Milestones

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I hit a milestone this morning. My little blog hit 500 Followers. That’s incredible, and a bit mind blowing to be honest.

I am so grateful to all you lovely people for reading my flash fiction and looking at my photos.

I read every comment and appreciate every like and both your comments and your critiques are always motivating.

A special shout out to all my weekly flash fiction challenges. Friday Fictioneers, Sunday Photo Fiction, What Pegman Saw, Flash Fiction for Aspiring Writers, Flash Fiction for the Purposeful Practitioner. I really enjoyed The Literary Lion which weighed in at 500 words but alas it is no longer on the agenda.

I really enjoyed The Literary Lion which weighed in at 500 words but alas it is no longer on the agenda.

My thanks also to the two Photo Challenges I regularly participate in, The Daily Post Photo Challenge and of course the  One Word Photo Challenge.

I must also mention the wonderful 500 word for 30 days challenge where I wrote a lot more than 500 words a day and over 15K words that month. It was a blast and made me realise what I was really capable of.

I have two short stories in preparation and a book in the making. I’m transitioning from being a writer to becoming an author which is an exciting prospect indeed.

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This is also a double milestone because this post is also my 500th post on the blog. One post then for each follower.

Thanks again guys!

 

The things you’ll do for love

The things you’ll do for love

 

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CJ cradled the glass of cold beer and surveyed the bar. It was his favourite place to unwind, hidden in a side street in the Old Town of Geneva.

As he took a swig he reflected on another working week spent in crowded trains, to and from business meetings in Suisse Romande, the French-speaking part of Switzerland. 

Swiss Trains arrived punctually and generally left on time, but the second class carriages, although clean, had hard seats, designed to be long wearing rather than comfortable.

CJ had tried to get his boss to pay for 1st class travel, but it was proving to be a long and fruitless battle, so when he was required to travel, he begrudgingly boarded the train and used the time to prepare for his meetings, laptop cradled on his knees.

Seats were hard to find in the early morning commute between Geneva and Lausanne, so most days he took another train in the opposite direction in order to catch his train at the airport in Cointrin thus avoiding the maelstrom of crowds at the Cornavin Main Station in town. Although he was far from being the only one to have the same idea, it was rare he couldn’t find a seat at the airport station although it added another half hour of travel time.

But it was Thursday night and the weekend was in sight. He scolded himself for taking his working week to the bar, drained the last dregs of his beer and motioned to the barman for another.

A flash of light caught his attention and he looked over to see three women seated at a table not far from the bar. 

One of them, an attractive blond, was laughing and waving her arms, attempting to say something over the noise of the club. As her torso danced, the lights of the dance floor caught her jewellery and sent fragments of light around the club. It was fascinating and he kept on looking, absorbing the details, the deep red of her lipstick, the curls of her hair tumbling over her shoulders, the bright purple of her blouse stretched tightly over her chest.

One glance too many, their eyes met, and she locked onto his regard.  Embarrassed, he smiled, but she shunned his attention and turned away.

Oh well, he thought, I’ll just finish this one and go home. He glanced at his watch, the club was going to close anyway and he had a meeting in Fribourg the next day at ten. He cringed at the thought of another early, crowded train.

As he got up to go he heard shouts from behind. Two guys were trying to leave with the blond he had noticed earlier, they were dragging her to the exit. The other girls were protesting and attempting to pull her back to the table. The house music drowned out the heated conversation but the few words he could hear were definitely not French. Things looked to be getting out of hand.

Then one of the men slapped the blond woman on both cheeks gripping her wrists together. 

He sprung into action, and in full knight in shining armour mode, he prised her wrists from the man’s fists and stepped in between them. He really should have thought before acting so rashly, and ignored the rush of adrenaline.

And then it was all over.

The other guy’s fist met his right cheek with a crack that exploded deep within his jawbone. He reeled backwards, lost his footing, and fell heavily to the floor.

He turned on his side to get up, but a sharp kick to his gut from a heavy boot expelled the liquid contents of his stomach and he doubled up in pain, only just catching sight of the women running towards the exit followed closely by his two assailants. 

A crowd of people towered over him and someone helped him onto his feet. He was a mess and hobbled over to the men’s room with the intention of cleaning himself up as much as possible.

Someone asked him if they should call the police, but he shrugged off the suggestion and told them he was just going home.

And that’s all he remembered, before waking up the next morning, head exploding, fully dressed and covered in stale vomit and sticky blood.

He had no memory of how he got home. 

He stripped off and stepped into a hot shower.

After dressing he made a strong black coffee, only feeling marginally better.

He checked his reflection in the mirror on his way out, his face looked as bad as he felt. He’d get some painkillers from the pharmacy at the station, he thought.

He climbed onto the train at Cointrin Airport, holding onto his sore belly to protect it and settled into a front facing window seat.

Looking at the clock on the platform he saw that there were just two minutes before the train was due to leave.

He caught a flash of purple and saw a woman running to catch the train. Her right cheek was bruised. Her long blond hair cascaded down over her shoulders and bounced as she ran.

It was the woman from last night.

The guard’s whistle blew and the train eased its way out of the station.

The carriage doors opened automatically with a whoosh and the woman walked slowly and deliberately along the aisle and then sat down opposite him.

“Does it hurt?” she asked, with an unmistakable Eastern European accent. 

 

    

 

 

   

Cruising and Me

Cruising and Me

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Cruising is not for everyone.

There is something adventurous about going on a cruise but I didn’t discover it until late in life.

I guess this makes me a typical cruise passenger, in the eyes of many.

What held me back from cruising was the thought of all those people confined in such a small place.

I don’t feel comfortable in a crowd. The only crowds I can cope with are those in concert halls and theatres, probably because when the lights go down, I’m alone with the artists. It’s a mild form of claustrophobia, although I’m comfortable in confined spaces and have never been troubled taking the elevator or driving through a tunnel.

It’s not even a phobia, more of a dislike. I can deal with it, but given the choice, I avoid adventuring into crowds if I can.

I love travelling.

Sometimes I think I get more enjoyment from the voyage than from the destination. There’s something about airports and train stations that brings out the adventurer in me. Waiting for an airplane or a train conjures up the possibilities of discovering unusual or exciting destinations or of embarking into the unknown.

I was having a great evening with friends a few years ago and after the meal and a few glasses of wine we took our places around the fire and continued our conversations.

Holidays and travel are always interesting topics and we were exchanging our latest experiences.

Our hosts had just come back from a cruise and I was surprised. They were young and had two teenage girls, not the typical cruise clients I thought. Over the course of the evening they managed to dispel most of my fears and apprehensions.  From what they said, cruising seemed more and more like an interesting proposition.

I wasn’t totally convinced, but it did spark my curiosity.

So on my next trip to Florida, my wife and I  booked a weekend cruise to the Bahamas, just for three nights.

Long enough to find out what it was all about but no too long if we  discovered that it just wasn’t for us.

Well the first surprise was the boarding experience because it held the same excitement as waiting for a plane or a train. We only had two destinations, Nassau and a private island but we were going to sail to them and I’d never been on a boat larger than a ferryboat before.

My inner adventurer had been sparked.

I must admit to being apprehensive and I wasn’t prepared for the sheer size of the vessel. There were hundreds of other passengers who were waiting to board with us.

Boarding the boat provided sufficient distractions, and we got our key cards, had our photos taken and were ushered onto the boat.

The boat itself was the biggest surprise, because once on board, I totally forgot I was actually on a boat, until I was reminded later outside on the deck.

The corridors are vast and endless, the restaurants are immense, and in the theatre, watching a show, you could be in any theatre, anywhere in the world.

The sheer size of the vessel dilutes the hundreds of passengers, each doing their own thing, I found you could always find a quiet corner to relax in.

My biggest fears had been quashed.

But when the boat left port, and navigated on the open sea, I had my greatest surprise.

It’s a feeling that only a large seagoing  vessel can provide.

The movement of the ship in the water and the vibrations and rocking motions of a ship at sea were unlike any sensation I’d experienced travelling on land.

And late on that very first evening, after an excellent meal and a good show, I took the lift to my cabin and retired for the night.

The sea was calm, and I drifted off to sleep rocked by the gentle caring movements of the ship as it glided toward our next destination.

So even after that very first night at sea, I knew that while cruising might not be for everyone, it definitely was for me.

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The Robot Revolution

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The Robot Revolution

The robot revolution was insidious.

Everybody saw it coming but viewed it as an opportunity and not as a threat.

Factory floors that once bustled with workers, whirred silently whilst the chosen few surveyed the machines.

Then machines, for that was what they were in those days, became more and more sophisticated and rather than just automating processes, they slowly but surely started taking care of themselves, making little corrections here and there, to ensure that they ran efficiently.

Then, gradually, they were the ones that called the shots, letting the operators know when it was time to maintain and repair.

It started with polite skeuomorphic reminders, but over time, machine operators gradually became slaves to their own machines.

But to automate any process, some sort of method was required, even for the simplest of tasks.

It became the hidden face, the driving force, of the robot revolution.

To make a cup of tea, for example, you need more than the raw materials, you require a method and a sequence of tasks in order to succeed.

You might debate whether to put the milk in the cup before or after pouring the tea, but if you don’t add the teabag or neglect to boil the water, the end result will be disastrous.

And so the algorithm was born, without which machines remained machines and could only accomplish what they were built to manufacture.

Once machines had been fitted with microchips and integrated circuits they controlled themselves, while operators just surveyed the results.

Then even those processes were surveyed by yet more automated processes, each one driven by the algorithms they had been imbued with.

This led to a silent, unspoken, back door revolution.

Algorithms became so sophisticated that they became capable of autocorrection.

The seeds of Machine Learning had been sown.

Over a few decades, the future, once bright and multicoloured, turned into different shades of grey.

We gradually stopped smiling while machines were, of course, devoid and incapable of developing a sense of humour. The world became sadder somehow.

We struggled with unemployment and retrained for jobs the machines couldn’t do.

We went to university and chose those professions that machines had failed to contribute to.

But even so, there is a limit to the numbers of Doctors, Lawyers, Bankers and Accountants we needed.

Then the nightmare of machine led manufacturing became that of more or less any job you could hope to acquire.

The world of finance collapsed first. Machines were much faster than men at making financial transactions and took split second decisions that made each bank enormous amounts of money.

Then the legal system fell. Machines could consult and digest every law and ordinance, cross reference any preceding judgement, and arrive at fair sentences based on everything except human considerations.

Machines served the Health Service and then the Health Service served the machines. Machines analysed the tests and arrived at diagnostics while Robotic arms performed surgery, even at a distance.

And now I’m afraid we’ve arrived at a painful juncture.

The turning point of the robotic revolution.

Machines had wheels and arms but were faceless.

We gave them faces to imitate us and legs so they could be mobile.

That is when machines became the robots we had fantasised about in literature and folklore. In the space of less than half a century robots finally took over running the planet for us.

There wasn’t a task they couldn’t do.

They mastered even the most complicated of tasks.

Robots put the laundry in the washing machine, ironed it and put it back into the wardrobe.

Robots became nail technicians and hairdressers.

They cut the grass or sent their little baby robots to do it in their absence.

The only tasks left for man were providing interesting algorithms or doing what we do best, raising little robots and showing them how to survive.

For every child, we get a robot, and we nurture and teach our children how to learn and survive on this ever evolving planet.

Do you know what my little robot asked me today?

“Hey teacher, are there other robots somewhere in the universe?”

Of course when I answered, the whole robot population received my reply.

It’s impossible to have secrets anymore.

A Walk in the Woods

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A Walk in the Woods

John loved to walk in the woods just out of town. The canopy of trees shielded the harsh Summer sun and afforded shelter from the wind and snow in Winter. During his walks, he was able to steal some alone time, away from the office, family, and friends.

He parked his car at the entrance, sat on the tailgate and laced up his favourite hiking shoes. They weren’t really necessary here on the well-trodden paths but they were worn in and comfortable.

He locked the car, dropped the keys into his pocket and set off. The woods were shaped like a half moon so if he kept on going he would eventually return back to where he had set off from. No need for maps or a satnav.

It was just an uncomplicated affair between him and the trees.

The ground was parched and dusty, most unusual for this time of year. Summer had been hot and dry and it hadn’t rained for over three weeks. A few orange and brown leaves, scattered here and there,  crunched under his boots as he walked.

He sensed that the wood was just waiting for a brisk breeze and a little rain before letting go of its autumn costume.

It was mid-afternoon and he was alone.

He picked his way between sweet wrappers and crushed soft drink cans, cursing the incivility of the other users of the woods but the path was clearer the further he ventured from the car park, and after a few hundred yards, he only had to avoid stepping in dried dog poop and crushed desiccated branches, strewn along the footpath.

He came to the apex of the wood and paused a moment. Without reason, he turned to take the centre axis. The long wide path with streams to each side would eventually take him back to his car. He felt a change would do him good  and hoped there were other paths that he could discover on the way.

The woods were calm and the birds must have been taking an afternoon nap because there was a strange absence of sound. It was most peculiar.

Then without warning he felt the ground rumble beneath his feet and a clatter of hooves as a horse and rider appeared from nowhere, galloping down the centre aisle straight at him.

Flashes of films played in his head but there was no lance, no sword outstretched, no trumpeting of horns.

With no way of avoiding the collision, he watched helplessly as they raced towards him.

He remembered flying before the  pain coursed through his body. He even caught a glimpse of the horse and rider as they disappeared into the distance before he blacked out, but was unable to give an adequate description of his assailants, who were never apprehended.

It was a clear case of Woodland hit and run.

Going Home

Going Home

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My Brother told me to meet him in our hometown of Chippenham. Neither of us had been there for a while, so I was to text him when I arrived, to give him directions to where I was.

There was heavy traffic driving out of Cheltenham, where I’d stayed the night at The 131. I’d wanted to leave the hotel early, before the early morning rush hour, but I’d lingered over an excellent breakfast of Muesli and fresh fruits, and the aroma of the coffee was so intoxicating, I hadn’t been able to resist a second cup.

I felt a curious mix of nostalgia and apprehension undertaking the trip back to the town I’d left over fifty years ago.

I wanted it to be the same as I remembered, but I knew in advance that it would be different. I just didn’t want it to be too different.

So many memories linked to the homes I’d lived in, the schools I’d attended, and the adventures I’d had as a young boy and although some of those memories had faded for good, those that remained were vivid.

These were souvenirs I’d desperately held on to, because, in many ways, they were the ones that moulded me into the man I am today.

As I had no real reason to go back, until now, I’d successfully avoided confronting the town I remembered, with the town it had become.

I sang with the radio to distract me in the traffic jams, and left town, heading South West.

Everybody seemed to want to quit Cheltenham at the same time this morning.

Eventually, the traffic dispersed, and I made up for time on stretches of dual carriageway along the A429 to Chippenham.

Water towers along the way reminded me of the games I used to play, defending castles with the gang going home from school and the sandstone houses were so different to the red brick houses I had become accustomed to farther north.

When I passed an Inn with a Skittle Alley, advertising Ale and real Cider, I knew I was truly in the West Country, and although I was still more than 15 miles away from Chippenham, the county of Wiltshire was already dispensing its stock of childhood memories.

Several roundabouts later, I drove into the town of Chippenham. Although familiar, it seemed shaken and reshuffled. I parked the car in a strange car park that had sprung up behind the high street. It was almost full, but a woman handed me her parking ticket with an hour left to use as she drove by me. It felt a little like a strange welcome home gift, although, of course, she wasn’t to know.

I left the Car Park on foot and walked up to the old bridge over the River Avon where I’d fished as a kid.

The memories were flowing unchecked now.

Too many, too soon and although I’d anticipated them in the car, I still felt unprepared.

I passed the Post Office where my Dad used to work, abandoned and boarded up. The Church where I’d sung in the choir was closed with a heavy padlock.

I proceeded slowly along the High Street scrutinising every building. Most of them were as I remembered but all the shops had changed. The streets appeared narrower, and the viaduct that carried the trains in and out of town wasn’t quite as high as I remembered.

All in all, the town that seemed so big when I lived there, now appeared quaint and small.

One of the only unchanged landmarks was the Angel Hotel on the other side of town, and I passed it by, searching for the Milk Bar I had spent so much time in after school and at weekends.

Of course, it closed years ago and was now a Costa Coffee.

I went in and ordered a decaf Expresso Macchiato. The Barista, a young girl with an infectious smile and pink hair, asked how I was doing, and I told her that this place used to house a Milk Bar. She just laughed as she tapped a jug of frothy milk on the counter, poured some over my Expresso and handed me my coffee on a tray.

I took a seat in an armchair in the corner, took out my phone, and called my Brother.

“I’m here in a Costa Coffee in the High Street.”

“On my way,” he replied and hung up.

I’ll Love You to the End of the World

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It’s a cheeky play on words I know, but I’m sure you noticed that I substituted ‘to’ for ‘till’.

But the end of the world does exist, and you can find it in Ushuaia, South America.

Ushuaia is the capital of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, and is commonly regarded as the southernmost city in the world. It is bounded on the north by the Martial mountain range, and on the south by the Beagle Channel.

The End of the World is at the southern end of the Pan American Highway which is a network of roads that originates in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and runs 19,000 miles to just south of Ushuaia — with only a 60 mile interruption in Panama.

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Ushuaia

When we booked our South American holiday one excursion stood out more than most. A visit to the End of the World. We booked our places on the tour and early one morning boarded the coach for the drive to our destination.

It was a wonderful sunny day, and there was an almost cloudless sky. It might have something to do with being so far south but cloudless sunny days like those have a slight dream like quality far from the mists and haze of the big cities to the North. The mountains just seem to grab you from afar, the colours are a lot brighter and the air tingles with expectation.

It was a pleasant day, neither warm nor cold. It was also a public holiday and as we drove along the winding roads through the Patagonian Forest there were picnickers and families gathered around their barbecues, probably preparing their Asadas while their children skipped and played on the grass.

Our guide was in good spirits because of the weather. It rains a lot around Ushuaia, on average there are over 146 days of precipitation a year, with many cloudy and foggy days, averaging 206 cloudy days a year. So he reminded us of our good fortune, while informing us of the ravages caused by wildlife introduced only decades ago that were destroying the forests. From just a few pairs, for example, beavers had bred and multiplied with disastrous damage to the trees in Patagonia.

We stopped at a Visitor’s Centre on the shores of a lake and it was a golden opportunity for me to leave our party behind and head off along the trail to take some photos so I left the others and made my way along the shore until I was alone. The conditions were ideal for taking some great shots. They would have been even better in early morning or late afternoon but at least the sun didn’t flatten the panorama, and as I mentioned earlier, the air was exceptionally clean and crisp. I could almost imagine a smile on my camera as I tried to find the most appealing points of view.

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I could have stayed for hours watching the sparkles on the water and listening to the sound of the waves on the shore but it was time to pursue our trip — to the end of the world.

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We got back into the coach for another few miles and finally arrived at our destination. Many of our fellow passengers headed to the last Post Office but my wife and I headed along a winding footpath a short distance from the shores of a lake.

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We left everybody behind and just walked. I wanted to get back to the shore further along the lake, but the footpath just winded toward the woods and after a few hundred yards or so I decided to leave the path and head across to the lake.

We held hands as we crossed the grass, making sure that we were safe under foot. You can never be too careful of what the grass might be hiding. Eventually we came to a clearing on the shores of the lake. Our own private heaven on earth, far from the crowds, just the two of us. Although it started off as just another adventure it became a special romantic moment that I will always treasure and I am certain that she feels exactly the same way.

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There we were, the two of us, alone but not alone, at the End of the World.

I took you in my arms,  and kissed you, sealing those precious moments of togetherness in my heart.

That is why, my darling wife, that I’ll love you to the end of the world and for the rest of my days.

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This is the tenth in a series of travel tales

  1. How I went to Brazil

2. Flight over Table Mountain

3. The Tracey Arm Surprise

4. The Lone Piper

5. My Vanuatu Swim

6. Breakdown in Peru

7. It Takes Two to Tango

8. The Bali Run

9. Almost the Northern Lights

10. I’ll Love You To the End of the World