Oven Stones by guest writer, Mike Crowl

 There was this here jolt, see, like an earthquake. The only thing I hear moving is them two round oven stones and the glass plate, the one what used to fit in the microwave we got rid of.

 The wooden stand for the rolling pin what looks like it’s made of a marble staircase ˗ the one me hubby found at the recycling ˗  that holds them in place.

 So it shifts with the jolt, I suppose, and off they goes. Off the bench. Onto the floor. All three of them in a bunch, three peas in a pod…!

 Never smashed, you know. Should of, but they never did. I mean, one of them’s made of glass, in’t it? The others, well, they’re made of stone ˗ stone don’t break easy, not unless you drop it off a great height, like a cliff. Then it still has to fall on stone. Stone on stone, you see?

 Unless it falls on some unsuspecting bloke sitting down there taking a kip alongside of the sea ˗ and then this oven stone falls on his head. Split it in half, it would, that oven stone. Like that there bloke standing up on the plinth with the gun. The time immemorial bloke.

 He had his head split open once: had to get the Council to glue it up again. Kids done it.

 Anyway, my hubby picks up that there microwave plate and says, This here ought to have broke. I’m gonna nail it on the front door. Like an horseshoe.

 That’ll break it, I says.

 Always picky. I’ll glue it on.

 Not on my front door you won’t.

 Righto, I’ll just stand in front of the bleedin’ door and hold it. Will that make you happy?

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An interview with guest writer Mike Crowl

Mike thank you very much for agreeing to write a flash story for Double Espresso. Where do I start? Your talents seem endless: musician, pianist and composer; actor, director and playwright; novelist, writer, theologian, active Christian and family man. What comes top of your list?

It sounds more impressive than it probably is, Helen. But thanks for the great introduction! I don’t know that I’d put any item on top of the list. It tends to be a juggling process, with each aspect having to fit itself alongside the rest as required. Sometimes one thing takes priority for a period, then another bumps it off the pedestal. That’s in terms of the ‘doing’ things. My Christian faith is something that’s there all the time, and makes its presence felt in any space that’s not otherwise occupied.

Most people concentrate on one area of creativity – not you, Mike. Do you find the different art forms overlap and influence each other? And do the musical, theatrical and spiritual aspects of the person that you are add something to the process of your writing, would you say?

I’m sure they do. I’ve been involved as an accompanist of singers most of my life, and many of them have also worked in the theatre, in musicals. I’ve also worked as a répétiteur (a vocal coach-cum-rehearsal pianist), so I’ve had a lot of contact with theatre people. When I’m writing songs, in particular, I have a sense of the character behind the lines, and how that can be portrayed. And in writing the children’s novels, I have a sense that when the characters are talking, they would only say something in a particular way.

The non-fiction book I wrote is the only one of the three that has specific Christian content, but I know it permeates the two children’s books as well, even though they’re in no way didactic, and Christianity as such is never mentioned.

You have written a couple of children’s books, ‘Grimhilda’ and ‘The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret’. How do you set about writing something that’s going to appeal to a young audience? How do you get inside a child’s head, so to speak?

I’ve read a lot of children’s books over the years, and in thinking about how other writers convey the way children think and act, I suspect that they do it in a similar way to me. There’s an intuitive element, of course, but in the end children in books are never quite the same as children in real life. Their speech is more concentrated and focused, and of course their actions often go beyond the range of most children’s actions, and not just in terms of bravery in the face of crises. The appeal for young audiences lies in the fact that the children in stories do things that the readers would love to do, but have neither the opportunity nor courage to do.

You have self-published. Did you attempt the more conventional route of publishing, or did you plunge straight in? Would you recommend self-publishing – and can you offer any tips to anyone who may be thinking of ‘going it alone’?

No, I didn’t attempt the conventional route (though I’ve published articles and other material over the years conventionally). I thought I’d focus on e-publishing. In terms of getting the book out into the public arena it’s relatively easy. In terms of marketing, it’s at least as difficult as normal publishing, if not more difficult. Instead of having a publisher doing all that work for you, you have to do it on your own, and quickly find that it’s as tough a job as writing. And you have to keep on doing it while you’re writing the next book.

Writing a flash fiction is very different from writing a novel. You’ve had numerous shorts published online. What’s the appeal?

Well, it’s quick! To be honest I’ve been surprised at getting items ‘published’ regularly. It’s not a format I’d attempted until I saw Flash Frontier advertising for stories and wrote my first one. When that was published, and then others followed, I realised that I must be doing something right…

But when I say it’s quick, of course it still requires as much work on those 250 words as it does for any 250 words in any piece of writing. It’s great for keeping your editing skills sharp because you have to be ruthless in cutting out words and ideas that take you over the limit.

For me, I love the humanity of your pieces. They are very people focused. In particular, I can think of a couple of stories you’ve published on Flash Frontier that demonstrate a great empathy with children – an understanding of their frustrations and their need to find their way – or be recognised in the world. ‘Shells’ springs to mind, as does ‘Running and waiting,’ both very human stories. Is that something that drives your writing?

All the flash stories start with the theme. I try to look at it from a different angle, if possible, but the stories themselves come out of nowhere, often just from a sentence that I write down. I don’t feel driven by anything in particular, though no doubt, as with most writers, emotional stuff from your life plays a big part in what appears in your writing.

I also like the slightly skewed view of the world in your flash stories, and the quirky humour that’s often part of it. It seems to me you find a narrative in small details too – in fragments of conversation or objects. How do you go about finding inspiration for your flash fiction pieces?

Just looking back over the stories, I can remember how some of them came into existence. The first, Running and Waiting, arose out of a walk down a very steep dip in the footpath I regularly take with the dog, just near my home. There’s a rhododendron hanging somewhat precariously on the side of the bank. That was enough to get me going. Another one, Shoes, originated in a conversation my aunt had with a friend about not being able to find shoes that fitted comfortably…the rest is history!

The quirky humour is part and parcel of a lot of what I write: the blogs are full of it, and all three of the books I’ve published have elements of it. It runs in our family, I think. Must be something to do with our Irish heritage.

I gave you a number of titles from the Peak District OS maps. You chose ‘Oven Stones’ after deliberating for a while. What made you stick with ‘Oven Stones’?

There was something about the combination of the two words; not anything I can put my finger on, but they just struck a chord. And then I was reminded of the fact that two pizza stones had fallen off the bench along with the plate, and nothing had broken. The narrator and her husband are people I’ve only met in the story, however…

This is a piece that you worked on, as you told me, until you were happy with it. As you craft your piece, at what point do you know it’s ‘ready’?

Well, I wrote it as a draft, fiddled with it, and then decided I could do better. But neither of the other two ideas wanted to work properly, and so I came back to it. Originally there was a ‘listener’ in it as well who could barely get a word in, as though the narrator was telling someone the story over the back fence. Then the listener went and the husband turned up, and he gave it a sense of completion. After that it was a matter of cutting and changing. I’m never completely satisfied with a story, though I learned a valuable lesson from a man I flatted with in London many years ago. He was an artist, and could paint well, and had good ideas using found objects. But he would get to a point in his painting where it seemed to be finished, and then he would tinker, and tinker, and finally the work would be ruined. It’s a matter of avoiding too much tinkering, I think.

I love the last line of your piece – the humour of human interaction and established relationships. I’ve mentioned some of the elements I enjoy in your flash fiction pieces. What makes a good short for you?

I like to be able to read between the lines, but I’m not so fond of stories that lack some sense of roundness, completeness. They don’t have to have a ‘proper’ ending, but I don’t like to see a story just dribble away. However, plainly that isn’t necessarily the case for other writers and readers! I like a touch of humour, even when the mood is quite dark. New Zealand writers have a great tendency to write very gloomy novels and stories. The rare book – or story – with humour is a joy to find.

Thanks again, Mike, for contributing to Double Espresso. I’m delighted to have one of your pieces on the site.

Mike blogs on ‘Random Notes’, found here: http://mikecrowlsscribblepad.blogspot.co.uk/

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Cold Side by Helen Moat

returning from the woodsDetta and Frena saw stories in everything: in bark and boulder and banks of snow around the farm; even the pictures on their bedroom wall. And the sisters filled the empty spaces between with whispered tales.

“Who is she? The woman pulling the sleigh of firewood,” Detta asked in hushed tones, her tiny body thrown together with Frena’s in the cold ravine of their spring-lumped mattress. The moon shone on the Giovanni Segantini snowscape, just as it did on the white-caked ground outside.

Frena pulled the duvet over her chin, her breath smoking its laced edge in the icy room. “She’s a sorceress, Detta, and the twisted sticks on the logs aren’t branches. They’re vipers.”

Detta looked at the contorted forms slumped over the tree stumps on the woman’s sleigh, skeletal legs trailing the snow. “No, not vipers Frena; corpses.” And she spun her sister a story of stolen children.

While Frena slumbered, Detta lay awake, afraid and unafraid. She felt the painting drawing her in, but instead she dressed and went out onto the porch. She found her skis, hooked the metal clasps of her boots into the clips, yanked the levers down with trembling fingers, and pushed off into the dark.

Swish, slap, swish, slap, she slid towards the night-washed buildings with their little squares of yellow; overhead the luminous mountains electric, sparking her skin. As in the painting. Then Detta saw her , the black-clad figure pulling the sleigh, up ahead, drawing her in. Drawing her in.

Published in the February edition, ‘Whispers,’ of Flash Frontier under the title ‘Returning from the woods’ here: http://flash-frontier.com/2015/02/23/february-2015-whispers/

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Standing on the Cold Side by Jane Swan

“The Southerly blows straight from the ice,” Nathaniel always says. But it’s the Easterly that cuts me to the bone.

I’m standing at the top of a steep cliff looking to where the sun will grow tomorrow. Behind me are the weatherboard walls of the barn. Below, the Pacific Ocean tears at the New Zealand coast. If it wasn’t for the roar of the East Wind I could hear the rattle of pebbles being sucked into the sea. Sometimes in the night the shingle is rebuilt into long piles like burial mounds.

Children are never allowed down on the beach even when the men launch the small boats.

This evening I can’t drag myself inside. If only my prayers were beacons to draw The Viper home, its sails breasting the rim of the world. How many months is it now?

I know about sighting land. Didn’t I follow my man halfway around the globe? A free farm, they said, in exchange for five years on a whaling ship.

The wall behind me casts a deep shadow. I clutch my shawl closer and scan the horizon one last time before hunger must be fed, tears dried and fair heads settled on pillows filled with the feathers of birds I had never seen, or eaten, before coming to these strange shores.

Only the other women know the space I really occupy – the narrow path I’ve worn behind the barn. It is edged with rocks I have painted white as sea spray, to mark my way in the long Southern nights.

Later I will creep into the moonlight and stand on the cold side of my world. I will close my eyes and believe. Then, perhaps, my whaler will return with the morning tide.

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An interview with guest writer, Jane Swan

First of all, thank you Jane for agreeing to write a flash fiction for Double Espresso over the busy festive holidays. Not only that, you’ve just moved house – so I really appreciate the fact that you have dusted down the old typewriter – or the modern equivalent. Is your new coastal home providing you with fresh inspiration and impetus for your writing projects?

Thank you Helen for inviting me to guest on Double Espresso. I enjoyed writing ‘Standing on the Cold Side’. It’s the first piece of fiction written from my new home. Yes, my new environment is stimulating. Otago in the South of New Zealand is an area rich in history from pre-European times onwards. Previously I was living inland from Oamaru in a farming district and I am finding the change to the coast wonderful. Nearby at Matanaka are the remaining buildings – wooden with iron roofing, of the first European settlement in Otago. Wandering round them gives one a feeling that the original settlers had no doubt of the permanence of their endeavours. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the isolation those early pioneers, especially the women, must have felt.

You’re newsletter editor for the Waitaki Writers’ Group, had stories printed in local and daily newspapers, and read on Radio New Zealand. You’ve also been highly commended and short-listed in writing competitions. When did the writing begin?

I’ve been writing bits and pieces all my life – mainly bad poetry! But about 2007 I decided that if I was serious I had better seek help. I joined the local writing group and it was the best writing decision I could have made. We are a friendly group who all take writing seriously. The advice, insightful and intelligent critique I received, and continue to receive, set me on the path to publication. A good writers’ group is worth its weight in gold.

It has been a great year for you in terms of your flash writing. The editors of Flash Frontier have nominated your piece, ‘Eat Beetroot’ for the 2014 Pushcart Prize, and we have both been nominated for the Sundress Publications 2014 Best of the Net – I for ‘Five Knots’, and you for ‘Eat Beetroot’ again. Did you realise when you wrote ‘Eat Beetroot’ that you’d achieved something special? It’s a particularly raw and tender piece. Tell us a little bit about the writing process for this piece.

Congratulations to you too, Helen for your nomination to Sundress. It is an exciting wait to see if our work is accepted. As for ‘Eat Beetroot’, no at the time I didn’t realise that the story would resonate with so many. Soon after its airing I was surprised to receive emails saying that it was sticking with people. As with most of my work it fused from several different ideas. I was standing at the kitchen bench eating an unusual breakfast of beetroot left over from the previous night’s salad, when ideas began to flood in. I wrote it down fast, came back later that day and was able to take it deeper. So the birthing of this one was an easier process. I guess the gestation had been going on all along without my interference!

 ‘Standing on the Cold Side’ is a beautiful piece. It reminds me of Annie Proulx’s ‘Shipping News’. As in Proulx’s book (set in Newfoundland), there’s a strong sense of place and clarity of description – matching the clarity and intensity of the light you get in places on the edge of the world. It takes you right there. Which writers inspire your writing?

I do enjoy reading Annie Proulx and find Margaret Atwood inspiring as well. There are so many fine writers I admire including Barbara Kingsolver. I must mention 3 New Zealand writers – Janet Frame, Fiona Farrell and short story writer Owen Marshall.

This is a piece strong on imagery and strong on emotion. It’s written sparsely, yet in the space of 300 words you tell a story- and so much more. Standing on the Cold Side has all the ingredients of well-crafted short. What’s the secret to writing good flash fiction – for those who would like to have a go?

Ooh, I don’t know if I can answer that. I suppose I must say the same advice given for all writing – Write. And dig deep. My husband who is my first reader and very perceptive can always tell if I haven’t gone deep enough. So I would say, don’t be afraid. Find the kernel of truth, often indicated by what you don’t want to write about. I believe the story is always there. I hope that helps.

 ‘Standing on the Cold Side’ is a story set against the first European settlement in Otago. From the titles I gave you – including ‘Cold Side’, why did you decide to tell this particular story?

Helen, I did like your choice of topics and the inventive use of place names from a map. Cold Side leapt out at me and I immediately thought of the buildings I described earlier, so it was a simple decision for me. I am from the UK, immigrating to New Zealand aged 14. This has shaped me – no that’s not honest – chocolate has shaped me. I realise, the more I write, how much I am exploring the theme of home.

 Now that you’ve settled into your new home, what are your writing plans for the future?

Far from settled in yet. I have a novel on the go and would dearly love to finish that, plus continue to write flash fiction and longer short stories. My new life includes Real Electricity from the grid, so computer time is no longer rationed. Previously we generated our own. Plus I have my own writing room – bliss – so no excuses really. Thanks for the opportunity to chat, Helen.

Thank you very much, Jane, for taking part in the project. It’s been a real honour to have you on Double Espresso. And good luck with the Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations.

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The Tower by Helen Moat

Repunzel tower

Ein modernes Märchen

Die natϋrliche Mutter: Es war einmal … Once upon a time there was just you and me. While I grew weak, you grew strong. You made hills of my stomach: a slither-slope of elbow; a ridge of leg; a knoll of foot; a hummock of fist. Sometimes you punched so hard I thought you’d burst through my flesh. And I held out for you, because of the rampion I’d asked Papa to steal from that witch next door.

Die Stiefmutter: Fairy Godmother, healer and miracle-worker; sorceress, wicked stepmother, temptress and child-abductor: I’ve been called them all. Half-truths and lies. I took you from your dying mother, loved you and protected you. I built a tower around you to keep you safe. I didn’t cut your hair in anger, but to save you from yourself and the man who ruined you.

Rapunzel: The weight is gone, my head light; my resolve strong. From the tower I’d seen the forested slopes, the knots of land; the hunters and gatherers – and I longed to be in there. Now with the twins I can hunt for berries and fungi, make snares, trap rabbits and talk to the woodmen. I’ve built a shelter of logs and branches and burned down the tower. I’ll write my own ending: no princes, no miracles, no magic tears; no long golden hair. No happy ever after … Und wenn wir nicht gestorben sind, dann leben wir noch heute. And if we’re not dead, then we’re still alive today.

Published in the April edition of  Flash Frontier as ‘Women of Iron’: http://flash-frontier.com/

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The Tower by guest writer, Meraid Griffin

Siobhan wriggled forward on her belly, breath held as she prepared to shoot.

Thirty years had passed since she lay in that place. Her palms felt sticky as the memories flooded back. On that sunny spring morning she had strolled hand in hand with Brendan along the water wall. They breathed in the cool damp air; two teenagers in love, not yet lovers…

The tower, built from breeze blocks and wrapped in razor wire cast ugly shadows onto concrete barriers below. Three boys wearing fatigues shuffled uneasily at the checkpoint. They carried machine guns, their fingers poised on triggers. Her step quickened and stomach tightened as it did every morning she crossed the border to get to work.

Tyres screeched as a dark red Ford Cortina estate made a handbrake turn behind them. The boot flew open. Two men in black lay inside, their faces hidden by balaclavas. ‘Get down,’ Brendan shouted. She looked at him in dismay, staring at her white angora dress, white fur coat and that dirty wet path.

Chut chut chut.

Brendan hauled her to the ground and rolled over, covering her body with his.

Phut, phut phut.

The car’s engine roared, its wheels spinning as it raced away. Her heart pounded against her chest. Silence.

Carefully, they got to their feet, extending arms at waist height, showing empty hands and innocence. They walked forward slowly towards the tower. She would be late for work.

Click, click click.

She stood up and put her camera away. The tower was long gone. In its place were five metal sculptures. She smiled as she watched the sunlight upon them, dancing.

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