MA Distinction in Professional Writing.
BA(Honours) First-Class in Creative Digital Media with Creative Writing.
HNC Business & Management.
Juggler of all of the above with a full time day job.
Little Red Riding Hood Detective Story.
As he listened to the words of the broken father, Detective Porter could see through a small gap in the kitchen door. The girl’s mother was hunched forward on the table, shoulders shaking with the force of her tears. Mr. Hood reported the events coherently, vehemently, with half an eye on his wife and his hands clenched in front of his chest.
‘I know something’s happened.’ He spoke with a voice hoarse from worry. ‘She always comes straight back and never after sunset.’
As Porter closed the door behind him, the muffled reassurances of the man could be heard even as the wife’s sobs increased. He thought of his own wife at home. She would be stoking the fire now with one hand on her pregnant belly, keeping his dinner warm and watching out of the window for his return. Waiting, just like the Hoods.
He turned his collar up against the wind and shook his head. She could be anywhere. It was dark and the forest was vast. Still, he had to try. A girl was missing. He mentally walked through his notebook recalling the father’s statement, guilty mind straying with relief from time to time as he thought of his own kids safe in their beds.
His torch beam a welcome companion, Porter began walking the route Little Red Riding Hood would have taken to reach her grandmother’s cottage. It wound through the thickest part of the forest, sheltered by trees on both sides to emerge in the south by the river. He walked with wide eyes, searching for any sign of the girl.
Deep in the forest, the beam highlighted the unmistakable prints of a wolf. It was a large one that was for sure; paw prints as big as a fist. Intelligent too, he realised in horror as it changed course to follow a second set of tracks.
These feet were small, the indents light: a child’s. Little Red Riding Hood. She had walked this way and so had the wolf, nose to the ground, silently stalking her. A wolf attack then. Is that why she hadn’t gone home?
The sound of the river thrashing in the wind grew louder as Porter passed the huntsman’s cottage. He smelled fresh food and his stomach growled. For a moment he thought about going in, warming himself by the fire. Then he remembered the look on Mr. Hood’s face. If it were my kid I wouldn’t stop ‘til I’d found her. He pressed on, the tracks taking him deeper into the forest until they faded and scattered by the riverbank. Damn wind.
The door was made of wood and chafed his knuckles as he rapped.
‘Mrs. Hood? Are you in there? It’s Detective Porter.’ He heard movement.
‘Come in. The door’s open.’ The voice was raspy with the disuse of the elderly. The room was dark, stale and had a repulsive smell. Familiar but he couldn’t place it, almost like hung meat and compost, or rotting wood in autumn. It clogged his throat and made his eyes water. A figure lay sprawled on the sofa in the corner, blankets piled up in a lump. A skinny arm emerged and gestured toward him. Porter moved forward, distracting himself from the smell by taking out his pen and notebook.
‘Did Little Red Riding Hood come to visit you today?’
‘Today? Can’t say she has.’
‘Then you haven’t seen her at all today? You haven’t been out?’
‘In my condition?’
‘No. Well I’m sorry to have to tell you that she’s missing.’ He tried to question the old woman but she just kept talking nonsense with a big smile on her face. She wouldn’t know whether the girl had been today or not.
The smell was getting to Porter.
‘What big ears you have!’ The words slipped out before he realised.
‘All the better to hear you with, my dear.’
‘Right. What big eyes you have!’
‘All the better to see you with.’
‘And what big hands you have!’ Big hands but skinny arms. Something niggled at Porter but he couldn’t put his finger on it. This was useless that was for sure and he couldn’t take any more of that smell.
Gulping fresh air once the cottage was safely behind him, his head pounded and an uneasy feeling settled in his stomach. Something wasn’t right.
He retraced his steps looking for more signs of the girl. Porter knocked on the huntsman’s door and the men talked. It wasn’t good news. The huntsman had seen Little Red Riding Hood that afternoon.
‘She was on her way to the old woman’s like always whistling to herself, that red cloak draped over her shoulders, always the same. I’ve warned her plenty of times before. The forest’s no playground. There’s wolves out there.’
‘I saw tracks earlier. They were following her. Big prints–’
‘Then she is in trouble.’
Big prints, skinny legs. Things started to become clear in Porter’s mind.
‘Wolves. They have big paws but skinny legs right?’
The huntsman nodded. Porter froze. How stupid he had been. Big hands, skinny arms; big paws, skinny legs.
Porter spun on his heels leaving behind the scent of fresh stew and all thoughts of his own family. The sound of four heavy footsteps echoed around the forest as the men ran to the old woman’s cottage, weapons in hand.
The huntsman kicked the door open and both men reeled at the smell. The lump of blankets jerked upright, bonnet askew, big ears pinned back and lips pared. Bloodstained lips. Porter moved forward as he spoke, pistol in hand.
‘What big teeth you have!’
The wolf lunged, hurling the blankets aside to reveal a red cloak underneath. The pistol fired, the huntsman swung his axe, and the wolf opened its bloody jaws and growled.
‘All the better to eat you with.’
The Folly of Icarus.
Icarus is pacing again. The Labyrinth is truly our prison. The very air is close and we are stifled by the scent of its dark hedges. I feel every breath as a pine needle; each stab a longing for clean air and sunlight. Even as the Labyrinth encloses us, the sea encloses it and the Minotaur at its centre. The hedges rise higher than I can see.
I try to focus on how we can get away but my son’s pacing presses too hard against my mind. He is pale, his eyes charcoal holes rimmed with torment and exhaustion. I am not sure how much longer he can go on. I give him most of the food but still he weakens; the fear has taken him over.
The Minotaur snorts in the distance and stomps his feet always. I picture him, horns first, making his way towards us and I wonder how far we are from the centre. I pray it is far.
The food is gone. Icarus lies hunched and pained, his breathing shallow. The Minotaur’s steps become louder. I try to push my way through the hedges and find our salvation. Within the hedges are larger leaves and stronger vines coated with wax.
My hands are bruised and torn but nothing deters me now. I work as Icarus sleeps. We cannot get through the hedges but we will rise up above them and leave the Labyrinth and its Minotaur behind.
Icarus helps me now. He does not speak but copies my movements. His skin seems brighter, tinged with hope. Fold and weave, wrap and wax. The wings take shape. I do not show him my fear. Fold and weave, wrap and wax. The sound of the weaving cannot hide the Minotaur’s footfalls as they grow nearer and Icarus trembles as he works.
The wings are finished. I force Icarus to stand and run. We practice flying, climbing some way up the hedges then gliding into the darkness between them. The wings hold together well. Icarus learns fast with renewed hope. We will fly.
The Minotaur stomps louder and I know in my gut that the horns are but two hedges away. I dare wait no longer. I warn Icarus about the wax. I tell him to stay low, close to me and close to the sea, lest his wings melt in the heat of the sun. Oh the sun. I tilt my head upwards and imagine its kiss. We climb.
My arms throb and my nails are chipped to bloody splinters, but we are ready. Even above the Labyrinth the air is dull and lifeless but my heart lifts as I see how close we are to the edge and to freedom.
I hold Icarus steady by the back of his neck. He sways and I balk at how thin he has become. I look back at our prison, at the twisted hedges and the shadows between them. The Minotaur looks up and I catch a glimpse of a brutish snout and large eyes, abhorrent on a man’s body. He bucks, kicks his feet and sticks the hedge with his horns.
I turn Icarus away before he sees the monster. I remind him to stay close, and we lean unnaturally forwards, spreading our arms.
The air chills me and the breath is forced from my lungs as I leap into its embrace. My eyes water and already my back aches with a dread pulsing. I hear Icarus beating his wings to my right and the Minotaur releases a man’s cry through a bull’s jaw.
My heart hammers then beats to a lighter tune as I look back and see the edge of the Labyrinth disappearing behind me. Icarus laughs the real laugh of a boy. My body feels stronger, wings and arms working as one. I stretch forward, anxious to be home, longing to see my wife again. The sea appears, first thick and unholy, and then turns the clearest blue.
Time passes. How much I cannot say. The Labyrinth erased all sense of hours. I am warm for the first time since our exile. Icarus shouts and I watch as he flaps harder across my path then turns upward, risking a salute.
I tremble as I see a yellow cast on his wings – the sun. The very sun that I longed for. I chide myself for my greed as I signal him to fly lower, but he does not understand. He flies higher still.
My eyes cry real tears and I am helpless as the first traitorous vine untangles itself and drops my son to the sea below. One wing breaks free as his struggling body crunches the surface. It lingers a moment before following him under.
I circle until my shoulders can no longer beat and my heart no longer take the pain, until the sun burns my back and my tears are run dry, but no trace remains of Icarus.
The Red Yo-yo.
I always remember that day when I see a red Yo-yo. Or sometimes I remember it just thinking about a red Yo-yo. In fact, it is the Yo-yo I remember most. It was wooden, about the size of my palm back then. I was nine, or maybe ten. Actually I’m not quite sure. I was at primary school anyhow. His name was Martin. His name, that’s what started it all. Fartin’ Martin. It was his Yo-yo.
‘Fartin’ Martin he’s got weird eyes.’
They were such a light blue they were almost white and stood out wherever you looked.
‘Fartin’ Martin never gets first prize.’
I don’t remember the rhyme but they always sang it to him, every break time. He was the tallest in the class. He was so tall he’d been walking with a stoop since he was five. He had really long arms, so long that when he played with the Yo-yo it would scrape and scuff along the floor. That’s why I remember it – the irony. It was such a ridiculous image, his long arms flailing about and the Yo-yo scraping and snagging against the concrete. His tricks never worked.
He dragged that Yo-yo around with him everywhere. The string had gone yellow, the red paintwork chipped and faded with use. He used to nibble on it and it made me feel sick, gleaming with saliva when he stood it on his desk in class.
He used to play in the same spot every break time and I always wondered why he didn’t hide. The chant would start.
‘Fartin’ Martin’s a baby with a dummy, Fartin’ Martin always cries to his mummy’.
He would pretend to ignore them and hunch even lower than normal as though he could hide in his jumper. He’d wind the Yo-yo up slowly, reel, twist, reel, and then hold it at his side. It was almost an invitation for them to try to take it.
‘Steal his dummy. That’s right, take it away.’ I’m not sure what they used to say, I didn’t watch. I wasn’t in that gang. They used to kick him and pull on his long sleeves and push him into the bushes.
That way the teacher couldn’t see what you were doing and you didn’t need to hold back.
They never hit him where anyone could see, only the areas concealed beneath his too-short trousers and outgrown tops.
He was much taller than me but he didn’t scare me. He was like a giant baby, always dribbling, always crying, and always staring with those weird eyes. He gave me the creeps.
That day he didn’t shuffle backwards and cry and curl up into a ball like always. Maybe he’d finally had enough. That day someone pulled the Yo-yo out of his hand a little too fast. The string unravelled and the two boys scuffled. Somehow Fartin’ Martin managed to keep hold of the Yo-yo and he smiled in disbelief at winning the battle, spittle hanging through gappy teeth.
‘Fartin’ Martin lost his teeth, but we’ll never ever leave him in peace.’
I suppose a childhood of being taunted builds up in you to something more than hate. I don’t really remember what happened that day but I know Martin grabbed the boy and wrapped the Yo-yo string round and round and round the boy’s wrist, reel, twist, reel.
He gripped the faded red body of the Yo-yo and ran as hard as he could, pushing his way through the crowd with surprising strength. The boy fell down and was dragged along behind him as he ran. The boy shrieked and everyone shouted so loudly that the teachers heard and came over. Martin was sent to the Headmaster and the boy got a cut around his wrist from where he was dragged along. After that the Yo-yo string was red too.
I always remember that day when I see a red Yo-yo. Most times I remember it just thinking about a red Yo-yo. Or when I look at the red scar on my wrist – it reminds me of the red Yo-yo string.
I always wonder where it came from.
A cast iron sink top dominated the room, black as the moss-coated cottage that housed it. Meagre sunlight struggled through the small window, glass dulled with age. Everything in the cottage was dulled with age, and gloomy, even its owner. The kitchen sat on the south side, the warm side, and the whole room sweated grease.
The kitchen had a smell that altered with each inhalation. Sometimes there was the scent of fresh pastry, sometimes raw meat. An outside breeze occasionally worked its way through the loose bricks and rotted window frame, carrying the scent of old pine trees and leaves. It could be the smell of soap, although not often anymore. In winter, garlic and onions hung on strings scenting the air, and roasted vegetables or soup lingered to warm in absence of the sun. In autumn, freshly baked bread and coffee perhaps. In spring you might smell herbs and ale. But in summer the kitchen died. Fresh food wouldn’t keep, hot food didn’t appeal; nothing could thrive in that sweltering cage. On very hot days an unpleasant waft of decaying food, forgotten on the table or lost under cabinets, would creep over you. The smell of heat itself would choke you, the small window not sufficient to freshen the air. In summer the kitchen died.
In summer he spent as little time as possible in that coffin, venturing in only to use the old kettle or fetch something from the store cupboard. The kettle whistled with a sound so shrill that only the dog could love it.
Each time the kettle boiled he would tut and shuffle into the kitchen as quick as he could, groaning as he took it off the heat. In summer, her once treasured floral handkerchiefs existed only to mop sweat from his brow as he stood over the stove. The little gas ring would puff as its fuel was taken away and the kettle would phwwfrrrr to silence.
The mugs all had broken handles or chips but they never gave up. He always poured the water in too much of a hurry; eager to escape the kitchen again, but never scalded himself. He was permanently ready for tea; crooked elbow at the right angle for pouring and stirring. He kept the teabags in a metal tin with Oxo printed on the front. The paintwork was chipped but the black hat and gleaming mug of its character were still visible, eyes smiling over a timeless cuppa.
There was no milk, not in summer: it wouldn’t keep. With practised ritual he would grasp a tarnished teaspoon and offer a generous portion of sugar to his tea. All of the teaspoons were tarnished like all of the mugs were broken. All of the plates were cracked just like all of the cupboards were falling apart. All of his ornaments were as faded as the old flowered curtains and even the cupboard doors were paler than they used to be.
For such a small room its objects were overlarge, a mockery of the tiny cottage and its stifling windows. A large oak table stood in the middle of the room, wedged up on one side with yellowed newspaper, pressing against uneven floorboards. At either end stood a three-legged stool, draped with a lace cloth that was crinkled and coated in the kitchen’s atmosphere. The table held only a thick layer of dust that grew on its surface. A darker line curved around the table as her finger had done some time before.
In the far corner of the room was a third stool, piled high with crockery. A pie dish with fluted edges sat on top at a precarious angle. A chequered towel hung from the oven door, browned with use and torn at the bottom. The cooker was crusted and lacklustre, stained by old pies and over-boiled pots. Two wooden spoons and a blotchy metal tablespoon stood in a tin can with its top removed, jagged edges threatening to attack should the utensils be touched. But he never cut his hands the same way he never scalded himself. The kitchen was him as much as he was the kitchen – old, familiar and just as she left it, copper pots and all.
The saucepans dangled and swayed on metal hooks from a rope that he’d looped over the old beams long ago, while she watched, smiling and polishing new pans. One hook dangled free, missing its kettle. The others all held pots of varying sizes, but it wasn’t their size that stood out, it was the sunlight glinting off their spotless copper surfaces. They were the only things he kept immune to the summer poisons of the kitchen.
In summer the kitchen died.
The house was cold. Too cold, too big, too empty. She felt drained, trapped in that exhausting state between sleep and wake, but she knew sleep wouldn’t come yet. She rubbed her reddened eyes with cold fingertips, soothing the puckered flesh. When had she last slept? ‘Three days, maybe four,’ she thought. She traced her finger along the dado rail and shivered as she walked from room to room noting what needed to be done. Dust had begun to gather, blanketing each surface in grey. The dripping tap needed fixing. Funny how the little things that never bothered her before seemed to torment her now. Each drip echoed with a memory. The old quarry tiles felt like ice beneath her feet and as she walked the ten paces to the foot of the stairs she made a mental note to scrub the floors, later. The old banister gleamed mahogany and she reached towards it sliding the back of her hand along its smooth surface.
She sat down on the staircase; three steps up just as she had so frequently as a child. She reached into the baggy sleeve of her favourite sweater and peeled a small hair band from her wrist, looking down at the old scar as she did so, inhaling tightly to keep hidden memories under the surface. Pulling un-brushed hair back from her face and into a loose ponytail she stretched out her arms and hugged her knees up to her chest. It could have been hours she sat there; it could have been only minutes. The art deco statue stood as she always had at the foot of the staircase gleaming bronze, curvaceous, a goddess, forever watching, her smile forever scornful. Hayley stood up a little too quickly and steadied herself against the banister. She had always hated that statue and it seemed to laugh at her now.
She looked around at what was once her home. Sunlight poured through a small crack in the living room door and she pushed it open and stepped inside. Iron-rimmed stained glass windows cast everything in a soft green hue. She smiled remembering her mother’s eclectic taste. Garish contemporary wallpaper and curtains contrasted sharply with the old Victorian fireplace that loomed over mismatched tiles, cracked and worn over the years. The original patio doors looked worn and haggard against the pristine leather suite, and the antique bookshelf was empty now; a harsh reminder that soon everything would be gone. The floor was partially covered in boxes that spilled over with her mother’s trinkets and treasures.
She swallowed the lump in her throat but she had no tears left now, only a house full of flowers to comfort her. Glancing over them she blinked too-dry eyes and steeled herself against the memory of her mother’s wasted body upon white sheets. An oversized ornate mirror hung above the fireplace, crooked as always and she barely recognised the gaunt freckled face that stared out with her eyes as she peered into it. Reaching out she placed her palms against the cool marble of the mantelpiece. Its surface was cluttered with vases, cards and photograph frames. She picked up the nearest one and as her mother’s face stared back at her with that all too familiar smile she couldn’t help but smile back. That was why everyone had loved her so much; her smile made you smile.
She noticed a small wooden box pushed back against the wall. Its surface was coated in a thick layer of dust and she brushed it off with her sleeve. The box was rectangular, small enough to sit on the palm of her hand and made of soft walnut. She traced the swirls carved into its surface.
Something wakes me up. The big hand is at the bottom and the little hand by the one. Half past one. I’m learning to tell the time. My hair is matted against my face on one side and I push it away rubbing sleep out of my eyes. I hear voices downstairs. Mum and dad? I step over toys and crayons to pull my door open. I hear mum shouting. Is she ok? I run back and grabbed teddy, just in case. Hugging him tightly I walk to the stairs. I can hear her better now.
‘Every bloody night the same.’ Who is she talking to? I go downstairs, one step at a time, quietly. Three steps up from the bottom I hear dad’s voice.
‘Shut up.’ I stop, sit on the step and hide behind the statue of the lady. They argue. What if they hear me? I close my eyes so they won’t see me.
‘Why do you have to do this?’ Mum is shouting. I hear dad walking around the room. He has his boots on. We never wear shoes in the house. There’s a crash. I open my eyes and peer out from behind the lady. Dad calls mum a stupid bitch. Did she break something? The door is half open and I can see part of the room. Dad’s hair is messy and he sways from side to side holding a bottle in his hand. Mum’s still shouting.
‘Stop this. You promised.’ Her shouts get louder. ‘How could you do this to us? To me? To Hayley?’ Did I do something wrong?
‘You’re overreacting as usual darling.’ There’s another crash. ‘Goddamn. Calm down Cathy.’ He walks away from her, a broken vase crunching under his boots. Mum throws a photo frame and it hits him on the shoulder and cracks against the floor.
‘Enough.’ His shout is louder than I ever heard him shout before. He opens the patio doors and a blast of cold air comes in. Mum is holding a little wooden box. I lean past the statue and see Dad lighting a cigarette outside the patio doors.
‘Damn crazy bitch.’ He mutters. He turns to look at her and breathes smoke into the room. He laughs. Don’t laugh. He takes a deep puff and mum throws the box across the room. It bounces off the patio door and lands in the middle of the floor but doesn’t break.
‘This d amn box.’ Mum howls. ‘Only damn thing you ever gave me and it makes no sense.’ The bronze lady looks at me with scary round eyes and I run back upstairs and cry myself to sleep hugging teddy. In the morning dad wakes me up.
‘Morning sweetheart.’ He kisses me on the forehead and ruffles my hair. ‘Come here.’ He smells like smoke and his old spice. He is wearing his leather jacket. He hugs me for a long time then leaves.
‘Goodbye sweetheart.’ He never came back.
A knock at the front door broke Hayley’s trance. The knock was quiet, reluctant perhaps. The shape of a man was silhouetted against the sunlight. He was taller than she remembered, thinner too, dressed in that old leather jacket. Her heart pounded as though it would burst out of her chest; an army of emotions fought for attention and she clutched her hands against her to hold it in.
‘Dad?’ He looked up and ran his hand through grey-flecked hair.
‘Got the first flight soon as I heard.’ She had always remembered his voice as a soft Yankee drawl. It had always seemed relaxing, soothing to her. Now it was deeper, rougher like burnt molasses, after too many years of drink and smoke. They stood facing one another for a time, neither knowing what to say, neither moving. Eventually he broke the silence.
‘I know I didn’t call. Wasn’t sure if you’d want to see me.’ The words tumbled out of his mouth, a clumsy cross between an apology and a request. ‘Actually truth is I didn’t call because I was afraid you wouldn’t want me to. I wouldn’t blame you but I had to see if you were ok.’ She slumped against the doorframe. ‘Geez kid you look like you haven’t slept in a week.’ Hardly hearing his words her knees buckled and he caught her by the elbow as she fell.
‘I need coffee.’ Numbly she allowed him to lead her to the kitchen and lower her into a chair. She watched as he stirred milk into two odd mugs. She remembered him as a strong, handsome man with a bright eyes, but there was little trace of that left in him now. He was lined and he moved cautiously like he had the weight of the world bearing down on him. She knew how that felt. He handed her a mug and out of step they made their way to the living room.
She sat down on the leather sofa crossing her legs beneath her and he eased himself into the armchair sloshing coffee onto his lap in the process. She laughed quietly without thinking and looked up. His eyes met hers and he smiled that old crooked smile. For a moment Hayley glimpsed the father she remembered.
‘Goddamn. Some things never change. Calamity John your mom used to call me.’ He paused and looked down at the floor clearing his throat. ‘I did miss her you know, both of you. Everyday. Just didn’t know how to make it right after so long.’ He cocked his head and silence drifted across the room like a fog. So many times she had imagined what she would do if she ever saw him again; what she would say, how she would show him what he’d done, what it had been like for her after he left. But now he was here she didn’t know what to say.
After a time her father stood up and moved to the mantelpiece. He looked at the photographs. His gaze came to rest on the wooden box and she watched him pick it up. He smiled as he did and turned it around and around in calloused hands.
‘I bought this for your mother when I was in college. Went on an art trip to Morocco. It’s a puzzle box. Took me three days to open it. Damn near smashed it open in a rage.’
‘It doesn’t even look like it does open.’
‘Well trust me it does. I spent days tapping and pushing and twisting and nothing happened. Drove me crazy. Had it in my pocket the entire time trying it every spare second. Eventually gave up and bought her another present. On our last night there I sat outside drinking beer, smoking and staring at that damn box from every angle. Couldn’t let it beat me. I picked up another beer and rested my cigarette on the box while I opened it.’ He moved forward, took Hayley’s hand from her lap and turned it over, placing the box on her palm. Tentatively, he sat down next to her.
‘Then I noticed there’s a groove, right here, see?’ He pointed to the top of the box and she noticed a tiny indent, cleverly concealed by the optical illusion of the patterns that coated its surface.
‘When you run your finger along it in the right direction –’ he moved his finger across the box and there was a faint click. ‘– it opens. I celebrated with another beer and put the other present inside. Gave it to her when I got home and it drove her crazy too. Don’t think she ever worked out how to open it. I never told her.’ He paused and leaned back, the pain of years etched across his features. ‘You look just like her you know. So beautiful.’
‘I miss her so much dad.’ Her eyes filled mirroring his, and tears she didn’t think she had left began to trickle down her face. Cautiously he pulled her limp frame towards him.
It was dusk by the time the tears were spent. She leaned motionless against his side, the little puzzle box still resting on her palm. Her sleeve had bunched up and he looked down at her scar. That one snaking line across her porcelain skin betrayed the hard years he’d missed. Their eyes met and a flash of understanding sparked between them. Nothing could change the past. He reached down and opened the lid of the box pulling out a small leather band. It was intricately plaited with tiny gold beads threaded onto the middle and he slid the bracelet under her slender wrist. Smoothing a finger along the ghostly white scar he carefully fastened the clasp, leaning forward to kiss her forehead. There were no words for this. She closed her eyes and inhaled his once familiar scent of cigarettes and old spice.