Writing Whimsy: The Forest

When I see her, my breath catches and for a few seconds I forget to breathe. When I do, it condenses from my lungs like a steam train, blocking my view of her for a second.

She winds her way through the ethereal naked trees towards me, seemingly unaware of the intense winter cold that bites my nose with every breath.

I didn’t realise she was a ghost at first. She seemed so…solid. As real as I am, as real as the forest we share in space if not time. She wasn’t spectral and wearing floaty drapes don’t follow her. I can’t see through her or anything, you know?

It wasn’t until I’d worked up enough courage to talk that I noticed the odd thing about her. At first, I didn’t see her every day, but when I figured out her route and the times she walked down the forest path that intersects with mine, I made a point of being there.

God, I sound like some sort of stalker, don’t I? It wasn’t like that, honestly it wasn’t. She was…well, okay, I’m going to be honest with you.

Oh, boy. Right. Let me start again.

She was simply the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. Long blonde hair down to her waist, easy and relaxed walk, long legs and arms, wonderful body. And yes, I looked at her body, all right? Shoot me for having hormones and being a teenager.

I caught a glimpse of her eyes once, tilted in an Oriental upsweep, and I was lost. Beautiful olive green eyes I wanted to dive into and drown. Eyes I wanted to grow old staring into every night.

I know, I know. I hadn’t even talked to her, and I was head over heels. Don’t roll your eyes, were you never seventeen and in love for the first time?

Anyway, I worked up enough courage one day to walk down her path and made sure we passed. I saw her gliding towards me, a hundred metres, fifty, twenty, ten, oh god FIVE, and everything I’d thought I’d say to her over the weeks vanished somewhere above my head and wouldn’t come back. My head buzzed and my eyes swam, but that was it. Big nothing between the ears.

I knew she saw me walking towards her. I saw her eyes flick towards me from fifty metres away, and she stopped for a second, hesitated, one elegant foot coming forward and down slower than before, that was all. Then she continued at her normal pace, head down, eyes and face covered by that golden corona. I saw her eyes dart towards me a few times, then away again. Her perfect mouth was set in a line of…determination? That was how it seemed to me then.

Five metres away from me, and I managed to squeeze air back into my lungs and one word through my larynx. “Mmmmmorning.”

God, I’m a klutz with girls!

She stiffened, but, of course, she didn’t reply. Well, beautiful girls never pay any attention to me. Ugly ones don’t either, for that matter. Somehow, I’d hoped she’d be different.

My heart breaking, we passed without saying another word, my head down now, studying the snow covered footpath, lost to my own dying dreams.

That’s when I saw it. The odd thing about her.

She didn’t leave footprints.


I stopped in my tracks and looked at the narrow footpath, blinking a few times to make sure I wasn’t imagining it. The ground stayed footstep free.

But…I had watched her coming towards me, watched her walking here a dozen times. I turned to follow her, hurrying to catch up.

I saw her head come up and turn half towards me, aware of my approach. Her pace increased, and I did not attempt to keep up. I must have looked like some psycho stalker or something.

But I caught up with her enough to see it: The way her feet floated four inches above the ground. If that wasn’t enough, when she walked off the path and through a tree without slowing, there was really no doubt…a tree that wasn’t there when she was alive.

Astonished more than afraid, I turned for home, taking glances back over my shoulder all the way, expecting her to re-appear.


“I saw the ghost again mum.”

“Again? In the same place?”

I nod and bite my lip, unwilling to say what happened.

Mum frowns. “Something wrong, sweetie?”

I push the blonde hair back from my face. “Kind of. I think he fancies me.”


Writing Whimsy: Branches

It was three days before they found the body.

For those three days, a trauma-specialist police woman sat in my home and drank my tea and ate the food I offered her without comment or breaking a smile. For those three days, I jumped every time the phone rang or the wind blew the old tree against the bedroom windows upstairs.

For a while after we moved in, I asked Alan to trim back those branches. I’d lie awake while he snored beside me, and I listen to them tickle and scratch at the glass. I sat through endless nights of storms when their fingers and nails beat relentlessly against the window, threatening to come in. I’d always be just on the verge of waking him when the wind would stop and the branches would cease their endless chatter and drop back to a monotone. But after a week or two I grew to like the sound of the tree…to listen for it, wait for it every night to carry me into sleep. Sleep…and then other things.

For three days, I sat and prowled the house, moving from room to room like a living spirit. Waiting for them the find the body.

The police suspected me, of course. Even though it was me who told them he’d vanished and didn’t come back after the first night, even though I made no attempt to make our marriage look wonderful.

Yes, I told them, we’d argued. We argued a lot. No, it didn’t mean I killed him and dumped him somewhere. Things had been difficult, yes, but we were working on them. After all, lots of couples argued and very few of them killed their spouse.

The only respite I had from the hard and indifferent stares of the policewoman who sat on my couch was outside in the garden. Circling the tree that breathed against my upstairs windows was a bench and a just-glimpse of the sea from the right spot. I sat there and waited, listening to the creaks and whispers of the branches above me.

Sometimes, more often now Alan was gone, the whispers would form voices and words, and I’d smile at their private jokes. I had to be careful now, they told me. Don’t let them see any relief when they come to you. They’re very close to finding him, but don’t worry. Lean back into me and we’ll be together.

And when I did lean back, I felt a sensuous tingle down my spine and a lover’s breath along the inside of my thighs, a flutter across my stomach. Hard nodules of bark pushed into my spine and kidneys and I squirmed against them in delight. I bit my lip to stop myself calling out, feeling my body starting to react, my breath quicken. I pulled myself forward a second or two before the policewoman came out looking for me, telling me what I’d already been told by something two hundred years older than her and infinitely more devious.

They’d found Alan’s body. Not on the edge of the forest where I’d left it, but deep in its heart, miles from any path. I found out later – but not from the police – that there was no blood left in his body at all. They must have taken all of it, just as they said they would. There were no injuries and no evidence of how he got there. But I know how he travelled, carried from branch to branch and stem to stem, each leaf taking a sip of his life before passing him along.

The policewoman left me on the bench, listening to the tree above me, whisper and whisper.

And when it asked me to go upstairs to my…to our bedroom…and leave the windows open, I laughed.

Writing Whimsy: The Watchmaker

I pull out my pocket watch and check the time while they wait for me to reach a decision. The forest was gone outside of the narrow gold circle of the fire, only the faintest suggestion of the looming canopy around us, hemming us in. A branch snaps behind me, and some of them jump and turn towards the sound, their sleepy eyes suddenly alert and wide-awake.

I sigh for effect, as though doing this against my will. “All right then. One more before midnight, and then off to the tents. Get some sleep…if you can sleep after this story, of course. I’m sure some of you have heard this one before and will roll your eyes at me. In fact, I can practically guarantee you will. What you don’t know


is that this is the place where the story started. Urban myths have to start somewhere you know, just like everything else. And your first question is going to be: How do I know this is where it started?

(I hold up the pocket watch, letting it spin in the firelight and shoot splinters of light into their eyes)

This watch…they found it on my friend’s body. What was left of him, that is. It was the only thing he could grasp at as he…ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself, I think.

Let’s go back a step. That parking lot where I left the van. Anyone notice the gate and the padlock? We’re locked in right now…all night. If you want to leave this forest before dawn, you’re going to have to walk out.

It didn’t used to be there, that gate and padlock. The parking lot has a beautiful view of the lake when the moon is right and the sky is clear. Used to be a great spot for a midnight road trip with the…well, shall I say, the partner of your choice.

(There’s laughter from the circle around me, glances shared and held-hands squeezed. I look around at the darkness, coming closer now the fire is shrinking)

Yes, sir, it was a beautiful spot…until he came to the forest that night.

Just a young couple they were, not much older than most of you. They parked up and started to…get better acquainted with each other, if you know what I mean.

(There’s laughter again, more subdued this time. Some of them are starting to roll their eyes at me; they know where this is going. Or they think they do)

So…let’s call them Jack and Jill. Jill is starting to get acquainted with Jack, and Jack is letting her. The radio is playing in the car, some cool jazz they both like. Doesn’t matter, neither of them is listening, anyway, right?

But Jill goes a little too fast for Jack, and he sits back, suddenly a little timid. Jill is cool with it; she knows they’ll get there in the end and doesn’t press him. They sit there for a few minutes, listening to the radio, enjoying the night.

That’s when the newsflash breaks in. The Watchmaker has escaped.

(There’s a murmur from the far side of the fire of oh, God, not this hoary old story. If only my young friend over there knew what happened next)

They’d never had a prisoner like The Watchmaker at the Hellman Institute for the criminally insane. Fifteen people he’d murdered before they caught him.

(I point over the nearest ridge)

By the way, it’s only three miles that way if anyone fancies a late night stroll.

(There’s laughter at that)

Fifteen people…and those were the ones he didn’t eat. All of them impaled from the back with the boat hook he wore on his left hand. The Watchmaker. A pocket watch left at every scene. Fifteen of them. All hand made by a craftsman, all unique.

(I pull out my pocket watch again. This time every eye is riveted to it. I flick it open and snap it closed again like the teeth of a hungry man. No one is laughing now)

They finally caught him with victim number sixteen. Just sitting there, pocket watch in one hand, licking the blood from the hook where his other hand should be. When the cops caught him, he was smiling, just as happy as he could be.

For ten years he sat in the isolation ward at Hellman’s, never saying a word. I heard that nurses called him the cat. He’d sit there, licking the back of his hand or his arm for hours. And when he did move, he was utterly silent. He’d stare at the interns who brought him his food without blinking. And then he would pounce on the food and tear it apart with his teeth.

And this was the creature who was free in the woods that night. Suddenly, the trees seemed closer and Jack begged Jill to get the hell out of there. She didn’t hesitate; she gunned the car out of the parking lot and back to civilisation in record time.

(I sit back. There’s some eye rolling going on again. These punk kids think they know it all. If they only knew what I have coming for them)

It wasn’t until Jack got out of the car at home that he saw something glinting on the backseat. A pocket watch, of course,

(I pull it out and snap it shut again, making everyone jump)

much like this one.

But that’s not where the story ends, you know. The cops sent a unit out to check the parking lot that night, after Jack and Jill called it in. They never found all of the cops body. Just the one hand, clenching a pocket watch. This pocket watch.

I took it from his hand the next morning. That cop was my friend. They put up the gate and padlock not long after. It’s too dangerous to be in these woods after dark, they say.

The biggest manhunt in the state never found The Watchmaker. Some say he moved on. Some say he’s out here still. If he is, he might come here tonight, looking for his pocket watch.

(The circle shifts uneasily. There are groans at the old story, none of them daring to believe it for a minute)

So sleep well, my young



something is not

right. Something sharp against my spine, but no real sensation of pain. Not yet. Something is not right. There’s a curve of metal sticking out from my chest where something not right shouldn’t be, a


curve looking like a boat hook and covered in flickering firelight red


and then I start to screamchoke as my throat fills with blood and with my final fading sight I see a gnarled and filthy hand come around from behind me and as the kids scream and start to scatter, the hand plucks something from my failing failing grip, a disk that glints with dying embers of the fire.

Rambles: Decompressing

At the place where I used to work until a week ago – a school – I was told just before Easter that I would be made redundant by the end of September.

I wasn’t the only one: It was supposed to be a surgical operation to remove a few members of staff from the school so the rest could survive…but someone hit an artery, and the bleeding hadn’t stopped when I left last week. It wasn’t a pleasant place to work for those last few months.

For me, the time since Easter has been a long and stressful slog, a hard jungle journey with no certainty of a successful end. A few weeks ago, I cut my way through the last thicket and came out on the other side. And last Friday, I left the place I called “work” for the past fourteen years without looking back.

For complicated reasons, I’m not able to start work at my new school for a month. So I have a month off, a month to “rest and regale myself after the long journey.” (To quote Robinson Crusoe)

Working in a school, I have a week off every six weeks (tough life, huh?), but this is the first time I know I’m not going back to the same problems and same faces. When I go back, it will be to somewhere new.

I can’t tell you how liberating it is to know I never have to set foot in that school again unless I want to. All week, I’ve been dropping my wife off at the school (she still works there) and the whole day is mine to do with as I please.

Let me say that again: A day to do with as I please. I could drive to Wales and back, or go to the beach and chill for a few hours. Go see a movie. Do some laundry. Any damn thing I want.

And it feels amazing. The months of tension, of not knowing if I’ll have a home by Christmas, or where that home would be, have gone. The tedium and stress of going somewhere where I’ve been told I’m not needed is gone. The past fourteen years of the same routines have gone. No more lunchtime at the same time every day. No same walls, same ceiling, same people. I didn’t realise how oppressive and depressive it all was until I left.

Since today is the first day I haven’t had any chores (and it’s not been raining), I went for an hour long walk this morning. Normally, I would have been sitting at my desk, staring at the day and wishing I was out in the sun.

Today, I was.

Writing Whimsy: Little Red Riding and the Hoods

Wary, not expecting trouble, but ready for it anyway, Red eases herself silently along the rough path through the woods, staring hard through the shifting trees for any sign of danger. So far, she has seen nothing moving but shadows and dancing patterns of sunlight, but she knows she must be close. She can almost smell him, some uncanny feeling that sharpens her senses to a stiletto.

Something snaps behind her, a twig or a branch, and she spins instantly, twisting the movement to include drawing her knife from its hidden sheath. She crouches, looking back down the path, but there is nothing there but the slumbering forest, silent but for the soft breathing of the trees around her and the low whisper of the thick canopy far above her head.

For a few minutes longer, she stands motionless, watching the path and looking back through the forest, the colour high in her cheeks and her mouth parted in a snarl.

Eventually satisfied no one is following, Red sheathes the knife again, burying it deep in a pocket of her cloak, its touch reassuring. She clenches the handle until she can feel the warmth of her touch burning along the cold blade.

She comes to a tree and a branching of paths, one she has been instructed will take her to where she needs to go. Not marked in any way she would have noticed if she hadn’t been looking for it; but when the instructions were clear enough, so were the signs and the directions.

She smiles grimly to herself at the path she must take, the danger that will creep round her now at every step past this point. She grips the knife anew and thinks to herself, Let them come.

All that matters is getting to Wolf, and she knows she’s getting closer with every second and pace she takes. Now she can really smell him, a ripe and primal smell of unwashed fur and animal heat that permeates the forest.

Still, despite her caution, they still catch her unawares. A hundred paces along the path, a man steps out of the foliage ahead, completely hidden until he appears.

He raises his head, and with a gasp, Red recognises him and her nerve breaks despite her resolve. She turns to flee, her mission, her determination, forgotten in that terrible long instant of seeing his face.

But it’s already too late. Another figure – a woman this time – steps out of the forest behind Red, blocking her retreat as effectively as the man ahead.

Beaten before she has come close, Red closes her eyes and releases a sigh. She licks her lips and addresses the figure ahead, half-turning to keep them both in sight as they drift towards her.

“I heard you were working for him, but I never believed it…not until now, that is. How long have you been doing grunt work, Hansel? I can’t believe you came down to this after you managed to beat The Witch.”

The man sneers and pushes back his cap, exposing a long white scar along his cheek that terminates in the sightless white egg of his left eye. “Times is tough, Red. Me and Gretel gotta do what we can. And da Witch wus a long time ago.”

Hansel comes up behind Red and pushes her roughly forward. “Move it, bitch.”

Red turns towards Gretel, her eyes going wide when she sees the chewed remains of her face. Gretel sneers at her reaction. “See anythin green, Red?” She laughs at her own joke, an unpleasant rough sound that sends sandpaper chills down Red’s spine.

“Did Wolf do that?”

“Yeah. He ain’t so easy to sneak past as da Witch.” Hansel prods Red again. “Move it, I ain’t gettin any younger here.”

Red stands firm, resisting the pushing. “I’m here to see your boss.”

Hansel turns away from her, confident enough in his abilities that he doesn’t care about showing his back. “Yeah, we knows.”

Red stumbles, shocked. “You…you knew I was coming?”

“What da boss don’t know ain’t worth knowing, capice?”

Red turns back to Gretel. “How did you know I was coming?”

“Giant killer Jack told us.”

Red snarls. “That little…I’ll murder him.”

Gretel laughs again, throwing her head back. “That’s the spirit, girlie.”

They turn off the path and through undergrowth, travelling a route that Red gives up trying to remember after a few minutes, all the time with a single thought repeating in her head: I still have the knife.


They come at last to a tree with a hollow at its base and stop. Hansel turns to Red and regards her with the cold albumen of his left eye, Gretel moving beside him. “Boss is in dere. You got five minutes, he says, then we comes and drags you out. Geddit?”

“Got it.”


Reassured by the solid feel of the knife against her side, Red tenses every muscle in her body, ready to sacrifice everything for the next few minutes alone with Wolf. She ducks into the hollow of the tree, descending a few steps. She takes a sharp turn and her eyes widen.

A plush apartment with low black leather sofas awaits her, soft uplighters at each corner casting an ambient gold glow on the low ceiling. In the centre of the room, smoking a cigarette through a holder and wearing a smoking jacket, Wolf awaits her, his legs folded casually at the knee.

He sees her enter and immediately folds away the magazine on his lap and drops it onto the thick oak table between the sofas. “Ah my dear, Red, how pleasant to see you.”

He removes the cigarette holder from his lips and purses his lips, pushing a hazy cloud of fragrant smoke around his head.

“My, what a nice apartment you have, Wolf.”

He smiles and tilts his head graciously. “All the better to welcome you, my dear. May I get you a drink?”

Red moves towards the sofa as Wolf rises to the bar. “Martini with olive, my dear?” he asks.

“How did you know that?”

“I know a lot of things, my dear Red.” He expertly mixes and pours a smooth martini from a cocktail shaker and delivers the glass to the table in front of Red. He folds himself on the opposite sofa, crossing his legs and waiting for her to speak.

Red tenses, her whole body tightening in anticipation. She reaches into her pocket, feeling the cold steel between her fingers.

Wolf examines his claws, apparently unconcerned at her silence. “I suggest you bring out the knife before you stab yourself with it, Red. We can at least be civilised and finish our drinks before you attempt to impale me.”

Red frowns, but brings the knife out, slowly, placing it on the table, still within easy reach of her fingers. She stretches and takes a sip of the drink. “That’s a good martini.” She sits back on the sofa, considering her next move.

“All the better to relax you with, my dear.” Wolf slaps his thighs. “Now, to business.”

“Yes.” Red leaps forward and snatches up the knife. “You seem to be working under the wrong assumption. This isn’t for you.”

Wolf raises an eyebrow. “Really? Then I have been misinformed.”

“Indeed. You see my grandmother is old, but the miserable cow refuses to die. She’s extremely rich, but until she’s gone, I’m stuck with my wasted drunk of a mother.”

Wolf looks at the sharp knife, throws back his head and howls with laughter. “Oh, my dear Red. You needn’t have bothered with the blade.” He flicks a long tooth with a claw. “Not while I have these.”

“Oh, goodness. What big teeth you have, Mr Wolf.”

Wolf smiles only the way a wolf can, with a face full of teeth. “All the better to help you with, my dear. Another martini and we can discuss my terms?”

Writing Whimsy: Missing Person

Missing person Incident report

PC 945, Brown S.

Claimant: Talbot, Tony

Missing Person details

Identified only as “Muse”

Sex: Female

Identifying marks: None

Age: Approximately 16

DOB: Not known


Additional details

Claimant appeared at Inklesham branch at 01:45, 14th April 2016. Desk officer PC 186, James, D. informed me of arrival and escorted claimant to back office for interview (See attached transcript, audio recording FN-2187).

Claimant seemed easily distracted and took time to settle. Very distressed over loss of female teenager “Muse”. However, Claimant was unable to provide physical details beyond gender and general age. When I inquired as to why this was so, Claimant said he had never known much about her except in general details. Claimant said he was a “writer” and as such, Muse was often flighty and absent for long periods.

Claimant became worried when Muse was gone since he began what he termed “Book Six”, a period some two years ago. Muse had been out of contact through what the Claimant called “Numerous Drafts” and made repeated and distracted comments about “Trunking it and starting over three times.”

Claimant had tried to contact Muse over several periods over the two years, but Muse had remained out of contact.

I reassured Claimant that a general search for Muse would begin in the morning, but unless he produced specific details of appearance, such a search would be limited. Claimant stated that all Muses were different and he would know his when he saw it.

I informed Claimant that we would update him as the investigation progressed.

Claimant left the station at 03:04, 14th April 2016.

Rambles: The Hotel

I pull into the hotel after too long driving, too tired to continue. The instant I walk through the door, I realise this is a mistake. The décor is 1960s, worn brown carpet, faded wallpaper. The place looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in a decade. I’m about to turn around and leave when the owners appear, a pale old couple as decrepit as the hotel they run.

So, seeing as I’m so polite and British, I can’t possibly leave now.

I find myself in their hotel lounge, the thick brown shag carpet put down before man landed on the moon and never changed since, the panelling on the walls wood, the room dim. The male owner regales me with an endless, droning monologue from which it’s impossible to escape. And since (for some reason) my room is in the lounge, I can’t go to bed until they do. Clearly this man hadn’t had a conversation since 1970 or so, and tells me every flat and dull detail about everything he’s experienced since then in exquisite detail. Including the affair with the barmaid and that thing with the chicken, thank God they didn’t press charges and he was drunk anyway.

And being polite and British, I smile and nod at the right places during this endless threnody and don’t reach down his throat and rip out his tongue like I really want to just to shut him up. That would give him something to talk about (or not talk about, as the case may be) when the next customer mistakenly arrives.

Then the dream starts to fracture, and I start to wake; it’s then that I realise that this man’s endless drone is actually my minds interpretation of my wife’s snoring. Bless her.



Writing Whimsy: Mother’s Day

He fetches the photograph from a drawer he keeps locked and passes it you without looking at it. His hands shake while he does it.

It’s a picture of woman, young, brunette, short hair. Her mouth is frozen open and she’s looking down at the child holding her hand, caught in the moment of talking to her daughter, her daughter looking up, long hair only a six-year-old could love, the same shade as her mothers. It’s dusk, the end of a beautiful day of walking and being with your child, a picnic in the woods perhaps. They’re standing in the courtyard in the folly on The Scar, the mother’s green coat flipped back on one side by the immobile wind, her left leg rising to take a step, the daughter echoing her movement.

All this, you see in an instant, then forget it. It’s the woman behind them you who pulls your focus, the woman standing there in the blood red coat, white hair streaming over her right shoulder. Your eyes are pulled to her face, the eyes that are nothing but black holes, the mouth a feral snarl, the hint of shark teeth. You follow her eye line to the back of the head of the woman in green and fear for her; nothing good is coming her way.

Worse, you know the story of this picture. The old man who refuses to look at it, the one who took it, has told again and again how the woman in the red coat wasn’t there. He saw nothing but the woman and child and the courtyard of the folly.

Then it gets worse. He will tell you, if you push him hard enough, what happened next. How the woman in green encountered the woman in red. How lucky she was just to lose a finger as her daughter was snatched from her hand by a bloody shape who vanished. Others have been less lucky, their hands and arms torn away.

The man in front of you will tell you he took the photo, then looked away. In that instant, the girl was gone and the mother screamed her name. The man looked back up, and saw only the mother standing there.

The girl screamed a second later, from somewhere in the woods behind the folly, an impossible distance away. That scream was loud enough to be heard five miles down the valley, a scream cut off in the middle, the crashing silence awful in its finality. The people living below The Scar knew that scream too well: The woman in blood had come again and took another daughter.

It was always girls, you see. Never boys – the woman only craved girlmeat.

She had struck before over the years, five times, but never again after this. This is the only photograph of anything resembling what went on up there. There are no copies remaining; and this is the last man alive who remembers the woman in blood. The other copies, the ones in newspapers and the darker corners of the internet, have been destroyed by fires or lost.

There’s been nothing for a generation…until the folly was destroyed last year and houses strung along The Scar. New houses with new people who know nothing about the woman in blood. New people with new families.

One of their daughters went missing last night. No screams this time. She was in the back garden of a new house, playing with her new toys, when something very old reached for her.

You stare at the picture in your hand much more closely. It’s been magnified, analysed, interrogated and reproduced a hundred times. It’s taken years to track them all down and patiently destroy them or remove them. You rise towards the old man, smiling, thanking him for his gift.

For no one has ever noticed you, hiding in the woods, watching the man take the photograph, watching your beautiful mother in her red coat take what she needed.

And as your hands close around his wrinkled throat, you tell him how much you appreciate the gift of the last photograph. As his eyes widen then glaze over, you tell him how she will adore it when you give it to her on Mother’s Day.

Rambles: An Unfortunate Anniversary

In my work in progress, a character says, “Some days you don’t forget, no matter how long ago they were.”

4:20am, 24th August 1990.

There’s a knocking on the door of the house where I’m sleeping – an aunts house. Insistent and persistent. Barely awake; then there’s a figure at my bedroom door, unmistakably a policeman. For a second, I confuse him with my cousin (also a policeman).

My brother is dead. Car crash.

First thought might be an odd one, but here it is: Oh. Is that all? You couldn’t have waited until…like…six in the morning to tell me that? It takes me a second longer to process the real meaning.

The start of a long day, a long journey home by taxi. My dad howling like a wounded and caged animal; my mum said she heard someone call out her name at about 12:20am when it happened.

It happened around 12:20, but it took a few hours to track us down – my brother’s car was new, and the paperwork hadn’t caught up yet. He was racing on a wet road – slippery enough to kill him. Here’s something else: If he’d done it now – antilock brakes, traction control, stability control, airbags, crumple zones – he’d have probably walked away with a sore head and a story.

I’d only just started to learn to drive as well – the date on my learners licence was the 25th August, 1990, when it arrived later. First thing I asked my family was if they wanted me to carry on.

I’m a very cautious driver, as you can imagine, even now. Driverless cars can’t come fast enough for me, to be honest.

My brother never made it to twenty-one – he was three months short of that milestone. Me? All this happened five days after my eighteenth birthday. I’m forty-three this year.

Twenty five years ago. It’s a long time to be dead, twenty-five years. Never got the chance to marry, have kids, grow old.

Drive carefully, folks.


Review: The Handmaid’s Tale



In a harsh dystopian America, women are stripped of all rights…

It’s scary how prophetic this story is. A coup overtakes America – most members of Congress are killed in a terrorist attack and the constitution is suspended. Fundamentalism takes over, a fundamentalism that regards women as nothing. The reduction of women to non-citizens is done by the simple process of checking their bank accounts. If it has an F in your gender field, your account is frozen. And who, these days, carries cash?

So women aren’t allowed to read; they aren’t allowed to drive; they aren’t allowed money; they must go with their bodies and hair completely covered. They are split into castes that denote their position by the colours of clothing they wear. Women don’t exist without a man to act as a proxy.

Does any of this sound like a Middle Eastern society? Interesting if it does, because the fundamentalists running America are Christian. The subject here isn’t religion; the subject is fundamentalism, the corruption of religion.

This dystopia has a deeper problem as well – a catastrophically falling birth rate. The most fertile women are shoved into the role of Handmaids – inseminators, for want of a better word (artificial insemination is deemed immoral). In a cold and clinical scene, we see the process through the eyes of the protagonist, physically stuck between a wife and her husband in a symbolic and utterly passionless union.

The story is told from first person, and we only have the un-named protagonist to guide us. And we know she’s an unreliable narrator, frequently recounting events and then back-tracking to tell us what really happened.

We never discover her name. She is merely “Offred”, literally “Of-Fred”, nothing more than the property of her male owner and an inseminator for his wife. (Since this is a complete patriarchy, men cannot be sterile; only women can be so imperfect.)

There are complications when the wife, hungry for a child, sets Offred up with the chauffeur, and the husband, breaking taboos, tries to get to know her (intimately) better. For his purposes or just to make Offred’s life easier, we never discover.

There are times when we feel Offred’s sanity start to slip, and we slide along with her, travelling through disjointed flashbacks – sometimes in the middle of a thought. It’s disquieting to feel like you know her so well and then feel her reason falling away.

Attwood has a beautiful descriptive style of writing, throwing in marvellous images that work brilliantly (“I walk along the gravel path that divides the lawn neatly, like a hair parting”). It’s a world, despite its grim nature, that the narrator sees in vivid colours – the reds of the Handmaids, the black of a car, the green of a dress. However, Attwood skips on the punctuation of dialogue except when it suits her, and it can take a few reads to figure it out sometimes.

It’s an engrossing story, and one well worth reading. It took me along for the ride and never dragged or lost my interest. It’s a story not just for feminists or women, but for anyone who thinks and reasons.