Redemption – contest winner

I won the Den of Writers December 2018 competition with this bleak story:


It was the hour before dawn on Christmas morning. Robert stood under a pair of bay trees at the far end of the garden and breathed deeply, calming himself. The darkest hour it’s sometimes called, but he could see the light was coming fast now, a sliver of red showing on the eastern horizon. Shouldering his duffel bag, he hurried across a lawn silvered with frost towards the house where the glow of the security light in the kitchen gave him a window on a world he’d once shared. His task took only a few minutes but the familiar surroundings, the smells, the knowledge of their presence, their closeness, had taken a toll and his eyes glistened as he strode away on the long walk back to his digs.

Robert knew Adam no longer woke early on Christmas morning to tear into his presents; the boy couldn’t share that giddy pleasure most children felt on this special day. But in an hour or two his mother, Janet, would bring him from his room and sit him in front of the twinkling lights, the fascinating glittering wonderland, of the tree in the living room. The boy wouldn’t say anything, of course, but his mother would sense the joy, see it in his eyes, feel his little body tremble with excitement.  And there, under the branches at the front of the tree he would see the new present. Robert stopped walking, closed his eyes, imagined the scene.

Janet would wonder about the broken pane in the kitchen door and why the glass had been swept up and a piece of cardboard taped in the gap. But Robert knew she’d work it out as soon as she saw the new present under the tree. She’d have been notified of his release a few weeks ago, may have worried he’d try to contact her despite being forbidden to do so. He was on probation, there were rules. Three years, he’d been inside. Causing injury by careless driving when under the influence of drink was the legal term. Coming back from the office party pissed and running over your own son who was waiting in the driveway to welcome you, that’s what it was, the reality.

Robert shook his head, clenched his fists and walked on. It was a going to be a long road to redemption.

Waffling about Six Characters….

On a forum I frequent there is a monthly short story competition. All fun, nothing serious. The competition-setter is the winner of the previous month’s competition and in November he gave us a rather complex set of rules involving “the inciting moment” and an eclectic, and somewhat bizarre, list of prompts. One of the prompts caught my eye – Six accountants. 

As a youth being dragged up in Hong Kong I’d auditioned for, and won, the part of the child who kills himself at the end of Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author. I had previously been Timothy in Simon and Laura for the Hong Kong Stage Club and the boy king Ptolemy in Caesar and Cleopatra for the Garrison Players. Pirandello’s play proved to be my last shot at fame and fortune on the boards. And so, I couldn’t resist the temptation to imagine that Luigi Pirandello had started out having as his main characters six accountants, and what his agents reaction might be. I wrote this:

“Listen to me, Luigi; we’re always on the lookout for new stage plays and this one sounded interesting. Ingenious plot, bit of sex, incest, prostitution, a potential murder and ending up with a suicide.” He put down the cigar he had been waving like a conductor’s baton and folded his hands on his expansive belly. “What’s not to like?”

“I have a feeling you’re going to tell me, sir.”

“Six accountants. Accountants! Are you crazy! As your agent I can be brutally honest. It’s 1920, these are exciting times – drinking, dancing, gangsters pursued by heroic cops, sexy architecture, ground-breaking art. What on earth made you choose accountants as your characters?”

“Well, a friend is an accountant and he tells me it’s the most exciting profession in the world. I thought I’d tap into that.”

“Your friend is an idiot. No-one, just no-one, thinks of accountancy as anything other than boring. If you put out a play called “Six Accountants in Search of an Auditor” it will be watched by three people and you will be, quite rightly, a laughing stock.” The fat agent waved his hands in the air as if declaring a goal offside. “But enough, already. I’m telling you it won’t fly like this. Never. You need to rewrite it. And no bloody accountants.”

Winter turned to spring, the trees were decked in blossom, daffodils nodded in warm breezes and the days grew longer.

“Mr Pirandello’s here to see you.” said Maria.
“Hey, Luigi, welcome, welcome. Come in, sit down. Maria, please bring coffee and biscuits.”

When they’d settled down, pleasantries and small talk concluded, Luigi Pirandello asked:

“I take it you’ve read the new version?”
“Yes, and we have a winner on our hands, my boy.”
“So, you think people will be more interested in actors than accountants?”
“Of course, Luigi, of course. They could have been soldiers or, maybe, priests, but what you’ve come up with is a stroke of genius; Six Characters in Search of an Author. Brilliant.”

Luigi Pirandello sat back, smiled and sipped his coffee. He was savouring the moment, the door to success was opening, a bright new future beckoned.

“And now the real work starts,” said the agent, slapping a chubby hand on the desk.
“What do you mean?” said Luigi, sensing his euphoria may have been a little premature.
“Editing, Luigi, editing, editing and more editing.”

It didn’t win the competition, another forum member triumphed with a lovely literary piece which the competition-setter drooled over. I realised, as I read the competition-setters critique of my piece, he had absolutely no idea that Pirandello and his famous play existed!

When I reread my submission in light of that I could see how wacky a story it must have seemed. Oh well.


Trafalgar Day

Trafalgar Day, 21 October, commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 when Lord Nelson lost his life. I wrote this piece about it:

Kiss Me, Hardy

There’s much to be thankful for this day even though my back is shot through and I’m finished. Thomas tells me the battle is won and I hope he doesn’t tell me so to soften my pain and I don’t believe he would. England is safe, I’m certain of that now.

My God how we fought today! Yes, the plan worked well but it could not alone have won the day, every man jack on this ship and on every ship in the fleet fought with the courage of a lion and without a thought for his own skin.

I’m so cold and with each breath I feel the blood spurt inside me. My pain is great but it will not last long now. They talk to me, reassure me, but I know the truth and so do they.

“I’m a dead man, Hardy, I am going fast.”

I’d feared Thomas was gone when a musket ball took off his shoe buckle. I smile now at the irony that even as I turned to seek assurance he was unhurt, a French sniper’s ball went through my shoulder and is now in my spine. I think of my dear Emma and I must ask Thomas to take care of her. I think I’ve done that but, truly, I am not in my right mind. The pain steals my thoughts.

“Take care of my dear Lady Hamilton, Hardy, take care of poor Lady Hamilton.”

They seek to comfort me, supporting me and rubbing my chest but it’s all in vain. My solace comes from the victory, and that our casualties are not as great as I feared when I determined our course must be to get in close, take them broadside. Close, so close. It was the only way to overcome such numbers. My God, the plan worked. Had it not, my beloved England would stand in peril. I’ve done my duty.

“Now I am satisfied. Thank God I have done my duty.”

I see my dearest Emma before me now. She strokes my face and brings her lips to mine. Oh, how I want to taste your lips my darling, feel their warmth once more before I go. I’m so, so, cold now.

“Kiss me, Hardy.”


Lord Horatio Nelson died during a sea battle at the Cape of Trafalgar in 1805. There is some controversy over whether or not he actually said “Kiss me Hardy” as he lay dying, attended by Thomas Hardy and others. Some believe he may have said “Kismet, Hardy”, kismet meaning fate. There are other strange theories, too, but my vote is still firmly with “Kiss me Hardy”. This is not to suggest he was homosexual, his affair with Lady Hamilton would tend to discount that. I like to think it went something like the forgoing. I’ve italicised dialogue which has been attested to by eye witnesses.





Crazy Headlines

Sometimes the headline writers just get it wrong, with hilarious results.

Here are a few of my favourites:

Miners Refuse to Work after Death     Lazy bunch!

Sheffield Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide   No! Really!

Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says   I’ll say.

Iraqi Head Seeks Arms

Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers     That should get rid of them.

Safety Experts Say School Bus Passengers Should Be Belted      Smack!

Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case        Tight fit.

Survivor of Siamese Twins Joins Parents          Revenge?

Prostitutes Appeal to Pope

Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over   Above and beyond the call of duty.

Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant      If that doesn’t work, string him up!

High School Drop-outs Cut in Half           Bit drastic!

Two Sisters Reunited After 18 Years in Checkout Counter    Damn, and I thought my local Tesco’s was slow.

Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges     Wow, gotta get me some of that stuff.

New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group

Kids Make Nutritious Snacks    I still prefer a Mars bar


Sorrow Point

A spooky little tale.




Sorrow Point

By John S Alty

Sheet lightning bloomed inside the bank of clouds on the horizon and Aaron knew there’d be a storm before nightfall. On the bayou, flooded cypress stumps threw long shadows like gnarled fingers towards the east. The only sounds were the rhythmic dipping of his paddle, the rustle of leaves in the slight breeze and the occasional slap and roil of a feeding bass. He nudged the pirogue up against a spit of solid ground and stepped ashore. A grey heron barked its indignation and lifted off.

It was one of many shacks in the vast swamp, crude structures erected by fishermen who came for the catfish and bass; it would provide shelter from the gathering storm. Shutters were lowered over the un-glazed windows but the door was open. Aaron could make out a plank table, two chairs and a single bed frame with no mattress, a dirt floor littered with crushed fast-food cartons, rusty cans, yellowing paper.

Darkness had fallen quickly but lightning lit the shack, shadows danced on the clapboard walls and the thunder rolled. A fetid smell faded in and out as though there was something rotting nearby and the breeze was wafting it around. Aaron tried to push open a shutter but the rusted hinges and catches defeated him.

Something about the bed frame caught his attention and he went over to it. Clipped to the rails at each end of the bed were handcuffs. The bare boards under the bed and the wall beside it were stained black. Aaron sensed a presence; he stepped away from the bed, eyes darting, nostrils tightened against the smell and his hand felt for the comfort of the filleting knife on his belt. A figure appeared in the doorway; a tall man wearing a rain slicker, water dripping off the brim of his steel safety helmet, his face in shadow. Lightning flashed and Aaron glimpsed an expression of deep melancholy, of utter despair.

Then the figure was gone and Aaron lurched to the doorway and ran for the pirogue. By the time he got to the Fin ‘n Fur it was nearly midnight but the bar was still open; a couple of diehards nursed shot glasses and the owner sat behind the till reading a newspaper.

“Gimme a whiskey, Pete.”

“Hey, Aaron, you OK?” He lifted a bottle of bourbon and poured. “You don’t look so good.”

Aaron took the glass in both hands and drank half its contents, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“I pulled into Sorrow Point before the storm hit, sheltered in an old shack. Weird shit goin’ on, really spooked me.”

“There ain’t no shack on Sorrow Point, you got yourself turned around somehow.”

Aaron took a folded chart from inside his jacket, laid it on the counter, stabbed at it. “That’s Sorrow Point, right?”

“That’s Sorrow Point but there’s no shack there. The only thing at Sorrow Point these days is a memorial to Lizzie Blackmore.”

“The shack was there, dammit.” The drinkers looked up and Aaron lowered his voice to an urgent whisper. “I was in the fuckin’ thing, and…” He shuddered.

“Look, young Lizzie lived with her papa, he was a roughneck on the oil rigs. When she didn’t get home after school he figured she was with a friend but when it got real late he called the Sheriff. First light they organised a search. Me and a couple guys took the swamp east of here, checking the fishing shacks. We found her in the one on Sorrow Point, handcuffed to a bed. I ain’t gonna tell you what was done to her but it was bad. And the smell; I’ll never forget it.”

“But you said there was no shack…” said Aaron, but Pete held up a hand and went on,

“I got some guys together and we went out there and took that shack to pieces, carted it away. Lizzie’s papa built a monument of stones. A month later he fell to his death from the drill floor of the rig. I don’t know where you were tonight, Aaron, but there ain’t no shack on Sorrow Point.”

Den of Writers

Well, The Word Cloud has bitten the dust. For some times its demise has been predicted and now it’s gone. The problem wasn’t lack of interest but dodgy hosting.

Now the good news – from the ashes of The Word Cloud has risen a new forum – The Den of Writers. Many of the Cloudies have taken up residence there, along with a lot of new faces. It has all the good stuff from the Cloud – Chat, critiques, competition and so on.

Why not join in the fun?