5. Good Grief

“Is this John Shannon?” Cameron asked.

“Aye, John Shannon speaking.”

“Mr Shannon, do you live in 63 Full Moon Crescent in Melbourne, Australia?”

“Aye, that’s me. Who’s this?”

“Mr Shannon, I have some bad news.”

“Bad news?” came the predictable echo. At once confusion and apprehension entered the man’s voice, heightened by a momentary lag on the line.

“My name is Doctor Robert Ozan,” Cameron said. “I’m calling from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Bridgetown, Barbados.”


“Yes, Mr Shannon.” Uncomfortable pause. “Your wife Belinda Shannon has met with an accident.”

“Oh my God.”

“Are you sitting down?”

“Uh, no,” came the uncertain reply.

“I have to ask you to sit down for this, Mr Shannon,” Cameron said solemnly.

He could hear the man quaking on the other end. “I, uh… okay,” John Shannon wheezed. “I’m in the garden,” he heaved. “I’m heading indoors right now.”

An awkward minute passed as Shannon grunted and cursed and heaved on the other end of the line. Cameron could hear him exerting himself horribly as he crashed up a flight of stairs, and through a set of swinging ranch doors.

“Yes?” Shannon shouted out eventually, breathless. “I’m here, sitting down.” There was a palpable sense of panic in his voice.

“Well, Mr Shannon,” Cameron said, “I’m afraid the news is as bad as it can be. Your wife had an accident – on a Jetski, here in Barbados. It happened at 4pm yesterday afternoon. It was a freak, unforeseeable event. She collided with a boat while she was looking the other way.” Pause. “She could not have prepared herself for it. It hit her like a freight train moving with unstoppable force.” Pause. “Are you still there?”

“Yes, Christ, of course.”

“I’m afraid she required urgent surgery, Mr Shannon. This morning, we had to make the decision to operate. The procedure had a 50-50 chance of success, but not operating would have meant losing her during the night.”

“Oh my God.”

“I’m sorry to say – your wife didn’t make it.”

“Oh my God. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

“I’m so sorry. I’m so very sorry.”

On the other side of the line, a great crescendo of silence was building. Cameron could hear it rising in pitch, becoming more hysterical in its intensity. There’s nothing as frenetic as sheer silence. From where he sat, Cameron thought he could hear John Shannon’s heart imploding.

“There’s one more thing, Mr Shannon.”

“Yes?” John Shannon croaked despairingly.

“Before she passed away, your wife said…well, she said…”

“She said what? What? What?” Shannon yelped.

“She said she forgave you.”

“I see,” Shannon wheezed. “She forgave me,” he echoed flatly, as if he could not quite comprehend the words.

“She didn’t say what for,” Cameron said gently. He waited just a moment before saying: “I get the feeling that maybe you know.”


“I will leave you to come to terms with this, uh, terrible tragedy. Again, Mr Shannon, I’m so very–”

The phone went dead.

Cameron sighed, and put down his handset. It was never easy having to make calls like this, but it had to be done. And, unfortunately, of all the people in Good Grief Incorporated only he had enough ice running through his veins to be able to do it without faltering.

He fumbled on his desk for his packet of chewing gum, and sat there, staring into the middle distance. He’d have to phone Shannon back eventually, of course.

How long should he wait?

A day?

Two days?

There was no fixed time in these matters – at least, nothing in the company guidelines. It was all down to his professional intuition. It all depended on how badly the recipient had taken the news. One didn’t want to leave it too long – not if the person seemed likely to do something stupid, like swallow a bottle of pills.

Cameron sighed.

John Shannon definitely seemed like the type to do something dumb. He could picture the bereaved husband already stumbling over to his liquor cabinet, reeling with the sheer enormity of the news he’d just received.

A day would be more than enough for John Shannon. A day would give him all the time he needed to renew his perspective on life, and contemplate just how lucky and blessed he had once been.

What a pity people could simply not appreciate exactly what they had before they lost it. What a pity people became insensate – incapable of seeing things that were right in front of them. What a pity it always took a dramatic change in circumstance for people to see that life is too short to be mean and vain and selfish.

Would the experience change Shannon?

Maybe not.

But for one day John Shannon would be consumed with sincere regret for all the things he had done, and had not done. For one whole day John Shannon would be the best version of John Shannon that he could be. And even if he reverted to type, for one whole day he would be in direct communion with the angels of his better nature. And that, at least, was something.

Cameron picked up the phone and pressed a number on his speed dial.

“Yes?” A woman answered.

“Belinda, please don’t leave your room for a day or two. Don’t phone any family, or friends. Just watch a little television, or read a good book. Just lie low until I give the all clear.”

“I see.”

“Our invoice is on the way, disguised as manicure treatment. No one will ever trace this back to you. It will be over before you know it.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much.”

Cameron sighed as he put down the phone. Sometimes it took the devil to the Lord’s work. He sat there for a while, just chewing gum, before making another call.


“Hello, is this Mr Francis Key?”

“Yes, speaking.”

“Mr Key, my name is Doctor Robert Ozan.” He paused. “Are you sitting down?”





4. The Bone Demon and The Ruby-eyed Snake

A great weariness seized the little bone demon as he lay by the side of the ruby-eyed snake. For any artefact, auctions can be trying, but for the bone demon they were agonising beyond measure.

You see – he’d been through far too many auctions. He’d seen far too many markets. In fact, at 5000 years of age, he’d now been bought and sold more times than he could remember.

Worse still, with every auction, he feared that he might lose the ruby-eyed snake forever.

The bone demon and his little ruby-eyed silver snake ring had been together for over two generations – in fact, since the reign of Edward VII, at the height of the British Empire, when curiosities were being looted from all over the world, and somehow finding their way to England.

So far, in a dozen auctions, he and his ruby-eyed love had managed to stay together. For the first six auctions in a row they’d been sold in the same lot, and bought by the same buyer. For the last six they’d been returned to the vendor, who had unreasonable price expectations on both. Back they went, both of them, to the same old and established London collection.

Tonight, however, was different. Tonight they’d been placed in separate lots – for the first time ever. He was in lot 89, with a bunch of other bone fragments, mostly of middle eastern origin just like him. And she was in lot 90, with a chipped mediterranean bowl and a carnelian intaglio of Roman lineage.

Of course, from an antiquarian perspective, that made absolute sense, but it also made the horror of separation virtually inevitable, unless the unlikely came to pass – and one buyer bought both lots. However, that was just too much to hope for. Not for the first time both artefacts felt the noose of circumstance tightening around their necks.

The bone demon, who’d been carved by hands older than history, felt weary to the…well, to the bone. Even the relatively young ruby-eyed snake, said to be Parthian, and not quite old enough to remember the Late Bronze Age, was still more than ready to settle down to the quiet life with her little bone demon in the bottom drawer of their little walnut filing cabinet in their cramped Soho apartment.

Millennia before, she had been invested with real power, and great magic. She’d been no mere accoutrement back then. Even a casual collector of antiquities might deduce that she’d once had real juju. But old age can make you vulnerable, and now she too was just a curiosity, appreciated only for her novelty value, and the crudity of her manufacture.

“Lot 89,” the auctioneer called out, “a collection of bone idols from Assyria, Babylonia, Uruk, Palmyra and Elam.”


“Do I hear 190 pounds?”


“Do I hear 180?”


“Ladies and gentleman, 170 pounds. Come on! This lot features some quite remarkable antiquities, including a little bone demon thought to hail from Mesopotamia, and conservatively dated to about 5,000 years old.”


“Okay, no sale. This will be returned to the vendor. Moving on. Lot 90 – three delightful classical antiquities, including a bowl of Mediterranean manufacture, a carnelian intaglio with an erotic scene, and the most delightful silver snake ring. The eyes are rubies, ladies and gents – not glass, genuine rubies. The silver, however, is likely to be electrum, or silver of a relatively low grade. Still, a wonderful and elegant piece, with obvious votive significance, in a wonderful lot. So, do I hear eight hundred pounds?”


“700 pounds?”


“600 pounds, ladies and gentleman. It’s a steal?”


“Okay, no sale. It will be returned to the vendor. Moving on. Lot 91 – a collection of Levantine fishing hooks. Very rare, ladies and gentleman. Do I hear 100 pounds?”

The bone demon heaved a sigh of relief. The little snake ring with the ruby eyes seemed to uncoil for a second, as if freed of a great burden.

Artefacts are bought and sold endlessly over the course of their lives. Most collectors get bored with an object, or run out of money, or switch from one collecting hobby to another, from Middle Eastern antiquities to South American art, from Napoleonic militaria to old maps from the Age of Exploration, always searching for the promise of some new rarity, always seduced by some new bauble with the promise of great collectability, but holding onto it only till they’ve sucked the life from it, like vampires feeding on the past.

And so it is rare for a bond to develop like the one that had formed between the bone demon and the ruby-eyed snake.

Whatever their divergent origins, way back in the folds of time, they had a common past, even if it was recent – in relative terms. They no longer saw themselves as being from a particular archaeological site, or epoch. Like all immigrants, they were now naturalised citizens.

They were British – not Parthian, not from Jericho or Ur.

For years they’d sat in the same museum storage facility, in adjacent boxes, listening to one another breath. By some curious chance, they had both been subject to the same deaccession, and sold on to a collector without much money – a collector shaking with collector cold turkey, in desperate need to buy something, anything.

Sooner or later, it was inevitable that fate would tear them apart.

Sooner or later, the law of impermanence would prevail on them, as it prevails on all things.

Sooner or later, like every artefact, and every sentient being, and all manner of entities living and dead, and conscious creatures and inanimate things like rocks and stones and ancient flints and arrowheads, in fact like all conditioned items subject to causes and conditions, the bone demon and the ruby-eyed snake would have to endure the suffering that comes with being separated. You see, unfortunately, things just become attached to other things, quite inexplicably, without even knowing why.

Fortunately, there’d be no separation today.

Today, they’d be returned to the same old and established London collection.









3. Mortal Words

Whenever he was suffering from writer’s block Franklin would visit Immortal Words, the town’s biggest second-hand bookstore. He’d often find inspiration there, browsing among the books, and flipping through their pages. However, one day he found a shitload more inspiration than he bargained for.

“Excuse me, sir.”

He turned around to see a boy, no more than 10 years old, gaping up at him.

“Yes, mate?”

“I’m looking for the classics section, Mista.”

“The classics section?” Franklin said, scratching his head. “I didn’t know there was one.”

There were many thousands of books at Immortal Words – in fact, many hundreds of thousands. There were over 20 rooms packed with volumes old and new, both upstairs and downstairs. The owner James Morton loved books, all books, unconditionally. He loved good books and bad books, fiction and non-fiction, cult and literary, bestseller and bargain bin. In over 20 years James had never turned a book away.

“Have you tried upstairs?” Franklin suggested.

“Um, no – the fella by the desk said it was down here.”

“Oh,” Franklin said, looking about helplessly. He could see books on every conceivable subject – memoirs, and essays, and poems, and biographies, and…

“Oh, look,” he noted, on seeing the word ‘Classics’ scrawled in barely readable ink on one of the shelves. “There it is,” he pointed.

“Gee, thanks Mista!”

“One little shelf?” Franklin frowned. “That’s not much, is it? What’s the definition of a classic?” he wondered aloud.

“A book that’s stood the test of time,” the boy replied matter-of-factly, as if he’d heard that phrase many times, enunciated in exactly that way.

“Really?” Franklin grimaced. “That’s the definition – a book that’s stood the test of time?”

“Uh huh,” the boy nodded distractedly as he looked at the shelf. “Oh cool,” he squealed. “This is what I wanted!” He extracted a tatty copy of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. “Thanks Mista,” he yelled, as he sped off to pay at the front desk.

Quizzically, Franklin bent down to look at the books. They were the same books that had been ‘classics’ when he was a boy – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Pride and Prejudice; The Scarlet Letter; The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Most of them were between 100 and 200 years old, but some were a fraction older. William Shakespeare‘s works were almost four hundred years old, but the numbers plunged dramatically from there. There was only one surviving text from the middle ages – Chaucer’s The Nun’s Tale. And The Symposium by Plato was the only work older than that. Perplexingly, most of human history was simply not represented.

And that’s when he had his Eureka moment. You see – that’s when he turned around to behold the thousands of other books in store, stacked to the ceiling, spilling over from shelf to shelf, and room to room.

“Jesus Christ,” he gasped, as the realisation struck home. Before him there were two storeys and 20 rooms packed with books that were never going to stand the test of time. All of them, good or bad, loved or hated, faced oblivion before the next 100 years was up.

“You alright there, Franklin? You look a bit white.”

He turned around to see the shop’s owner James Morton staring at him in concern.

“James, I’ve had an epiphany.”

“Another one?”

“Yes, my God, James, listen,” Franklin heaved, “the notion that writing something great promises immortality, that somehow your creation will remain long after you’ve passed on, well,” Franklin bristled, “it’s a gross miscalculation! In fact,” he spat, “if it’s immortality you want you’d be better off scratching your name into a cave wall.”

“You think so?”

“Look at all these books!” Franklin exclaimed, gesticulating to the shelves crowding in all around them. “Now look at your miserable little ‘Classics’ section! Immortal words indeed!”

“Mmmm,” James conceded. “I see your point.”

“And why did these books survive? Why are these considered ‘Classics’? It’s completely random. I mean, come on – Treasure Island?” Franklin moaned. “Really?”

“I liked Treasure Island,” James objected.

“James, it’s just a piddly little yarn about pirates! How many great books from Victorian England have disappeared? Books we’ve never even heard of. Instead we have Treasure fucking Island.”

“Well, that’s no reason to be upset.”

“Oh really?” Franklin fumed. “Maybe if you’re not a writer, James! But if you’re a writer it’s bloody devastating. Deep down every one of us has been led to believe that our work will endure if we can only write a book good enough. That’s the great self-deception, perpetuated down the centuries from who the fuck knows where. The truth is, even if I could write my  masterpiece it wouldn’t have a hope in hell. Not even the so-called ‘Classics’ last long. A hundred years from now Treasure Island will have disappeared too. There are no immortal words.”

Silence fell between them, as they contemplated that point. As lovers of books they had each, in their own way, invested their lives in that lie. It was a lie that couldn’t be attributed to anyone in particular; and a lie that no one had ever actually examined.

“All the pain, all the effort, all the trauma – all for nothing,” Franklin groaned. “Years of bleeding all over the page for no money, or reward, or recognition. A life wasted on words that won’t even outlive my dog!”

“Are you going to stop writing then?” James Morton frowned.

“Stop writing?” Franklin turned to him. “Are you kidding? This is too good to let go. What an insight – what pathos, what tragedy! This is the story I’ve always wanted to write. This could be my Frankenstein, my Great Expectations, my Hamlet!”

“Where are you off to now then?” James asked, as Franklin scrambled to the exit.

“Home,” Franklin shouted back. “Books don’t write themselves, you know.”

2. They

Craig had been acutely aware of them his whole life. Who they were wasn’t easy to define.

They were everyone.

They were everywhere.

They’d persecuted him for as long as he could remember. When something bad happened to him they were involved. And when something good happened they were there too, lurking in the shadows, intent on ruining the moment any way they could.

They’d always hated him – even at school. They’d mocked him, and ostracised him. They’d called him a loner and a weirdo. They’d excluded him from their parties. And even when they hadn’t, they’d treated him like a bad smell. Even then they could see that he didn’t want to be one of them.

At university, it was always he who asked the hard questions. It was always he raising his hand to point out the flaws in any given theory or school of thought. They hated him for that too. He was too clever for their liking. In their eyes he had pretensions above his station. It had come as no surprise to any of them that he chose not to follow the tried and true course of finding a woman, and spawning.

If the true objective of life is procreation, as biology suggests, then he’d signally failed at life. Among living organisms, he was the least likely to ever reproduce.

Love had no allure for him. In fact, neither did status or money, for Craig was driven by something greater. He wanted to ask the great questions of his age, and interrogate the great minds of his generation. He didn’t simply want to succeed in the conventional sense, or engage in the same small struggles for material wealth and recognition that they did. He wanted to make a contribution to history, and live a life of real significance. He wanted to outshine them for all eternity.

And so he became a writer. And though he was just a humble journalist, he hoped that one day the universe would reward his efforts. One day being an outsider would pay off. One day the path less travelled would take him to a place of wonder.

If those efforts weren’t appreciated yet it was only because they didn’t like it. Given the choice, they would always opt for the status quo. They would always take the path of least resistance, the thoughtless path, the path that confirmed their vacuous views of life. To them, he was a threat, as was anything and anyone that tried to transcend the ordinary. Little wonder they were always phoning his editor to slag him off, for he could write nothing that did not raise their ire, nothing that did not offend their common sensibility, nothing that did not cause them to erupt in hot fits of outrage. ­­­­

They, Craig came to realise, were merely sheep, merely lemmings – in hopeless denial of reality. While he was engaged in the service of the truth, they were merely mindless automatons shuffling to a dirge, living meaningless lives of mental slavery.

Worse still, they were always getting in the way. At every twist and turn in the road of life, they were there, ruining everything for him. When he got to his train in the mornings, they were in front of him, taking up all the seats. And when it was raining, they crowded him on all sides, brushing him with their umbrellas. Sometimes they would soak him from head to foot as they drove past by the busload.

In a world of mediocrity, they were in their element. While he flopped around like a fish on the shore, they thrived like monsters of the deep. They may have been stupid and ignorant and dull, but this world was made for them. One of them would inevitably get the promotion that had eluded him for years. One of them would inevitably get the winning ticket, or that unexpected windfall, or be lauded employee of the month. They blissfully did exactly what was expected of them, unaware of his travails, and his dreams, and the extraordinary vision he had to offer the world.

“Excuse me.”

He turned around to behold the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her teeth weren’t straight, and she had freckles in all the wrong places, but there was a light in her that blinded him on the spot, even though she was one of them.

“You dropped this,” she smiled, holding his train pass.

“Er, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“What’s your name?” he asked awkwardly.

Her name was Cheryl. She lived in his apartment block, on the floor below him. She was also on her way to the city. And she hadn’t seen Pirates of the Caribbean 2 yet either.

A year later they were married.

They honeymooned in Bali, bought a small apartment in Ashfield, and light flooded into his life the way dawn floods into a dark, damp cave. She taught him to cook rhubarb. She educated him in Feng Shui. They cuddled up to watch Breaking Bad every Thursday. They made sweet love every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.

And then one day, cancer took her. And in his inconsolable grief, they consoled him.

“I’m so sorry,” his landlady hugged him.

“We’re here for you, mate,” his editor told him.

And in an instant, he understood that they were doing everything they could to help him. They were paying his salary. They were baking his bread. They were growing his food, and distributing it to the supermarket down the road. In fact, they had built the road, and they had even built the supermarket. They were impossibly kind to him. They were generous beyond all reckoning. In fact, all his life they had doing things for him that he’d never even noticed.

And for the first time he could see that he’d been one of them all along.


© Copyright Ron Lawrence Anderson

Blighter’s Rock

Four months ago I announced in grand fashion that I was starting a series of flash fiction posts. I wrote a good introduction. I then wrote a good first story. And while that was effortless enough, it then stalled. It’s been four months now, and though I have some embryonic stories on paper, I am suffering from blighter’s rock.

Have no fear – there are stories coming, I promise. There are many wonderful tiny truths waiting in the wings. I just need to get over the compulsion to keep editing them in the minutest detail.

Blighter’s rock.

Every writer seems to suffer from it at some point (except maybe Steven King).

I know what the story I’m working on should say, I just can’t get past the first 300 words. In the meantime, the novel I’m writing is proceeding at pace. There are zero problems with that. My writer’s block seems to be confined to my flash fiction. I am learning to appreciate the art of flash fiction the hard way – by discovering just how challenging it can be to write the little blighters.

There are times of course when my longer works also get stuck in this manner. However, I just never expected it to occur in stories spanning less than 1,000 words. I have set very high standards for these stories – in my own mind. I have held them up to the lofty works of writers like Harlan Ellison and Robert E. Howard. However, that’s not really the problem. The problem is quite simply that I am in a mental slough. I am not sleeping well. And while I am progressing on other creative projects, I’m currently not progressing on these.

The mind is indeed a perplexing thing. And the mind of an artist is more perplexing still.

Thanks for your patience. I hope it will be rewarded with a new story soon.