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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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Lemon cats & grape kangaroos – an interview with Alex Brightsmith & KJ Collard

Cubic Scats

That talented pair Alex Brightsmith and KJ Collard both make a guest appearance in my latest book (that one on the right there). I asked them about all sorts of shizz.

When did you start writing?

Do you write to a schedule, or as and when the mood strikes?

What 3 things are guaranteed to make you smile?

Who’s your favourite author?

Where do you do most of your writing?

Do you have any pets?

What’s your favourite book, and what are you reading at the moment?

eReader or physical books?

If reading and writing were banned, what would you do instead?

If your Glint story were to be filmed, who would you cast as the main character?

What 3 things (not including paper, computer, pens) would you like to facilitate a good days writing?

If you could genetically cross and animal with a fruit or vegetable what would you…

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Now Marralya had a hundred brothers, it is said, though we know only Tarrandyle, who took for his part all the land from the Shap to the mountains, leaving only the marshes of the North. He did not take it easily; he and his brothers squabbled all over the face of the world before their dominions were settled, but as they squabbled Marralya sat down in the dust and played. Her playing made the Sierra that runs like a spine across the plains, but she was only a baby then.

When Marralya came on her full powers and looked around, she found that her brothers had divided all the lands between then, even the Sierra that she had made, and left no scrap for her, and Marralya shrugged and went down to the shore, for Marralya was not like her brothers.

On the shore she found Glannot, first of men and first of adventurers, working on the trunk of a fallen tree.

“What are you working on, little man?” asked the goddess.

Glannot had never met a goddess, nor yet a woman, because the world was not ready yet for Glennat, who would come after, and he did not know what manner of thing Marralya was, but he left his work and offered her water from his flask, and explained that he was making a boat, that he might see what he could find beyond the horizon.

Marralya laughed.

“Is this wide world that you have at your feet not enough for you, little man?”

And Glannot, he said


And Marralya went to her brother, and asked that if all the land were taken she might have dominion over all the useless wastes of the sea, and they laughed, and ruffled her hair, and told her that she could have all the sea forever, and because of this two things happened.

The first is that Tarrandyle has been weak in his right hand, always, for one should not ruffle the hair of a goddess in her power, not even if she is the least little one of all ones siblings. Because of it he is known as Kerrandail, the maimed one, by all of his brothers, and by men who have no cause to fear him.

And the second is that every sailor who has ever sailed prays first and most fervently to Marralya, and there is none amongst her brothers who has so large and so faithful a host.

A little diversion in Khyran mythology, just to prove that I haven’t forgotten you. Some of you may remember Marralya from Cutthroats & Curses; Tarrandyle will be appearing a lot more often now that he finally has a name.

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The Incidental Benefits of Playing the Bass

There was a long moment of silence in the office when Cal finished his proposal. Powell had been taking notes, a bad habit in a field man, but a harmless eccentricity at his elevation. It had been a long time since anyone had made the mistake of thinking that he needed the aide memoire, but he seemed to be studying them now. Cal Turner took it calmly. It was Harry Brooks who shifted restlessly, and Harry Brooks who Powell’s gaze pierced when he finally looked up from the pad.

“Well, Brooks, what do you think?”

“What do I think? I think it’s a ridiculous risk, it’s – ”

He stumbled as he caught Cal’s eye. They’d been partners too long to deceive one another, and Cal wasn’t even trying to conceal his amusement.

“– it’s not damn funny.”

“Oh but it is. You’re protesting because I’m suggesting something that puts me at risk, right? You?”

“Me.” He said it flatly, taking none of his partner’s mood. “And why not? I’ve never suggested anything that put me at that kind of risk, not for a penny ante job like this.”

Powell raised an eyebrow at that, but he didn’t intervene. He was interested to see how they resolved it.

“I know you haven’t.” He dropped his levity, and Harry grudgingly let his hackles subside. “But it certainly looks that way sometimes to anyone who doesn’t know what you can do.”

“And I do know what you can do. And this is still crazy.”

“You might know what I can do but – ” the glint of mischief had returned to his manner “ – you’ve never played the bass … ”


Harry moved through the reception on autopilot, exchanging the briefest civilities and passing on. It was proving easier than he had expected to fulfil his own brief – to accept the damn invitation and try to look suspicious, as Cal had had it – but for reasons he disliked. Looking suspicious was the antithesis of his life’s work, but Cal’s presence at the end of the room put a note of unease in his mind that made an act unnecessary. He was exactly what he seemed, a suspicious young attaché from the most suspicious of all departments, invited in his own right and watched as a matter of course.

Beyond that nebulous unease his only concern was that his eye would stray too often to the band, but that was easily dealt with. He only hoped his opposite numbers developed migraines trying to establish a link between the randomly selected objects of his attention.

There was a hiatus in the music that made it natural to glance towards the band, and for a moment he was at liberty to watch them, an amateur five piece on their first public gig, coming together briefly in discussion before they plunged into the next piece. Cal Turner was at the back, and half hidden by his instrument, but still more exposed than Harry liked to see him, whatever Powell had said. Harry hadn’t had an alternative, and that had left him without an argument. He himself would be too carefully watched to do the job, and Cal’s lowly official position left him no chance of an invitation. The band had solved that one, Harry had to admit that much, and it hadn’t been hard for Powell to have their services offered in terms that excited no suspicion but made a refusal discourteous.

So there he was in the spotlight, where it was insane for him to be, murdering jazz standards in the name of easy listening. Harry wondered if it hurt his soul to do it, but they’d done worse things, both of them, than that. He shrugged, and turned his attention back to an innocent secretary in the crowd, struggling to see the unease that made his role so easy to play as an unmixed blessing.


Harry was on his third coffee and his fifth review of a perfectly straightforward report when Cal finally reached the anteroom to Powell’s office. His tread on the stairs had been almost unfamiliar, and he was wearing an air of restrained delight that Harry was more used to experiencing than seeing.

He glanced pointedly at his watch and asked sourly

“You finally made it back then?”

He felt a heel as soon as he’d said it, but Cal’s mood was irrepressible.

“I had to drop off the goods.”

He collapsed neatly into a chair, and Harry passed him coffee absently, knowing from Cal’s sardonic thanks that the automatic solicitude had been recognised as a truer gesture than his welcome.

Harry asked no further questions. If his own behaviour was any guide he would get no useful answers. Instead he began to apply himself, at last, to his report, but Cal allowed him no peace to complete it.

“Have you seen the tapes?”

A grunted assent did not discourage his interest.

“It went okay?”

Harry closed the report and tossed it aside, for the first time showing his own pleasure in a good job slickly run, even if the job had been so little his affair.

“It went perfectly.”

It had, though only the band’s last scene had taken place in the open street and been recorded for review. Harry recapped it enthusiastically, five men in dark clothes bumbling back and forth to their hired van, coming first with their instruments and then with amps and leads and all the unfamiliar paraphernalia of a professional gig. They had brought out power leads belonging to their hosts and forgotten their own mics, and that was before they really got started. They were clearly flying high on the buzz of performance, and even one of the security guards had allowed himself to be drawn in to their happy chaos with good humour.

Played fast, it might have had a look of circus clowning about it, but like a circus clown Harry had watched it in complete seriousness, and admired its artistry. Even knowing the men, even looking for the switch, it had taken all his concentration to see that it took only four of the band to generate so much industrious bustle, that Cal had joined them only in the final moments.

“… but I still say,” Harry concluded, “that it was an utterly unreasonable risk.”

“You’re not going to admit it, even now?”

“Admit what?”

But to Cal the pose was transparent.

“Say it.”

“You ought to, you know.”

They turned to find Powell waiting in his doorway, and Harry threw up his hands in defeat.

“Okay, you were right.”


He held out less than thirty seconds under their combined gaze.

“And nobody remembers the bass player.”

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Even London sleeps, eventually.

Kate moved through silent streets, searching, the euphoria of 2 am fading into a raw buzz of adrenaline, caffeine and too little sleep. She was somewhere near the Globe when they called in the Regent’s Park sighting, but though she reached for the radio she never answered it. John had picked it up before her hesitation showed, so she never had to explain that frozen moment staring out across the river.

They’d had nothing to run on but hunches all night, and she was past any attempt at analysis. All she knew was that the river drew her on. For the moment that was enough, and later no one was inclined to ask questions. She’d crossed the river. She’d found their man. They never asked her how it took so long to cross the bridge.

It was a flat ribbon of darkness in a sea of light, floating on the eerie glow of the wings that held it aloft. On the far bank St Paul’s was still lit up, and suddenly its brightness was framing a dancing man. He must have been leaning on one of the supports. Her instincts screamed for her to back off, but she walked on mechanically. He really was dancing, she realised. No crazed jig, but a waltz. As she reached him he bowed and in a daze she took his hand.

For three measures they crossed the bridge together, and all she knew was the mixed scent of him, the utter gravity of his smile and the pain of his eyes.

She should have stayed, she should have asked him, she should have tried to pull him from the depths.

But she had work to do, and she left him there. In the morning he was dead.

Another little something inspired by Microcosms – and another little visit from Kathryn Blake, by way of a promise that she will be back one day, she will, really, she will.

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Sweets from a stranger

Simone walked into the alley in a careless slouch, apparently oblivious to the sounds of restless movement from the shadows. Her hands tightened into fists when she heard the whisper of steel against leather, but her hands stayed deep in her pockets and she managed to keep her head down and her shoulders rounded. She didn’t drop the pretence until a nasty little laugh told her it was too late for anything she did to change the outcome.

She paused then, and turned on the three men blocking her retreat. Three was more than she’d expected, but there was nothing she could do about that. One blade. One inexpertly wielded set of nunchuks. One walking mountain, still issuing a low chuckle that might have been more menacing if it hadn’t brought to mind a certain cartoon mutt.

They seemed a little nonplussed by her lack of reaction, so she smiled helpfully, but before she could ask if they needed assistance the wannabe martial artist kicked enough brain cells into action to manage

“Well well Miss, what we got here? It’s gonna be like, whatchacallit, that thing they say about sweets?”

She kept her eye on the knifeman, the only man smart enough to stay silent, but she gave the question enough attention to frown for a moment and then suggest

“That you shouldn’t take them from strangers?”

“That it’s easy to take ‘em off’f babies.”

It was the knifeman who moved first, and being right wasn’t much consolation for her in the hectic moments before her colleagues could cover the ground to her aide.


Her sergeant had taken her formal report before he asked skeptically

“Sweets from a stranger?”

“Yes Sarge. At best rude. Possibly dangerous. Definitely something your mother should have told you not to do.”

I didn’t write for Microcosms last week because, in a fit of bravado, I was judging it, but after a day weighing the merits of other people’s tales I found I did have a response of my own. I was half thinking of Katie when I wrote it, but I changed the name when I realised that something a little Saintly had crept into her manner.

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She was surrounded.

That was bad. As an unlicensed trader Cherren’s liberty depended on always – always – having somewhere to run. Usually she had a partner to help her in that, but he was dead, and she had to live. The first day without him had been intoxicating, her senses on fire, but she knew she should have quit as soon as she had enough put by. Too late now. It was the fifth day and finally, fatally, she had slipped.

She was surrounded by large men.

That was less bad. Large men could be clumsy, and her stock was light. There was a chance she could slip between them and be lost in the crowd, but it was a chance she didn’t like to take. Large men could be deceptive. Harl had been a large man, and had moved like a dancer. That was a memory that didn’t help.

She was surrounded by large men, with large guns.

And that put the tin lid on any plans for flight. They were the Consul’s men, and wouldn’t be shy of shooting into the crowd; their guns only stunned, and any innocent bystander they caught would wake up to handsome compensation. What Cherren would wake up to was as unhelpful a thought as the memory of Harl at her side.

She was surrounded by large men, with large guns. None of them were smiling.

At last, a sliver of hope. There were squads who would have shown delight to have her at their mercy, and squads on a bounty promise who would have been quietly pleased. This squad was only bored, and for bored men a little entertainment paid large.

Cherren smiled a smile like the sun rising on Sal-Sattaran and said

“Hey boys. I have just the thing for you …”

A little something for this week’s Microcosms.


Esther Chilton - Writer and Tutor


Author DW Ulsterman

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