Saturday, 25 June 2011

Writer's Circle post - June 2011

Self Defence

It was self defence.

Angelo swerved. The car skidded as it took the corner, engine screaming, and lurched forward onto the highway into oncoming traffic. Angelo flung up his arms as if to block a blow, as pain seethed through his muscles like venom. The wheel span beneath his grasp and he wrenched it to his right, wrestling the vehicle like a matador with a bull, until the wail of the engine subsided, and the car settled down to a steady pace, heading west.

Angelo shook his fringe from his eyes and glanced into the rear-view mirror, scanning the street as it rushed away and disappeared over the crest of the hill. The black Mercedes that had veered through the traffic over the bridge, almost perpetually bathed in the glow of his tail lights as it clung to him, had vanished. Angelo let out a deep sigh, coughed and ran a hand across his brow. His fingers came away wet. He was still bleeding.

Another glance into the mirror, this time to study his own face. His eyes were hollow, encircled by shadows, and dark bristles crept across his throat. The cut on his forehead was beginning to clot and he pressed his fingers to the bruising on his cheek, wincing at the pain.

He looked past himself, at the road behind. Still nothing.

The tires purred on the uneven concrete as Angelo took a right turn, followed by a left, then another left. The urban sprawl was unfamiliar to him, and each road – lined with signs he could not read – seemed disconcertingly similar to the last.

He might have been anywhere in Europe. There were no distinctive landmarks which might give away his present location. This part of the city contained no houses. No one lived here. Instead, vast office blocks loomed up from the pavements, glass and steel cascading upwards towards unknown peaks. The offices and factories were lit, but the light was static, still, dead.

The bundle that lay on the passenger seat occupied Angelo's every thought. It was all he could do not to stare at it. To stop the car, there on the highway, and peel back the silk in which it was wrapped. The idea filled him with nausea and he felt the bile rise in his chest, hot and painful. The package rolled drunkenly across the seat as the car turned another sharp corner. It disgusted him. Taking one hand from the wheel, Angelo tried in vain to wedge the object between the ridges of the upholstery, but it evaded his grasp.

He had only left the hotel fifteen minutes ago, but it felt as though he had been travelling for days. Would they be looking for him now? The carriageway plunged into a tunnel and Angelo wondered if he ought to make plans. A harsh yellow light strobed across his face as he drove beneath a string of street lamps, the unnatural glow reducing everything in the car to ghostly shades of grey.

In the absence of inspiration, Angelo took a right.

Every few seconds, he lifted his eyes to the mirror. With each stolen glimpse, his anxiety grew, twisting and squirming in his chest like a great caged animal. How long before they checked the room?

He shuddered and the car lurched a little as his right foot twitched involuntarily on the accelerator. The package had come to rest against his jacket on the passenger seat, but Angelo's mind was still drawn towards it with a dangerous magnetism. A morbid fascination washed over him, one which could not be quenched by these furtive, sideways glances. He wanted to fling it from the car window, sending out onto the highway to be crushed beneath the wheels of an articulated lorry. He wanted to drive until reached the sea and bury the sinister parcel beneath the waves. He wanted to open it.

He would try not to look again.

The glass and steel had gone now, replaced by neat rows of terrace houses and strips of neon light emitting from late night bars and betting shops. Here and there groups of men stood, talking animatedly and smoking cigarettes. They paused in their conversations to watch the strange car as it drove past their homes, in that disconcerting way that local people sometimes do. Angelo focused straight ahead, while the men stared. He felt their eyes on him as each man tried ferociously to recognise his face, distorted by the glass and the darkness.

Sweat dripped from Angelo's hairline. It bristled at the edges of his eyes and seeped into the deep lines around his mouth. The air in the car was acrid and as dry as tinder. He felt at any moment it might catch, and everything would burst into flames. Despite the stifling heat, he could not bring himself to open the window, not while there were men on street corners.

And a small, irrational voice had entered his head.

It had started in the hotel room, just after the white noise had cleared and the fog had lifted. After he had realised what he had done. It spoke with her accent, the little voice in his mind. An Irish lilt, with overtones of somewhere he could never quite place. Softly at first. Growing louder and stronger. Begging, pleading with him.

“No! Please! Stop!”

If he opened the windows, the voice might escape, and then everyone would know what he had done.

What had he done?

A sweeping curve in the road caught him off-guard and he was jolted from his reverie in just enough time to steer clear of the crash barrier. He felt a sickening thud as the bundle beside him rolled and slammed against the plush, leather interior of the car. It was a noise he felt rather than heard. Like the crack of someone striking him n the ribs with a pool cue.

Outside, the suburban landscape had fallen away, and in its place, hedge-hemmed fields and scattered farm buildings slipped past quietly, shadowy and grey-green in the darkness. There were fewer street lights out here, among the deep folds of the hills. But the glow of industry in the distance clouded the sky with a haze of red which obscured the stars.

Angelo checked the mirror again, but found that he was completely alone. The hotel room flashed uninvited into his skull and the scene flickered and stuttered across his mind's eye in sepia tones. It seemed like a thousand years ago now. In reality only a few minutes and a few miles separated Angelo from that room.

So much blood.

He changed into fifth gear and pressed firmly on the accelerator. There was nothing for it now but to keep going. The road had narrowed considerably, and was now only just wide enough for a single vehicle. Withered, spidery branches pulled at the bodywork as the car pushed through the flora along the track. Each time a leafy tendril struck the roof of the vehicle, Angelo felt his heart convulse. Even the smallest noise rang out like a gunshot.

A row of rosary beads hung from the rear view mirror, dancing an angry foxtrot across his field of vision with each pothole the wheels of the car encountered. Suddenly infuriated by their existence, Angelo reached up and ripped them down. The delicate brown wooden beads rained over the dashboard and into the foot well. Angelo cursed under his breath.

It was then that he heard it. Out there in the darkness, crouched beyond the reach of the head lamps. An other-worldly tattoo, low and accusatory, thumping against the metalwork of the car, as if the engine were trying to escape. The tone rising and falling in time with the rising and falling of Angelo's chest.

It stopped just as suddenly as it had begun. Each empty beat wavered in his chest, and he felt his shoulders loosen in time with the silence.

Four seconds.



Angelo felt a shiver, despite the intense heat of the car. The knocking of the engine jarred uncomfortably against the ever-quickening beat of his heart. He swallowed and felt his throat constrict. His breath escaped in laboured gasps, wheezing across his over-large tongue. The noise of his own body resonated in his ears and deadened the external senses. His breathing was too loud. His heart too fast. He took a deep breath and held it. The wheezing continued, rasping like a saw through his skull.

Gripping the steeling wheel tightly, Angelo shot a look to his left. The package had fallen onto its side. A deep stain was radiating from a pin point, sprawling across the material, like a delicate crimson flower.

The wheezing continued. Long rattling breaths that caused the air in Angelo's lungs to vibrate. He slammed on the breaks and the shaking wreck ground to halt. Edging towards the door, he grasped for the release. But terror clung to him, stapling him in place.

The package lay, face up, on the seat beside him. A small triangle of material jutted out, in slight relief. As he watched, he was aware of a slight movement of the cloth beneath. As the breathing continued, the wrapping gently rose and fell.


He was dimly aware that he was screaming. He could hear it as if from far away and under water. He saw the material swell and undulate in time with the deep grasping breaths and felt the gaze of cold, dead eyes, swivelling beneath silk to meet his own.

The screaming grew louder.

As if through a fogged mirror, Angelo saw his own hands reach down and, through the noise of his own screams, he ripped off the material, and opened the package.


  1. Really liked this piece. It felt very insular, but the limited perspective added to the sense of panic and focus generated by the story (and obviously mirrored by the character).

    The various elements of tension worked very well together. Having the car moving at speed, and the associated distraction from that, meant you could just give cursory descriptions of action and movement, not giving the reader a chance to be distracted by scenic requirements, without it being an obvious 'omission'. The pointedly generic locale's added to a sense of the purgatory being experience by the character, as the details and descriptions came out, both of what he'd done, and the demonic presence and effects of the package.

    The ending doesn't feel rushed to me, as the pace of the piece builds towards this point. The confusion between of identity between the package and Angelo (along with the car itself to a lesser degree) worked well as a device, however It did have to glance back over the description of the car's engine 'knocking' and his own panic, to distinguish enough between the two for my own understanding to accept. The breathing parcel though was very well done.

    Immediate associations in my mind were Poe and the Lovecraftian way of having elements of fear highlighting the object of focus, without actually defining it fully. In contemporary media - A head in a box? Se7en of course!

    Worth continuing, but stands perfectly well on it's own, a slice of a story, creating more mystery and intrigue by it's isolated nature.

    Very intrigued though, certainly would love to read more. Great piece...


  2. Normally, I have to ask if a piece I've written can be expanded upon since my taste is for wild and vast and swirling stories that mushroom far up and out into the stratosphere. You wondered if you ought to expand on this piece and I think the answer is obvious. It couldn't hurt to find out the why and wherefore of the beginning of Angelo's journey. Please tell us ;)

    I love how the description is used to give us an insight into his experience:

    'It was a noise he felt rather than heard. Like the crack of someone striking him n the ribs with a pool cue.'

    Like Sim, I thought of Se7en and I'd like to know why he is escaping with the package rather than on his way to delver it. Or maybe those guys in the black Mercedes are trying to prevent its delivery? Yes, the fun of short stories is in having the reader fill in the purposeful blanks but if you do have more to share/if you're not yet done with Angelo, then I'm all ears ;)

    And your second question was:
    'How effective was the piece in creating and maintaining tension?'

    I'd say it grabs you from the off and doesn't quite let go. I think that writing something as insular as this can be a challenge considering the only stimuli we receive are the protagonists terror - very easy to become monotonous with this. Yay for you though, as you've skillfully weaved his recent past and the 'event' of the box bleeding as focus' for him to intrigue us.

    The best thing about this circle is for me, learning from others and hopefully passing on some ideas. So, to give this tension a few more hooks to hold us readers? Well, I'd prescribe some of that specificity you found in Dangerous Beginnings. I know, I know; you're determined to keep the town he's driving through anonymous and that adds to his isolation, but maybe...have a newspaper under the box? A shred of headline for him to take in whilst eyeing the package? Or perhaps something more subtle, a ring on his finger reminding him of a happier time - some beach resort where he had many glasses of [insert name of drink here]?

    I swear, this piece is wonderful and with a few products or/and current events, the reader will achieve more verisimilitude and thus not get too lost in some of your more adventurous description. My fav bit:

    'A deep stain was radiating from a pin point, sprawling across the material, like a delicate crimson flower.'

    Because it's easy, crimson is a word I try to avoid for describing blood, but your use of the word flower gave the cliche a kick in the teeth and said, 'how's this for deft metaphorical juxtaposition?'

    I don't think the ending is at all rushed. Not one bit.

  3. Was this really two years ago? :O
    Well i thought it was good then, and I still do (though i swear you've changed it here and there). It reminds me of The Tell Tale Heart, mixed with a european crime thriller.

    The ambiguity of the location works for me, you have enough vague clues that enable the reader to get a feel for it, and fill in the blanks, without getting bogged down on where exactly IS that, again...

    I'm particularly fond of the image of the local men staring at the car. A quiet menace.

    I'm in agreement with Sim, and most of John.

    1. Yes. Do it. You have enough mystery to lay with, without necessarily dissapitating it all.

    2. Tension from the get go, its certainly the marker for this piece. A few sugeestions; the middle slumps a little. The begining starts fast, the end builds into a nice climax. Perhaps mention Angelo pushing the car, driving even faster. Increasing the speed in direct contrast to the rising tension. The word 'limits' applied to the city. Playing ith the device of the car; yes its his vehicle to freedom/enables him to esacpe..but it also traps him with the object. This is shown in

    "If he opened the windows, the voice might escape, and then everyone would know what he had done."

    but could be emphasised, made more sinister.

    "The tires purred on the uneven concrete as Angelo took a right turn, followed by a left, then another left."

    I have a problem with this sentance. Cars always purr. The left/rights lose tension. Specially as the directions are repeated through out the piece.

    "In the absence of inspiration, Angelo took a right." This however works very well.

    "Foxtrot"-its just to happy, merry, jolly, jaunty! Imo another loss of tension. Having the rosary battering itself against the window pane would work better. Still anoying warranting his action, but also implication that the religious arifact is trying to escape the car, the crime, Angelo.

    3. The ending is good, but the para's leading to it do feel a little rushed, as per Sims comments. The knocking/breathing needs a little tweaking. Perhaps a reordering of events, have him stop the car sooner, so the sounds grow in power in the silence/stillness (after all that movement) then the cloth moving with the breath would have more impact. The ending is great, not obvious in a bad way but an inevitablity Angelo/the reader must face. Da da daaaaa.

  4. I'm sorry, but i have to say, i love the love we have for each others stories. Why can't there be more people doing stuff as concise and considered for others? I'd rather have seven or eight people giving me good feed back than a hefty 209 people saying 'Really cool! You rock!'

    I mean really, hows that gonna help you? I've a sneaking suspicion that some who've left us NEED that and CRAVE that blind adoration. I think Steph is my critique on them. It will be anyway. I really don't want that guff...

    Now, Spiderfingers on the other hand...

  5. Hi guys, thanks for all your input, your comments are really helpful!
    Sim and Ashley – You are both right about the paragraph about the engine knocking, it's not as clear as it could be an needs a bit of tweaking. I will give it some attention in the rewrite.
    Sim: Thanks very much for the comparison to Poe, he's one of my favourites. Though I don't think I've ever seen Se7en. I'm not a big film person, and neither am I a horror fan. I take it there's decapitation?
    John – I'm glad you picked up on the description as insight (what with the pool cue and all). Do you think the narrative needs peppering with a few more of these devices? Or do you feel that might read too much like exposition?
    Once again, I was looking to restrict my writing to a certain theme here, and that theme was isolation. I'm glad that's come across to a certain extent and I hope to make that feeling stronger in the rewrite. Although, due to the nature of isolation in the narrative, I don't think brands, place names etc would be appropriate this time. I can seen what you mean John, but I don't think it will go with the feelings I'm trying to convey here. Feel free to disagree :)

    Ashley – I completely agree with you that the middle has a bit of a sag. I'm going to try and give it a good going over to improve the pacing and try to retain the tension. With this sentence, "The tires purred on the uneven concrete as Angelo took a right turn, followed by a left, then another left." I think you're definitely right about the directions losing tension. However, I don't agree that all cars purr. Newer models (like the one Angelo is driving) are pretty quiet, and uneven concrete, like that on the A47 between Swaffham and Norwich, is particularly liable to a purr. The sentence will get a re-rig though, in line with your comments. I also agree that 'foxtrot' is a bit inappropriate, so that's getting cut in favour of something a bit more punchy!

    And I totally agree with John, the point of a circle is to provide constructive feedback, both on the good bits and the bits that could do with improvement. I'm really pleased we've got a good group of talented writers who are willing to put in the effort to consider other people's work. It really means a lot to me to have you guys giving comments and making suggestions. It's great that we trust each other enough to be honest about both the great elements of our writing, and the bits that could benefit from a re-jig. I may even get a bit teary!

  6. Good, isnt it? Toattaly the tits, which are far superior to sliced bread.

    Purr, lol, I meant as a decription that always seems to describe the sound of cars. They tend to purr, or growl and occaisionaly choke and stutter. Not cat like cars that prowl the roads twixt cambridgeshire and norfolk, headlights blinding unsuspecting commuters, swishing tails of exhaust fumes; telling of their passing.

  7. Ah, in that case, I totally get what you mean. Its a cliché rather than an inappropriate description. In that case, I will take another look at it :)

  8. Regarding what you said regarding more peppering of devices (pool cue bit) I'd say HELL NO! That one part is enough to give the reader a rush and NEED to find out more about him. Other things in the story do this but that there is the icing for me ;)

  9. a) Yes, I stand by what I said last time I read this; I think it’s worthy of further development. Correction – it should be developed into something more. I want to know why he flipped. Did he flip; did she drive him to it? Why is the package breathing? What goes on here?!

    b) There’s plenty of tension throughout the story, and everyone’s already mentioned the lag in the middle and Ashley’s mentioned the foxtrot thing, so...

    c) The ending isn’t rushed at all. I don’t think it’s overly obvious what the package is until it starts to breathe, and then, yeah, it’s pretty clear. You leave enough clues throughout the piece for readers to make their own assumptions as to what the package is. I think the first time I read it I thought he may have taken her heart or something...

    The only thing I have left to say is; who is the woman? Was she is wife? If so, then maybe add the he’s wearing a ring. Or a prostitute maybe? It might just be me but I’d like to know a little bit about the relationship of her to Angelo, especially if you decide not to expand it, it might be worth putting something in. Unless, of course, you do expand the story then I figure you’d fill in the gaps anyway. :) Unless you’ve already explained and my eyes have deceived me.

    I have to admit, though, I was surprised when you first posted this, especially after the conversation we had about Captain Corelli's Mandolin in the pub. It’s quite sinister.

  10. Thanks John, it's good to get that feedback. There's definitely such a thing as over-doing it.

    Thanks for your comments Carla. In terms of plot, I often like to deal in mysteries, so that there are parts of the story that are eluded to, but never fully explained. I kind of want the reader to fill in the gaps so to speak. However, if I were to extend this piece, I would have to explain what had happened. I wonder if it would be better to go back in time to the hotel room, or to continue telling the story in a linear fashion, explaining the murder scene in memories? Any thoughts?