Here are a few examples of previously published short stories, flash fiction and other prose pieces. I've experimented with many different genres, from literary and speculative fiction to supernatural stories and romance. One of the things I most enjoy doing is translating my experience of other art forms, such as music, visual arts or theatre, into words. Several of these extracts reflect that process.
Our hotel is a crumbling maze with no running water. It gurgles and drips from the ancient plumbing but does not stream, and we go out into the sunshine barely clean. The coastal day is hot and windy, like a breeze from a hairdryer, but the city is no desert. We take our long spindly golden door keys and hide them in our bags where they twist and stretch like the stems of exotic plants searching for the light.
Although we’ve been awake since 4 am, we walk the hills of Barcelona as we wait for it to be night again. Every apartment balcony is laden with heavy flowers, every chaotic corner teems with cars and bikes in profusion, people chattering into their cellphones, hurrying in every direction. Thee city breeds words and pictures, gives birth to songs. The warm air tastes of ambrosia, and the very dirt on the street shimmers and glows.
We eat lunch, and the cool spines of lettuce crunch under Caesar dressing as the heat haze distorts perspective. In this crazy, super-fertile city even the architecture seems to be growing and twining and changing as we watch. We walk some more, and Gaudi’s cathedral wild with stone foliage, fruit, dripping wax, impossible animals waiting to spring, beasts lurking among the saints and the virgins, and the suffering Christ with enormous eyes.
This brief extract is from a travel piece remembering (among other things) Barcelona in May, and was published in December 2017 in The London Reader. You can read it in its entirety - along with the rest of the issue - for free here, or buy the print edition available from January 2018.
Nobody sees him dive.
He is a quick white arrow; the water heals around the wound he makes. He drops into the dark; the fires in his throat are out. He swims like a fish, cold-blooded in the weeds.
His hair flows like seaweed, wide twisted ribbons of kelp. His eyes are blind clouded pearls. His skin browns and darkens. His flesh grows spare; curious creatures watch it flake away into the sand until there are only the bare bones of an old story. If you came upon him then you would find nothing but a figure of a man outlined in bone within a tumble of darkness.
The moon cannot find him. She slips down slowly and presses her changing face to the water. She floats facedown on the current like a dead balloon, but she cannot reach the deep dark where her man is sleeping.
In his sleep he makes the water dream new noises. When the tide changes the currents wake him and watch as he slowly puts on new flesh. His muscles move; his eyes fill with the sea. His skin is gold.
Nobody sees him crawl ashore, naked over island rocks. His voice dries in the sun. He sings himself awake.
This vignette won first prize in the Flash Fiction section of the Biggar Science Festival's 2017 writing competition, here in Scotland. The competition's theme was "The Powers Of Nature". It uses the landscape of my home as its setting, but it's really about creativity.
The television reproached her with its blank grey face; she’d never bothered to get that repaired. She preferred the pictures in her head. She shivered again, reached over to turn on the radio. White noise. She twitched the tuner, looking for warmth. Something which spoke of heat, of dry relentless sun, somewhere far from here and the gathering winter cold and damp. Something which spoke of earth baked by the sun to a harsh desert crust. But there was nothing.
Eilidh’s tea had grown cold. It was dark. With a slow sigh, she turned off the radio and climbed the stairs to her bed.
Dappled light scattered itself across the forest floor as she ran, following the dark grey shape still just in sight. Branches caught at her clothes, roughness bit into her bare feet and her breathing was uneven, the cold air rasping at her throat as she forced her muscles to work harder. Her heart hammered at her chest under the thin nightgown. Why was she wearing her nightgown? Her long red hair streamed out behind her like a flag in the wind.
With her hands tightened into fists she made herself run faster, make more effort, gain on the great beast that loped on ahead, his long stride easy and effortless, his breath leaving plumes of vapour on the frosty air. She was gaining on him now, getting closer; she could almost touch the rough grey back, hear the rhythmic panting as he moved. The trees were a blur, the scattered moonlight nothing but a smudged milky glow as she reached forward, made one last effort, throwing herself down hard on the path. Her hands closed on the animal’s rough pelt and she held on tight, letting herself be dragged along a few paces, then colliding with a stump and crying out in pain as he twisted, growling, out of her hands and was gone.
Face down in the fungus and the leaf mould, the rotten stumps of last year’s fallen trees, her body feebly convulsed as great racking sobs tore through her bruised chest, her right hand closed tight over a single handful of coarse grey wolf’s fur.
Her eyes opened. The sheets were tangled, the covers half on the floor. Her nightgown was soaked in sweat. This can’t go on, she thought as she fought for breath against the gale of weeping. These dreams. These visions. Overheated and bedraggled as she was, she climbed from her bed and went downstairs to the front porch, stuck her bare feet into Wellington boots.
Opening the door, she walked out into the night’s chill, past the pine wood, down the track and through the meadow to the loch beyond. She walked to the water’s edge and the still surface was like glass, a dark mirror reflecting a world of thirst, of dreadful thirst amidst plenty.
This is an extract from "Nightfall", a short story about dreams, death and dementia set in the Scottish Highlands and published in 2015 by Scottish arts magazine Northwords Now.
There is no door to close. Just space, scaffolded, bathed in mud and builder's grit. The air rolls in, clouds of steam boiling from impervious stone, steel rods singing down into the sea.
I can already smell the tang of a fire burning at our bare hearth as the rain sweeps through the rafters. Our boys climb ladders lashed to girders, laugh at the water which sticks their shirts to their backs.
Around our house's heart the rooms are growing shells. Inside these plotted squares we'll live our story. The windows wait outside, roped against the wind.
This was a prizewinning entry to the UK's 2012 National Flash Fiction Competition back in 2012, and was also published in the Story 106 compilation published later the same year by Scottish publisher Wordworks. It recalled our family's experience building a new home on the wild north-west coast of Scotland.
A woman walked in wastes of ice. She wrapped herself in furs and sang to raise her spirits but her breath turned to snow, and the crystals hid the beauty of the land.
Then a man came out of the mountain. His eyes were merry and although he was naked he wasn’t shivering at all. The woman sang, and her snow song melted on his skin.
He slipped the pelt from her shoulders. “It’s your weather,” he smiled, and showed her how to sing so that the notes didn’t freeze. With the warm winds came Spring rains. They walked naked in the hills, where flowers grew.
This flash fiction was published in the Story 106 compilation published in 2012 by Scottish publisher Wordworks.
“How does it feel to be such a liar?”
Misha is caught off his guard, as she means him to be. There’s a catch in the rhythm of his breathing, a flicker of his lashes. Tension creeps imperceptibly into the muscles of his neck and shoulders. His blue eyes seem to gather force and he almost catches her in his swift glance, but she’s looking downwards again, eluding him.
He leaves a pause, regroups. “I’m sorry?”
“I wondered where the truth is in all this, that’s all. You inhabit these dances as though you’d made them yourself. Last night I saw you change in the course of an evening from something which was all sweat and sex to something which was barely physical at all. Tonight, I’ll see you dance a broken puppet and then change yourself into a priapic elemental…”
He notices that Rose is becoming breathless. Flushed. Speaking quickly. Her boldness is exhausting her courage, he thinks. Wait, and let her run out of steam.
“….and I wanted to know, I really wanted to know: where do you live in all this? You change, you alter, you’re never the same. I’ve seen you dance so many times, years and years, and the things you do on a stage are so beautiful that I can’t tell you….I can’t describe to you how they make me feel. But I can’t find you. It’s like a hall of mirrors. Dozens of reflections, always in motion. None of them real. Persona after persona after persona. Why do you hide? Where do you go? Where do we find you?”
Her eyes meet his at last. He sees they are unnaturally bright, deep green and shining, luminous as a pool lined with trees, reflecting dappled sunlight. They are full of her question. Full of desperation, but also full of intelligence. He knows she is on the edge of tears, and he relents.
“I’m always here,” he answers gently. Something, he’s not sure what, makes him reach out and touch her cold hand for a moment. Then he starts to explain, slowly at first, how his art grew out of silence, how a reclusive boy learned to find a voice in movement, how dance gave him the freedom to express things for which there were no words. Gradually he grows more animated. He finds he is enjoying himself. And enjoying this girl, with her steady, serious face, her great luminous eyes.
“The shapes of the roles, the princes, the lovers, the heroes, the beasts, they were….vessels? Shapes through which I could move. Landscapes I could wander into, live in. Listen: when I am the rose, I don’t concentrate on making myself into a flower, a physical thing. I think of the scent of the rose, how it moves, how that girl in the chair, dreaming… how she perceives it, how she remembers it, how it will make her remember this day all her life. And I dance that scent - I inhabit it, I make it follow me through the air. While you’re watching, the scent of the rose is me. I bring it alive, and my rose is different to Nijinsky’s rose or Nureyev’s rose, you see? Because I am inside it, wearing it, making it live.”
This is an extract from "Shapeshifter", a romance set within the world of ballet. It was published by the late-lamented adult fiction site Ruthie's Club, whose illustrated stories about love and sex ran the gamut from the romantic and comic to the erotic.
The music rose from the speakers, haughty and pitiless, sharp as frostbite. I hadn’t heard this part before; it was beautiful but reeked of pain, an ice-palace pulling itself into shape and form as I listened. The sounds were muffled, distant, but I could hear enough to know its utter cold, its complete and splendid inertia. I listened, motionless, spellbound. And then I heard him.
It was a cry, or something like a cry; the sound of someone lost inside the abstract architecture of the ice palace, his breath misting the transparent walls and balustrades as he wandered through its endless rooms. He was lost, and as the music went on I heard his mounting panic as his search grew more desperate. My hand flew to my mouth. He was crying, sobbing now, and the frozen walls were closing around him, confusing him, the corridors twisting, the doors and windows changing places as he moved.
It was a child. Somewhere inside the music there was a child, calling for help, trying to find his way out. I was sure of it.
This is an extract from "NA/578934", a piece of speculative fiction about a lost boy, originally published by American small press magazine Fictitious Force.
Dazed And Confused
When James plays, it seems all artifice is flaking away like burned skin. He waits stage left, the lights throwing his sharp profile into greater relief, poised as an eagle waiting for its moment to dive. As the chord sequence grinds back slowly to its root he moves, the first chaotic burst of notes shuddering from the Marshall as he shakes his wings unfolded and launches into the void to wheel and bank on the thermal uprush. The guitar is alive under his control, sweetly distorted, loud and pure, a sinuous stream of singing energy, rhythm, melody.
Caught in the cascade, he makes it look easy; watching, I am drawn into his world, this smooth, effortless illusion where technique is invisible. Not until I'm inside can I see the fractal interlacings of the structures he builds. Only then do I notice how calm he is, even and silent at the heart of the display. With a controlled eroticism that stops the breath, he catches the audience in his hooked beak and whirls them through his palace of sound, through ice and fire, dropping them gently on their feet before disappearing into silence, shadow and shocked applause.
Once, after we had become lovers, he tore into a casual blues with sixteen bars of Byzantine gold; heads turned, and the fallen notes dropped into my lap like a token. "That was for you," he mouthed silently. Dry-lipped, I missed my cue and took refuge in laughter.
Extract from "The Real Thing", a short story about entropy, illusion and a guitarist, published in Scottish arts magazine Northwords Now in its earlier incarnation as Northwords.
All prose © Clare O'Brien