Jack and the Beans

green vegetable on white surface

Our local writers’ group gave as an exercise a re-placement of a fairy-tale character in a novel situation. However, I decided to be a little different (surprise, surprise) and ended up writing a slightly surreal piece of nonsense loosely based on what I could remember of Jack and the Beanstalk.


Once upon a time, there was a boy named Jack who lived with his mother in a small cottage hallway between the towns of Nowhere and Nothing. They were so poor that they used to beg for crumbs from the church mice who sometimes came to visit, but their sole possession, other than a 42” plasma TV, was a cow called Eric. The television had never worked, chiefly because there was no electricity in the cottage, but it was very useful for stopping the draft from the broken window.

“Why is our cow called Eric, Mother?” Jack would ask on long winter evenings. Sometimes he asked the same question on short summer evenings, but not so often, because the evenings were shorter.

He always forgot the answer that his mother gave him, and his mother always forgot that he had asked the same question twenty times already that month. So they were both perfectly happy with that evening’s entertainment.

“Who needs Netflix,” they would ask each other, “when you have a cow called Eric?”

But neither of them knew the answer to that question.

There came a time when even the church mice stopped coming, pleading pressure of work, and a disturbing trend in atheism.

“We must sell Eric,” said Jack’s mother. “You must go to the market in Nowhere and sell her, so that we can eat.”

So, one day, Jack set off for the market of Nowhere, leading Eric on a piece of string. His mother waved farewell to them with her last clean paper tissue, which she had been saving for Sunday best, but she had brought it out in honour of the occasion.

In six hours, Eric returned, leading Jack on the same piece of string.

Jack’s mother was about to ask Eric what had happened, when she stopped, realising that she had forgotten to put her false teeth in, and that Eric wouldn’t be able to understand her. She turned to Jack.

“I’m sorry, mother,” said Jack. “I tried to sell Eric so that we could feed ourselves, but no one wanted to give me anything to eat. All they wanted to give me in exchange was money. And you can’t eat it. I tried, and it tasted horrible.”

“Oh, you silly boy! Trying to eat money like that!” said his mother impatiently. “Surely you know that you can’t eat it raw. It has to be cooked. Tomorrow you must go to the market at Nothing, and sell Eric there.”

So, the next day, Eric and Jack set off for Nothing.

Jack’s mother was surprised to see Jack return alone a couple of hours later, holding a piece of string.

“Where’s Eric?” she asked.

“Sold her,” Jack said, with an air of pride.

“How?” said his mother. “I remembered just after you’d gone that it was Sunday, and there wouldn’t be a market. Still, I said to myself, the exercise will do you both good. It’s only five miles each way. So… how much did you get for Eric?”

Jack opened his hand to display five beans. “The man who bought Eric told me that these were really good if you cooked them in tomato sauce and put them on buttered toast.”

Jack’s mother sighed. “I don’t know how you can be so stupid. There are five beans there, and two of us. How are we going to manage to divide them fairly?” And she angrily snatched the beans out of Jack’s hand, and threw them out of the window (the one which wasn’t blocked by the 42” plasma TV), where they were snatched up by a passing squirrel and eaten.

Overnight, the beans sprouted and grew and grew. Which wasn’t so nice for the squirrel. But that’s another story. And not one for bedtime.

Eric grew to a ripe old age, and took second prize at the Miss Nowhere beauty contest two years after she had been sold for five beans.

Jack’s mother reluctantly dug up the box of £20 notes that she had been saving for a rainy day, although the forecast only said scattered showers, and went to Tesco, where she bought a Warburton’s sliced loaf, a pack of Lurpak spreadable butter which was almost past its expiry date, and three tins of baked beans on special offer. Jack and his mother lived, but not very happily, and not ever after.


I worry about me sometimes.

An extract from the other side…

I’ve talked quite a lot about On the Other Side of the Sky, so here’s a little part of of it. Jane Machin, the protagonist, has returned to England, with the assistance of two Sylphs – Air Elementals (find out a little more about Elementals here).

She awoke with a start to find her feet firmly on the ground, and the two Sylphs standing one on each side of her. They were clearly in the park of a great house. Deer were feeding some way off, and the sun appeared to have just risen. She looked to see a large mansion to her left, the golden stone of the house glowing in the morning light.
“We will vanish now,” said one of the Sylphs, “but we’ll be near you when you need us.”
“The music you played last night was wonderful,” said the other. “It reminded us of home.”
“But you don’t need to play if you don’t want to. Just want us badly enough and we’ll help you.”
“You’ve helped me a lot already,” Jane said. “Thank you so much.” She reached for the recorder, and started to play. This time the tune was a lively jig, and the two Sylphs broke into smiles, and then started to whirl in a fantastical dance. As Jane speeded up the tempo of the music, so the Sylphs’ dance became faster and faster until they were whirling so fast that they were lost to sight.
Jane sighed, placed the recorder back in the placket of her skirt, and wondered what to do with her old clothes from France. In the end, she decided to make a detour into the woods and hide them under a pile of branches and leaves before making her way to the house.
She hesitated before approaching the main door of the house. Would it not be more appropriate, she asked herself, to go to the servants’ entrance at the back? No, she decided firmly, she had come to see Thomas’s elder brother, whom Thomas had named to her as George, and when visiting the family, one should use the family entrance.
There was a bell-pull near the door, and she pulled at it, hearing the sonorous clanging of a bell somewhere inside the house. After a few minutes, she heard footsteps, the drawing of bolts, and the door swung open to reveal a liveried footman, who simply stared at her expectantly.
“I am here to visit Sir George FitzAlan,” she announced.
“Is he expecting you?”
“No,” she confessed. “I am a friend of his brother, Captain Thomas FitzAlan, and I have news of him.”
“I see, madam.” The servant’s manner was a touch more deferential at the mention of the family name. “Sir George is breaking his fast. I will ask him if he wishes to meet you. What name should I give?”
“Machin. Jane Machin.”

On the Other Side of the Sky, Chapter XIV, The House

Jane can request favours of Sylphs, and these two have taken a fancy to her.

The house, by the way is loosely based on Shugborough Hall (pictured here), though the FitzAlan family are not based on the Ansons (Earls of Lichfield). There is a strange inscription on one of the garden monuments. No one has yet found a definitive answer. I considered putting it, or something like it, into the story, but decided it would be a dead end, and not add anything to the plot. More in Wikipedia.


On the Other Side of the Sky

A novel combining history, adventure, and more than a little touch of the arcane


Feels good…

But it will feel better when they’re in the hands of readers and reviewers.

All ready for the gig on the 25th – if you’re in the Lichfield area and you are interested, take yourself off to the Erasmus Darwin site, and book your ticket now. Places are limited (COVID).

If you can’t make it, consider placing a pre-order on Amazon or even asking your local bookstore to order it (ISBN 9781912605750).

November 25 – a date for your diary

If you’re in Lichfield on November 25th, come along to Erasmus Darwin House at 6pm for a glass or two of mulled wine, a mince pie, and a good yarn.

For me, as the author, it’s incredibly exciting to be reading my fictional story in the real-life location where so many of the events in the book take place.

Jonathan Oates (“Jono”) will be hosting an event in which I shall be reading from and introducing On the Other Side of the Sky, my novel which blends local historical characters with fiction, and a splash of the paranormal.

£7.50 to include mulled wine and mince pie. Signed advance copies of the book will be offered at a reduced price, as well as copies of Jono’s book on the history of Lichfield. Tickets available for purchase here.

Book early – numbers are limited (COVID precautions).

It’s coming together

On the Other Side of the Sky is coming together nicely. Currently going through it with the assistance of a friend, weeding out all the typos, and also minor details of plot and character which don’t seem to hang together very well.

A friend from the USA has suggested a glossary, to provide a little background information on people and topics that may be unfamiliar to some readers, so I’ve been busy with that.

I now have a design for the interior of the book, and several graphical elements, all of which are meant to evoke something of an 18th-century feel to the book, and which I should be able toinclude in the ebook as well. It’s going to be a very pretty piece of work indeed (in my opinion).

The photo is a mockup of the cover (printout of the design, and wrapped around a book of roughly the same thickness (just under 2.5cm, with 380 pages). In fact, I’ve slightly changed the spine from the photo above, so that it stands out a bit better:

The other books are there just to provide a comparison of size and of other designs. The back blurb is basically there – I don’t see it changing very much:

And the print and ebook editions will be available on the same day – December 1, 2021.

Price for the ebook will be £4.99 and Amazon US has it at $6.82 for pre-order. The US Amazon has some more information about the book and its writing than the UK site. The paperback will be available for pre-order soon.

There’s also a very new Facebook page about this book, where I will be writing bits and pieces about the content.

Done (but not dusted)!

I’ve now finished the first draft of my next book. Provisional title: On the Other Side of the Sky.

Current length: 103,000 words. That’s a lot of words.

Date started: 20 August 2020 (I have written and published a couple of shorter books in the meantime)

Setting: 18th century Europe

Protagonist: A girl with a strange parentage

Antagonist: Her father – who is from the other side of the sky

Other characters: Some members of the Lunar Society including England’s greatest doctor, Erasmus Darwin, assorted alchemists, mesmerists, mountebanks, rabbis, and German Landgraves. A sprinkling of the English aristocracy and some revolutionary sans-culottes.

Supporting cast: Some beings from the other side of the sky, and some Rosicrucian-type Elementals (Sylphs, Gnomes, Undines and Salamanders).

Genre: Historical paranormal. Similar in its way to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Method of writing: Seat of the pants. Watch and listen to the characters and write down what they do and say.

Research and sources: 17th and 18th century books on alchemy, Jewish legends, serious scholarly work on Kabbala, biographies of some of the Lunar Men and of that period.

It’s been a wild ride through lots of Jungian landscapes. It’s either a complete load of self-indulgent crap, or it’s a very good book indeed. I’m not sure I can tell the difference at this stage.

Now comes the hard part – editing.

If anyone reading this is or knows an agent or publisher who might be interested, please let me know.

A rich source of new material

I’m coming to the end of The Other Side of the Sky (at least the first draft), and it’s proving to be a voyage of discovery for me. I’m 90,000 words into the story and there are probably another 10,000 to go.

There’s a lot of mysticism in parts of this book – of the 18th century kind. I have been reading a lot of alchemical texts, and have been surprised by what I have discovered. I had, like many of us, I suppose, always considered alchemy to be concerned with turning base metals into gold, and perhaps discovering the Philosopher’s Stone (the picture is by Joseph Wright of Derby, who appears as a character in my book, and is a detail of his painting of an alchemist, sometimes known as The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus or The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone), which would grant eternal life or something to its possessor. Instead, I’ve discovered a mass of rich analogies, many of them confusing, if not outright contradictory, and all of them obscure, referring to a path towards spiritual perfection.

It’s impossible to separate these aims, and much of the imagery, from the Rosicrucians, who likewise expressed their secret doctrines in striking and colourful imagery. and from there, I suppose I could carry forward to the best-known 18th-century secret society, the Freemasons. However, I’ve decided not to go there.

Instead, I’ve chosen to go backwards, to an even earlier source of mystical spiritual growth, Kabbalah, a Jewish mystical tradition. Now, Kabbalah is far from being a simple subject. It speaks in analogies, and has many forms, but the underlying concepts are those of alchemy and Rosicrucianism, as far as I can make out. So I’m not speaking as an expert but as an outsider looking into a new world.

One view of the Sefirot

The Sefirot

This is a part of Kabbalah which has really attracted my attention, the Sefirot (there are many alternative transliterations), the ten energies (actually, there’s an eleventh “shadow” energy at the intersection of Keter, Binah and Chokhmah).

By moving from the source at Keter to Malkhut, one attains a realisation. It’s also possible to travel upwards, it seems, through to a union with the divine.

The links between these energies are typically associated with a letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and even with cards of the Major Arcana in the Tarot pack (this is a retroactive association, and was never made by Kabbalists, it appears).

But it also seems possible to link the Sefirot in other ways – paths which are in some way considered diabolical by many.

Here’s another view of the Sefirot which includes the letters associated with the links between the energies, and also includes Da’at, the intersection of Bina and Chockmah.

This diagram is sometimes referred to as the “Tree of Life” and is the subject of a lot of commentary and discussion. Even though there is a fair amount of low-hanging fruit that can be gathered from this tree by the non-adept, it would be possible, I am sure, to spend years studying it, with all the associations that have been made (many of them probably spurious or irrelevant). I’ve just come across a wonderfully paranoid conspiracy theory version which includes the Templars (of course), Akenahten, Freemansons, Jesuits, and puts the USA in the place of Malkhut!

As well as all of this, there is a rich corpus of Jewish legends, many of which have a bearing on this aspect of Kabbalah. One I have just been reading tells of the letters of the (Hebrew) alphabet all clamouring to God that they be allowed to be first in the alphabet. The one which ends up being the first (Aleph) is the one which did not shout for a place. Maybe Jesus was aware of this story when he said “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first”.

Bringing this up to date

There are many more modern interpretations that can be made here. I mentioned that conspiracy theory just now, but there are other ways of viewing these subjects, and it’s also possible to trace the gradation from alchemy to chemistry.

It’s also possible (and it has been done several times) to place a psychoanalytic interpretation on both alchemy and Kabbalah. Carl Jung, in particular, was particularly fascinated by both as windows into archetypes and into the collective unconscious. Whether or not you believe in the more mystical elements of Jungian thought, there is much to consider.

All in all, I’ve gone on an interesting journey with this research. While I cannot accept all the elements of the alchemists of Kabbalists, I have discovered more than just plot elements – and the existence and details of aspects of Jewish mysticism have been a real eye-opener to me.

Now to finish the book…

How do I write pastiches?

Pastiches? Homages? Rip-offs? Or simply imitations (“the sincerest form of flattery” according to Oscar Wilde)?
I’ve written quite a few of these, taking on the mantle of four authors in my time: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), William Hope Hodgson (Carnacki the Ghost-Finder), G.K.Chesterton (Father Brown), and latterly E.F.Benson (Mapp and Lucia). All of these have been well-received.

In these stories, I have always tried to maintain the style of the original authors as far as possible. This is more than a matter of recycling stock phrases (“You know my methods, Watson”, “tarsome”, etc.). Each of these authors has an individual style, even though in many cases their periods of activity overlapped with each other – there is much more to this pastiche business than simply copying the mannerisms of a bygone age’s language.

“After the initial chalk circle and pentacle, strengthened with garlic, the Electric Pentacle was obviously the first line of my defences to be established, and I welcomed the glow from its wards once I had assembled it. I performed the the Second Sign of the Saaamaaa Ritual at each vertex, though if matters were as I suspected, and that the beings reportedly described in the lost Heptatrych of Laskaria were involved, the Ritual would have little or no effect. My faith lay in the Pentacle, along with the linen-wrapped bread placed in the ‘Points’ and the water placed in the ‘Vales’, and I determined to spend the night inside that, provided, that is, that there was no clear natural cause for any untoward event.

From my “Carnacki at Bunscombe Abbey”

However well I think I have done with the style, though, when I look back at examples of the originals, I find that I have invariably missed something – at least to my eyes. There is always some element of subtlety that I seem to miss out when writing my pastiches. Even so, the majority of readers seem to think that I have captured the spirit of the originals. I like to think that no one could ever use Monet’s paintings of Rouen Cathedral as architectural blueprints, but they are unmistakably paintings of that particular building, in the same way that my writing is an impression of the writer whose work I am imitating. Incidentally, the hardest style of all to imitate has been Chesterton’s – he loves his little paradoxes and slices of religion to be slipped in. Very difficult to do.

“He is not a Catholic, then?”
She sighed. “He is nothing,” she said. “That is to say, he claims that he cannot prove that God exists, or that He does not. Therefore, he mocks both those with faith, and those who deny faith. Though he is a most efficient and useful addition to the household, and of great assistance in Uncle Archie’s work, I – we – feared that my uncle would give him his notice if he were to continue in this fashion. It upset my uncle considerably.”
“And yet you tell me that you love him?” asked Father Brown kindly.
“I do. I have faith – faith that I can bring him to belief and into the bosom of the Church. I pray every night for him to believe.”
This interesting conversation (interesting, that is, to the young lady at least, since Father Brown had heard that story, or one very similar to it, many times in his time as a priest) was interrupted by the entry of the young man in question.

From my “The Persian Dagger”

Characters are another matter. How far does one take liberties with the character? I like to think (and many critics have agreed with me) that my Holmes and Watson expand on the originals without changing their basic characteristics. I am not, for instance, going to make Holmes and Watson jump into bed with each other, but at the same time, I feel free to make more of the genuine affection that they feel for each other. The same applies to Mapp and Lucia and the inhabitants of Tilling. The characters are loved because of who they are, and any fundamental change to them would make them different people. They may grow and develop, but any outright change to their personalities would turn them into different people. I loved writing Mrs Weston in Riseholme – her streams of consciousness are a delight to write:

“Well, I really don’t know,” she said, after inspecting Georgie’s pieces of glass and invited to guess where he had found them. “I do declare that is just like the handle of a jug that Mr Weston used to have, which he inherited from his aunt, the one who used to live in Hastings and who married the man who invented a new kind of safety-valve to go on railway engines, and which he broke one afternoon after he came in from playing golf with the Vicar. I remember that he went round in 83 strokes, and the Vicar went round in 82, but he said the Vicar had cheated by moving his ball out of a bunker when he thought no one was looking.” She inspected Georgie’s treasure trove a little more closely. “I was just talking about this last week with Colonel Boucher when he was coming out of Rush’s and he had ordered half a pound of currants because Rush said he had no raisins, and why he had no raisins I couldn’t say if you begged me to tell you because he had some two weeks ago and Cook made a very nice pudding out of them. I couldn’t eat it all, and Cook and Elizabeth said they were the best raisins they had ever eaten in a pudding. And the Colonel said he had played golf and lost by one stroke and that put me in mind of that day and it was also the day the German Emperor made a speech about something which annoyed the Prime Minister and that was the very same day that Mr Weston broke the jug.” She paused for breath. “And how you ever got hold of that handle I don’t know, because I remember giving it to Elizabeth to throw away. ‘Wrap it up well,’ I said to her, ‘because someone might cut their hand on it and die of blood-poisoning like old Mr Marlowe who cut his thumb when he was raking the flowerbed in his front garden and he got blood-poisoning and died two– no, three weeks later, and then we’d get the blame.’ So what she did with it, I couldn’t tell you, but I haven’t seen it from that day to this when you showed it to me just now and I really have no idea where you might have found it.”

From my “La Lucia”

And then there are plots and settings. When you are writing a pastiche, you are writing for fans of the originals. If I slip up and put Mr Twistevant behind the counter of the fish-shop, or have Holmes and Watson take the London Underground Victoria Line, I would be rightly laughed out of court. Research and reference to the originals for facts and settings. And plots cannot be too outrageous (though in all the instances I have mentioned, the plots are pretty outrageous to start with) – they must be in scale with the settings of the piece. It is not impossible that the Prince of Wales, for example, sits on Mallards doorstep and smokes a cigarette. It is, however, most unlikely that he would ring dear Liblib’s belly-pelly and ask to be invited in for a cup of tea.

So, the brief answer to “how do I write pastiches” is, “I write stories that the original author didn’t have time to write”. I like to think that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might well have written:

As a doctor, I am sworn to protect the life of others. As a human being, I am obviously anxious to protect my own life. And as a friend of Sherlock Holmes, I was never more determined to protect his well-being than at that moment. I fired my revolver, and the wretch dropped his weapon, clutching at his arm with a sharp cry.

From my “The Adventure of the Vatican Cameos”

Advance booking

A short story that came to me – first I imagined the problem, and then worked out the solution

© 2020, Hugh Ashton

You get all sorts in this business. You get the ones who come in all dressed in black because they think it’s expected of them. You can tell pretty quickly what their interest in the dear departed is as soon as you start to discuss the cost of the funeral with them.

“Oh, I don’t think he’d have wanted anything fancy. Just plain and simple would be more appropriate.” Well, when you translate that and quietly dig down to the truth, you can often be sure that they’re looking to get everything they can out of the estate and not spend the money on the funeral. However, sometimes you can tell they really can’t afford anything better – there just isn’t the money. So in those cases I generally manage to either cut a bit off the price or upgrade them a bit for free. There’s some in this business who really gouge their customers, but there’s no way I’m going to do that.  Maybe these poor souls get a slightly better coffin than the one they paid for, or I accidentally on purpose leave the cost of the dry ice off the final invoice. Why not, after all?

And then there’s the ones who breeze in, and order things as though they really couldn’t be bothered with little details like price and what the whole thing is going to come to at the end of the day. I won’t say “more money than sense”, but it does seem that way sometimes, especially when they obviously don’t actually have a lot of money to spend. Believe it or not, I try to talk them into the less expensive options, but no, “nothing but the best for her/him” is the phrase I hear most of the time. Guilt, I reckon. They’ve neglected Nan or Granddad in her or his lifetime, and now they think that a big shiny coffin with brass handles, and heaps of expensive flowers are ways they can make up for all the affection that they failed to show when he or she was alive.

And the worst is when the whole family turns up – Uncle Tom Cobbley and all – and they find that they can’t agree on anything. “She always loved roses.” “No she didn’t, she liked carnations better.” “I always thought she liked lilies of the valley”. And then we have the endless arguments about what was their favourite music or song that’s going to be played at the funeral. They go on for ever. Spare me.

But those are everyday customers – you get used to them. Let me tell you about the really weird one I had recently. Small, elderly man. Fringe of white hair, mild-looking face. He was wearing an overcoat and a scarf wrapped around his neck, and when he took it off, I saw the dog-collar.

Well, priests are usually some of the easiest to deal with. They’ve got the experience, and they’ve got faith. They can cope with things rationally, but they’re not unemotional about it.

“I want to book a funeral,” he said.

Well, that’s a funny way to put it, but yes, we do operate a pre-paid plan so that there are no nasty surprises for those left behind when the sad day comes. So I get out the leaflets to explain how much and when and how it all works, and he waved them away.

“No, no,” he told me. “That’s not what I mean at all. I want to book a funeral for a particular date.”

“Oh, I see. And when is this to be?”

He pulled a little black notebook out of a small briefcase he had with him, and turned to a page that he’d marked by turning down a corner. “October 28.”

“But that’s only two days away.”

“No, no,” he said again, shaking his head. “October 28 next year. It’s a Thursday. Not one of my busy days. You are able to do it then, aren’t you?”

I didn’t have to look in my diary to check. No one, but no one, books their funeral a year in advance. “I’m sorry,” I told him. “Yes, we are free, but…”

“It’s my wife, you see,” he told me, as if that explained everything. “I think it should be a cremation rather than a burial,” taking it for granted that ordering your wife’s funeral over a year in advance was a perfectly usual way of going on. “Quite a simple affair. I am guessing that I will be the only one attending.”

At this point, I felt I was dealing with someone who wasn’t all there. Some clergymen are a bit like that. My mother used to tell the story of her vicar who always removed his trousers when he put on his cassock, and occasionally forgot to replace them when he took off the cassock and joined his parishioners after the service. Either I was dealing with one of those, or perhaps there was something more sinister. In any case, I thought it was a good idea to get his name and address so that I could pass it on to the relevant authorities; police, hospital or whatever seemed appropriate.

So I went through the procedure of starting to fill out our standard form, which gave me all of that, plus telephone numbers and an email address.

“And when would you like us to collect her from this address on the form?” I asked. “That’s where she is?”

“No, no, no. Not at all. I’ll have her delivered here, if it’s all the same to you.”

Now that’s weird. Hospitals don’t deliver the departed to us. We always have to go and fetch them. And in any case, what was all this about having the funeral in a year’s time? I changed the subject a little.

“Can you tell me the cause of her death?”

He caught, shuffled his feet, and turned a little red, clearly embarrassed. “Well, she’s not really what you might call dead,” he muttered.

By now I was sure that I had either a lunatic or a potential murderer on my hands. “I’m just going to have to check a few details,” I told him. “Please take a seat there. I’ll only be a few minutes.”

In the back room, I dialled the police station. “Yes, it’s Harrisons, the undertaker’s. Look, I’ve got a man here, the Reverend Edmund Philpotts, says he wants to book his wife’s funeral a year from now, and she’s not even dead. Can you send someone round to talk to him and find out what he’s on about? There’s something really odd going on. Thanks. Five minutes? That’s good of you. Ta.”

I put the phone down and went back to the Reverend Philpotts, who seemed to be engrossed in a florist’s catalogue.

“Everything all right?” he asked, looking up from a page of gaudy chrysanthemums.

Well, no, it bloody well wasn’t all right, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. “I’m just waiting for someone,” I said.

He didn’t seem particularly bothered, but kept looking, tutting and shaking his head at some of the more flamboyant and tasteless (in my opinion, as well as his, anyway) offerings in the catalogue. Perhaps he shared my feelings about human vanity when it comes to this sort of thing.

Sergeant Timmins pushed open the door and came in. Decent sort of man, known around the place as someone who gets on with everyone, as long as they’re on the right side of the law. If they weren’t, that’s a slightly different matter. There were stories. Anyway, we’d played in the same cricket team when we were both younger, and still kept up a sort of friendship.

“Morning, Mike. Problems?” he asked me. “They didn’t tell me that much about it over the radio when they sent me here.”

“Not really problems as such, Ted, but I’d like the Reverend here to tell you what he wants and why.”

Philpotts looked up from his study of floral arrangements, seemingly surprised at seeing a police officer in uniform standing in front of him. “Why, are the police interested in what I am doing?” He frowned a little, seemingly in thought, and then a broad smile spread across his face. “Oh my goodness! You thought… Oh my Lord!” He started to laugh.

“Perhaps you’d like to share the joke, sir?” Timmins said.

“Well, let me tell you what I think you are thinking. I come in here, I want to reserve a time for a funeral for my wife a year from now, I tell you that you won’t be picking up my wife, but she’ll be delivered here. And then I tell you that she’s not really dead. So you,” and he pointed a finger at me, “think that I have plans to murder my wife a year from now somewhere secret and that I will arrange for persons unknown to drop off her body to you. Correct?” He looked up at us, smiling innocently.

“Thoughts like that had crossed my mind,” I admitted.

Sergeant Timmins looked bemused. “Perhaps you’d be good enough to tell us why this isn’t the case.”

Philpotts’ smile disappeared, and his face became serious. “My wife suffered from a rather rare form of bone cancer. There was no cure at the time, and still isn’t, though there have been some promising developments. Ten years ago, she fell into a coma, and after a few tragic months, she was pronounced dead. She and I had discussed her future before she slipped into oblivion. She wanted to be placed in what she called a “frozen sleep” in the hope that she could be awakened and cured in the future. As a Christian priest, I have faith that the dead shall be raised, but this went a little against my principles. However… this was her wish, and I had made all the necessary arrangements before she was pronounced dead.” He stopped, took a large handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose. “She now lies in what they call a ‘storage facility’ on the other side of Birmingham. It costs a considerable amount of money for her to be there, and next year will be the last year I can afford to pay the fees. The contract ends on the 24th of October next year. After that time, they have informed me that they can no longer keep her there. I assumed four days would be sufficient time to make the preparation for a funeral when she can finally be committed to rest, so I chose the 28th as the date for her cremation. I trust that makes things clear?” He looked at Timmins and me hopefully. “I have all the paperwork, certificates, everything, here in this bag,” patting his small briefcase.

Sergeant Timmins and I looked at each other. We shrugged. In unison.

“I don’t think I’m needed here,” said Timmins, turning towards the door. “I’ll be seeing you in the Bull some evening soon, I hope, Mike,” he said to me. “I’m sorry to hear about your loss, Reverend. I hope someone takes as good care of me when it’s my turn.”

“Thank you, sergeant,” Philpotts replied.

“So,” I said to my customer when the door had closed behind Timmins. “A cremation next year on 28 October. Let’s fill in a few more details. What time do you want the service?”

-oOo-

Comments welcome…

On this side of the sky…

Looking over some of my recent writing, I seem to be slightly obsessed with the idea of beings living in some sort of parallel world to us, with an assortment of powers which might be best described as
“magical”. When I say “obsessed”, I mean in a literary sense – as characters and plot drivers in the stories that I write. I don’t actually believe that we are surrounded by a crowd of mainly invisible beings which interact with us.

The picture of the children’s tea-party came from bluelilyevents on blogspot.com

So what do these things look like? Well, of course they are imaginary, so I am free to make them look like whatever I want in my stories.

One thing I am certain of is that they do NOT look like the sweet little children with butterfly wings that the Victorians loved to portray (and that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was sure that two little girls had seen and photographed).

Nor do I believe that they sit around on toadstools (though I had a very interesting conversation the other day with my friend Vicky about this, and the idea of hallucinogenic mushrooms being associated with these beings).

In many cultures, they are referred to by a euphemism, such as “The Good People” or “The Gentle People”, in order to placate these rather nasty and amoral creatures, with their tales of stealing, kidnaping, and general enmity towards the himan race.

For me, one of the most interesting views of Faerie is to be found in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a book I have read several times, despite its length. It makes a very plausible read, describing a world in which these beings interact with us in limited and very specific ways, and as a race have a range of rather unpleasant characteristics.

Another story which has gripped my imagination ever since I first read about it, mentioned in a story by Borges, is the Chinese legend of the demons trapped behind mirrors (and mirrors also play a very important role in Strange & Norrell). The idea that behind the pieces of glass that hang on our walls, there is a race that is out to destroy us, and is only just kept in check is not a comforting one.

Are they waiting for us to make the first move?

Perhaps it is this work that has influenced my current work in progress (provisionally entitled The Other Side of the Sky, but it’s also determined the direction of some of my other pieces, such as those in my Unknown Quantities collection.

Why the biscuits?

And with that in mind, I give you Gobblefinger, a short story in PDF format, which came to me out of nowhere. It was fun to write, and I hope it’s fun to read. “What’s it got to do with these biscuits?” you ask. Well, all you have to do is click here to download the story, and you can find out. If you like it, then come back here and leave a comment, or put something on Facebook or Twitter.

My first novel

I wrote my first novel, Beneath Gray Skies, about 12 years ago, back in the days of George W. Bush, where I described a Disunited States of America – a world where the Civil War was never fought, and a wire fence stretched across the plains and the prairies, dividing the Confederate States of America from the United States.

In this universe the Confederacy, where slavery still existed in the 1920s, was ruled by a hereditary dynasty, but Jefferson Davis III faced problems as the leader of a pariah state, despised and ignored by the rest of the world.

Enter a young German politician who needs help staging a coup in his own country to put his National Socialist party in power. The CSA has raw materials and manpower, the Germans have technology as yet unavailable to the South. Deal struck.

“Alternative history at its finest”

Amazon review
The Bismarck airship here is a fictional hybrid of the German Hindenburg and the British R100

Along the way, a British agent, described by a reviewer as “a 1920s James Bond”, attempts to stop the giant Zeppelin Bismarck from delivering its priceless historic cargo and the Nazi leaders to the Confederacy. Real historical characters and fictional characters mingle, plot and counter-plot, and struggle to determine the future of their nations.

“If author was any more of a flaming liberal with a political agenda, conservatives could hold a raffle to burn him in effigy and sell enough tickets to pay off the national debt!”

My favourite Amazon review of any of my books!

And yes, there are political messages in here. I’m against slavery, racial prejudice and hatred, and autocratic bullies who seize power, and I hope I make this clear in the story. Of course, if you like these things, you probably won’t like this book. But in any case, I set out to write a ripping yarn, not a sermon, and I think I succeeded.

Special offer

But if you do, somehow it seems appropriate at this time for me to promote the book. I am therefore making it available for £1 as an ebook on Kindle or Epub (almost everything else). Available here (Amazon may mark down the price when they know that I am making it available cheaply, but for now…).

Payment by PayPal or credit/debit card (through SendOwl and Stripe):

  • Kindle (see here for how to “sideload”):
  • EPUB (iPads, Kobos, Nooks, etc.):

And if you prefer a “real” book…

It’s also available in paperback – from Amazon, or can be ordered through bookshop.org, that way you keep your money out of Jeff Bezos’ pocket, and you also help to keep local bookshops alive.