Maps of Broken Places – a flash fantasy story

My map was a chronicle of broken things. Dead trees. Fallen fences. Collapsed cliffs and the dead end paths that trailed away from them like tattered bandages. I didn’t need to record the things that had stayed the same, only those that had changed. Only those ruptured by time and careless hands.

Careless hearts too, to pull a kissing gate off its hinges and ditch it in a field.

Mud squelched beneath my boots as I approached the fallen gate. The wind blew a fractured song through the trees, brown leaves rattling for a moment before they were torn away. A one-legged gull watch me from a fence post with hungry eyes.

As I touched the gate, a memory flashed through me. Euan and I had come this way on one of our first dates. We’d stopped at this kissing gate to make sure it lived up to its name. A happy memory once, but now I viewed it through the cracked lens of resentment. I’d left the divorce papers on the kitchen table this morning, freshly torn from the envelope and waiting to be signed. I was working to escape those memories, not sink into them.

With a grunt, I hefted the gate and carried it back to where it belonged. I couldn’t fix the broken hinges today, but I could put it out of the way.

As I leaned the gate against its post, more images flashed into my mind. Memories, but not my own. A small boy walking through that gate with his aunt, basking in the wonders of nature. The same boy but older, swinging on the gate, laughing at the joy of movement and the clatter of wood as the gate hit the post. And now as a teenager with the taste of cheap cider in his mouth, egged on by his friends as he tore the gate from its hinges.

The gate was mourning, for itself and for that boy.

I let it go and took a step back, blinking. The images had seemed so real.

The gull landed on top of the gate and stared at me once more. As our eyes met, I felt another jolt, another rush of memories. The gull as a young bird, learning to find food in what people threw away. Older now, its leg tangled in fishing wire on a river bank, the pain and the blood as it tried to tear free and instead ripped its own flesh. Lying feverish with pain in a treetop, staring at the swollen wound where its leg had been. Learning to balance again, to live without.

I stumbled back, heart pounding in fear. Was I losing my mind?

My boot landed in a fox hole. I stumbled, slid on mud, and fell.

More images. Fences built and broken. Trees grown and felled. The cliff collapsing, inch by torturous inch, into a slowly rising sea.

In this place of memories, the land and everything in it shared my grief. We were sundered from our old selves by sorrow, but bound together in bereavement. I didn’t just cry for me, I cried for every thing on my map, every loss I had touched today.

I thought of that kiss and all the sorrow that followed.

Then the memory shifted. I felt it as the gate, a moment of love that had made this place feel special. For the land, it wasn’t tarnished by tears, but could still be a perfect moment.

Perhaps it could stay perfect for me too. Yes, it was part of my relationship with Euan, but it wasn’t the part I regretted.

Clouds parted, the honey gold of sunlight breaking through grey. I pulled myself up out of the mud and laid a hand on the kissing gate. I thought of all the other times I’d walked this way, alone or in company, in this same glorious sunshine, in the howling power of a gale, in crisp white snow that lay like peace across the land.

And I imagined tomorrow, when I would come back with tools and new hinges.

My map had gotten smeared with mud when I fell. I wiped off the worst of it, pulled a pencil from my pocket, and drew a circle around the x that marked the broken gate. I circled other things too, ones I could mend, places I could put back in order instead of chronicling their collapse.

The gull spread its wings. It was remembering a chip shop down the coast, from whose bins it had eaten the finest fish of its life. It would return there tonight and feast again.

And I would go home to sign the papers and move on with my life. Not everything could be fixed, some grief had to be borne, but we could still live anew, the land and I.

My map was a list of things to be mended.


This one’s for Gwyn of the Crudely Drawn Swords podcast. A tweet about his work inspired me to write about the mapping of broken things.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.


By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Sunflowers in the Snow – a #FlashFriday story

Picture by Bill Damon via Flickr creative commons
Picture by Bill Damon via Flickr creative commons

There was a crowd outside the cemetery gates. Tall men and women, warmly dressed against the cold snap. As Michael passed them he caught a glimpse of flattened faces beneath hoods, hats and scarves. They were Neanderthals, part of the community that had grown up in Longsight over the past decade. To social scientists it was a fascinating insight into the formation of communities. To Michael it was one more minority interest complicating his constituency.

“This way, minister.” Cowley, his slender and obsequious assistant, led him through the gates, snow crunching beneath their feet as they strode towards the cemetery manager’s office. Despite the cold and the intimidating presence of the crowd around the gates, relatives had been in to pay their respects, and flowers lay amid the snow on several of the graves.

“Mr Totman.” The woman who met him at the door wore a smart black suit, her hair tied back. “I’m Lydia Boyd, the manager here. I’m terribly sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.” Michael never knew how to respond. What could you say? No words would ever bring his husband back.

“I’m afraid the heating is broken in my office,” Boyd said. “But the seats are more comfortable in reception anyway.”

She settled down into a padded grey chair, and Michael took the one opposite. Cowley lingered outside the door making phone calls – the business of government didn’t stop for personal tragedy.

“You said we needed to talk,” Michael said. “About Chris’s funeral.”

“Yes.” Boyd’s expression was sad, but her gaze didn’t waver from his. “I’m afraid that the genome tests following Christopher’s autopsy revealed a substantial proportion of Neanderthal ancestry.”

Michael frowned.

“That’s impossible,” he said. “Both his parents were human, and born long before the first cloned revivals.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple.” Boyd handed him a sheet of paper, showing the results from the test. “Nearly all of us have some DNA from Neanderthals and other archaic humans. So while these tests are successful in keeping Neanderthals out of human cemeteries, they also very occasionally exclude others too.”

“That’s absurd!” Michael rose to his feet. This was where Chris’s family was buried, where he’d wanted to be buried. The thought of not doing that stirred up all the pain of the past few weeks, and he found himself choking on his own words. “Can’t you change your rules?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “If I had my way I would open up the gates and let those protesters win. Everybody would be buried here, homo sapiens or Neanderthal. You know that they bring flowers to the graves? We won’t even let them bury their families here, but they still make sure that the graves are tended.”

“Surely you can make an exception.” He felt desperate, nothing but her denial sinking in. “I have money. I can make a donation to the cemetery. Or to you, if you prefer.”

“Minister.” She rose and placed a gentle hand on his arm. “You should be careful. That almost sounded like a bribe. And I’m afraid that the law is clear, a law that you voted for. The Prime Minister said, ‘we do not force people to be buried in the same ground as pets, can we make them accept graves alongside anything other than our own species?’”

“Then there must be something wrong with the test. Chris was a human being!”

“Do you think she isn’t?” Boyd pointed out through the glass doors, past Cowley, to where an aging Neanderthal in a long coat was placing sunflowers on one of the graves.

“But the test is for being a true human.” Uncertainty and grief made Michael wobbly on his feet. He leaned against the door, forehead pressed to the cold glass.

“The test is for Neanderthal DNA,” Boyd said. “What you’re talking about is far harder to pin down.”

The Neanderthal woman looked directly at Michael. She didn’t wave or make that strange little frown others used to tell him how sorry they were. But her eyes communicated her understanding of his hurt more completely than anybody saying “I feel sorry for your loss.”

“Her husband died recently too,” Boyd said. “That’s not his grave, of course.”

A sense of conviction rose in Michael, one he hadn’t felt since his first election campaign. He stood up straight, turned and shook Boyd’s hand.

“Thank you for taking the time to talk,” he said. “I’ll contact the undertaker about Chris.”

He opened the door and strode out into the snow. Cowley, seeing his master spring into action, snapped his phone shut and scurried after him.

“Is the funeral arranged?” Cowley asked. “I have the invitations ready.”

“No.” Michael stopped in the cemetery gates, looking out at the sad, silent faces of the protesters. He felt like he might cry at any moment, like only the drive to act was holding him back. “Contact the media. We have other things to deal with.”

He joined the crowd, making eye contact with each quiet figure in turn, falling into the moment of shared sorrow. Tears ran down his cheeks, yet he felt a lightening of his burden, a sense of release.

“Then call the Prime Minister,” he said, turning to the shocked looking Cowley. “I don’t think he’ll want me in his government anymore.”

He pulled out his own phone, found a picture of Chris and showed it to the Neanderthal next to him.

“My husband,” he said.

The Neanderthal pulled a picture out of his pocket, a smiling Neanderthal woman in a flower print dress.

They stood together in grief.



This story was suggested by my friend Lynda, who thought I could take inspiration from a radio program about evolution and the fact that we now have full DNA sequences for at least two different hominid species besides ourselves.

Challenge accepted, and completed.

I already have a few ideas for future flash Friday stories based on other people’s comments, but if you have a suggestion then please leave a comment and I’ll add it to my ideas list. It’s always good to get more ideas.

If you enjoyed this you might also like my other Flash Friday stories, a growing collection of very short fiction. And for more science fiction stories, check out my ebook Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.

Love That Never Lived – a Flash Friday story

Around three in the morning Bradley realised that the grief was too much for him. A shape had appeared on the hospital bed, curled up beside Jen in the soft light from the bedside lamp. A baby, as small and wrinkled and perfect as he had always imagined, curled up in a white blanket. A hallucination taunting his sleepless brain.

The infant opened its eyes, peered around with the unfocused gaze of a new-born. Bradley wanted to reach out and take it in his arms, to hold it safe and close.

‘You’re not real,’ he whispered. Jen wouldn’t hear him, she was too wiped out by morphine and blood loss, but the louder he spoke the more real this would be. ‘We lost you.’

The words struck him as hard as the blood that had trickled down Jen’s leg, the look of horror on her face as they sped through the dusk shrouded streets to the hospital.

The baby lifted a hand, reaching out towards Bradley. Already it had grown, face filling out, eyes widening to stare across Jen towards him. It still looked only a few months old, but he could see that it had Jen’s eyes.

It? She. The baby was a girl.

Bradley shrank back into his chair, pulling away from the bedside. A nurse looked in through the window, smiled sadly at him and moved on. But behind her a little old lady peered in, smiled and waved at the baby.

‘You can’t be real,’ Bradly whispered, but he reached out across Jen, lifted the baby up in his arms. She was just like he had imagined her, and yet so much more. That smile, those eyes, the tiny fingers curling around his own.

The breath caught in Bradley’s throat. He felt as if he were choking on the enormity of loss.

‘I can’t…’ he whispered. ‘I can’t hold you. You aren’t real.’

Tears poured down his cheeks. His whole body shook to the rhythm of his sorrow.

‘I miss you,’ he said. ‘I never met you but I miss you. How does that happen? How do you love someone who never got to live?’


He looked up at the murmur of his name. Jen’s eyes were open, tears in them too. He made to lift the baby up for her to see, but the little girl was gone. Instead he went to the bed, lay down beside Jen and let the tears flow.

They left the hospital the next afternoon, Jen pale but well enough to go home. As the doors slid open Bradley saw another figure beside them, a little girl wobbling along with a toddler’s rambling gait, unseen and ignored by the staff and patients around them.

All except one old lady in a wheelchair who waved at the girl, then looked up at Bradley with a smile. He stopped, knelt down to speak with her.

‘Does the sorrow ever leave you?’ he asked.

‘No dear,’ the woman said, patting his hand. ‘But neither does the love.’




A miscarriage is a hideous thing to deal with. I’ve written about it in this story in part to deal with my own experience from a few years back, but not everybody can process it that way. So just in case anyone reading this is struggling to cope following a miscarriage, here’s a link to the The Miscarriage Association, who provide support in the UK. Far more people have to deal with this than you think. You are never alone.


NaNoWriMo update:

It feels almost unbearably casual to follow that one up with something unrelated, but life is what it is, even the parts that nearly break us. Yesterday took me to 10,264 words on my NaNoWriMo novel, keeping me on target. I may have to let it slide a little over the next few days as I catch up freelance writing – we’ll see.

Loss and imagination

Imagination can be a terrible and a wonderful thing.

I had a phone call this morning from an old and dear friend. His father has died, suddenly and unexpectedly. He was clearly overwhelmed with shock and grief.

After we finished talking I found myself feeling stunned as well. I’d met the Reverend Alexander on numerous occasions in my late teens and early twenties, staying over at his house while his son and I went out drinking. Witnesses tell me that I once vomited all over the vicarage kitchen floor right in front of him, and I can reliably report that, rather than ban me from the house for that incident, he subjected me to the mockery I rightly deserved, or at least what little of it I could stand.

But my own state of bewilderment at the news of his passing went beyond sorrow for the death of a man I haven’t seen in ten years. Because part of my brain was trying to imagine what my friend is going through right now, how I would cope in those same circumstances. Just approaching the thought of losing my own dad is horrible, but that’s what my imagination is doing.

And this is where the imagination becomes both terrible and wonderful. It puts us through the worst of things, but it does so with purpose, helping us to understand what others are going through, preparing us for what we may one day face.

It’s also through imagination that the people we lose live on. We can summon them up in our minds, reconstruct memories of life with them. It’s a bitter-sweet sort of remembering, but it’s far better than none at all.

To imagine is not just to make pretend. It is to be human, to relate to others and to our past selves. It is to create bonds that mere action cannot, to understand ourselves and the world more fully. And that, as I said at the start, can be a terrible and a wonderful thing.