Foundering | Short Story

Some short stories never really ignite for their authors. Some flare briefly before being doused by the sheer weight of writing out there. Others are slow burners, flickering flames dancing on cruisie lamp wicks long after the last of the oil has gone.

Foundering‘ was one such story for me. Initially published on this blog, it was picked up by Flashback Fiction, who in turn nominated it for the Best Microfiction 2021 anthology. I was equal parts delighted and surprised when it made the final cut, and there was the long-awaited kerthunk yesterday as my author copy wound its way from the publishers. ‘Foundering’ has flickered long after dusk has fallen, and given me more pleasure as a writer than I ever thought it would. I’m extraordinarily grateful that it has found a home alongside so many wonderful pieces.

If you are interested in microfiction across about as many genres as you could imagine, give Best Microfiction 2021 a look here.

*Thanks for reading, folks. My recent short stories include ‘The Rectory‘ and ‘The Stretch‘.

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HMS Cleopatra | Short Story | Finale

Read part one here…

Read part two here…

Read part three here…

Read part four here…

The woman showed no surprise at the midshipman’s entrance. She stared at him, a smile nudging at the corners of her lips.

Bligh stood with mouth hanging open; a small boy caught stealing apples from the orchard. He had seen this fine green dress once before; across Bantry Bay, on a captain’s wife with a kerchief pressed against her mouth because she could not bear the smell of the harbour. Gone was the timid, sickly looking woman who had rushed off in her carriage as soon as it was politic, replaced with this confident, sensual creature.

                   “I was looking for…” whispered Bligh. His voice sounded childlike and tiny amongst the oak beams.

                   “You were looking for Ugly Bertha,” prompted the woman, her voice low and melodious. Bligh could smell orange blossom from the woman, the scent replacing the dank rot of the hold.

The woman held out her arms to each side of her petite shoulders. “Here she is.”

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HMS Cleopatra | Short Story | Part Four

Read part one here…

Read part two here…

Read part three here…

The sound of rolling glass permeated Bligh’s slumber and he woke slowly to the smell of rot and dampness. Looking down from his repose, he saw an empty olive-green rum bottle rolling from beneath the surgeon’s desk and under a hammock occupied by Harper. The young topman lay sleeping and, judging by the rum fumes emanating from him, was well sedated. From what he could see of the boy’s ankles, Bligh did not think that the boy would ever again climb rigging. On top of the table lay slouched the surgeon himself, drunk. Bligh sighed and looked around him. As a place of well-being and recuperation, the sick bay of the Cleopatra left a lot to be desired. Situated in the aft part of the lower deck, there was little light and even less fresh air. Bligh took a moment to wonder why surgeons, always lecturing about how bad airs contributed to disease, were put to work in one of the dankest, dingiest parts of the ship.

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HMS Cleopatra | Short Story | Part Three

Read part one here…

Read part two here…

The scene that enveloped Bligh as he reached the deck was staggering in scale. Screams and shouts issued a group of women who were being forced to the hammock nettings of the ship by marines at bayonet point. Herded together like a writhing ball of herring, Bligh wondered at just how many had come aboard since the ship had anchored. Curses and threats rained down from the wives and prostitutes, more than a few of whom were spitting and clawing at the marines. These were dockyard women; scarred, calloused, and capable of defending themselves.

Standing serenely on the poopdeck and supremely unconcerned by the tumult beneath him was Captain Cowan. A mass of seamen were gathered opposite the pressed women on the main deck, held at bay either by the marines or by the force of their Captain’s will.  Men who had grumbled and muttered at Acheson’s flogging a few days earlier were now dangerously close to open sedition. Glares of fierce hostility were directed up at the poop deck and fists were clenched in anger at the treatment of the women.

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HMS Cleopatra | Short Story | Part Two

Read part one here…

It was two days after Captain Cowan’s arrival on HMS Cleopatra and the pale winter sun had spent itself, leaving the ship huddled in half-light on an iron-grey Bantry Bay. Any free time that the men had would usually be spent on the forecastle. There would be cock-fighting, story-telling, dancing, and dicing, but not today. Bligh was with the gun crew that he commanded, as well as a few others crowded around the galley stove. Its black hulk dominated the room, dimly lit by tallow candles sputtering inside lanterns of tin and translucent horn. Bligh preferred the company of his men as opposed to the other midshipmen in the cockpit, especially today.  He shivered, although whether at the damp threatening to invade every loose stitch in his clothing or the unease at what was being discussed he was not sure.

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HMS Cleopatra | Short Story | Part One

1801, Bantry Bay, Ireland

Thirty.

A ship was comparable to a small town. There were glaziers and glassblowers, farmers and fishermen, shoe cleaners and snuff makers. Shoehorning such a population into a seventy-four gun ship like HMS Cleopatra however, meant that the intrigues and undercurrents that ran through any town were multiplied many times over.

Thirty-six.

Added to this already potent brew was the fact that the majority of seamen on board were not there by choice. After being pressganged into service, torn away from loved ones, and kept at sea for months on end, there was an unspoken contract between captain and crew stating that a seaman’s welfare was the responsibility of his commanding officer. This was an agreement that had just been trodden into the oaken planks by a pair of immaculately polished hessian boots.

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Erebus: The History of a Ship | Book Review

Erebus: The Story of a Ship

Michael Palin

Random House

ISBN: 9781847948120

£9.99

Review

Built in 1826, HMS Erebus was not much to look at. A squat bomb vessel constructed at a time when Britain’s navy found itself at a loose end after the end of the Napoleonic wars, Erebus was nevertheless destined to undertake two great voyages at opposite ends of the earth. The ship achieved a ‘furthest south’ record during its 1839-1843 journey before embarking upon its fateful search for the fabled Northwest passage. Michael Palin takes us through the ship’s life before trying to piece together exactly what led to the deaths of everyone on board as, desperate, starving and icebound, the crew set out on foot south on a journey from which none of them would ever return.

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The Mirror and the Light | Book Review

The Mirror and the Light

Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate

ISBN: 9780007480999

£25

‘The scuffling and haste, the sudden vanishing of papers, the shushing, the whisk of skirts and the slammed doors; the indrawn breath, the glance, the sigh, the sideways look, and the pit-pat of slippered feet; the rapid scribble with the ink still wet; a trail of sealing wax, of scent. All spring, we scrutinised Anne the queen, her person, her practices; her guards and gates, her doors, her secret chambers. We glimpsed the privy chamber gentlemen, sleek in black velvet, invisible except where moonlight plays on a beaded cuff. We picked out, with the inner eye, the shape of someone where no one should be – a man creeping along the quays to a skiff where a patient oarsman with a bowed head is paid for silence, and nothing to tell the tale but the small wash and ripple of the Thames; the river has seen so much, with its grey blink.

Review

That Hilary Mantel’s ‘The Mirror and the Light’ did not win the Booker was not sad in itself – there was a worthy winner in the form of ‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart – and after winning a Booker apiece for ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ Mantel is hardly in need of literary gravitas. Nevertheless, it was disappointing in that the lack of such a prize did take attention from what is undoubtedly an astonishing achievement. As a sidenote, I did find it refreshing that Mantel was upfront in her disappointment at not making the shortlist, the obvious tendency amongst people being to denigrate or shrug off baubles which they do not win. Real judgement perhaps lies in legacy, and in this the Wolf Hall trilogy is unparalleled. I doubt that any writer in my lifetime will dare to attempt a similar project. Mantel’s Cromwell is the fictional portrayal by which any other will be judged, and she has probably gone beyond a fictional remit in influencing the debate about Henry VIII’s chief minister.

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Thomas Cromwell: A Life | Book Review

Thomas Cromwell: A Life

Diarmaid MacCulloch

Allen Lane

ISBN: 1846144299

£30

Review

There have been many biographies of Henry VIII’s Lord Privy Seal, but surely few so weighty or well-researched. Like many, my interest in Thomas Cromwell was catalysed by Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, and the Mirror and the Light. Cromwell is atypical of Tudor dignitaries in that he was lowborn. The son of a blacksmith, he was self-made and self-educated. From these inauspicious beginnings he rose to the right hand of a capricious and unstable king. Cromwell bullied lords and dined with dignitaries. He liquidated a centuries-old religious order and ushered in political foundations that remain to this day. Not a bad biographical subject.

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Flashback Fiction | Interview

I had a piece of flash fiction called ‘Foundering‘ published in Flashback Fiction this week. They ask all of their authors to answer a few questions on their inspirations, influences, and favourite historical fiction writers. If you’ve got a piece of historical fiction sitting in your drafts folder I really can’t recommend them enough. The editors were approachable and went to great efforts to promote and advertise my work.

Read my interview here.

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