I read recently that more people write short stories than ever read them. I have been quite a fan of short stories especially detective and science fiction ones. The short story has long been common in those genres and you only have to think of the Sherlock Holmes and Maigret stories and even many Agatha Christie stories for the detectives and all the Dick short stories, the 'New Worlds' anthologies of the 1960s and 1970s and the graphic novels/SF comics of the 1930s to present day.
Short stories are the format which works best at writers' groups and in competitions. At a writers' group I attended you could bring 2000 words to read and competitions like something less than 5000 words. There is a commercial outlet for short fiction though women's magazines seem to be including less of it, some of the quality newspapers include the occasional piece, though usually written by a leading novelist. Despite the popularity of the Penguin 60s in 1995, tiny books selling for 60p (I had a full box set of the original 60 but gave them away) people seem happier to buy a huge blockbuster than a collection of short stories. That seems ironic given that these days we often have snippets of time to read some fiction. May be with portable e-books they may catch on again and as with your MP3 player you can have a random short story pop up when you like.
Anyway, like anyone who has been around the fringes of writing in the UK and interacted with a few amateur publications and entered the occasional competition, I have produced short stories. Having dug out 'Snatching the Six' to archive it here, I thought, why not dig out the short stories too? I have gone through phases of short story writing, producing many whilst a university student and then when living in Milton Keynes which has a vibrant hobby culture (though not unique as some MK-patriots claim) including in writing and so was stimulated to produce more.
The story in this posting is the oldest one I can find. This is because it was not until 1987 that I got a wordprocessor and anything produced before was written on paper and probably lost in my house moves. I produced short stories for my school magazine, which at best are in some dusty loft in my Sixth Form College somewhere, otherwise lost to posterity. I wrote this story aged 19 when I was retaking my 'A' levels and then when I reached university I typed it up on to my new PCW wordprocessor, which is the machine on which the novels which followed in the next five years: 'The Karskoe Assassin', 'Snatching the Six' and 'His Majesty's Dictator', plus the first couple of Beckmann stories, were produced.
I felt very mischievous writing this story and thought it would buy me a way into the rather bohemian writing culture of my university. It seems to have been ignored, though I did attend the launch of the anthology, a party on top of a deserted multi-storey car park, partly irritated that in the anthology was a list numbered 1-10 without any other writing and yet they had left out my story which I felt was very mature and naughty. I imagine now, that it had less to do with my writing and probably more to do with who I did not know, I was not in with the 'in' crowd so was not going to get in. My writing then became very insular even though I was able to get some of it published in amateur magazines. If I manage to find the stories that followed you will see the frame of mind. The characteristics of 'what if?' are very noticeable.
Writing this, I remember a little more now about what motivated me to write this story. I always had a feeling that despite my physical age that I was mentally juvenile to the people I was studying with, certainly not ready for the realm of relationships. Yet almost immediately when I started studying for 'A' levels I encountered a female student who clearly was sexually active and bragged of the leather underwear and whip she possessed while I was talking to her in the common room. Of course a lot of it might have been simple bravado. However, it seemed reinforced by a friend at another college who had met a quieter woman, who these days we would have characterised as having 'dominatrix' tendencies, she clearly liked to dominate her boyfriends and march around in black leather boots and dress with a kind of pseudo-Nazi overtones. When I met her at a party, despite her being a rather surly, middle class teenage student, she spoke about some pop video of the time featuring a woman with a rubber skirt (I have a strange feeling the singer was called Jakki Graham, but I can find no trace of her on the internet). I know girls mature faster than boys but these ones I was encountering seemed to have leapfrogged what the average teenager was getting up to, to something way beyond. I can only blame the kind of 'Personal Services' (as in the movie of 1987) culture of bored middle class households.
Reading it now it has those terrible pretensions that probably only teenagers can write without embarrassment. However, saying that it does seem rather better than some of the things I have unearthed recently. In addition, it was probably no less pretentious or less direct than the things it was competing against to go in the anthology; certainly not as poor as a list of numbers.
This is a massively long introduction for a very short story, but what has intrigued me is how I never went back to this type of writing, I suppose because as I went through university I felt even more out of my depth than I had imagined myself to be as a sixth former, so stepped away from any 'naughtiness' for more introspective stuff. Saying that, you can see elements of that here and the 'I' of this story, though a young woman, shares many characteristics with the 'I' of my successive stories, especially in terms of not taking the more interesting road offered and instead keeping to the dull though apparently safe path.
I stepped from the dusty roadside as the fast red car passed. I had waited ten minutes under this hot sun since the battered blue bus had dropped me at this junction and disappeared around the headland to the next fishing village. He was the only one in the car, but drove too fast for me to get a true picture of the man who could tempt her to come this far, away from her family, the ones who had sent me hurrying after her like some debt-collector.
No tacky comments like she owed her family, please. I had already ran over that one on the flight. She was old enough to look after herself, or to be looked after. It was a short walk up the white stone road, the surface barely more than a scattering of stones.
The front door and shutters were closed. I wandered around the back of the small, one-storey villa glancing back down the hill to the glistening sea. It did look like the brochures. I had skipped them this time. This was a job. I felt more obligated to do what her parents had said than she did. I was still wrapped up in the comfy consensus of the suburban dream. She had stepped out of line, I was less the slave-driver, more the whip.
The long light curtains blew out from the open patio doors kowtowing to the pool before them. I wandered through the door. There was little thought of what I would find. I knew she was here. She had been too careless with the letters. Or had she not cared less? The letters were specific, explicit. The parents had skipped the details, they did not want me tainted, but I was harder than that. I am only tainted by what I want to be tainted with. Well I think so. I had uncovered more than her parents had let on, their searches had been tentative, mine more thorough; their double standards apparent. They would not let her run to some rich lover but, yet, her room was sacrosanct. They trod as careful as guilty children, I went as roughly as the inquisitor they made me.
She lay panting on the floor, a pile of local craftwork cushions were crushed under her back. The black gag was still there, one hand still had a shiny leather bond hanging from the wrist, but both were free. I glanced at her methodically unbuckling and unzipping. Sweat had run the make up. It made her look older, she was old enough. I was too. That cut through me. Could it be me, my lover, any of us, our group, there instead of her, there like that? Dreams and nightmares embodied. At once I despised the degradation, was this not what we all opposed, no question? Or was it different? Release rather than sin?
She saw me, she did not seem too surprised. She slipped the gag down to her neck.
“I am sorry they sent you. No courage themselves. Well, a free holiday.” She shook off the remainder of the get up. She poured out a couple of fruit juices and handed me one.
“I will be back come the end of Summer, no worries. As you see I am healthy and have all I need, more.”
She avoided all the junk about feeling released and so on, but I knew she thought it. She knew the whole litany of questions on the system, respectability. I was walking the path she knew well.
I waited for the bus. I had declined to stay. I tried to lose myself in the sight of the sea and the hot breeze.
I felt adrift. I could not jump free of my rails, I had to get back to the comfort of fitting in. The never-ending trek to the suburban ideal. Here I am back in it, trying to ignore the potential alternatives, the routes off the main line, whatever they offer. Is peace of mind freedom or imprisonment?