Old Stories

Old Stories – Sticks and Stones

Author’s Note:

While you wait for the next instalment in the Man on a Wharf series, I thought I’d share an old story that I wrote nine years ago. I wrote Sticks and Stones in 2005 when I was taking a creative writing course at Flinders University as part of my Bachelor of Arts.

As I’m sure will be the case with the stories on this blog, some of my stories are better than others. Of the ten or so stories that I wrote, this story received the most praise from my classmates and tutor.

I think what made this story special was that it was autobiographical. I grew up in country South Australia and was an outsider for many reasons. Like the child in the story, I was bullied frequently. While the bullying was quite horrendous at times, I was blessed to have amazing parents who taught me to forgive my enemies and who created a safe environment at home.

Bullying and its potential negative consequences is such a big issue these days. Everyone has a theory on how it should be handled: From retaliation through to reporting. Unfortunately, you can’t change other people. Bullying, while it can be improved, will never be completely eliminated.

I wanted to show how, despite the terrible things that others can do to you, you don’t need to wear that all of your life. If you have a safe place to go to, loving friends and family of your own, then you can cope with just about anything.

If you like this story, it is available for free as an ebook from itunes and smashwords.

Sticks and Stones
by Chalky MacLaan

I pick it up quickly, my bag that is. I look around the room at my classmates, they are all talking. Talking, talking, talking to each other in groups. Groups of monkeys, they seem like. Monkeys, picking each other’s nits. They are so involved in each others’ lives, so interconnected with one another. It makes me sick to be here on the outside of the group, looking in and wishing that I was not here, on the outside. It makes me sick, so sick I’m leaving now.

I walk through the porch of the old, wooden classroom that has been here, in this school, for decades, gradually wasting away in the scorching outback sun. I walk outside and feel that same scorching sun hit my face. It feels like someone has just thrown me into a furnace and dropped an anvil on my head at the same moment. I shake my head to throw these images away and scamper to the bike shed, where I need to be before the older boys catch sight of me. I scarcely look around, but I’m pretty sure that the boys aren’t there, because I can’t hear their taunts. I can’t hear the taunts that I so often think about, dream about, cry about. All I can hear is the birds; the whistle of the north wind in the tall, deformed trees that have been growing in asphalt since forever; and children, younger than myself, singing as they are being led towards the line of yellow school busses, beyond the staffroom. I long for the sound of cars, busses, motorbikes, trains, planes and every other sound that represents a place that is not this town, this prison, as I like to call it.

I unlock my bike from the bike shed. No-one else has to lock their bike up, only me. And still a bike lock does not guarantee that my tyres will be fully inflated when I ride home in the afternoon. Today, however, my tyres are fine. I sometimes wish that I could fill my tyres with a gas that, when let out by one of the older kids, would magically transform them into a person who is different than the norm, like me. Or at least expose the fact that all of the other kids are not clones of each other as they pretend to be, but individuals.

I start to ride. I ride fast, I ride hard, I ride home. It’s not far to home, only down this street, around the corner and down that street. It seems easy enough. I turn the corner, only to be confronted with a nightmare: A nightmare of red. Their red, sunburned necks fade into the red of their short hair, with no distinction. I’m scared. It’s the older kids. I can see my house, I can see it. But the way is blocked. I have to ride on. Ride on through the red sea.

They’ve seen me now. I can’t turn back. They bend down to the ground, down to the dusty, dirty ground, as I ride past, fast and at last they’re behind me. But wait for it. Thunk. It hit my wheel. Thunk. It hit my bag. Thunk. It hit my head. The rocks came flying. And so did those taunts.

Thunk. “You fat wombat.”

Thunk. “Go back to the city.”

Thunk. “That’s for your dad, you freak.”

The bike kicks up the dust and it mixes with the tears that start to fall down my cheeks. The responses to these taunts, flow freely around my head, but I’m always going to be too scared to voice them. I am now out of their range, until the time comes when they devise freak-seeking missiles. I turn into my drive and dump the bike on the lawn. I wipe the mud from my cheeks, take a deep breath and go inside. As I enter, I step out of the furnace, and the anvil is taken from me. It is cool, and there is a nice smell of biscuits or cake or something in the air.

The assault continues as I walk to my front door. I look out the window and see the older boys still hurling rocks. But it is quieter now. Muffled by the walls of the house, I only hear a soft: Tick. Tick. Tick. My mum comes up behind me. She puts her hand on my shoulder. I smile. From here, through the window, they are exposed as the buffoons they are. Their red faces, their red necks, the red dust that makes them cough. They look ridiculous. I laugh. They can’t get me in here, this is my house, this is my zone. Here I am not different. Here I can be the city-loving, slightly overweight, son of a teacher that I am.

The tick, tick, tick of the rocks dies down as the boys get bored and walk off. It’s over for today. I shut the curtain and get on with my life.

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Cover image: David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Man on a Wharf

Man on a Wharf – Story 1

Something in the Air

by Chalky MacLaan

Barnaby Jenkins moved his backside to try and find a more comfortable position, but that only made it worse. It felt like there was a whole brass band marching around his insides.

“Mr Jenkins, do you mind ceasing your acrobatics,” barked Miss Fondley.

Miss Fondley reminded Barnaby of a koala. They’re not actually cute and cuddly; rather, they are pudgy, emit a strange grunting sound and have a nasty temper.

Barnaby’s stomach started to rumble. The sound vibrated through the silent classroom like a small swarm of bees. While everyone’s heads remained down, feigning concentration, twenty seven pairs of eyes rotated in Barnaby’s direction.

A small snigger erupted from behind him. He stole a quick glance and, face reddening, saw Sonya Henley laughing.

Sonya Henley was, quite simply, the most exquisite, splendid, stunning, appealing, dazzling and downright hot creature Barnaby had ever laid eyes on. In her amber eyes flickered a flame so bright it melted Barnaby to the core every time she shoved him out of her way. Her copper coloured hair always fell in cascades down her back as she sashayed away from him with his lunch money.

The giggle spread gradually around the back of the room like some sort of epidemic, and as it did so, Barnaby’s embarrassment turned to anger.

Miss Fondley growled and the giggling ceased.

Why did everyone have to be so mean? Another pang in his gut made him forget his anger. If felt like someone had just switched on an industrial strength mixer down there.

He tried to read the questions in his text book, but nothing could distract him from his stomach’s gurgling.

From somewhere behind him, one of the boys made a squelching sound. Trying to ignore it, Barnaby silently wished that school would finish early so he could be alone with his stomach full of noxious gas.

The mocking squelch resumed. Barnaby had had enough. He turned around sharply and…

The sound was incredible. It started with a small whizzing whine like a mosquito with ADHD and gradually built into a sound like a thousand croaking frogs flying helicopters. It then settled momentarily into a throaty roar and… poof… it was gone.

The room was silent. No one moved. Barnaby held his breath.

Then, Miss Fondley picked up her newspaper, folded it, stuffed it into her little brown bag and marched out the door, grunting, “Class dismissed!”

Without so much as a look in Barnaby’s direction, everyone else followed closely behind, leaving him alone in the room.

Barnaby looked around, not quite believing what had just happened. He sniffed the thick air, a look of disgust only vaguely masking one of pride at the musty funk hanging in the air.

Barnaby sat in his seat staring numbly towards the window. “I got my wish,” he thought.

When, after ten minutes the class hadn’t returned, Barnaby decided to leave too. He started towards the door and suddenly stopped short. “What if…” The idea was too bizarre to consider.

*     *     *

Barnaby sidled up to the crowded bus stop. Not wanting to be too conspicuous, he put his headphones in, turned around and let himself become lost in the beat of his music.

Thump!

Barnaby snapped quickly from his trance as something slammed into his head.

Thump!

He spun around to see another rock come flying. Barnaby dodged and it grazed his cheek. Tony, a tall, red-faced boy with ears like shrivelled lemon quarters and mean eyes snickered from the other side of the bus shelter, fresh dust falling from his palms in little billows.

His head smarting, cheeks blushing and heart pumping, Barnaby did his best to remain calm as he hailed the approaching bus. He climbed aboard, hunting for his ticket.

The doors hissed shut. Barnaby’s stomach lurched as the bus pulled out quickly into traffic. He felt that old tingle deep within. He struggled to  hold back tears.

“Oi, mate,” whined the bus driver, his eyes swinging dangerously away from the road, “show us yer ticket.”

The ticket was gone. “I just wish that something good would happen for a change,” thought Barnaby.

The driver’s eyes shot back to the front as he slammed on the brake. The bus swerved sharply and… urr-tuurr-puurble-urble-weeeeiiiit! Barnaby’s gas escaped in a squeaky stream as he flew sideways against the door like a deflating balloon.

“Hey… Darn’t worry about the ticket, mate,” cawed the driver, looking remarkably calm considering he had almost sent thirty-four unwitting people to their premature deaths, “the roide’s free. Youse have a good day, eh!”

“Thanks,” murmured Barnaby as looked up the aisle to see every seat occupied.

A rotund lady in a red blouse reached out with her wet satiny hands and grabbed Barnaby.

“You can have my seat, love,” she slobbered as she manoeuvred her mass out of the seat. Barnaby tried to refuse, but she moved quickly past him.

The man next to her also sprang up. “Have the whole seat. You’ve had a hard day; I can see,” he reassured as he disappeared into the back of the crowded bus.

Barnaby sat down, flabbergasted. It was as if his wish had come true: Good things had happened to him. He then remembered the wish he made in class that had also come true. Did he have a magic genie-god-mother? Was he magic? Was it all a coincidence? He decided to experiment.

He wished for a drink.

Nothing happened.

This time he wished that the balding man across the aisle would shout out a random phrase in German.

Still, nothing happened.

Another intestinal groan interrupted his thoughts. “That’s it!” he thought as he started lifting the left side of his derriere ever so slightly off the seat. An apprehensive strain flashed across Barnaby’s face as he silently let go.

It dispersed quickly, wafting down the aisle. Barnaby wished whimsically with all his might.

He wished for a fish,
He wished for a dish,
He wished for a tune
and a shiny spoon and…

Immediately, his fellow passengers presented him with a tin of tuna, a plastic bowl, a spoon and a rousing rendition of ‘Somewhere Beyond the Sea’ in four part harmony.

Barnaby’s face froze. Thoughts whizzed into his mind like metal filings to a magnet as he thought of all of the things he could do. He’d never have to eat dried apricots again. He wouldn’t ever have to pick up dog poop off the lawn. He would be able to teach Tony and the rest of the boys in his class a thing or two. And Sonya, well…

Barnaby pressed the ‘stop’ button, jumped out and charged home to consume every tin of baked beans in the house.

*     *     *

It wasn’t the video about seasickness at the maritime museum that had made Barnaby feel ill. Nor was it the hot, summer sun or the colossal volume of baked beans that he had consumed the night before. He was nervous.

He looked ahead along the old cobbled street and caught a glimpse of Sonya sidestepping a bollard with a grace reserved only for angels. Barnaby’s heart beat faster as he jogged to catch up with the rest of the class.

They turned a corner and there it was: the lighthouse; perched on the edge of a river wharf, its bright red paint and spider web of supporting struts captivating in the bright sunlight.

“Jenkins! Hurry up!” snorted Miss Fondley. Everyone turned and stared as he caught up.

“Just two up at a time. Jenkins, you’re first. Who’s going with him?” The birds stopped their twittering and the wind its whistling, it was so quiet. However, for once in his life, this did not bother Barnaby one bit. With a quiet wish and an almost inaudible hiss, Barnaby walked forward.

“I will!” said a voice that sounded like the swish of velvet mixed with the tinkle of wind chimes. Barnaby kept walking as Sonya glided into the lighthouse behind him.

As they ascended the spiralling stairs, the air was a little bit heavier that it might usually have been.

“I like your shirt!” said Sonya, trying to squeeze beside Barnaby on the narrow stair.

“It’s just my school uniform. I wear it every day,” Barnaby replied, a self-satisfied smirk crossing his face.

“I think you have lovely hair. Can I please sit next to you on the way home? You are so smart!” Compliments spilled out of Sonya’s mouth like a waterfall, making him buoyant with confidence.

Arriving at the top, Barnaby stepped gingerly onto the balcony, gripping the guard rail for support and trying not to look down. Sonya joined him, her eyes on Barnaby’s.

Then, he felt it. It happened rapidly this time, his lower body expanding with gas until the point at which he thought he must’ve looked to Sonya like a bloated pear. Those beans were doing their job exceedingly well. He stood on his toes, squeezing tight, trying to hold it in as he made his wish. “I wish she’d kiss me.”

Squinting one eye, he slowly lowered his feet. As he did so, the most amazing, spine-tingling, hair-raising noise came forth from deep within Barnaby. It sang and echoed like whale song. The lighthouse creaked with nostalgia as a deep foghorn element entered the cacophony. And then, it ceased, the last remnants of sound being carried off across the wharf by the breeze.

Sonya moved close to Barnaby. The flame in her eyes burned bright as she moved in for the kiss. Barnaby leaned towards her, not quite knowing what to do. As their lips met, Barnaby was surprised at how wet they felt against his own flaky lips.

They stood there in that manner for what seemed like an eternity, noses squashed into each other’s cheeks, lips locked, when Barnaby noticed Miss Fondley staring at the back of Sonya’s head, her marsupial face twisted with murderous intent.

Miss Fondley pushed Sonya aside and grabbed Barnaby around the back of the neck. Barnaby braced himself and squeezed his eyes shut as Miss Fondley planted a kiss firmly on his mouth. Barnaby twisted out from her grip and started to run around the landing, trying to find a way out.

“Come here, beautiful,” croaked Miss Fondley.

Then, Barnaby noticed a tremor. He looked over the side of the platform and his face froze in horror. Streaming from every direction, women of all shapes and sizes were headed towards the lighthouse. They looked like an army charging a besieged castle, except on their faces was a look of expectant urgency. Barnaby saw one elderly woman, her spectacles crooked and hair wild, jump on a teenage girl and tackle her to the ground.

Suddenly, onto the balcony burst a wave of women, clawing and fighting their way towards Barnaby. He ran, trying to find an escape, when, in front of him, another group emerged. He was surrounded.

The women advanced, their lips pursed, their hands outstretched, grabbing, trying to touch him. He was grabbed by both groups and dragged to the floor.

“No!” he cried out, fighting to free himself. But he was pinned down, fifty jets of warm panting breath making him gag.

He made one desperate movement and managed to flip himself over. In this position, he was able to raise himself slightly and commando crawl out from under the pile of grasping bodies. He hauled himself onto the small ledge above. He fell back, out of sight, panting.

He tried to make a wish, but he was all out of gas.

It was what felt like an hour, but was really only sixty seconds, before he felt the old rumbles in his tum.

Barnaby made his wish, lowered his pants, and hanging his backside out over the railing for maximum effect, he let fly.

Author’s Note:

As you may have gathered, the genre of this piece is tween boy fiction. I realise that it may not be a genre that you have read in a while and that it doesn’t really appeal to the sense of humour of most sophisticated readers. If you have got this far and are still reading, thank you for suspending your disbelief and temporarily becoming a young person. Given that so many young boys don’t want to read (I know – I teach them), I feel that it is important that stories are written in this genre.

I was very excited when I came up with the idea of a boy who could control others with his farts. I felt this would appeal to the target audience and is the kind of premise a tween writer like Andy Griffiths or Paul Jennings might use.

It is a great premise and posed many questions, the most interesting of which, for me, was: ‘If a tween boy was given the power to control others, what would he use it for?’ I decided that he probably wouldn’t use it for world domination or creating a slave race, but rather to solve his immediate tweenage problems: getting out of boring chores, getting revenge on bullies and getting the love of his life to notice him.

I was also inspired by Roald Dahl to include a sense of comic poetic justice in the story. Barnaby doesn’t get away with abusing his power over others, ending up even more isolated than he was before. As they say: ‘With great fart comes great responsibility’.

This idea is one that could be extended and developed extensively, opening up the possibility of a series of novels if people enjoyed this story. What other adventures could Barnaby have? Does he learn to use his powers for good? Do the other members of his family have the power too? What about his evil twin sister, what would she do with the power?

I found the process of writing this story satisfying, but I found the process of editing my own work (one which I have not had much experience before) extremely exciting. When I had finished writing, the story had 2760 words. Through six drafts, I managed to cut this down to 1976 words and the story is so much the better for it. Having a clear idea of audience and purpose made it reasonably easy to cut the story down. Anything unessential to the plot, convoluted and flowery language and many adverbs were removed to make the language more succinct.

I hope you enjoyed my first piece. Now to start the whole process again.

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Apologies

At the end of this, my first week of the Man on a Wharf challenge, I find I am already going to have to modify the task.

Last night, I finished writing my first story. I have spent my week nights writing madly, but in the meantime somewhat neglecting my occupational and parental duties and getting a little stressed in the process.

On another, but related topic, yesterday, I had the privilege of listening to two of Australia’s top children’s writers, Mem Fox and Andy Griffiths, speak at the Adelaide Writer’s Week. One of the things they highlighted as very important is the drafting process. Mem Fox is a picture book writer and she detailed how over the course of twenty or so drafts, she recently cut down a 490 word book to 360 words. That’s 27% of the story that she eliminated! Incidentally, that is exactly how much I need to remove from my first story before publishing it online.

When writing for children, it is important that the writer keeps the audience engaged by stripping down a story to its essentials. One very useful writing tip that Mem gave us was to cover the first paragraph and see if the story can still hold without it. If so, then delete it and cover the next paragraph. If it can still survive without this next paragraph, then delete that too. Continue this until you can go no further without compromising the story. This, she explained, helps to deliver the child straight into the middle of the action, without taking them through the some of the introductory nonsense or ‘throat clearing’ (as Andy called it) that we adults think we need to put at the beginning of a story.

As I have chosen to write my first story in the ‘tween boy’ genre, I would like to apply this wisdom and draft my story significantly before showing it to the world.

In addition to the above, I have thought of many writing issues about which I would like to have time to blog and won’t if I’m writing fiction every night.

Therefore, dear reader, I propose a slight change to my challenge. All rules remain the same except that I will post a new story every fortnight to give me time to fulfil life’s other duties and draft my work carefully. This will also leave me time to blog about other things in the intervening weeks.

I hope you will forgive me for this. I promise you; I am still committed to the challenge but want to remain sane in the process.

Below I have provided a little teaser photo for the first story:

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What I read:

What I read:

While you wait for my first story in the Man on a Wharf series (I promise I’ve started), I thought I’d let you know a bit about what I like to read and my literary influences.

I read quite widely for both entertainment (mainly) and literary fulfilment (occasionally). Some of my reading choices are quite embarrassing and others I am very proud of and would recommend them to others.

I also really enjoy listening to audio books and reading aloud as the beautiful nature of spoken language really becomes evident. I commute for at least two hours per day, so have plenty of time to read and listen to books.

Here are some of my favourite authors. As an Australian, I particularly recommend getting a hold of some of my Australian suggestions (Markus Zusak, Arthur Upfield, Shane Maloney, etc.).

I hope you enjoy reading books by these authors as much as I have.

Highly Recommended Influences:

  • James Lee Burke – He is one of the most poetic prose writers on the planet today. He kills the first person narrative style with his subtlety and haunted characters.
  • David Morrell – He is the master of the thriller. He weaves amazing plots; however it is his well rounded and developed characters that makes him stand out from the crowd.
  • Arthur Upfield – He brought the Australian outback to the world through the mystery pulp novel. He captures time and place expertly.
  • Raymond Chandler – One of the most witty writers of his era. His first person narrative jumps off the page from the first line.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald – Gatsby is a novel I can read over and over and still gain something new. Restrained and poetic writing.
  • Markus Zusak – The Book Thief is my favourite book in the world… Ever! Unique techniques, captivating characters, poetic language… It has it all.
  • Shane Maloney – His novels are simultaneously hilariously funny, great satire of the Australian political environment and very well written murder mysteries.
  • Lee Child – This man finds a new and mind-blowing premise for every book. A prolific and successful writer, his main character hangs around in your mind long after you’ve finished the novel.
  • Roald Dahl – Deliciously subversive children’s stories that were a staple of my literary upbringing. I love exploring his unique perspective with my school students.
  • John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men is one of the most brilliantly crafted pieces of literature. He exercises restraint whilst using many techniques. I love teaching this book to my students.

Embarrassing Influences:

  • Clive Cussler – He spins a good yarn. I particularly like the Isaac Bell stories. The historical and transportation oriented plots of these novels tickle my fancy. Plots are Cussler’s strong point.
  • Dan Brown – Causer of much controversy, he can also spin a good yarn. I like the use of conspiracy theory to capture people’s imaginations.
  • Matthew Reilly – I admire how he is able to write a book of solid entertainment. Many people come to reading through Matthew Reilly. No literary value, but a very important writer none the less. He’s also Australian.
  • Ian Fleming – Who doesn’t like a bit of sexist, misogynistic but action packed bondiness, eh?

PS – A ‘yarn’ is a term to describe a long and rambling (and often implausible) story. In Australia, it is usually a complimentary term. We use this word a bit in Australia, but I’m not sure how widely it is used everywhere else.

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Man on a Wharf

Man on a Wharf Series – Introduction

For quite a while now, I have had in my mind a very vivid image from one of my dreams of a man in a coat and hat, standing on an abandoned wharf at night. There’s nothing more to this image that that, and I do not think it is particularly profound; however, recently, it got me thinking…

Perhaps, this image would be a good starter for my first short story series. After all, the image poses a series of questions, including: Who is the man? Why is he alone on the wharf at night? Who is he meeting? Where are the docks? Why is he wearing a coat and hat?

In this series, I also want to experiment with a variety of different genres and techniques in order to find the style to which I am most suited as a writer.

Here is the brief:

  • Each story must feature a man in a coat and hat on a wharf
  • Each story must be no longer than 2000 words
  • Each story must be written in a different genre
  • A new story must be posted fortnightly for the next 10 weeks
  • A variety of writing techniques must be used

I hope you’ll find my stories interesting and engaging. Feel free to comment on these stories and suggest a genre for the next one!

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Welcome to Chalky’s Blackboard

I have wanted to start writing seriously for a while now; however, my old enemies – laziness and procrastination – have been all too willing to hamper my efforts.

So, instead of wasting my free time on pseudo creative but ultimately unsatisfying city-building computer games and other time wasting activities, I am going to attempt to write at least one piece of writing a week.

At my school, we have a new guy in charge of ‘student development’ (read behaviour management). He started off his tenure with an encouragement to the often lackadaisical student body to pursue self-discipline as it is both a biblical idea (I work in a Christian school) and one of the proven factors in being successful in one’s pursuits.

This got me thinking about my own failings in the area of self-discipline. Without some sort of external check, I very rarely get unessential but creatively satisfying things completed. My wife, who is a blogger herself, suggested that to give me some sort of accountability, I should aim to post my practice prose to a blog weekly (and perhaps [but hopefully not too] weakly).

So, here goes…

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