Saturday, 14 July 2012

Writer's circle post - July 2012

 Six Hundred Years

David winced and forced back the swollen flesh, peeling blackened skin across bloodshot eyeballs. The lids had swelled as the bruises blossomed and now only deliberate, painful effort could stop his eyes from closing completely. His vision, blurred as it was at the best of times, now drew in on all sides, and the edges of the room became unknown to him.

He could no longer see the other men. But they did not cease to exist, as he wished they might. Instead, they were shapeless entities, vague noises shifting and moving in the darkness beyond his perception. Like shades, moving beyond the veil; they were ghosts, these men who had yet to die. These men who had not yet fulfilled their purpose.

There were only three of them in the chamber. It was a long, low room with a riveted hatch pressed into one wall and rows of shuttered portholes running the length of another. Each surface was a patchwork of metal sheets, bolted together in a haphazard manner like a hastily-constructed submarine. The craft itself did not seem sea-worthy, and, as it began to move, the bolted sheets rattled, shifting against one another like tectonic plates.

Though the light in the cabin was dim, David could smell his fellow detainees cowering, as he did, in the darkness. The pervasive stench of gangrenous flesh and unwashed rags hung heavily in the air and David wondered if there might be thousands more aboard the shuttle, in other chambers just like this one. Men hidden in the wheel arches and crammed into the baggage decks, their pitiful screams muffled only by the sound of the engines.

More likely, the scent of fear had accumulated over the years, permeating the pores of the iron hull of the shuttle as it ferried its human cargo to the ultimate destination. After all, it was not a pleasure cruise. The health of the passengers was of low priority and there was no return journey. It was clear that the ship was not cleaned between flights. The stink of filth and ammonia mixed in the foetid air; the floor was slick with piss.

“My friend?”

The hiss, low and loud and close to David's right ear, wretched him from his own thoughts and startled him so much that he cried out in shock.

“Shhh! Do you want those guards to come back?”

A European voice. Young and male. He couldn't have been more than twenty years old. Perhaps a freedom fighter? Or a defector, no longer willing to help the regime? The accent was British – a slight hint of West Midlands in his leaden vowels, but this had been heavily suppressed.

David thought, as the man spoke, that his words had a certain thickness to them, as if this detainee was struggling to talk through split lips.

“My friend, please. I wish to speak with you.”

They had tried this tactic before. David remained silent. He was nobody's friend. Not here.

He tried to lift his head, to get a better look at young terrorist from Birmingham, but the metal collar around his neck restricted his movement. His wrists and ankles had likewise been encircled in thick manacles, and great chains looped between them down to an iron ring which was bolted to the floor. The guards must have restrained him while he was unconscious, as he did not remember being shackled in this way at the compound. David felt the warm metal bite into his skin and angry red welts snarled beneath this unwanted jewellery. His every movement was punctuated by the dull metallic clank of chains.

A sudden, juddering movement caught David off balance and he stumbled, awkwardly shifting his weight to keep from falling. The shuttle was moving again. David was dimly aware of the nausea rising in his stomach, and he consciously fought the urge to vomit.

Above him, a porthole had been left uncovered, and its shutter flapped impotently with the motion of the ship. Though blurred, David could make out bursts of orange light striking through the darkness out there beyond the six inch plate glass. The light illuminated a thin strip of bolted metal on the floor of the chamber and flung stark shadows across the hatch in the far wall.

Even though he knew it to be a fact, David found it difficult to accept that the craft was travelling at twice the speed of light. His mind, like his body, was too bruised and broken to contemplate such a thing.

So instead, he focused on his breathing.

Shuttle sickness was common side effect on these flights. He had read that somewhere. The technology itself had never been refined; there was no call for it. Comfort was not the main purpose of the journey. Detainees did not deserve a comfortable ride.

In the darkness to his left, David heard the third detainee wretch violently. The smell of bile – that sharp scent of stomach acid, devoid of any nutrition – stung David's nostrils. The detainee sobbed and wretched and screamed. David turned his head away and rubbed at the flesh of his bare chest, massaging at the knot of fear that tangled around his lungs.

“I'm scared.”

The detainee to his right had spoken again, his voice quivering with alarm.

“Where are they taking us?”

David did not answer. He knew where they were going. When they were going.

“Do you know where we're going?” A whispered question that felt more like a threat. “Do you know what's at the end of this journey?”

The chamber was quiet.

The third detainee began to sob again, to curse his mother and his Gods and to make pleas to the heavens for deliverance. But no matter how loud he shouted, his cries could not penetrate the thin metal skin of the ship's hull. His Gods and his mother could not hear him now. He was beyond deliverance.

David remained silent.

“Your resistance is not noble, you know.”

“There is no shame in confession. None at all. In the end, it may even save you from what's to come.I think we're almost there now. There's still time to stop this, David.”

And still, David remained silent.

The man changed tact: “Don't you want to see your wife again? If you tell them what you know, you could go home. You could see your family. You have a very pretty wife.”

He gave a laugh, short and sharp, devoid of warmth or mirth. Like the bark of a dog.

“We're not allowed to torture you any more. I'm sure you know that. I'm sure you read up about your rights. Sure, we can still rough you up a little bit, force you to stay awake for days, deny you food. But we can't torture you now, not really. In the years before, we would pay less reputable countries to do the torture for us. But now...”

He paused, and David felt a hand on his shoulder. A jolt of panic shot through him and he flinched like a wounded animal. The agent laughed his dog's bark laugh once more.

“No modern country has the facilities we need for persuasion. Lucky, then, that this particular technology is available. It's expensive, of course; the shuttles and capacitors are not cheap, but the process always yields the desired results.”

“Where are you taking me?”

His words were raw, rasping and barely audible now that the thrusters had kicked into overdrive. David felt a shift as the agent rose from the floor beside him.

There was no metallic clank of chains.

The man lifted David's chin with his index finger; it was as powerful as a coiled spring. David stared into the agent's pale face. A livid red cut ran diagonally across the man's bottom lip, like a line drawn in the sand. The agent talked slowly and deliberately, navigating the scar as spoke. His narrow eyes radiated cruelty and contempt.

After careful contemplation of David's features, the agent sighed.

“Well,” he said, pulling his hand away from his victim and turning towards the escape hatch. “Don't let it be said that you were not warned. I'm sure you will find Vlad Dracul to be a most receptive host. Once we land, you and you friends will be relinquished into his care. You will not survive the ordeal. Goodbye David.”

The man with the slip lip opened the hatch and slipped out of the room. Darkness closed in once more and David felt the ship slow to a halt. He was six hundred years from home. Not even the Geneva Convention could save him now.


  1. Congratulations on a quirky creative story. Gotta love those tales where the ending reveals so much about the journey and it is about reliving/re-reading that journey that such tales becoming ever rewarding. More on that in a bit, first, a question: Have you read Kafka’s The Trial? From your dire treatment of David, I’d say you were attempting to outdo Franz’s torture of Joeseph K!

    ‘Even though he knew it to be a fact, David found it difficult to accept that the craft was travelling at twice the speed of light. His mind, like his body, was too bruised and broken to contemplate such a thing.’
    Here is where I stopped thinking of the cylinder as a ship/submarine. Here is where I decided that your story was going to have some insane ending. You didn’t disappoint although, I think the ending could be better. How? Well, the answer lies in the beginning:
    ‘David winced and forced back the swollen flesh, peeling blackened skin across bloodshot eyeballs. The lids had swelled as the bruises blossomed and now only deliberate, painful effort could stop his eyes from closing completely.’

    (Is the frequent use of the letter b a deliberate ploy? Quite lyrical but then, you are a poet)

    We enter the piece focussing on David’s eyes which ironically won’t close due to their damage. This is a great way to begin a piece that keeps its audience in the dark as to the full nature of David’s torture…it’s all about the quick reveal at the end. However, if you could sprinkle a few clues as to where he is headed? Might make the inevitable re-read more fruitful for this is the kind of tale where one is almost expected to read it twice for small but significant give-aways to the twist, yes? Maybe we could have the ship stop and David hear a few words breathed into some other prisoner’s ear? Talk of dinosaurs, and maybe he becomes suspicious that he and other inmates have been placed here to be psychologically messed around with (over the course of the time spent here, he has muddied various ‘send-off’s’ into one long and rambling mess).

    Of course, this would mean that David isn’t privy to what sentence he has been given. Up to you, but it might make for a more thrilling and sinister tale? Think of the fun you could have with David’s own fear ballooning as he here’s one outlandish comment to the next, each stop on the trip back through time (and hey, some forward event splicing as well?) ever confusing and ever threatening.

    ‘It was clear that the ship was not cleaned between flights. The stink of filth and ammonia mixed in the foetid air; the floor was slick with piss.’
    Great use of the sense of smell here. I shall think of ammonia when describing piss as much as I consider copper when describing blood.

    ‘He was beyond deliverance.’
    Redundant passage I think, but I am fond of ramming sombre points home like this so who am I to talk?
    Let me know what you think of my radicalisation of the concept as it would require quite a bit of changes. Just so it’s clear though, I loved the idea…very nightmarish.

  2. Hey John, thanks for the comment and the suggestions!

    Weirdly, I have started reading The Trial, but I am only about 50 pages in so far, so I haven't yet got to the torture scenes yet. I have, however, read Kafka's In the Penal Colony, which was grotesque in its imagery. This short story came from two books I've read recently: The Time Machine by HG Wells and The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson.

    Pretty disparate reading material, but the thing that struck me, when reading about military techniques particularly, is that new technology is frequently used in combat environments. I was also struck by the idea that some governments took prisoners overseas so that countries who had not signed the Geneva Convention could do their dirty work for them. If time travel was invented, I think certain governments would utilise it in a similar way.

    I'm glad you like the concept, I think it's got some potential, but I think you're right in that it needs fleshing out, especially towards the end of the piece. Damn you and your encouragement to write ever longer stories!

    Do you find David a believable character? I want his thoughts and feelings to come across as how someone in that situation might react. Also, I wondered if the story might work better in first person rather than third? Any suggestions.

  3. I liked it in third. Where do you see your camera? Do you want shaky hand-held from his perspective shots, or are you willing to show us bits and pieces of his terror in a more objective way? I'd say that it would be more of a challenge to stick to the third person. Still think it would be more terrible for David to not know the nature of his sentence so that we find out alongside him. Have a look at the Trial's first fifty again! His life is psychologically having its wings pulled out!

    David has some sort of past and also, he's committed a crime...give us more of a sense of his past or he will tend to come across as a vehicle for your idea. I for example really want Sarah Edwards to work in a more immediate way than Steph so I fast tracked her movement within Spiderfingers AND in doing so revealed her history in regards to her father. Who is David leaving behind at home? Children would weigh upon his mind right? How about the crime being linked to them? Guilt or a feeling of persecution should be dripping off of your story, yes? Just some thoughts. Commented back on my latest - looking forward to what you make of my statements x

  4. Great piece Leanne - I can see we like similar genres of magical realism/shorts with a twist! I really did enjoy your story. I'm afraid I won't be able to comment on any kind of structure or grammar because I struggle greatly with my own but I have got a few thoughts to share.

    Not that I need more of a reason - but I would love more of a reason to hate David! As John also commented I'd like to know more of his past and wrong doing from the story. At the moment it has a feeling of exclusivity to those who are in the know politically. I think if you gave away a bit more about what he'd done to bring him to this place it would add an extra level to the piece and open it up to a wider audience. Your description of the torture is brilliantly visceral but would work much better if we had a sense of the prisoners deserving what they’ve got.

    Currently David’s character is coming across as quite empty, which putting a more positive spin on it, does create an element of his cowardice. I know we all have a perception of him as a political figure but I would like some more markers of his personality within the context of the world you’ve created.

    I'm not sure how I feel about the description "young terrorist from Birmingham". Again we don't know what this person has done - yes we have had terrorist in this country who have been from Birmingham - but I feel a little uneasy with the labelling . Having said that we are seeing the story through David's eyes(currently I know you are thinking of changing this) and perhaps he would assume this person was a terrorist just because they are from a certain part of the country. Either, if it’s kept as David’s POV, I’d like to see it phrased more in terms of him believing this person to be a terrorist or fi the perspective is changed I’d like to experience more proof of terrorism.

    I love the piece as a short, it has definite charm! I don’t know if I’d enjoy it as much as a longer novella/full novel, especially when we harbour so much negativity for the lead character/s. Do bear in mind I am a diehard Lovecraft/Poe/MR James sifi/horror short fan… SO I would say that…However I think it would work as a collection of shorts, perhaps from different perspectives. You mentioned maybe changing the narrative to first person, however I’d love to hear David’s journey from one of the other prisoners perspectives!

    I hope my comments are of use/interest. Thank you for yours I find the grammatical comment the most use, please continue to point those out and I will learn (all bit it slowly).

  5. @John I think I might keep it in third - I'd like to be able to make it more cinematic and really I think that's best done from an outsider's view point. It's interesting that you assume that David has done something wrong, as I imagined him and his fellow prisoners to be the victims of injustice rather than criminals awaiting their fate. Is there any way I can make this more obvious, do you think?

    @Katie - Your comments make a lot of sense to me, and I think you're totally right that David is a bit of an empty vessel at the moment. Truth be told this is a bit of a hurried first draft and I think both your and John's comments show that I need to put meat on the bones of the characters and the plot.

    I can also see what you mean about the stereotyping of the terrorist from Birmingham. It was a throwaway comment, written to give the other prisoner a little bit of depth but I can see how it comes across as quite a shallow phrase. I'll certainly take your advice and amend it in the re-write, perhaps make it clearer that these are David's misconceptions, thereby giving his character a little more depth too in the process.

  6. Firstly, great first stab at the commenting Katie as you are thankfully of the 'say-it-like-it-is type and not just 'that was good, I enjoyed that. I couldn't stop reading.' Such banality will get an aspiring writer nowhere without critique and you delivered!

    Have to say that I disagree with the terrorist from Birmingham being a problem as it seems to fit with the tone of the piece as is. However, it is clear from Leanne's comments that we are supposed to side with him and therefore yes, more character fleshing out (as I pointed out in my last comment) needs to occur.

    'I think it would work as a collection of shorts, perhaps from different perspectives.' -Katie

    SUCH a good idea! If you have the perspective of the law and then the perspective of David you could really give up the responsibility of who is right and who is wrong - let the reader become empowered (always a fav table-turner in my limited by unorthodox arsenal...Ha!), let we your audience gain a further understanding of how your world and its inhabitants see each other.

    If this is a first draft then well done you for sharing AND on time too!

    Oh, and through the revealing of David's crime/past/thoughts we'll gain more of the innocently-imprisoned motif you want sculpted around David.