Is A Moment a piece of flash fiction? Is it a scene in a much longer story? Is it a poem trapped in a cage of prose? I’ve no idea. But sit with me a moment and I’ll tell it to you, and you can decide.
Barefoot, she stands in the snow under the neon orange light of the lamppost, fingerless gloves hanging in tatters to hands that are gnarled by years of toil. She draws on the damp toothpick roll-up ferociously, drawing the thin blue smoke into her lungs as if it can warm her from the inside out.
She can feel me watching her. Her unease has been rising steadily over the 20 minutes I’ve been tracking her, I can hear her heart speeding up, her breath catching a little, the pulse in her delicate, delicious neck throbbing a little faster from all the way across the street, 50 yards or so behind her.
We labour under the midday sun, stumbling over the cracks in the parched earth. There is never enough water.
They say this was an ocean once – water as far as you can see in any direction. I can’t picture it. All we have here are the bleached skeletons of long dead beasts that roamed this place long ago. And the plastic. Everywhere the plastic.
The third and likely final Strange Stories collection, Strange Times, is currently at the final edits stage and is expected to be released in autumn.
Just like the other Strange Stories books, Strange Times is a collection of short stories and poetry (you can find early versions of some of the stories right here in Victoria’s Notebook), containing reimagined fairytales, a new look at some of your favourite mythical creatures, and the magical contrasted with the mundane.
See Cinderella, Father Christmas, Angels, spiders and even God as you have never seen them before. Because after all, we live in very Strange Times…
Extract from Strange Times:
Whims and Wishes
I watch her while she’s sleeping. It’s not as weird as it sounds.
I’m her Guardian- no, not an angel, there’s quite a few rungs above me before I reach those heights. I’m a complete newbie, actually. Cindy is my very first charge.
I’ve known I was a Guardian since my mid-teens – it runs in the family- but it wasn’t until I was 16 that I began my training. Now I’m 21, and, provided I help Cindy reach her destiny by the time she reaches 21, I’ll be fully qualified. My magic will be loads more reliable, I’ll take on more charges, and have an extended lifespan. It’s my destiny. My people set a great deal of importance in a person’s destiny.
Cindy rolls over in her bed, her brow creasing slightly, and makes a small, pained noise. I lean over, brush her hair back from her face.
“It’s ok, it’s just a dream,” I murmur. She can’t hear me, of course, I’m in stealth mode. Invisible, inaudible, intangible. Nevertheless she settles, lines fading from her face, her breathing calms. Slowly, so as not to disturb her, I pull the quilt up around her shoulders. As always, in these tiny, silent hours before dawn, I resist the urge to brush my lips over hers, run my fingertips over her face. It wouldn’t be right. I’d only want to kiss her if she wanted to kiss me – and she is destined for another.
I could ask my mentor to reassign me of course, but how would that look? It’s so rare as to be unheard of, giving up on a charge. A guardian’s job is to put their charge first. I can’t refuse to protect her and help her reach her destiny just because of my own feelings. I have to just forget the whole thing, help her meet her prince charming, do my job. My longings shouldn’t come into it. I mean, it’s probably nothing, right? Spend a year or so in close quarters with anyone and you’re bound to develop some feelings for them, right? Doesn’t mean it’s love.
She’s tossing and turning again. I wonder what she’s dreaming? She’ll be so tired in the morning, but she needs to be up first, get her stepmother and step sister’s lunches ready before they leave for work and college, have the breakfast things ready and the bathroom cleaned before the other ladies in the house wake up wanting showers.
I check my pouch. I have a little dream dust left. Not much though – it’s expensive stuff. I traded a charisma potion, a bag of pure distilled luck and a baby’s first laugh for this tiny pouch. Rip off merchants, the traders at the Guardian Gate market are. Worth it though, really, it’s powerful stuff. I’ve been using just a sprinkle, here and there, to meet Cindy in her dreams. Just so she won’t be scared of me when I finally do reveal myself to her. Nothing sinister in it. All the guardians do it.
It seems a shame to waste it on such a mundane thing, but she needs her rest. Her step mother has been working her so hard lately- redecorating the house on top of her usual chores. Perhaps that’s what is making her sleep so restless. I’ve seen the pain in her eyes as she’s been steadily erasing her late father’s presence from the house. He’s only been gone these past twelve months, she isn’t ready for it.
I switch off her alarm clock, then sprinkle the dream dust, focusing all my Will on spinning a dream of her getting up early, completing her morning chores and going back to bed for a nap. When she wakes, she’ll be sure it’s real. Then I set to work.
The sisters must make this kind of filth on purpose, I’m sure of it. Their twin sinks are clogged with hair, smeared with toothpaste and soap scum. There is a ring around the bath, and it’s filled with stubble. There are purple and red lipstick kisses all over the mirrors. The toilet is unflushed, filled with stale yellow piss. I feel a flicker of rage as I pluck rancid nylon knickers from the bathmat. My Cindy only did this yesterday.
Once the bathroom is clean, I turn my attention to the kitchen. Dawn light is filtering through the net curtains by the time I’ve straightened everything out, and got the lunches packed and neatly lined up on the counter.
I lay the table with bowls, a selection of cereals and milk, then fetch the paper. I’ve just laid down it down on the table when the kitchen door opens and the stepmother strides in. I hurriedly check I’m still in stealth mode, before slipping past her and up to Cindy’s room. They’ll be wanting her to make them tea any minute.
I drift in, but she’s already awake, standing in front of the cracked mirror in mismatched bra and panties, brushing her long, wavy, red hair. I feel heat flood my cheeks and turn away instinctively. I shouldn’t be spying on her.
I imagine myself running my hands down her neck, brushing my fingertips over her shoulders, down the sides of her arms. Feeling her skin turn to goosebumps as I kiss everywhere I’ve touched.
I shake my head slightly. Pull yourself together, woman. She’s not yours, and she never will be.
I hear the creak of the drawers, count to 10, and turn back to see her in jeans, pulling on a green, button up shirt. I don’t know where to look, but I can’t look away. I focus on a the star shaped cluster of freckles over her left breast, until it’s covered by the faded green fabric.
She sits on the side of the bed and pulls on her battered old trainers, then she looks up. For a second I think I’ve lost concentration and let myself become visible; it seems like she looks right into my eyes. I lose myself in their blue-green perfection, imagining what I’d say if I were allowed to tell her what I feel.
“Cindy? Cindy! Where’s my brew you lazy slob?” screams her stepmother, and the magic moment is broken. Cindy jumps up hurriedly and I stand aside to let her pass, so close I feel the warmth of her body, smell the floral scent of her hair. The door slams behind her, and I collapse face down onto her bed, breathe her in. I’ve got it bad.
By the time I get downstairs, Cindy has already made tea for her stepfamily, poured their cereal and is ironing their clothes for the day.
“Mam, have you seen the notice in the paper? William Prince is having a graduation party”
Oh God. William Prince. That’s the guy. I feel a lump form in my throat. This is the party. I’m not ready for this.
“Demi, don’t talk with your mouth full!”
I snort. What kind of name is Demelza anyway? It’s as ugly as her personality.
“Wasn’t he in your year at school Shantelle?” Demi asks “Says here he’s inviting everyone in town!”
“He was in my year,” Cindy says. “He was in my chemistry class.”
“Isn’t his dad the CEO of Black Gold? The oil company?” her stepmother asks. Might have known that’d be her first thought. Probably thinks he can be husband number four. Personally, I think those days are long behind her. She may have been a handsome woman once, but years of shrewdly scheming and scamming men to support her daughters has left her face wrinkled, pinched and tired. I’m surprised Cindy’s dad couldn’t see her for the gold digger she was. I suspect had he not been so clouded with grief over the loss of Cindy’s mother, she never would have got her foot in the door, much less so firmly planted under the table.
“I think so” Cindy says, hanging up Shantelle’s dress. “I’m not sure though. He does something to do with oil, I think.”
“Can we go Mum? It’s going to be the party of the century!”
“Of course you can. We’ll have to get you new dresses, of course, and manicures too. Got to look your best. Play your cards right, girls, and you could end up marrying into an absolute fortune!”
“It’ll be lovely to see him again” says Cindy, “I’ve not seen him since I left uni-“
I feel my temper flare again. She should never have had to leave university, she was doing so well. She’d have made an amazing doctor. Her dad would have been so proud, but his wife pulled her out before the dirt had even settled on his grave. Said they couldn’t afford it, she was needed at home.
Demi snorts. “As if you’re going! I’m not being seen with you!”
“Yeah, what are you gonna do, turn up wearing that?” Shantelle sneers. “Mum tell her not to be so thick.”
“I mean, they have a point dear, you do look a mess. And it’s not really your sort of thing, is it? You’re not exactly sociable.”
I grip the kitchen counter, gritting my teeth. She isn’t sociable because she’s never allowed out. Back before she was pulled out of uni to be a house slave to these spoiled brats, she used to have loads of friends.
“I’m sure I can adapt one of my old dresses, let it out a bit…”
“Well…I suppose if you have time. But you’ve all the crystal to polish today, the dining room to paint, and the sheets to wash. And the girls will need your help to get their outfits ready too.”
“But if I do all that I can go?”
“We’ll see how you behave” her stepmother says, as if she wasn’t 20, going on 21.
“She isn’t coming in a cab with us,” Demi says. “I don’t want anyone to know I’m related to that”
I can’t help myself. I walk up to the table and push Demi’s mug of coffee all over her lap. I don’t even care how much of a bollocking I’ll be getting from my mentor for that, the look on her face was worth it. I see Cindy suppress a smile, even as she rushes to grab a tea towel.
If you’re enjoying this take on Cinderella, you’ll be able to read the full version in autumn, when Strange Times is released.
This is Victoria’s latest project, and is an Urban Fantasy aimed at Young Adult readers. Ever since she wrote A Tale Of Two Princes, Malcolm has been hanging out rent free in her mind, so Victoria decided to write his backstory so he would leave her alone. His story told, Malcolm is now satisfied, although his best friend Ameera has now started to grumble about the unfairness of not having a book of her own.
In Malcolm the Teenage Were-fox (working title) we discover how Malcolm became a fox, how he ended up at Magmell hospital, and why no one visits him there.
Malcolm woke up a full minute before his alarm went off, just as he always did, switching it off before it could wake Dad. He remembered it was Friday before he remembered it was his birthday, the realisation that he had double maths hitting him seconds before the realisation that he was now 16. An adult, but not quite an adult. He toyed with the idea of joining the army, running away from everything, seeing the world, being a valued member of a close knit team. People he considered friends, family even. Then he recalled that there was a reason he was always picked last in PE. Malcolm was tall, one of the tallest in the school, but painfully thin, with arms that resembled overcooked spaghetti and oversized feet that conspired to trip him up at every opportunity.
He didn’t allow himself to think about his mum. Just pretend it’s any other day.
He pulled his uniform on under the quilt so he didn’t have to get out of his warm bubble, before finally throwing the duvet back and forcing himself out of bed. He couldn’t miss the bus again.
He crept down the stairs slowly, hugging the wall to avoid the worst of the creaking stairs. Dad hadn’t got in until gone three the night before; he’d be furious if he was woken with a hangover, birthday or no birthday.
Malcolm paused outside the living room door when he heard the snore. Dad had fallen asleep on the sofa again. Malcolm dithered for a second, but his school bag was on the kitchen table, he couldn’t go without it.
He pushed the door open slowly, inch by painfully loud inch, pausing every time his dad’s snore changed in tone, until it was wide enough a gap for him to squeeze through, breath held. Imagining himself a spy, he tiptoed through crumpled beer cans, abandoned crisp packets, and the remains of a savaged kebab,to the kitchen door. Dad snorted and scratched his belly before turning his back to the room.
Malcolm slipped into the kitchen, let out a breath he hadn’t realised he had been holding, and headed to the fridge. There wasn’t any milk for cereal, but there was leftover pizza. He grabbed it, shoved a slice into his mouth and turned to get his school bag. There was an envelope propped up against it.
Malcolm eyes filled with tears, he bit the inside of his cheek instinctively to prevent them falling.
Dad had remembered his birthday. The card hadn’t been there when Malcolm went to bed, Dad must’ve bought it on his way to the pub and hung onto it all night.
It was simple, sunshine yellow envelope, and a card with a football and the words World’s Best Son on the front, “love dad” scrawled inside. But it’s the thought that counts. And it was much better than last year.
“It should’ve been-“
No. Don’t think about it.
He hadn’t meant it, he had been drunk.
Malcolm slung his bag over his shoulder, and set the card on the middle of the table.
“It should’ve been you that died, not your mum.”
Malcolm thumbed his earphones into his ears and left through the back door, Primal Moon drowning out his thoughts.
Long time followers might remember that way back in 2012 Victoria wrote a short story called Before Digital Dreams, which she later spoke about expanding into a novel. That project hasn’t been forgotten.
Originally a short story, Victoria began developing Before Digital Dreams (or Digi, for short) into a trilogy of short stories after a few readers asked interesting questions that made her ponder the wider universe it was set in. 10,000 words into it she realised it was a novel.
Victoria did think that once she typed “the end” on that novel, the story would be over, but during edits she realised that for the full scope of Before Digital Dreams to be realised, it probably needs to be a trilogy of novels. She is currently in the process of splitting what she has into two novels before she starts work on the concluding volume of the trilogy.
There will be updates posted on this and Victoria’s other projects here but in the meantime, you can read the newly polished version of the short story that started it all here: Before Digital Dreams.
Victoria Pearson lives behind a keyboard somewhere in rural Bedfordshire, with her husband, her four children and her dog. She writes very strange stories.
Victoria mostly writes fiction, although she has been known to write political essays, sociology articles, and even musings on menstrual cups. She has been writing since she could hold a pen, sending out her first query (on pretty unicorn stationary she got for Christmas) to Penguin publishers, aged 9. Kind though their reply was, Victoria wasn’t published until she was 16, when she wrote and edited a feature for The Guardian. You may have seen her discuss the piece live on Channel 4’s Richard and Judy at the time, but she sincerely hopes not, because she briefly fumbled her lines and is still embarrassed about it, over a decade later.
Since then Victoria has squeezed in a variety different jobs around raising her four children, doing just about everything from working in a sales call centre (which she described as “a horror too dark for Dante’s Inferno”), to being a school dinner lady, dabbling in freelance brand management, content copywriting, podcast production and team management, and being a Learning Support Assistant for children with Special Educational Needs.
Alongside her family life and day jobs, Victoria has continued to write, releasing several short story collections as well as a stand alone novella. She has written advertising copy, news articles, political podcasts, and opinion pieces on everything from feminism to foodbanks, police brutality to the politics of poverty, the gender debate to General Election analysis. She also writes novels, poetry, and flash fiction (she is a regular on several short story and microfiction hashtags on twitter), and has collaborated with another author on a political audio play based around Doctor Who.
If you see her in her natural habitat, please pretend you haven’t noticed her cardigan is inside out, and help her look for her car keys.
This character interview originally appeared on Suz Korb‘s blog, and it was a tricky write, because obviously Gloria and Charles are not at liberty to discuss their job, so wouldn’t take part in an interview like this. I really liked the dynamic between them in it though, so I thought that despite the obvious clumsiness of the opening, it was worth putting up here for readers that like these little extras. it contains very minor spoilers for A Tale of Two Princes, and is set before A Tale of Two Princes but after my current work in progress, working title: Malcolm The Were-Fox.
Today we will be joined by Dr Charles Prinze and social worker Gloria Nelson, both of whom work for an oddities and anomalies hospital. I’m not entirely certain what that is, so I am hoping to find out more in this interview.
The couple arrive, late and fairly breathless, to the cafe we are meeting at, still dressed for work. Dr Prinze is in his white lab coat and green scrubs trousers. He looks too young to be in charge of an entire ward, despite his three day stubble and the hint of grey at his temples. Ms Nelson is in head to toe blue scrubs, and she has several pens sticking out of her afro. I’m not sure if she is aware they are there or if she has forgotten. Dr Prinze looks serious, tired, like he has just come off a night shift. Ms Nelson is his opposite, bright smile and a bounce in her step like coming here is the highlight of her day. I get the immediate impression that her smile is as much a part of uniform as her scrubs.
I have been pre-warned that their time with me is short today, so as soon as they sat down and coffee has been ordered, we dive straight in.
Tell me about your job?
Dr Charles Prinze: Well, we work in a very special hospital called- Gloria Nelson: Wait, are we allowed to say the name of the hospital? Charles: You don’t think we should? Gloria: Best to err on the safe side, I’d say. You know what they’re like. Charles: I thought the rules had been relaxed for this interview? Gloria: Well obviously. But still, we don’t want to break any confidentiality rules or anything. Perhaps it’s safest to say that we work in a hospital that deals with aliens, supernatural beings and other oddities, like they said we could, and leave it at that.
Gloria: Oh yes. Take Malcolm for example. Lovely lad, more humane than any human I have ever met, but he definitely comes under the supernatural umbrella, being a were-fox and all. Charles: And then there’s the ETs. All aliens that want to seek political asylum on earth have to be quarantined first. It’s our job to look after their health care and screen them for obvious signs of disease or parasites before they can move into the asylum centre.