espresso. It’s a pleasure to have you on board. Just to explain our connection: we both belong to a Peak District critiquing group (a subgroup of Writers in the Peak), all of us ‘obsessive’ writers I think it’s fair to say! When did that love affair with writing begin for you? How did it come about?

Thank you, Helen for inviting me to be a guest writer.
I’ve always been an avid reader and writer, even as a small child. In fact, one of my family’s favourite anecdotes is of me aged about 5 or 6, waking up from a nightmare, shouting, “Mummy, Mummy! I can’t write!” I was forever writing stories that featured my dolls and toys and I always used to tell family friends that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. However, careers advice in the 1970s tended to focus on more down-to-earth choices so I never got to follow my dream. Instead, I became a teacher but over the years I often found myself writing for my students, particularly if I couldn’t find an appropriate text to illustrate a particular teaching point. Then in 2007, with my career at a crossroads, I had the opportunity to give up teaching and try something different, so I returned to my love of writing.

I know I have learned a lot from you in the critiquing group as all of us grapple with the novels we are working on. I feel you really understand the craft of writing. How much of that is instinctive and how much of it is learned would you say?

Hanif Kureishi caused a stir last year by saying that creative writing courses are a waste of time. As someone that’s done both a Post Graduate Diploma and an MFA in Creative Writing, I have to disagree… to some extent. I started the Diploma course with no formal background in writing at all. I’d only studied English Literature to A Level so I soon learned how much I didn’t know! Things I’d never really considered as a reader suddenly became hugely important as a writer. It was through these courses that I learned about the craft of writing; about the importance of aspects such as structure and pace and characterisation. However, there is a certain amount to writing that is a matter of instinct. You need an ear for language, for its rhythms and nuances. You need to be able to tune into the inner voice that tells you when something isn’t working. Also, there’s little point in knowing everything there is to know about point of view or the narrative arc if you have nothing to say, no story to tell. As writers we need to be out in the world, listening, observing, having opinions but I’m not sure this can be taught either.

You said to me that you don’t find the genre of flash fiction easy; yet I feel in ‘Rattle’ you’ve pulled it off magnificently. Your story unfolds within a short time frame – from shop to home, yet within those three hundred and fifty words, we have a window into a life. You’ve packed a lot into this short piece. How hard was it to whittle your version of ‘Rattle’ down to 350 words? Did you find the experience frustrating or liberating?

My first attempts at flash fiction some years ago were dismal failures. I hadn’t expected it to be so difficult. It was also very sobering to realise that this was exactly the sort of thing I’d expected students to do; what’s more, they’d only have an hour to do it in! However, despite feelings of trepidation at the start, I really enjoyed this task. Yes, I had to do an awful lot of whittling to get ‘Rattle’ down to three hundred and fifty words but I did find it strangely liberating. I’m not sure how long the first draft was but the piece opened with almost a page just about the differences Mei Fen had observed between China and England! Then that inner voice I mentioned earlier kept badgering away at me, making me return to the title and focus in on sounds. Once I’d realised that it was a sound picture I was creating, it was relatively easy to let go of everything else.

In your version of Rattle, you capture that sense of longing and home-sickness beautifully. I’m intrigued that you chose to write a story from the point of view of a Chinese woman living in England, rather than, say, an English woman living in Hong Kong – as you did for many years. Why did you choose to flip the situation and put yourself in Mei’s shoes?

That’s an interesting question. It’s only recently that I’ve given myself permission to write about Asia, despite having lived there for twenty-three years. I didn’t feel as though I had the right to write about a culture that I could only interact with at a very superficial level, as, I’m ashamed to say, I never mastered the language. However, one thing I learned from my MFA course is that if we’re to write authentically from the heart, then our sense of place, just like our sense of identity, will play an important role. We are all affected by where we live and this theme of home features strongly in my writing.
Interestingly, I never even considered writing the story from the point of view of a Westerner in Asia. Maybe that’s because I’ve just completed a novel that’s very much about the expat view of Hong Kong. It’s quite refreshing to try and empathise with a completely different perspective.

Talk us through the process of writing the flash – from your chosen prompt to the premise of your story. How did you arrive at the little Asian shop and the fortune sticks?

‘Rattle’ instantly made me think of fortune sticks which in turn led me to the other sounds I mention. It was easy to see how senses could be used to develop a location. Once I’d made that connection, I didn’t bother thinking about the other options.
Then I thought about the character. What’s going to be important to her? What are her goals? What will stop her from achieving them? This developed into the longing for home idea. I also needed her to be changed in some way so it seemed obvious that her ‘fortune’ as told by the stick should somehow be the agent for this. And of course, it had to end on a hopeful note otherwise the whole piece would have tipped over into melodrama.

Your work is always tightly structured and beautifully crafted, Andrea, without feeling laboured in any way. How important is structure to you? Indeed if you were to list the three most important elements of writing for you, what would they be?

You’re right, Helen, structure is, for me, one of the most important elements of writing. It creates order; it holds everything together, whether it’s a simple three-act structure or something more complicated. Structure helps the reader make sense of the plot and keeps our writing from becoming a stream of consciousness.
Secondly, I think fiction needs to generate an emotional connection for readers. They need to empathise with the character and their problems; they need to have someone to care about. I enjoy reading literary fiction because I love the lyricism of the language. However, I sometimes get to the end and wonder what I’m supposed to have taken from it. I can’t find the ‘point’ of the story. Maybe that’s a fault on my part but I think it also comes back to what I said earlier about writers having something to say, and being able to say it in a way that makes that connection for the reader.
And then there’s point of view. Which point of view to chose is one of the first decisions writers make when beginning a piece as this helps us decide whose story we are telling. But whichever POV a writer chooses, maintaining consistency, for me, is vital. Switching POV mid paragraph is disorientating for readers and makes it hard for them to work out which character they’re meant to identify with.

I love how Mei’s longing is enfolded in the smells, and in particular the sounds of her homeland: the tap-tapping in the temple; the clack and rustle of mah jong tiles and the roar of propane under the wok; the sigh of the wind in the paddy fields and the voices of home – a lovely evocation. Your story prompt was a ‘sound’ verb and you develop Mei’s longing as a soundscape, if you like. Was this a conscious or unconscious structuring for your story?

I certainly chose the title because of its sensory aspect, but in the first draft I’d included taste and touch as well. Mei Fan missed the sour and peppery tastes of her grandmother’s cooking; she stroked the smooth silk of cheong sam dresses for sale in ‘Asian Dreams’. It wasn’t until the editing stages that I realised exactly what I had written – that the piece was built upon sounds Mei Fan remembered from home.

You’ve found a lot of inspiration from the years you spent in Hong Kong. Now that you’re based in the Peak District, are you finding inspiration in the heart of England for your writing?

At the moment, I’m still mining my Hong Kong years for stories and inspiration. However, although I’ve only been back in the Peak District for eighteen months, it’s amazing how quickly you forget things. I think I may have to make a return visit soon to keep my senses sharp.

I know you’ve just finished a novel. What’s next in your writing life?

Currently, I’m seeking representation for my first novel, ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’, as well as collating ideas and notes for a sequel. I’m also working on a short story collection with an east meets west theme.

Andrea, thanks again for your contribution to Double Espresso. It’s a pleasure to have your beautifully crafted piece in the collection. As someone – like yourself – who has lived abroad, Mei’s story really resonates.

Thanks so much, Helen, for inviting me to be a guest writer. I’ve really enjoyed participating.

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Oven Stones by Helen Moat

Dutch oven 1

Charles pulled the largest kitchen knife from his box of utensils and laid it on the trestle table. No point dwelling on what was out there – he had a job to do. He kicked around in the Serengeti dirt until he found four flat stones.

He cupped the stones in the palm of his hands as if they would slip through his fingers like water; then laid them out on the ground like an offering, the smallest first. He thought of Panya, his mouse. The second, rougher and larger, made him think of Mbita, born on a cold night. The third, pocked and dimpled, of Masika, born in the rainy season, his eldest child. And the last stone round as the full moon, Kamara, their mother.

Yes, no point dwelling on what was so far away – he had a job to do. Charles set to work, building a brushwood and log fire in the bush camp. While the wood burned, he prepared and poured a mixture into his battered crock. When the flames had died back and the wood glowed white, Charles held a calloused hand over the fire, pulling back sharply: It was time to set up the Dutch oven. He laid the stones on a metal ring and set the crock on top. Then using tongs, he placed a wall of logs all around the crock and over the top, building an oven, log by log; building a life, stone by stone.

As the sky haemorrhaged light, the overlanders returned to the chapattis Charles had cooked for them, charred and smoky from the campfire. Githeri too, the stewed beans and potatoes steaming. And last of all, the mango cake Charles had cooked on the Dutch oven for the English boy with his hair of flame and skin pale as the moon. Four years on the earth this day- like Mbita.

No point dwelling on what he couldn’t have – he had a job to do. He tidied the Dutch oven away and washed out the crock. He washed the stones too and wrapped them in cloth, placing them in his kitchen box to take on into the journey.

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