Andy Humphrey. Freelance Writer. Prize winning poet.

short stories by a.j. humphrey

I've been writing stories almost since I could first hold a pencil. I blame Enid Blyton for getting me started, but my influences have been many and varied since then - high fantasy, mysteries, gothic, Victoriana, contemporary psychodrama, and more. I have a particular fascination with fairy tales, and the adult subtexts and metaphors hidden within the classic children's narratives. Many of my own short stories are re-imaginings of well known fairy tales, written to explore the hidden meanings. I also write ghost/supernatural stories, character-led psychological fiction, and a little bit of speculative fiction.

My short stories are published as A.J. Humphrey to distinguish me from the respected speculative fiction writer, Andy Humphrey, who already had an established following when I was first starting to get published. Andy is a thorough gent, by the way, and his stories are well worth reading for those who are fans of the genre.

The following are some samples of my previously published short stories. If you like what you read, and want to read more, please return to my creative writing page for details of books which contain other short stories by A.J. Humphrey.

 

dolphin season

(Posted 13th May 2011)

First Prize winner in the Open Short Story Category in the National Association of Writers' Groups' creative writing competition, 2010.

 

“Is this a picture of me, Mummy?”

She’s holding something out to me. A piece of crumpled paper, snatched by her little hand as it skittered across the cobbles, swirled in the eddies of the harbourside breeze. She caught it the way she catches dandelion seeds up on the mountaintop that overlooks the town.

My stomach gives a lurch as I notice the face printed on the flyer. Just another child, at first glance: the same bobbed brown hair, the same gap-toothed smile you’d see in any playground. But I know that smile very well, the slight lopsided up-curl of it, and the cheeky angle of the little round head. It’s Ellie alright.

I try not to show the pallor I’m feeling inside. “It certainly looks like you, darling,” I smile back, and reach out to ruffle her hair.

She thinks about this for a minute. “But I suppose lots of people look like me,” she says at last. “Even in Norway.”

“Ah,” I laugh and wink at her, feigning cheeriness, “but they’re not all as cheeky as you!” She giggles back, and in another moment she’s skipping over the cobbles once more, intent on her latest favourite game. Chase-the-Seagulls.

Do you know, I really thought we were safe this time, the two of us. There are a few other English people here, to be sure; expatriates for the most part, families of fishermen and oil rig workers. Just enough of them for us not to sound too out of place. Apart from them, most English people don’t even know this town exists. But it’s here alright. Here, with its beautiful crisp sea air and its green encircling hills. With its welcoming tang of frying fish and its bustle of bright-faced, sea-burnished, anonymous people. I really thought that if we might have a chance to be happy, it would be here.

I look more closely at the paper in my hand. The print is black, bare and blocky: a few sparse words in a language that’s still unfamiliar even after all these months. But I don’t need a translation to tell me the meaning of that big, stark heading, or of the telephone number printed at the bottom.

A seagull punctuates my thoughts with a flutter and a sudden Craaak, diving for a rare morsel of dropped food on the usually pristine street. I’m struck, once again, by how solitary we are here, even amongst the bustle. Cut off, like the town is by its mountains and the sea, invigorated with the taste of salt and the lush aroma of resinous pine. Free like the vapour that curls up from the forests in the early morning sun.

Until today. Until this crumpled piece of paper, and my girl’s face looking out from it.

“Come here, Ellie. Don’t play too near the edge.”

She slinks back to my side, mocking my over-protectiveness with an only half serious frown. She takes my hand, pulling me onwards with that joyous, limitless energy of hers. “Come on, mummy! I want to see the dolphins!”

Then she stops, looking thoughtful, a cloud obscuring the early summer sun. “Mummy?”

“Yes, darling?”

“Will we be going home soon?”

“Soon, Ellie, I promise.”

“That’s good. I don’t want my other mummy to be sad I’m not there.”

I don’t know what to say to that, so I say nothing, and we continue our walk, hand in hand down the cobbles to where the boat is waiting. I curse silently for being made to think about that other couple: the Surrey couple, the strident one and the overfed one, and their little brood crawling over their laps. I watched them on the news, like everybody did, for the first few weeks; but I waited until Ellie was asleep, so as not to give her nightmares or tears. They promised they’d keep looking, keep plastering my little girl’s face in shop windows and bus shelters.

They kept looking, alright; just in all the wrong places.

They’d never have given her dolphins, that other family. Just child minders and supermarkets, a rat race of high expectations and disappointment. I know what they are like. Besides, they have another three of their own. More than enough for them to cope with.

They don’t really need her. Not the way I do.

The pleasure boats are back on the harbour, bright with fresh paint and promise. It’s dolphin season, and Ellie has been looking forward to this outing for days.

I stuff the crumpled paper in my pocket. Later, when Ellie’s in bed, I’ll burn it, so she doesn’t have the chance to ask me about it again. Then, I have to think about where we’ll go next. Further north, I think, always further north; the last place on earth they’ll think to look for us. There is a nice safe, quiet, pretty town further up the coast. A place where you can see reindeer, and Northern Lights.

I know Ellie will love it.
 

 

the bench in the park, or remembering jack

(posted 13th May 2011)

A prize winner in the short story competition in Writing Magazine, November 2007, and subsequently published on the magazine's website.

 

This is Jack’s bench. His name is spelled out on a little brass plaque: in loving memory of Councillor Jack Parkin OBE – beloved husband and father, and friend of the community. I had it put here in memory of him, at the top of the park, looking down the arboretum and across the sloping field where we used to walk. Two years now Jack’s been gone, and every day’s a little greyer without him.

This morning I’ve shared Jack’s bench with two spiky-haired schoolboys (probably truants); a tiny lady my age, a ratty terrier yapping at her feet; a traffic warden on his way to the high street, a young blonde mother with a toddler bundled in his buggy, and a fat man in a suit, dripping coffee from a plastic cup. They don’t speak, mostly. They think I’m part of the furniture – carved out of wood, a permanent fixture.

But I’m no ornament. Knees and knuckles might be stiffer than they were, but my eyes are as sharp as ever. And there’s such a lot I can see, from my vantage point on top of the world. Such a lot I see.

In twenty minutes’ time, I’ll be joined by a middle-aged man named Derek. He’ll nod hello and we’ll exchange pleasantries, then watch the people for a few minutes. After that he’ll get up and be on his way, leaving a plain brown envelope behind him on the bench.

No one will see me picking it up. They won’t know that the envelope is full of twenty-pound notes.

But then, other people don’t notice very much these days.

 

I come here every morning, re-creating the walks that Jack and I used to take: watching the people, the scurrying commuters off to work, the sedate ladies walking their dogs. A little more gold and red creeps into the leaves each day, this time of year. Gradually the trees are turning threadbare, carpeting the park with musty, earthy leaf-litter. The light is fading too: every day a little more feeble, more grey, like Jack was before the end.

There’s the Tweed Lady, green wellingtoned in case of mud, throwing a ball for her red setter. I could set my watch by her. Husband’s off to London, to a dull, high-rise office block; kids have been packed in the 4x4 and kissed goodbye at the school gate; her next stop’s the park. The setter’s a fine creature, long and sleek, frisky. Could almost have been a show dog, Jack would have said – he did have an eye for animals.

A man arrives. Blue jeans, Barbour jacket, cap; a stride like John Wayne. His border collie’s off the leash, greets Tweed Lady’s setter with an excited bark, and soon they’re chasing circles round one another, tails wagging. These two meet like this every day. Tweed Lady rescues her ball, and the two dog lovers converge, nodding towards their pets like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Down the grassy slope they sidle, and by the time they reach the path through the trees they’re holding hands – a nervous, two-fingered contact, easily loosed in case of prying eyes.

He’s not her husband. He’s at work, incubating a coronary while he pays for the big house, the 4x4, the children’s dance lessons. This chap’s one of the local idle rich, nothing better to do with his time than contrive affairs with married ladies.

I know where they both live. I know more about them than they’d guess.

 

The town has changed since Jack and I first settled here. Today, everyone is in such a hurry, going about their lives, that there’s no time for people to get to know one another. Neighbours rub shoulders in this park without knowing how close their front doors are, how close their lives are. Nobody knows anybody’s name any more.

Jack was different. Everyone on our street knew Jack’s name, knew they could call on him if they needed a babysitter, or if the plumbing sprang a leak. They didn’t seem to notice me, though. Jack used to worry about what would become of me once he’d gone. Our living had always been modest, by our neighbours’ standards, and Jack had a habit of giving money away when he should have been saving it.

Still, I didn’t begrudge Jack his ways. It did his heart good to see his money make other people happy.

He made me promise something, a few weeks before he passed on. “You keep your dignity, Elsie girl, make sure you don’t want for anything,” he wheezed. “Promise me you won’t just give up. That you’ll look after yourself, properly like.”

Elsie girl. I liked that. Even at the end, Jack could still make me feel like I was seventeen. I patted his hand and promised him, whatever it took I’d take care of myself. I tried not to let him see the mist in my eyes.

I’ve been true to my word. After all, I wouldn’t want to be a burden to the children. The ache in my joints isn’t getting any easier to bear, and there might come a day when I can’t get about by myself. James and Rebecca live too far away now, they have their lives and careers. Why should they have to spend their best years looking after an old lady?

 

“Morning Elsie.” A gruff voice above my head brings me back to the park, the earthy smells of autumn, and Jack’s bench. A podgy man in a grey trenchcoat perches himself next to me. “Bit of a nip in the air this morning, don’t you think?”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t really notice.” I’m well wrapped up – dark blue mac, scarf, cardigan underneath – and the chill from outside doesn’t bother me these days, not compared with the slowly growing aches inside. “You keeping well, Derek?”

“Mustn’t grumble.” He keeps up the smalltalk for a few moments, but doesn’t smile. We sit a little while in silence, our two pairs of eyes watching the wheeling gulls, the straggle of humanity around the park. Then he rises and says his farewells. A glint of autumn sunshine catches his glasses as he pauses, halfway down the arboretum, to look back at me.

The plain brown envelope is there – exactly as I knew it would be. Lying on the bench as if he’d dropped it.

Derek and I have had this arrangement for six months now. We’ll meet in the park from time to time. He’ll leave behind one of these envelopes, and I’ll be so good as to refrain from letting his wife know what he gets up to in the public toilets at the other end of the arboretum.

Derek lives in the next town. He has a desk job in a high street office. Nobody around here knows his little secret. His biggest worry was that the police might catch him. An old lady who sat in the same place every day, who happened to notice his comings and goings, hardly seemed likely to cause him any trouble.

We met over a sandwich lunch on this very bench.

I think it was a relief to him to know that I wasn’t shocked by what he does. He sees me as a sort of eccentric aunt now, one he can come to when he needs to tell someone how his wife just doesn’t understand him, how hard it is for him to lie to her. But mostly, we just talk about the weather.

I don’t ask for very much, really. He doesn’t miss a hundred or so each month, and it’s easier for him to pay than to go to his wife, or the authorities, and admit what he is.

That’s always been my rule of thumb. Never ask more than they can afford.

I learned my lesson from that civil service chap – the one who left his lap-top computer behind on Jack’s bench. I knew from his business card that he was important. But that first ’phone call was a little unwise. I almost asked too much. He threatened me with the police; I threatened him with the News of the World. It was like haggling the price of pork chops. We came to an arrangement in the end; he got his computer back, and I got my first two hundred pounds.

It’s such an ugly word, don’t you think? The ‘B’ word. I prefer to see it as a service to the community. When Jack and I were starting out, folk would go to the vicar to atone for their misdeeds. Today, they have me – a grey bit of lady on a park bench. I look after them, in my way, and I look after myself too, just as I promised dear Jack. There’s a nice bit of money put by, so that by the time the arthritis gets its grip on me, I won’t have to sell the house to pay for my care. James and Rebecca will still have their inheritance, such as it is, and I’ll still have the home I kept with Jack, the memories we made together.

I’ve been thinking I should find a better way to commemorate dear Jack. He gave years of devoted service to the borough. A bench seems a pitiful gesture to the memory of such a fine man. I’m thinking of a small statue, perhaps outside the town hall.

I reckon I have a couple of years to raise the money – and I think I know where to start.

Here’s Tweed Lady again, back from her morning’s dalliance. Climbing the grassy slope while her red setter runs ahead. Is it me, or is she looking a little flushed?

I push myself up from Jack’s bench, and start off across the field towards her.

“Excuse me, madam. I wonder if I might have a word…”
 

the valley of dreams

(posted 13th May 2011)

Highly Commended in the Blaenau Gwent Open Short Story Competition, 2006, and subsequently published in the competition anthology.

 

Jack Davis hated English lessons with a passion. To tell the truth, he hated most things about St. Jude’s Abbey School, stuck as it was behind four great medieval-looking walls on the edge of a town where, on a good day, nothing happened. St. Jude’s, he was constantly being reminded, was a school for those who would achieve something in life. It was the Most Improved Public School of 2004 (in Capital Letters). Young men graduated from St. Jude’s to become accountants, bankers and management consultants, or members of the 1922 Committee. It was, in short, a school which had everything.

Jack managed passably well at most of his lessons. He was happy enough with maths, science and geography, though they hardly excited him. History was a struggle, and this confused Jack. As far as he could gather, history was really a whole lot of stories which all interconnected. Jack loved stories, but Mrs. Molesworth, the history teacher, seemed to have missed the point. She managed to reduce all these weird, dramatic, tragic tales to an endless ream of lists and statistics: names of the kings of England; dates of battles, congresses, and Reform Acts; causes and consequences of wars – all reduced to a bullet-point list to be learnt by rote.

Jack devoured books voraciously. The one thing which made life at St. Jude’s bearable was the opportunity of hiding away in the coolest corner of the old stone library – particularly if it meant he could avoid rugby practice. The school library was well stocked, but most days of the week Jack was the only one there, if you ignored Miss Singleton, the librarian. She was the only member of staff who really had any kind of friendly relationship with Jack. She also seemed to be the only person in the school who understood why Jack hated Mr. Lewis so much.

Mr. Lewis was the English teacher. He was the youngest teacher on the staff, loved rugby and went mountain-climbing in the holidays, so most of the boys thought he was the best thing since sliced bread (what had the best thing been before sliced bread, Jack often wondered). His classes’ GCSE results were the best in the school; people often talked about his “magic formula” for getting the children through their exams. But it was the “magic formula” that Jack hated above all other things. Mr. Lewis was even worse than Mrs. Molesworth at turning everything into lists: facts and figures, stuff you could measure, that got you through your exams but somehow left you cold inside. Lewis could strip out the very soul from a story and leave you with nothing but a list of names, dates, measurements and weights instead. Even his mountains seemed to be things he climbed, not for the adventure, but so he could tell you how high the summit was afterwards.

The worst thing about Mr. Lewis was Cider with Rosie. He had made the class read it for two years on the trot. It was precisely the sort of book Mr. Lewis could dissect to his heart’s content. Jack loathed every minute of it. He’d tried cider, once, and decided it was over-rated. He’d never tried Rosie, but he had a horrible suspicion she would be over-rated too.

On this particular day, Mr. Lewis had set the class an essay to write. He’d even supplied the title: “I followed the rough trail and...” Normally, Jack would have relished an exercise like this; but not for Lewis. Lewis, you see, was only interested in facts. He expected the first line to trigger off some memory of what the boys had done on their holidays, or of nature walks at the weekend: an excuse to enumerate the trees and butterflies, or measure the miles of clifftop, or count the hours before fatigue and the need for the toilet set in. Cider with Rosie, but without the sex. The trouble was that things didn’t work like that for Jack. When he went wandering off, the weirdest things began to happen: things that would make Lewis laugh scornfully, things too extraordinary for Mr. Lewis or St. Jude’s Abbey, that’s for sure.

“I followed the rough trail and...”

Jack gazed at the pristine new page of the exercise book in front of him. That was all he’d written; that and the date. There were just too many rough trails in his memory for him to know where to begin. There was the one down the side of the crumbling cliff in Wales, which led him to a castle so old it had slipped halfway down the cliff since it was built. The perfect place for the tyrannical lord, who looked a lot like Brian Blessed, to keep his daughter locked away so that she couldn’t run off to sea as she yearned to do. Jack could remember climbing up the outside of the rickety tower with a knotted rope made from the maiden’s hair, and battling one-handed to fend off the ravens that the evil lord had sent to stop him. He had found a secret passage, deep in the bowels of the castle, that dripped with old moisture and smelt like the changing rooms after rugby practice; and down that passage he had led her, shorn of her hair, and free. But he didn’t think Mr. Lewis would believe a word of it.

There was the other trail too, in the forest not far from his grandad’s house: the one that led into the dismal grey valley hung on all sides with ancient spiderwebs. There Jack had found himself stuck fast, enmeshed in briars and cobwebs, while a gargantuan spider, with legs at least three feet long, crept slowly towards him across his gossamer net, mandibles twitching with paralysing venom. At the last minute Jack had managed to wrench himself free. Grabbing an old fallen branch, he had battled the monstrous creature for half an hour, backwards and forwards through the grey cobwebbed glade, until at last he brought the knobbled end of the branch down hard upon the creature’s bulbous head, squashing the life out of it.

The spider’s lair had been littered with skeletons, the remains of its previous victims. The ragged remnants of business suits and neckties still clung to some of the lichen-darkened bones. One wasted hand clutched a mouldy leather briefcase that turned out to be full of old silver coins. Knowing that the owner had no more use for it, Jack had taken the briefcase and its treasure, and buried them underneath the silver birch at the bottom of his grandad’s garden. One day when he was older, he knew, he might need that treasure.

Then there was the time he had found the secret tunnel through the walls of St. Jude’s itself. Miss Singleton had put him on to it by telling him that she’d seen an old map of the Abbey buildings and that they showed a passage running through the stone wall in the corner of the library where he usually sat. He had searched for days, when Miss Singleton wasn’t looking, to find the catch which would open the secret door he was sure must be there. Quite by accident, he found it when he least expected it. He had been reaching up to the highest shelf at the time, to pluck down a narrow, faded copy of the Mabinogion at the end of the shelf. The book would not budge; but with a groan like Year 10 responding to one of Mr. Lewis’s jokes, a huge slab of the wall swung forwards, revealing an impenetrable dark hole beyond.

There was no way Jack could have gone investigating there and then, without a torch or anything to defend himself (what if there were more spiders in there?). Nor could he work out how to close the hole again. He was forced to hide it behind a strategically placed, high-backed chair, and pray that nobody would notice. They didn’t; only he and Miss Singleton ever normally entered that secluded corner anyway. That night, after lights-out, he broke curfew and set off to explore the secret passage, armed with a torch and an emergency bottle of Coke.

The passage took him to a staircase which seemed to lead deep into the bowels of the earth. At first the stone was damp, but the further the stairway spiralled, the drier it became. He was below the water table, possibly far below the town, when he reached the foot of the staircase and found a rough-hewn passage leading onward. There was a faint sound reverberating down the passage: the sound of human voices, chanting.

Jack was still not entirely certain whether he had really seen what he thought he had seen at the end of that passage. Those three people in old-fashioned robes and hoods, gathered around an old black cauldron in the centre of a marble-walled, circular chamber: had they really been the Headmaster, Mrs. Molesworth and Mr. Lewis? It seemed too crazy to be true. But parts of that strange scene were lodged in his memory so vividly now that it was as if he saw them every day. The mingled steam from the cauldron and the smoke from the brazier underneath it, for example, rising up through a hole in the centre of the domed ceiling, a hole which led who knew where? The circle of tall church candles on wrought iron stands which cast their light a-flicker around the perimeter of the chamber. And lastly, what was being added to the cauldron as the three chanting figures took it in turns to stir the thick, bubbling porridge within. Books. They were tearing out the pages in clumps, throwing them into the pot to be reduced to a grey pulp. He recognised the covers of a few. Gormenghast. The Lord of the Rings. Fire and Hemlock. The Box of Delights. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Each one was disappearing into the pot with a pinch of salt and a cackle.

So, thought Jack, as his eyes blurred over the nearly blank page in front of him, that’s how St. Jude’s Abbey became the Most Improved Public School of 2004. Black magic...

“Davis! Wake up, boy! What do you think you’re playing at?”

Jack sat bolt upright as Mr. Lewis slammed his hand on the desk an inch from the sleeping youngster’s nose. The teacher was glaring at him balefully, while the rest of the class tittered behind their hands.

“Wha - ? Nothing, sir,” spluttered Jack, but he already knew he was lost.

“As you seem to have time to spare to doze in my lesson, perhaps you’d like to read out what you’ve written to the rest of the class?”

I’m in for it now, thought Jack, getting reluctantly to his feet as his stomach seemed to disappear into his shoes. Still, I’ll make a brave stand, just like I did against the spider. He picked up his book, taking courage from the good, solid feel of the paper. “I followed the rough trail, and… That’s it, Sir.”

Lewis nodded ominously. “That’s it. Detention, Saturday. You can sit in the library and finish off your essay then.” He shook his head scornfully. “You’re living in the valley of dreams, Davis. It’s about time you found your way back to the real world – and the sooner, the better.”

“Yes, Sir.” Jack Davis set down his book, and sat once more, while the class sniggered around him. The last thing he wanted was Saturday detention. But at least it was detention in the library – and he knew a thing or two about the library which Mr. Lewis didn’t know he knew. I’ve found out your little secret, Lewis, he thought to himself, a secret smile crossing his face, and I’ll find a way to stop you, sooner or later…

Jack Davis picked up his pen, and started to write.