Members of Tindal Street Press’s first academy masterclass, including Birmingham Post writer Richard McComb, have just completed their 10-week course.
As a final exercise, Richard asked the group to take part in a “flash fiction” challenge, writing a 150-word (very) short story. The title of the piece was “It was springtime in Birmingham” and here is a selection of the students’ compositions...
It was springtime in Birmingham but winter in his heart. With its cruel determination, icy ruthlessness and malicious humour, winter was the only season that brought him to life.
That gave him the stamina to do what needed doing. But winter had swirled its last snowflake and he could feel the threat of spring in the air. He hated spring. Spring with its naked grass, naive idealism and promise of house martins dancing through suburban eaves. He hated it almost as much as summer. No, best not to get him started on summer. So this was it then. The end of winter, the beginning of spring.
That afternoon, playing in the garden after school, the children found two pieces of coal, an old hat, a scarf, a carrot and a line of stones.
The line turned down at each end in what appeared to be a grimace of disgust.
Alexa made her way up the narrow, twisted staircase of the 914 bus as it lumbered around Lancaster Circus, “Whoops” of end of term exuberance bounced along the top deck from the cluster of school uniforms at the back.
Alexa looked out at the emerging view of the trinity of Aston Hall, Villa Park and Aston Parish Church surrounded by the late afternoon sun’s crimson glow.
“Look at her hair, it’s mad!”
“Yeah, it’s like some weird bird’s nest.”
“Hey lady! I’ve got something you may have lost.”
Alexa felt a thwump at the back of her head as something hard disintegrated on impact. She reached back and felt the sticky crunchiness of a smashed egg.
Alexa reached into her bag. The yelps of laughter and triumph crashed down the stairs but were silenced as Alexa turned around and showed her West Midlands Police warrant card: “No. I’ve gotcha!”
The last time he’d walked through the tunnel a crackle glaze of ice had covered the canal.He’d tried to take her hand, its shape indistinct inside her mitten. She’d pulled away, hot tears steaming on cold cheeks. He was being immature, she’d raged. It was time to grow up, to think of the children. The children who now would never be.
He’d understood her words, not her reasoning. No rural home could offer more space than the city. The countryside is puny and suspicious, fenced and walled against curious strangers. He needs the liberty of crowds, everyday freedoms. Cafes in which to sit with a book. Galleries, theatres, the stuff of civilisation.
A goose honking at a dog on a narrow boat breaks his reverie. Emerging from the gloom of the tunnel he blinks up. The sunlit cityscape fills his vision. He had made the only choice he could.
It was springtime in Birmingham.
And hot as hell in Hanoi. On the street where stonemasons in shorts and flip-flops carved slabs of granite, big-eyed, feral kittens played in the gutter. Chip-chip-chip went the hammers while the cats rolled in the dust and looked up in surprise at the scuffed boots and weighted pack. Mango and coconut trees hedged the pavement with piles of rotting fruit, the smell sweet and thick.
The boots moved on. The sky rumbled towards dusk. The lights of cars and scooters and trucks darted between overhanging branches. The boots came upon a crossroads, a familiar gutter, and the accuracy of the stonemason’s and for the first time in their lives, the boots were lost. Chip-chip-chip went the hammers until they chimed like the bells of St Martin’s. And the enormous eyes of the kittens watched without blinking as the boots, so far from home they hurt, could walk no more.
From Birmingham I have a memory of cycling into town, through the blue blush of breeze in a warm crater of a park one Saturday.
A faint abattoir scent drifted across the waning day. The playground with its rusty, chained up swings mourned in the sullen shadow of a half undone building.
Two boys wandered, kicking vaguely at a deflating ball.
But while I stood, stilled by sadness for the broken place, the scratched, gold sky tore through the gaping wounds above. Holes, which once were people’s windows from inside their worlds, now angled the sagging light across the gnarly, worn out grass to gild the piles of unclaimed bricks.
Off a road with no postcode, through the tumbledown gap in a brick wall, a blank stretch of canal towpath overlooked what more resembled scrap metal yard than waterway.
Two boys drowned stones there as twilight gathered. A suited man approached heading North.
He squatted down by them and spoke: “And so I come to receive wisdom, sat silent by this Well of Urd. To listen, think and watch for signs that chose my fate.” The man flicked dust from his lapel.
“Think you’re lost, mate,” said the older boy. He checked for head wounds, sniffed for booze.
At once a swan rounded the bend, sampling the water’s flavour as it came. The man seemed pleased, got to his feet and followed on at paddling pace.
The younger boy summoned up courage to announce, “The sun sets later every day,” and was rewarded with a cuffed ear for his effort.
Pink flicks of blossom, ruffled from the top of a cherry tree, land and swirl on the water. The canal, only recently etched in ice, ripples with life. A train flashes past, aimed at the city. Adrianna takes her daughter’s hand and thinks of the house.
The house waiting for them. The house with memories in every stain and crack, every creak and groan. She pulls her coat tight, sniffs then forces a smile.
“Don’t cry Mummy.”
“It’s just a cold baby.”
A shopping trolley, half submerged, catches the dying sun, a cage of fire against the reeds.
“I’ll look after you.” The little girl says as she squeezes her mother’s hand.
“Yes,” says Adrianna, trying not to think of what lies beneath the circling petals.
They walk off down the towpath. He’s gone she thinks. The canal can keep him.
?More tales on next page
‘‘To be honest, I was a bit scared of you at first.” He looked surprised, then laughed. Soft. Mocking.
“Good. Message received then.”
I had to parry.
“Kind of hard to miss, with your chain-mail armour and a two-ton bull at your door. Not exactly a welcome mat, is it?”
“So why did you bother staying?”
The defensively aggressive turn in his voice made further flippancy dangerous. But what to say?
“Chinks? That’s not very …”
God, he could be so annoying.
“In your armour. Chinks in your armour.”
He looked wary now. Had he been weak?
“Well, I just figured if you’d let this amazing variety of colours and shapes and sizes slip past you there’d probably be room for one more. And there was. Good work, tough guy!”
It was springtime in Birmingham, but cloudy in her mind.
Whilst trees blossomed, birds sang and warm sun radiated, thunder and rain loomed, as she glanced down again at her horoscope.
Aries (March 20th – April 21st): “You may feel that someone at work is trying to hold you back… watch out for ulterior motives…”
Great! she thought, looking up from the newspaper, scanning the office.
Sally, the temp, sitting opposite with a nervous tic above her left eye, always flustered. No threat there. Simon. Salesman of the year. Too self absorbed to care about anyone else. Tessa, leaning over her desk, pocket mirror in hand, applying another coat of red lipstick. What a mess. No class.
Unlike Vivien. Talented. Stunning. Perfect.
Is it Vivien? she thought, eyeing her potential suspect through slit eyes.
If Vivien was trying to sabotage her career, she knew exactly what she would have to do.
Perkins rocked his black boot on the spade and felt the soil give.
The arrival of spring always made him smile, lifted his spirits. Digging became so much easier when the days warmed up and digging was important to Perkins.
He looked across the acres of lawns at the daffodils and crocuses, sporadic stabs of blousy colour. A wren bustled and chirruped in a hedgerow.
On the wind, he caught the weekday screams and squawks. They were as regular as clockwork, the hubbub from the infants’ school. Time for games. Fee-fi-fo-fum.
In half an hour, he would go to the workshop for elevenses, a slice of Mrs Perkins’ Victoria sponge, a flask of sweet tea.
But first there was work to be done.
Perkins looked back at the ground, anchored himself and pushed with his foot. The mud split open.
He was on his way: the first grave of spring.
* All the stories are the copyright of the individual authors and cannot be reproduced without permission.
For more information about Tindal Street Press’s academy masterclasses, which begin a new session next month, go to www.tindalstreet.co.uk