Friday, 31 December 2010

The Chicken Machine

Here's a wee short story to see out 2010. Thank you for reading and putting up with my endless blathering, and I wish you all a froody and fabulous New Year!

The Chicken Machine
By Jennifer Williams

The winter that the Chicken Machine told me what was what, we were visiting my cousin Michael. He was sick again.

They lived in a tiny seaside town and we normally went to visit them in the summer when the place was thrumming with holiday makers carting windbreaks down on to the sand, eating ice-creams and rattling buckets and spades. It was one of my favourite places, or at least the fun fair was. I spent most of those summer holidays hiding out in the amusements, or the slots as we called them, where I changed up all my pocket money into bags of smelly two and ten pence pieces. There were tuppeny pushdowns, with jerky outcrops of shiny plastic relentlessly pushing coins towards a gap they never quite reached; fruit machines lit up like Christmas trees; a teddy machine with a big silver claw that didn’t quite have the grip it promised; even the first video games like Space Invaders, Out Run and Wonderboy. And there was the Chicken Machine.

But December was very much out of season, and the fun fair and the slots were cold and dead when we arrived. I descended into a three day sulk in protest.

My cousin and I were both eight that year, but he looked half my age as he lay sunken into his bedclothes. His face was like a washcloth, crumpled and pale on his pillow. The room smelt of stale sweat and vomit, but my aunt chattered away like all was well. She was filled up with it; his symptoms, which doctor said what, the specialist they would see, the state of his bowels. There was a brittle cheerfulness to her that found no response in my mother, whose face was dark and full of worry when she looked at her tiny nephew.

“Lethargy, vomiting, diarrhoea,” my Aunt continued brightly. My uncle stood in the corner without speaking, like a piece of furniture. He didn’t look at any of us. Michael coughed weakly and my Aunt picked up a bowl of potpourri from the window sill. My Aunt was very keen on potpourri and made her own, so that the entire house was dotted with different sized bowls and small fabric pouches full of dried flowers. The scent of lavender and musk was everywhere in that place, but it did a poor job of covering up the smell of sick that clawed at the back of my throat.

“Think I’d better go freshen this up,” said my Aunt, smiling.

It was considered unhealthy for me to hang around the house so I was turned out to wander the sea front. It seems strange to say that now, but even in those days, which were not so long ago, we found it much easier to take our eyes off our children.

I walked down to the fun fair. The wind coming in off the winter sea was a terrible fierce thing, slicing right through my hat and anorak, but the sky had been polished clean. It was a silver day, a gun metal grey afternoon. The slots had their shutters down and the neon sign had been turned off, but someone had left the Chicken Machine outside. That was strange.

The Chicken Machine was one of my favourite things about the amusements. It consisted of a tall glass box with a wooden frame, an idyllic countryside scene of rolling hills and farmhouses painted on the glass. Behind it sat the chicken on a mountain of plastic eggs. The chicken itself was a moth eaten, mildly alarming looking puppet thing with orange and yellow feathers and big cartoony glass eyes. When you put twenty pence into the slot it would turn around slowly whilst a jaunty tune played. The chicken would cluck a few times and then one of the two-tone plastic eggs would drop down into the hole by the slot. Simply by giving your cash, you had won a prize!

The contents of the eggs didn’t vary all that much. Usually it would be a garish plastic ring that I could pretend had magical powers for the morning, or a toy soldier. Once it had contained a tiny rubber crocodile, the greatest of all prizes and the one I still hoped might turn up again one day. Even I had to admit it was mostly rubbish though, and it drove my Dad crazy that I continued to waste my money on it, but really it was the anticipation of what the prize might be that kept me coming back for more. After all, you always need more rubber crocodiles in your life.

As I approached the Chicken Machine, I noticed that had also been left on, glowing softly like a lamp against the blue shutters. I turned and looked around. The promenade was almost deserted. A man was walking his dog down on the beach and some older kids were passing a can back and forth further up the road, but there was no one around me, and no one in the fair ground to explain why the machine hadn’t been taken inside for the winter, along with the Postman Pat ride I was too big for now.

Seizing the opportunity I shoved my hands deep into my pockets and came up with three twenty pence pieces. Normally I would ration these out for the other games in the arcade, but now the Chicken Machine was my only entertainment there was no need to do that. I savoured the brief thrill of a reckless attitude towards money and pushed the first coin in. Immediately the chicken lurched into life. Without the background cacophony of the other slot machines the music was shockingly loud, and I could hear the low screech of the chicken turning on its rusty spike. I took a couple of steps backwards, suddenly unaccountably guilty, and certain someone would now be approaching to tell me off. You don’t get to play with Chicken Machines in the winter, everyone knows that.

But no one came. The kids on the corner had disappeared, and the man with the dog didn’t even look over. The music stopped at the same moment I let out a sigh of relief, and an egg rattled into the hole, followed swiftly by two more. The sudden influx of eggs overloaded the hatch and they scattered onto the floor by my feet.

The bloody thing must be broken, I thought, that’s why they left it out, but inside I was jubilant. Three prizes for twenty pee? Even my dad couldn’t complain about that.

I scooped the eggs up off the ground and when I was back on my feet I noticed that the Chicken Machine had turned itself off again, and now stood as cold and dark as the rest of the arcade.

“Totally broken,” I muttered, and sat on the concrete path looking out to sea, ready to open my bounty. The first egg was constructed of two rounded pieces of plastic, one pale green and the other pale yellow. I turned it over in my fingers, enjoying the moment of not knowing for a little longer. It didn’t rattle like they normally did. Eventually I took it between my thumb and forefinger and pinched hard, causing the two pieces to pop apart. A gritty white powder burst forth, covering my hands and gathering in the crotch of my jeans. It was so unexpected that I think I cried out a little.

I looked at my hands, and then inside the remains of the egg. The white substance, which felt a little like sand, was gathered up into little mounds inside. There was so much of it.

In an act of breathless eight year old stupidity, I touched the end of my tongue to the rough grains and grimaced.
The machine really was broken then. In my confused mind, I imagined all the toys and trinkets inside the eggs growing so old they turned to dust and salt. It seemed to me with my child’s perception of time that it was quite possible for such a thing to happen, during the endless weeks between summer and winter.

I put the egg pieces on the ground and brushed the salt off my trousers. The second egg was pale pink on one end, and pale blue on the other, and this time it did rattle in a dry, bristly sort of way. My mind was briefly filled with images of dried spiders and earwigs but I popped it open anyway.

A handful of small dried brown things fell out, accompanied by a powerful waft of flowery scent that flew right up my nose and tickled it. Peering at the pieces a little closer I saw that they were made up of leaves and petals, even a tiny slice of hard orange, and a small pine cone. Potpourri, exactly like my Aunt made. It made me feel uneasy for some reason so I threw it down onto the ground and slapped my hands together, trying to get the whispery dead feel of it off my fingers.

I paused before opening the third egg. It felt heavier than the others, more solid even. One side of the plastic casing was white and the other was orange. The man on the beach was nearly out of sight by now, the tiny bounding shape of his dog close to the surf, and above the December sea there were darker clouds coming in. A winter storm, maybe. I should get back indoors soon.

Without another thought I snapped open the last egg, and immediately shot up in disgust, scraping my jacket against the wall behind me. My hands were wet with crimson fluid, shockingly bright in the middle of that grey day. I rubbed them fiercely against the bricks making a low, sick sound in the back of my throat. The blood was warm.

The empty shells by my feet were slick and red.

When I’d got my head together a bit I ran across the road and down to the sea, and washed my hands in the salty water. Waves came in and soaked my trainers and the bottoms of my jeans but I didn’t stop until my hands were clean and numb.

Back in the house I couldn’t stop thinking about the Chicken Machine. The salt, the leaves, the blood. They sat in my mind like flares, or flags, bright and impossible to ignore. Like a warning.

In the evening my mother and I went up to Michael’s room to sit with him while he had his dinner. My Aunt had made casserole for us, but my cousin had a special restricted diet. With a calm expression she spooned thin milky gruel into his slack mouth, while Michael made the occasional weak protest. We sat in uncomfortable wooden chairs next to his bed and my mother spoke to Michael in a low voice, talking of small things; what was on the telly, his favourite football team, the weather. And as I watched his lips turn down with each spoonful of food, I saw the eggs again. The salt, the blood and the lavender. And suddenly I knew.

Without announcing my intentions, I stood up and took the bowl from my Aunt, too quickly for her to stop me. I tipped it up to my lips and took a big gulp, ignoring the fact that it was a little too hot, and immediately spat it back out again.
“Salt,” I said.
“Ben, what on earth...?” My mother was on her feet, her face tight with embarrassment.
“Taste it, Mum.”
I passed her the bowl, and finally my Aunt reacted by taking a swipe at it but my Mother already had it in her hands. She must have seen something in my face because instead of telling me off, my Mother bent her head to the bowl and took a sip. Her face screwed up in distaste and confusion.

“Martha?” she said to my Aunt, who was now standing very still, the spoon still clutched in one fist. “There’s so much salt in this Martha, so much...”
“There’s more,” I said, and with the knowledge dropped chilly and intact straight into my brain, I knelt down on the floor and reached under the bed. The washing bowl was exactly where I had known it would be. Inside it was a number of syringes, mostly clean but a few still sticky in places. There were bloody tissues in there too.

My Mother pressed her fingers to her lips, her eyes as wide and white as eggs.
“Martha, what have you been doing?”

We never went back to Michael’s house, not on holiday anyway. There were questions and hospitals and police involved, and my Aunt didn’t see Michael for a very long time. His body, they said, had been badly damaged on the inside thanks to months of salt poisoning and he might not ever be completely better. My uncle took on care of him, once it was proven he’d had nothing to do with the salt, and moved far away from the seaside down with its slots and funfair.

I went back there to look for the Chicken Machine but it was gone, a small square of cleaner pavement where it had once stood. And perhaps that was for the best. I’d lost my fascination with rubber crocodiles anyway.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The Year that was Writing Dangerously

So it’s that time of the year where we blog about the last twelve months, summing up the triumphs and the achievements and so on. Well, to be honest I’ve always been incredibly bad at remembering what happened in what year (I know, useless isn’t it? I have a great memory for pointless facts and a terrible one for the actual timeline of my life) so this blog post will be the vaguest sort of summary of 2010, including some of the things that I’m reasonably certain happened this year.

I started and finished The Steel Walk, a sword and sorcery novel about an ex-prostitute turned swordswoman forced into protecting the unwanted child of an evil family, whilst fighting off the evil machinations of the Green Council and their dreaded “dead walkers”. It was a book that didn’t go exactly according to plan, but it taught me lots of lessons that I’ll take on with me to the next book. And I did finish it, always the hardest bit.

Short story wise I’ve had a reasonably successful year, achieving way more than I ever thought I would. I’ve had a tiny wee piece of flash fiction published in Black Static as part of the Campaign for Real Fear- picking up a copy in Alt:Fiction and seeing my name in print was particularly exciting! I’ve been published twice in Hub Magazine and received some fabulous feedback on the stories. I’ve found homes for other stories in the From the Dark Side and Farrago anthologies, had a spot on the Un:Bound blog for Barleycorn (one of my favourites) and recently became involved in Dark Fiction Magazine where I had a lot of fun reading out Sarah Pinborough’s Do You See? I even had two of my own stories included, the second of which was a Christmas ghost story read out by Kim Lakin-Smith (who did a beyond fabulous job!). It’s been a good year for me and short fiction, and I owe a huge thanks to everyone who took a punt on an unknown writer. I hope I can keep it up in 2011!

Speaking of Alt:Fiction, I am pleased that I got my arse out of the house for once and attended a proper convention, meeting many lovely people and hearing so much writerly wisdom that I was filled with huge optimism and enthusiasm as well as dread and terror at the size of the task in front of me. Mostly, I just loved geeking out about books for an entire day with a bunch of like minded people.

I started writing Dead Zoo Shuffle in November with Nanowrimo. DZS was a big challenge for me; it was science-fiction/crime, and written in the first person, neither of which I had tried with a full length novel before. I got through 50,000 words in a month, and of course I’m still writing the bugger. Mainly I’m pleased with how much this book is making me think- trying to figure out the plot of a crime novel at 9.30am in Starbucks really sets you up for the day.

So at the beginning of 2010 I christened it “The Year of Writing Dangerously”, and in many ways it was. I formed a routine and forced myself to stick to it, and wrote more words in one year than I ever have before (the quality of those words is quite another thing, of course). I wouldn’t have had such a fun and groovy year without the help of a number of people, so since I’m here I’d like to say a quick thank you! Firstly, to my partner Marty Perrett (@Boxroom on twitter and go here for his website- ) who has provided endless support and chocolate in the face of my erratic enthusiasm and changeable moods, whilst also putting together some amazing creative projects of his own. Thanks as well to Adam Christopher (@ghostfinder on twitter and go here for his blog- ) a friend and writing buddy who has beta read for me all year, always giving useful advice and a kick up the arse when needed. I also owe Adam specifically for his ability to remind me of the right writing competition at the right moment, and for singing my praises to others. I’ve been lucky enough to meet a whole gang of marvellous people on twitter too, including Sharon Ring (@DFReview) and Del Lakin-Smith (@dellakin_smith) in charge of Dark Fiction Magazine, and Neil C Ford (@nubenu) who was kind enough to lend a struggling writer a netbook, enabling me to construct my coffee shop related writing routine. Thanks also to the lovely Adele (@Hagelrat) at the Un:Bound blog, and the charming Alasdair Stuart at Hub magazine who were kind enough to give my stories a home. And a general hug and slurred drunken “love ya!” to all the fabulous twitter peeps who have kept me sane and entertained this year- you know who you are!

So if this was The Year of Writing Dangerously, what is 2011? The Year of Getting My Arse in Gear and Finally Editing Something?

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Twelve Days Anthology from Dark Fiction Magazine

So it's here, on the darkest and spookiest day of the year- twelve stories to captivate, amuse, and give you the shivers. My story "Milk" is the first one on there, narrated by the lovely Kim Lakin-Smith (go find out more about that talented lady here: ) and I am tremendously proud of it. I've been full of the flu for the last two weeks so I wasn't able to read the story out myself (I sound rather like a bucket full of poorly frogs) but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Kim's voice suits the story so well I actually fidgitedy about with glee while listening to it. I'm also proud of "Milk" simply because I rather like it myself for once, and I don't often have a lot of affection for my own work.

Go here to listen to some excellent short fiction:

I'm working my way through them all now, and it is a marvellous little treat of wintery goodness.

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Brave Bit

And lo, we enter the armpit of my writing year, the blind boil on the bottom of my writing schedule; here we come my friends to December, the worst of all writing months.

It’s easy for me to appear to be a fantastic, productive writer in November. Nanowrimo surges me through the month on a tidal wave of word counts, calendars, countdowns, word sprints and all nighters, presenting me gleaming and victorious on the other side with 50,000 words and a certificate of win clutched in one triumphant fist. I write my socks off that month and kick writerly ass in all directions; I even wrote a short story this time, as if I didn’t have enough to do, and managed it all with, if not grace, then at least relentless cheeriness.

So it is always painful to come immediately to the bumhole that is December, when you have so recently bathed in glory and achievement. In December I am exhausted, for a start, burnt out from all the late nights and early mornings of the previous month, and there’s the sudden looming horror of Christmas, which I am inevitably underprepared for because I’ve been throwing my heart and soul into Nanowrimo. I suddenly need to figure out what I’m getting people and how, and when, and with which magical beans, and there are social gatherings happening that might require my attendance and for me to wear something other than an old chocolate encrusted jumper.

And the real bitch of it is, thanks to Nanowrimo I’m also at the hardest point in the book, that stinking gulf of words between 50,000 and 70,000 words where anything and everything can go wrong, and usually does. Every time it is the same for me- this is the point where I desperately want to give up and start something new, where I’m convinced I’m a terrible writer and the story I’m telling is boring, pointless and barely makes any sense. Every word is an agony and all attempts to make something new and shiny shrivel and die on the page.

Oh December, what fresh hell is this?

So this is the Brave Bit. Nanowrimo makes you look exciting and bold and impossibly glamorous, with your thousands of words under your belt, but if you’re like me and the book needs another 50,000 words to finish, then December is where you show your true bravery; where you screw your courage to the sticking place and bear down for the sheer excruciating agony of writing. You’re in for the hardest part of the journey now and there’s no comforting community to keep you going, no sense of a joyful challenge or even the false assurances that you’re not that bad a writer- there’s only all those blank pages to fill, a worryingly tight shopping schedule and a parade of increasingly threatening Santas.

So, I’ll come back to it all in January, yeah?

Friday, 3 December 2010

Dark Fiction Magazine's Twelve Days Anthology

So Nanowrimo is over, Dead Zoo Shuffle is half way through, and hopefully I'll be back to blogging again regularly. Phew!

Just a quick note today to do a brief snoopy dance of Christmas joy- not because I've actually done all my Christmas shopping (pressies bought = 2) or because I remembered to buy an advent calendar, but because my short story "Milk" has been chosen as the "maids a milking" section of Dark Fiction Magazine's Twelve Days Anthology.

All the details are here:

I've also been lucky enough to have another one of my stories included in Dark Fiction Magazine in Episode 2: Dystopian Desires. If you haven't heard it yet, On the Last Wave is here:

Obviously, I'm dead excited about this because it means my name is appearing next to some authors who I really admire- a truly fab christmas present. ;)