Flash Fiction: Dust to Dust

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(Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma)

It infiltrates everywhere. Coating windowsills and forming precipitous piles against skirting boards, present in every corner. Tightly-sealed drawers are thrown open to reveal lightly-coated cutlery and tablecloths and t-shirts and hairbrushes. Books, untouched for years on crammed shelves, are opened to release sooty cascades from their spines. Each morsel of food, a beach picnic of old; every attempt to wash, a gritty exfoliation. Rubber seals around window frames and under doors are redundant, as it flows through keyholes, drifts through air vents, presses up between floorboards and rains from the cornices; a powdery invasion.

Outside, there is the perpetual battle against the grimy mounds that accumulate on the front porch, a daily struggle against absolute entombment. It’s easier now though. No longer the clamber up the rickety ladder, the mask narrowing vision and amplifying deafening asthmatic breaths, to sweep clear the roof panels. Not since distant, perpetual fires weakened the sun to a hazy, tepid shimmer.

Time is now marked in weeks. The hazardous journey to town along roads marked only by inactive pylons, the tyres sinking in fine powder, leaving behind a stilted wake. Waiting silently: the charging of the truck and the sole battery tasked with preserving life; the dwindling pages of tickets exchanged for plastic bottles of murky water and metallic vacuum packs. Waiting passively in a line that diminishes week by week.

Rushing home now, ahead of the approaching storm. A whirlwind of particles eddies across wooden floors as the door is slammed shut against the growing gusts. From the sofa in the front room, wrapped in grimy blankets, listening to the gale screech through the eaves, watching as the minuscule grains impatiently coat the glass. The drifts rising higher and higher until the dust blocks out all remaining light.

 

April 2017

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Flash Fiction: Beware the Sellers of Snake Oil

The painted cart rolls into town. A cloud of dust, kicked up by weary horses, and the jangling of tiny bells herald its arrival. Pulling up in front of the stone fountain, brightly-dressed men emerge. The curious townsfolk gather. Drums beat and tambourines jangle. Sparkling hoops tumble through the air, fiery blasts are shot towards rapt observers, objects disappear into velvet cloths only to reappear in a townsman’s grimy pocket, a hard-jawed wooden doll yells bawdy tales at entranced listeners. But these are distractions, a mere prelude to the main act.

A thunderous bang, and from a cloud of smoke he emerges; the weaver of great yarns. His breathless listeners are inextricably reeled in by the wonders of the wide unseen world, death-defying adventures and terrifying tales of mortal plagues bringing about excruciatingly slow deaths. The crowd impelled to the verge of hysteria. “But fear not,” he reassures them, producing a cloudy green bottle from the depths of his patchwork cloak. He presents tidings of wondrous protections and miraculous cures. A voice in the crowd rears up, confirming that, yes, he himself had been returned from the very doors of death by this man’s marvellous medicine. The mob clamours for this extraordinary elixir.

A foolish, unconvinced man in the crowd holds back.
“Don’t be an idiot. Don’t you want to be protected? We certainly don’t want to be infected by you.” He succumbs, parting with hard-earned coins.

In the morning, amidst the hangover of faded euphoria and clearing heads, the townsfolk look to each other with sinking realisation. A mob approaches the square seeking the colourful, flamboyant, mountebank; the charlatan who exploited their fears while bombastically claiming only he held the cure. But, as quickly and suddenly as the travelling show arrived, it has gone.

Jan 2017

Women’s Rugby World Cup: Refreshing Refereeing

 

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worldrugby.com

The women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland came to a thrilling climax this weekend with New Zealand’s Black Ferns XV reclaiming the title from holders England. The competition was an entertaining sporting display by highly-skilled, well-trained, committed amateur athletes, juggling the commitments of daily life while training for sport at the highest representative level. For the nations still developing women’s rugby, it was an opportunity to have quality game time with the top tier teams and a chance to raise the sport’s profile. Hopefully the rugby associations of all the nations involved will provide their full support to the women’s fifteen-a-side game, with development schemes which encourage women and girls to play. This is particularly important at a time when there is a danger of fifteens being neglected in favour of the sevens format, due to its inclusion in the Olympics and its perceived marketability. Hopefully too, more television networks and sponsors will recognise the value of the long game, lending financial assistance to clubs and players, and helping attract interest and viewers. But with any injection of support, and raised financial stakes, come changes in expectations, transforming aspects of the sport. One of the positive features of the current women’s amateur game that I hope can be preserved is the refereeing seen throughout this latest World Cup.

During this tournament, the on-field referees placed limited dependence on the video referees (TMOs), confidently relying on the assistance of their touch judges, and only asking for video confirmation in the most difficult of calls. There was a liberal application of penalty tries for goal-line infringements, and a sensible application of ‘benefit of the doubt’: an attacking maul marauding half a metre across the goal line before piling onto the ball should be awarded as a try even if the referee, or cameras, cannot ACTUALLY see the grounding. Contrast this with Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup match where an All Black’s try was granted by the referee on the ground only to be disallowed after the TMO interceded as there was no footage which showed a clear grounding of the ball. The referees and touch judges in the women’s competition also seemed to place a greater focus on one of the key fundamentals of the game, the forward pass. Too often this is let slide by touch judges and referees in the men’s game in order to keep the play flowing, perceiving that this is what the crowd wants.

Video referees undoubtedly have an important role in rugby, particularly in terms of safety. They have the ability to pick up dangerous tackles and foul play, often off-the-ball where incidents may escape the attention of the on-field officials. However the current situation in the professional game now sees TMOs intervening in the action on the field and making calls on sequences of play and tries without being requested for assistance by the match referee. This is resulting in long hold-ups but, more seriously, an undermining of the authority of the on-field referee. Team captains now regularly try to pressure the referee to send a decision to the TMO when they are unhappy with the on-field decision.

Undoubtedly, the financial investment in the professional game has put pressure on the sport to keep supporters happy, and the use of the TMO is a means by which to make the game seem fair. Viewers, all with their own opinions and analysis about every aspect of play, make a heavy investment through tickets, merchandise and betting, and are viewed as customers who must be kept satisfied. However, the frame-by-frame replay of portions of play take time and give an unrealistic view of what occurred. The grounding of a try which looks perfectly fine in real time may show a hand slipping from the ball in the final fraction of a second. What is the point of such pedantic distinctions? And while this situation all came about from a fear of the on-field referees making mistakes and receiving criticism, viewers regularly disagree with TMOs’ decisions too. For the future of the sport, professional rugby needs to look to the current amateur game where the balance of control remains very much in the on-field referees’ hands, with the TMO focussing on player safety and lending assistance with match decisions only when requested by the referee. And this also requires an acceptance by audiences, as well as coaches and players, that the authority of the referee is absolute, and the ultimate decisions they make are final, whether they are correct or made in error.

27th August 2017

WATCH: Top 5: Insane tries from finals day at WRWC 2017

Flash Competition: Persistence

The journal The Molotov Cocktail recently held a competition entitled Flash Rage, soliciting submissions of less than 1000 words, inspired by the spirit of protest. Although my entry did not make it into the top ten, it was included in their ‘Close but no cigar’ list. My story, below, is called Persistence


Persistence

January 1908

The bitter metal digs into my waist; cold, even through my woollen jacket, my blouse, petticoat and corset. Unrelenting. Bound; here at the seat of power, calling out to those in control. Solid in our cause, singing in unison. Undeterred.

“Our voice, our vote.”

With the shrill scream of whistles and the thud of weighty feet, the uniforms arrive. Bolt-cutters in hand, the chains snap as they are severed. My boots scrape on the kerbstones as we’re dragged into the road, unsilenced.

“Votes for Women.”

The bitter metal digs into my wrists. He spits in my ear.

“Ain’t gonna ‘appen luvvy.”

October 1910

The bile-green walls close in on me. Encased behind impenetrable doors and frosty barred windows. Antiseptic odours fused with faeces. Tormented cries echo down to me along sterile corridors, and my brain screams in reply. They have told me this is for my own good. They don’t want me to cause myself harm. Who knows what I might do in my next, hysterical attack.

I would like to go to the park though, to go for a walk, see trees. In truth, I would like to go home. I would like to see husband, my family. But I have been made to understand that that is not going to happen.

July 1922

Skinny little legs protruding from shorts. A bulky satchel bowing him over like a man five times his age. It is brimming with knowledge: formulas and dates and capital cities, explorers and discoveries, stories and ideas and truth. Overflowing with opportunity.

Our mother hands him a metal lunchbox, then prods him out the door. I watch him as he trudges reluctantly up the path, looks back forlornly, then disappears along the lane.

“Why can’t I go too?” I whine.

“How many times do I have to tell you? It’s just not possible, not for you.”

March 1977

Grandma’s gift is scrunched in my clammy little palm. So many choices, such an important decision. I stare down at the banknote, then back at the plastic children on the dais ahead. A confusing array under hot lights: floral dresses, lace-trimmed socks, pretty ribbons, caps, sporty shorts, checked shirts, tidy little suits with waistcoats. Mum nudges me.

“What do you want to get?”

I point to a blue t-shirt, baggy and emblazoned with a team logo. Mum smiles but shakes her head.

“No, not that one my love. That’s not for you.”

June 1993

The doctor beams ecstatically, having delivered the “glorious news.” My heart racing, skin cold, hollowness consuming me.

“What happens if I don’t want it?” I mumble.

His face blanches, the stupid grin transforming into a sneer.

“Well, if that’s the case,” he sighs deeply “we can look into adoption.”

“And termination?”, my voice barely audible.

“Elsewhere that may be possible, but that is most definitely not an option for you here.” His cold eyes penetrating. “Absolutely not going to happen.”

February 2012

“Take the offer,” she urges.

An offer of anonymity; for him. A slap on the wrist and affirmation that it was merely a momentary lapse in judgement. An alcohol-induced slip up. But I want justice. I want everyone to see the bruises on my body, the dirt in my hair, to taste the bile of fear with his hands on my throat, to feel the burn as he shoves inside. I want him to share my humiliation, my suffering. I want people to judge him, just like they judge me now. The lawyer shakes her head.

“I must advise you, a victory in court, a custodial sentence, those are highly unlikely to happen.”

August 2014

A whirling maelstrom of ideas and opinions perpetually circling the globe. Idealistically, naively, I had added my voice. A critical analysis of a game, a questioning of the status quo; pounced upon by self-appointed gatekeepers protecting their exclusive domain. A coordinated defence mounted; a multi-fronted attack. Weaponised sharing, multiplying exponentially.

“What do you know about it bitch? Get back to the kitchen!”

“You and your opinions can fuck off and die!”

“Don’t block me snowflake. Get off the Internet if you can’t take it. Stop being a victim.”

“Think we’re going to take advice from a cunt? Never going to happen!”

November 2016
I can withstand the criticism, the whispered innuendo, the outright attacks, the blatant lies. Because I know I’m right. I have worked a lifetime dedicated to the craft. I am qualified, experienced, professional. I have proven myself capable at every turn. I have fought and won endless battles and I deserve this opportunity.

And my competition? A slapdash novice, unversed in complexity and subtlety. A foul-mouthed bullying abuser; a proven incompetent who has bluffed and wheedled and golfed his way upwards. It should be a cinch. It should be mine.

January 2017

In the bitingly cold air, our breath condenses in a haze, hovering overhead. We are a sea of pink wooly hats rolling unrelentingly into the distance, stretching on towards the seat of power. We have communicated, coordinated, united and now gathered in our thousands, tens of thousands. We raise a rallying cry, our voices united in our demand for control; control of our own opinions, our own choices, our own education, our own careers, our own participation, our own appearance, our own bodies. Undeterred, unsilenced, we march onwards.

We have been warned.

We have been given explanations.

Nevertheless, we persist.

Jacqueline MacDonald, March 2017

Brain Training: Micro Flash

Writing flash fiction, generally tales of under 1000 words, is a great exercise to force yourself to be succinct and make every word count in storytelling.  There are also plenty of opportunities out there to hone these skills further with micro flash writing.  Whether you do it to develop writing dexterity or just to keep your brain in tune, it’s a fun exercise and my personal favourite is the New Zealand Book Council‘s (@nzbookcouncil) Rāmere Shorts (#Rāmereshorts). Every Friday, on Twitter, the challenge is laid: six randomly chosen words which must be included in a short tale within the 140-chararacter limit of a tweet. That generally amounts to around 15 to 20 words, with flexibility granted around word form, grammatical accuracy and punctuation.  The challenge is also given a competitive edge with a winner selected at the end of the working day, the prize being purely the honour. Each week, working within such tight boundaries, a surprisingly varied ranges of entrants surface, including the topical, lyrical, comical and emotional.

Give it a go with some past Rāmere Shorts challenges:

bully, robotic, glitter, pandemic, wax, dizzy.

mask, winter, careless, prayer, insane, homewards.

blender, mask, moonwalk, gobsmacked, duck, blink.

Here are some of my own efforts.

And my own personal favourite:

 

3rd April 2017

 

Winter Zest: Japanese Yuzu

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It is tōji; the shortest day of the year. The sun, which has brought a comforting warmth to the day, sinks below the horizon heralding crisp, biting air and hasty darkness. Steam rises from a cyprus-wood tub, and with it a comforting, citrus scent. Bobbing in the soothingly warm water are dimpled golden fruits, a visual hybrid of an orange and a grapefruit. These zesty orbs, with high concentrations of vitamin C and an oily component consisting of nomilin, are there to guard against colds in the long winter ahead, to treat irritated skin, and to aid circulation while promoting comfort and relaxation. Since the 18th century, the solstice yuzuburo, a bath with the winter citrus fruit yuzu, has been a favourite tradition with Japanese families.

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Yuzu is a rare citrus which can grow in regions with winter temperatures as low as -9C, and it fruits in Japan at the beginning of winter. Introduced to the country from China in the 8th century, its seeds have traditionally been used in medicines to treat skin irritations. In culinary terms, lacking in juice and pulp, it is its zest which is employed most. It has a strong, aromatic flavour which is instantly recognisable, and not always popular amongst Japanese children, becoming an acquired taste in later years. It is combined with mirin (rice wine), vinegar, katsuobushi (fish flakes) and kombu (seaweed) to make the dipping sauce ponzu, or with chilli peppers and salt to produce the condiment yuzu kosho. It is added to honey as a sweetener for tea, distilled into vinegar or the liquor yuzukomachi, and used to add a spark to drinks such as non-alcoholic cider. A single shaving of zest atop a piece of sashimi can add a pleasant zing. Chefs in Japan today use it playfully, drawing on its seasonal associations with winter.

In the last 10 years or so, the west have grown familiar with this east Asian taste explosion, although it can be difficult to obtain the fresh fruit and users often make do with bottled yuzu juice. Chefs have employed its powerful citrus bite, adding it to seafood dressings, mayonnaise, fish marinades, custards, jellies, panna cotta and pavlovas. There are several examples of celebrity chefs experimenting with the fruit in their recipes, from Jamie Oliver’s Asian seafood salad with yuzu and sesame dressing and Heston Blumenthal’s yuzu remoulade with barbecued pork chops to James Martin’s deep fried squid with yuzu mayonnaise.  Meanwhile, mixologists use it to give a flavour kick to their cocktails and several craft breweries, including Iki in the Netherlands and Garage Project in New Zealand, have added it as a citrus element in their beers.
March 2nd 2017

Devonshire Cream Tea: Red Fox Vintage, Launceston Tasmania

 

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1000 years ago, in Tavistock, Devon, the monks of the Benedictine abbey fed labourers working there with bread, clotted cream and fruit preserves. Hundreds of years later, a variation of the dish, with scones replacing bread, was being served to the early tourists of the day who flocked to the region for its beaches and stunning coastline, and the tradition remains strong to this day. The popular dish causes extreme regional rivalry between neighbouring counties. Cornwall gained a PDO (protected designation of origin) for one of the central ingredients, their treasured clotted cream, while the dish itself is firmly established as the ‘Devonshire’ cream tea. The regional disharmony extends to how the dish should be eaten; in Cornwall the halved scone should be spread with jam (always strawberry) first and topped with cream, in Devon this order is reversed. Cream tea etiquette extends to the essential nature of clotted cream, not whipped, the type of scones, the flavour of preserve and whether the tea or the milk should be added to the cup first. In spite of these strictures, the dish spread internationally and can be commonly found in ex-colonies such as Australia and New Zealand, often with variations which would undoubtedly appal the Cornish and Devonians.

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Launceston in Tasmania was named by the British authorities in the early 19th century in honour of the Governor of New South Wales of the time, who had been born in Launceston, Cornwall. With such a namesake, it would seem natural that Launceston, sitting upon the Tamar River, should be a provider of a quality cream tea. Several venues offer the dish but the place to go is Red Fox Vintage. An unassuming shop with a view of City Park, Red Fox is delightfully crammed with antique furniture, lamps, crockery & cutlery, tableware & kitchenware, clothing, accessories, and secondhand books. Chairs have been placed around the only four available horizontal surfaces and, amidst the sounds of cool jazz and lounge music, the proprietors, Sonja and Tanya, serve delicious homemade cakes and soup, teas, coffees and soft drinks. Their cream tea is a generous serving of two scones with plenty of jam and sumptuous cream, with a hot drink of your choice, all for $10. Even if you choose to replace the tea with coffee or hot chocolate, and regardless of whether it’s your cream or jam sitting atop your scone, you can sit back and relax in the surroundings of yesteryear and savour a long-enjoyed tradition.

 

7th February 2017

Red Fox Vintage, 66 Tamar Street, Launceston, Tasmania
Open Wed to Fri 10am-3pm, Sat 10am-2pm