. . . Alex Brightsmith

I want to tell you a story.

No, scratch that . . . I want to tell you a whole lot of stories.

I want to tell you about mistrusting, mistrusted Kathryn Blake – traceuse, pickpocket and cat-burglar – the girl who got into Kimine’s machine on the ground floor, and smashed it all to Hell.

I want to tell you about the Lady Waiting, and how a young First Rider and a cadet with her arms in minor set out to challenge a corrupt court, a mad preisthood and the gods themselves in their search for a lost princeling, and find themselves on an epoch changing journey in her name.

I want to tell you about Mirabella of the Untouched, and what happened after she failed to commit suicide-by-contact . . .

        . . . about Cal, the only survivor of the Birmingham starfire incident, who becomes mankind’s ambassador in one last, desperate effort to persuade the Qr’nt to make their stand . .

. . . why you should never shake hands with a man with a star shaped mole in the webbing of his right thumb . . .

                                        . . . and why one of the founders of Neptunian science endures such a thoroughly unsatisfactory housekeeper.

Undsciplined as I am, you may expect that this will take me quite some time.  Whilst I’m getting there, here are some short stories, teaser fragments, and random musings.

You can also find me on Goodreads, where you’ll mainly find short posts on words and writing.

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Mist by moonlight

There are a few sights that will stay with me always.

The first time I saw, really saw, the Milky Way, and my naked horror beneath it.

The first time that I saw a landscape lit only by the full moon – but I’m lucky with that one. It was long ago, when one had to travel to find somewhere dark enough to be flooded by that silver light. The sight was a joy and a delight to me, and the ghost of that delight has been a comfort to me under crueller moons.

The first time I saw dawn across a snowfield, all golden light and lilac shadows, and that, too, was an innocent delight to me. That snow was only an oddity, an extreme of variation, a thing to find harmless joy in. And oh how the memory of that joy has tainted every such moment that I have snatched from the darkness, these last years, wondering what evil might lurk within each new ‘harmless’ circumstance.

And now, this. There is no moment of joy in this, for I am older now, and if I have not learnt wisdom – well, I have had some crammed into my resistant skull, anyhow. And so I take no artist’s delight in this, but see it plainly, and in terror. Beneath the cold moon, between banks piled deep in blue-shadowed snow, the mist is rising.

The mist is rising. I did not think it could happen so soon. They were supposed to be weak but … the mist is rising. I cram myself deeper into the inadequate cover of some dying ferns, though I know that the instinctive reaction will not save me. Their eyes don’t work that way. What will save me now is the charms, the right charms, the charms that were given to the children to remember, ages upon ages ago. But oh, it is so dangerous, because I’m thinking of the past, and of the errors that we made in our ignorance, and the ways in which we were fooled, and even to think one of the false charms now – the charms that were given to men who thought themselves wise, men who wanted to pin down magic the way their brothers pinned out butterflies, useful fools – these charms will draw on that which I must ward against, will invite the attention of That which dwells amidst the mist. Concentrate on the old charms, the true charms, let their words run through my mind as the wind runs through a prayer wheel, swear it, by the red rowan and the white, by the blood upon the thorn, by the iron when it is hot, by the iron, by the iron, by the iron …

The litany sooths me, but my fear remains. They can’t take me tonight, not me, not tonight. It is, perhaps, not so bad to be taken, for myself (by the iron, by the iron, by the IRON in the BLOOD – that’s Their thinking there, no thought of mine) but I have news tonight, news and understanding, and I must take it home. It’s the iron, the iron that is our birth right and our blood, that we must take and spread again across the lands that once were ours. It was given us once before – given us for a toy – by One who knew what men can do in idleness and jest. And we took it and we played with it, and we girdled the world with our toys, and They could do no more than sprinkle false charms in our dreams. But there, even the thought of the false charm draws Them – by the rowan and the thorn, by the blood, by the iron –

And It is gone.

There is only the deep snow and the cold moon, which is dangerous enough, and I shall go on, carefully now, I and my secret, which must be secret no more.

We grew earnest, you see, that was our error – though we had reason enough for our earnestness, I’ll grant, for we had done harm enough in our play. But we grew earnest without knowledge, without wisdom, and we no longer played with iron. We took our position seriously, and took our girdle off the earth, setting iron only where we must, stepping lightly – but if we do not girdle the earth with iron, then Others will girdle it, and in crueller bonds.

They have made their start, but we have yet time.

Another one for #MidWeekFlash. Still behind. Still catching up.

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“Perseverance, that’s what these children lack.”

I can still hear my father saying it, and I still flinch at the bitter contempt curdled into the word children. I thought perhaps I’d have forgotten, by now, but I hear his words more and more these days, just as I see him more and more – in the so familiar pattern of creases spanning my own brow, in the grizzling of my beard and in the silver that spirals into my patriarchal mane. Yeah, me, a patriarch; I wish that he could see it, though not so earnestly as I wish he could see this community that I lead, every scavenged spar, every upcycled cable, every field claimed by hard labour from the shifting silts of the estuary.

But still, even as I curse him, sometimes I wonder: just how many times might I have given up along the road, if I had not had the memory of his contempt to goad me on?

Well, it has taken me about every trick I know to make that five sentences, as the prompt requires (this prompt, go and see), but maybe if I persevere I’ll do it cleaner, by and by?

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Frozen beauty

I wrote this for the #55wordchallenge (you should probably go and look at the prompts, and the other responses), so it’s only fair that I should start with the 55 word version, though it took a turn for the bleak when I pruned it …

A field of snow. Bare trees tracing prisoning bars against the dead white sky. I couldn’t do this anymore; loving him was not enough. I said it every day.

Against the clean lambency of the winter sky, waiting life, sleeping hope, a clean, brutal beauty. I saw it too late; our love was already dead.


But there’s also a rather more optimistic version. It got a bit carried away with itself, considering the terms of the prompt …

Sean didn’t stop when I stopped, didn’t even turn to ask the cause. Why would he? I was always stopping, and rarely managed any more to bite back the complaints that came so readily to my chapped lips. I’d been grumbling half aloud as I walked – what was I doing here, here on this frozen lake, here in this frozen state, here where my face hurt from the cold? I knew the reason, the reason walked buoyantly ahead of me, graceful even in snowshoes, childishly delighted in the snow and the season and even in the freezing air, puzzled and hurt by my litany of complaints. I’d thought if I followed him I could learn to love what he loved, but all I saw was a barren plain, bare trees throwing a tracery of prisoning bars against the dead white of the sky.

I looked again, no longer searching for beauty, just raising my eyes from the aching snow underfoot to prove to myself what I knew was true … and I stopped, stopped dead in my tracks. I wasn’t looking at bars, or dead tracery. Against the clean lambency of the winter sky I was looking at waiting life, sleeping hope, a clear, brutal beauty, as beautiful as an ancient face is beautiful, as beautiful as the clash of trumpets is beautiful.

Sean walked on, oblivious, and I was glad, just for now, to hug the fragile secret to myself.

Carefully, easing my aching calves, I followed, trying to step as he stepped, hampered now by the need to tear my eyes from the suddenly lovely sky. Between the snow shoes and the horizon, it was little wonder that I managed to stumble into Sean, stopped at last to wait for me.

He fielded me carefully, and my new joy ebbed away as I saw the pain in his face.

“You’ve decided, then?”

I didn’t understand, couldn’t frame a reply. He swept an arm around to indicate the lake and its amphitheatre of trees.

“Don’t think I don’t know how you hate this. I hoped, with time … I know you hoped too. But I saw your face. You couldn’t be so happy here unless you knew you were going home.”

It was a knife in my heart to have hurt him so, the same sharp pain that my first unwary lungful of winter air had been.

This is home.”

He pulled away, disbelieving.

“I never wanted a martyr at my side.”

How could I persuade him of what I had so recently learnt for myself? I couldn’t deny I’d been ready to martyr myself, hadn’t succeeded in hiding my horror at everything he loved.

“My darling, I’ve seen the light.” I pointed down, deep down, meaning the ice beneath the snow, the clutching waters beneath the ice. “I’ve always trusted you; trust me for just a while, and you’ll see it’s true.”

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“It’s been too long; I’m not sure I can do this anymore.”

“So make it a pastiche. No need to scrabble around for something new, that wasn’t your brief.”

I looked at Zachary long and hard, but I couldn’t find any hint of amusement or of mischief. That almost made it worse. Bad enough that he wasn’t taking my problem seriously. Ten times worse that he should suggest a pastiche, when he knows that for all the genres I’ve tried, comedy has never been my thing. As well to ask me to write something in French – at least I’d know where to start. But my only challenge was to write something, anything, after too long away, and the blank page leered back at me unhelpfully. I stared at it a while longer as silence settled back amongst us. A pencil whispered unhesitatingly across some luckier writer’s page. Pages turned, big crinkling pages. I glanced round the table again, hoping forlornly for inspiration from those familiar faces.

Zachary’s challenge had been brevity, and he was scowling at his sixth draft, the fifth having been longer than the fourth. Alex had been given a first person brief, to break her usual reliance on omnipotence. If she was worried by the looming deadline, it didn’t show. She was flicking casually through the newspapers. Newspapers? Something new? In the back of my mind, a tendril doubtfully unfurled.

Across the desk, Alex dropped her feigned interest in yesterday’s news, and she too began to write.

The Monday Mixer is back, and for once it hasn’t brought out my evil side. Follow the link to find out what it’s all about.

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In a corner of my soul, I yearn to grow peonies.

A neighbour does, and nothing else. In winter the garden stands brown and clean, until thick shoots pre-empt the spring, lush verdancy following them. The buds grow slowly, pale, fat, taunting, the seams splitting early to show a glimpse of the velvet sleeping within. Then one day they have flowered, full, rich, deep burgundy – for a week, for a day, last year only for an hour, until the fickle spring smashes them with hail or rain or jealous winds. And then the green stands, silent, patient, not even waiting, only there, invisible in its familiarity.

I’m not the kind to wait in patience for a day of glory, or to bear the hail that destroys the longed for blooms. I cram my bare earth with cheap bedding, defiant colour, glossy cover, so I may always have cheer, though I shall never have glory. And that’s okay, in its place, I’m content with that … except that in a corner of my soul I yearn to be the kind of person who will grow peonies for their hour of glory.

*Finally* I managed to write something for Miranda Kate’s #MidWeekFlash. Go look at the others (as long as you promise not to come back just to tell me that prompt was a rose).

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The flat square knot

We begin with a flat square knot.

But that’s not right, is it? We begin with the cloth – a small cloth, a square cloth, a cloth worn so thin that I have to guard it carefully. That old rag? Yes, I do need this old rag. I’ve got thicker cloths and more absorbent, better cloths in every way … but today I need this old rag.

Drape it over the pudding bowl, pull the fabric tight, and now, the twine. Let me tell you a secret about the twine. I used to put it on so carefully, right up under the rim of the bowl, snug under the overhang, enlisting my husband’s finger on the knot to be sure it could not slip, always wondering slightly that my mother could tie the knot alone. One year it clicked into place. The bowl tapers. Of course it does, any fool can see that, it’s a bowl. What that taper means, though, is that if you loop the twine around a little lower down, you don’t need to keep any tension on it whilst you tie the knot. It’s going to tension itself, in just a moment, so – tie the knot now, and pull the cloth taut.

And now the folds. No chaotic topknot, not now. I used to do that, once, almost in defiance. I’m calmer now, almost meditative as I fold the cloth. One corner all the way over, and now its opposite, all the way back. No need to tie this one, let it hang. Two corners left. Take them both and cross them over, a simple knot. Now bring back that corner you left to hang, draping it over your half tied knot, and finish tying the double knot – there. Neat and square and flat. As tidy as a hospital corner or as my mother’s laundry pile. It’s calming just to look at it, somehow.

But that’s not the end. I told you, we begin with the knot. Now we add our own touch. Two more lengths of twine, a single knot in their middle … a cross of twine … a cradle for the pudding, to lower it in to the water, to fish it out. No curses in this household, my household, no balancing the pudding on ladles, no scalding ourselves on cloths. The knot, that’s my mother’s, and it’s soothing and proper and right. But the cradle, that’s ours – and that matters too.

So I got this little notebook for Christmas, and decided it was strictly for flash. Started rather promisingly on Boxing Day with this, um, whatever it is. Not quite a story. Not quite the truth. But after all, flash for me is always all about exploring places I never meant to go.

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Love finds a way

The coalscuttle gleamed softly in the firelight. I sat back on my heels to regard it, my pleasure in the job tainted. It was everything I’d imagined, but still … I shrugged it off. It had taken over an hour to bring a uniform brightness back to the brass, and a lot of my irritation had been buffed away with the tarnish. It wasn’t Andy’s fault. It wasn’t mine, either; I hadn’t any reason to know that the coalscuttle that had seemed such an elegantly practical item to me would strike my husband so differently.

It was clutter, he’d said. It was just something to keep clean. I wanted to turn our home into a labour camp.

I’d been sure that he’d love it. I’d been hurt, I’d been shocked. That’s no excuse, but perhaps it explains why I’d answered as I had, and of course that had driven him to say … I stood up abruptly, as if the movement would break up the chain of memory. We’d said what we’d said, and slept apart, and breakfasted in silence. It was only as I laid the fire that afternoon that I’d calmed down enough to see my way to making the best I could of things.

So I polished the damn coalscuttle. At least I could prove that I didn’t expect Andy to keep it clean; if that didn’t bring him round I’d find some excuse to pass it on. My brother, I thought, could probably be persuaded to develop a lifetime’s desire to own one. I looked at it once more, gleaming in the firelight. If it came to that.

By the time Andy got home I’d polished more than the coalscuttle, and there was more than the firelight to set it gleaming. He was civil, but he barely glanced around the room; it might as well have been lit by arc lights as by a dozen candles. Maybe candlesticks were just something to clean too. I gritted my teeth and served the dinner I’d planned. We hadn’t come so far to fall out over a coalscuttle – at least, I hadn’t thought so. By the end of the meal I was starting to wonder. Even when Andy offered to take out the plates he went stiffly, and what remained of my facade crumbled. When I heard his footstep in the hall I realised my eyes were brimming; I grabbed up a napkin and turned to riddle out the fire. It didn’t need it – Andy must have made it up whilst I fetched the dessert – but anything to keep my back to him.

I added a few lumps of coal blindly, my eyes filmed by the tears I was determined not to shed. I wiped them furtively and took two deep breaths. Then I blinked. I’d been staring blankly at the coalscuttle, and I realised in the same moment that there was a smudge of coal dust on the handle and that Andy had settled behind me. I reached out almost absently to buff the mark away, but his hand closed gently on my wrist before I could reach it.

“It doesn’t matter.”

I half turned within his embrace.

“It matters to you. I … I should have known it would.”

He kissed my cheek where it was still damp.

“You shouldn’t have to work round that.” He took the napkin from my hand and buffed away the mark himself, then dropped the cloth guiltily. “I’ll work on that.”

I kissed him back.

“You shouldn’t have to.”

He mumbled stubbornly into my hair.

“Will though.”

As some of you know, I’ve recently been given custody of the Birmingham Writers’ Group Twitter and Facebook accounts (no, I’m not quite sure either, but it seemed like a good idea at the time, and it hasn’t gone horribly wrong yet). So what do you want on Twitter, I asked. Prompts? Tips? Members’ news? All of the above, they said. So I’ve been throwing out some pretty random prompt words, and it occurred to me that anyone who’s not familiar with my usual response to prompts might think that the words were excessively random, that I might not be taking my role quite as seriously as I might. I figured I’d better play along. Yesterday’s word was coalscuttle.


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Author DW Ulsterman

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