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What started out as the April challenge, eventually became the May-June challenge. Four very interesting tales were sent in to be reviewed.

Entrants had the following prompts to choose from: A Campfire, The rain wouldn’t stop, and finish this sentence: “I didn’t plan to be a superhero, but all of that changed when I got bitten by a __________. (And then write a story that follows it.)

Martin G. Parker

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Our member and writer Martin Parker, very kindly agreed to be the reviewer and sent in his detailed critiques of the pieces entered. Thank you Martin!

Profile: Martin was born in 1956 in Uttoxeter in the English Midlands. He has worked in factories, retail, the funeral business, driven taxis and played trombone in a British Army regimental band, but since 2000 he has worked as an Associate Professor of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Bahrain, specialising in the history of the English language and meaning in English. He has published two novels, They Also Raise Chickens, and The Conscientious Historian, and a collection of writings, Improbable Tales From Unlikely Places, all available in paperback and on Kindle from Amazon. Martin is also a musician; he sings, plays the guitar, mandolin and harmonica with the Bahrain-based Celtic-music band, The O’Dwyers. In addition. Martin runs the monthly meetings of the Bahrain Acoustic Music Group who hold their regular sessions at JJ’s. Martin lives in Bahrain with his wife and 12-year-old son.

Chickens Cover            Historian Cover copy   51YVPBsOo+L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

And so without further ado… here are our entries

The Rain Wouldn’t Stop

By Preeti Rana

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I didn’t plan to be a superhero

By Rifat Najam

…But all of that changed when I got bitten by a pair of toddlers. My twin toddler nephews are a great booster for me. Whenever I feel dull, I rush to visit them to boost my energy. With them I get to act all insane, thus forgetting all the temporary stresses of the day. When the super aunt and nephews go crazy with their super powers, the mother’s heart starts to beat so fast that it seems it might jump out at any moment, yet she pretends to act all normal as if she is carefree. Kids are a blessing, in their innocence they bring us back on track when our steps wander away.

I recently saw a documentary, Teen Press, by T. C. Johnstone. Although the maker tried to portray his vision of ‘you can be anything you want’, from my perspective it gave out different messages to different minds. “Everyone has a story to tell” and “they are just people”, were comments made by two teenagers that really affected me as these are two of the few things that I had recently been struggling with.

Kids are innocent beings who know no limits to the etiquettes that Life teaches. Their innocent souls value gold and sand as one. Love and laughter are the language they speak and share. Many times they clear our blurred vision when we go astray. I love taking advice from my niece when that blurred vision strikes me. The other day I was irritated for some reason when she made a comment, “happy times, happy memories, when you come then we talk happily”, which completely took my irritation away.

Recently I asked myself a question: why is it rare to see assistance being offered before it is asked for. You don’t have to possess super powers to understand when help is needed. People nowadays seem to have covered their eyes with blinkers in order to run in one particular direction. Our lives are divided into professional and personal halves; professionally, a lot of potential is waiting to be discovered and given assistance before this neglected talent fades away. And personally every being has a responsibility towards its surrounding.

Nature has taught us how we are all interconnected. Rivers flow so life can flourish and if that came to an end life will become extinct. Similarly, if the winds stopped blowing globalization would come to an end. When nature has taught us to share, then why do humans act selfishly and hold back what tomorrow doesn’t promise to be theirs.

In simple words, step up and be the change that explores the one in need and help before it gets too late!

Superhero

By Michael Rollins

I didn’t plan to be a superhero, but all of that changed when I got bitten by a bug called fatherhood: Quite a statement, I know, but I also know that I’m no different than most other fathers out there. The thing is, it’s not about us; it’s about our children: They make us superheroes.

*

My daughter, Maya, was just five when my best friend, Michael, died. She called him Mikey; no-one else did, and he liked that. Michael was her favourite visitor; she attached herself to him from being a few months old and that was that.

Michael was a friend I’d known at school and later, by chance, a work colleague, when the firm I worked for merged with his. We developed a friendship based at first on mutual respect for each other’s work and then because we just…‘clicked’: The same sense of humour and a love of reading fiction being two of the main reasons. I remember the drunken discussions we had over James Ellroy and Cormac McCarthy, which trailed like ribbons unspooling deep into the night. Eventually, Michael became my boss or, as my daughter referred to him, my ‘work teacher’.

And we worked well together. And we had some great times. And Michael knew he was dying long before my little girl was born.

*

Michael never really disclosed anything about his condition; he was not secretive but quite vague, and all anyone really knew was that there would be no recovery. Like many people in this position, he helped his family and friends through it all. For a few years there was little noticeable change in his physical appearance. Yes, he had to rest more frequently and was steadily losing a small amount of weight, but there was no sudden change. Until, in his final year, over a few weeks in the autumn, he melted away like the reds and golds of the October leaves.

*

Explaining to a five year old what death means can be like trying to separate the milk from a cup of coffee. We were prepared to talk about what people think might happen after somebody dies and had tried to ready ourselves for the questions that a five year old would probably ask. When Maya had listened to what we had to say, she looked at us for a full minute, her eyes as sad as those of Christ in a painting of the Sacred Heart.

‘Why wasn’t it me?’

We had no answer that was worthy of the question. My pathetic words ‘It was his time’ folded and crumpled in my mouth, into the dust they deserved to be.

*

In the weeks following the funeral, Maya became another girl. She was uncommunicative and guarded, where she had been confident and friendly; uninterested and a little cold, where she had really loved life and the living of it. Our baby stopped smiling, but she hadn’t cried, and that, more than anything, broke our hearts.

There were a couple of incidents at school. Nothing major, although we were called in one time after she had told two of her friends that they or one of their parents could just

disappear one day without even telling them, and never come back. The girls had both burst into tears at this and the teacher told us that Maya just shook her head at them, walking away like a parent who was out of patience.

We knew after this episode that trying to ignore the profound change in our daughter, hoping this was temporary, was not an option. To get our little girl back we had to encourage her grief.

But how?

My wife and I had always shared the opinion that everyone grieves in their own way; that there are too many judges in this world. We all deal with loss differently, as individuals, and it is fundamentally wrong to expect everybody to behave in the same way. However, we had on our hands a confused, frustrated and unhappy young girl that we loved more than anything in this world. We had to think of a way to help her out of the shadow that had been cast over her since Michael died.

*

In the end, the answer was simple, as these things often are.

Just after Maya turned four, she went through a phase. Every parent knows about ‘phases’; this word covers all those difficult periods in a child’s life that parents go through. Those times when Mum and Dad are pulling out their hair for a solution to a new pattern in their son or daughter’s behaviour that is inconvenient.

For instance, there is ‘Question Time’. For everywhere you go and everything you do, there are is an unlimited, unstoppable flood of questions; unanswerable questions that drown you in a wave of words. ‘Why is he a policeman?’, ‘What is a bird for?’, ‘Who thought of butter?’

Maya’s phase involved getting out of bed within minutes of our leaving the room. There had always been the conversation about her day, the two stories, the ’cuggle’ and the kiss goodnight: a ritual to rival any sacred rite.

I remember the first time she ventured downstairs. She must have followed her Mum out of the door within seconds and walked into the kitchen where I was pouring our ritual glass of wine; a quiet celebration that all was done for the day and that everything in Paradise was just as it should be. Except this evening, it wasn’t.

‘Maya, what are you doing?’ I asked as she opened the fridge door peering inside like she had a particular sandwich in mind.

‘I’m minding my own business.’

It was clear that Paradise had a problem…

*

At last, as we were approaching the outer realms of our sanity, my wife came up with an inspired idea. Music. Maya had always responded well to music, almost all of her favourite children’s programmes were musically based and when she was only a few months old her Mum’s singing would soothe her like nothing else. So we created a file for an i pod and each evening, after the kiss goodnight, Maya would snuggle down and drift off on a cloud of melody. Perfect.

*

Just like everyone I ever knew, Michael had a ‘guilty pleasure’:1980s love songs. He could not get enough of them, he…well, he loved them. And there was one in particular that he seemed to adopt as a kind of theme song; He was always humming or singing the damn thing. Leo Sayer: I Love You More Than I Can Say. I used to call him morbid, because of the line, Why must my life be filled with sorrow, but he would just laugh, said if I listened to it all I’d see it was uplifting. We agreed to disagree.

He sang the song wherever he was, to whoever happened to be listening. To Maya.

And that was it; that was the simple answer.

*

When I entered the half-light of the bedroom, I was sure that she had fallen asleep, but as I moved closer, I could see her blue eyes were open and glistening with tears.

‘That last song made me cry Daddy,’ she whispered, as I sat down next to her. She took my hand and I leaned forward to brush the hair from her forehead, smoothing my palm over her hair until I held her head cupped gently in my palm.

‘Why, Maya?’

‘I don’t want to talk about it. Will you hold me while I go to sleep?’

I stayed there and held her all night. And I felt like a superhero.

A superhero by a campfire in the rain

by Dr Manish Tayal

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This was sent separately and wasn’t part of the challenge, however, inspired by all the writing prompts, one of our new members, Dr Manish Tayal, decided to write the following story based on all of them)

I didn’t plan to be a superhero, but all of that changed when I got bitten by a familiar, restless yearning.

Growing up on the beaches near Karachi, I’d been raised on warnings of the dangers that lay across the black waters, the kaalaa paani. But I’d always had a rebellious streak, and I’d taken to visiting the old man who lived alone in the woods and listening in awe to his stories. I still remember the day he’d arrived in the village, freshly electrified and inspired from his travels and all he’d seen; and I remember how he’d tried to show and tell us, and how he’d been cut off mid-flow, his excitement turning to confusion, then disappointed understanding, and finally sorrowful acceptance, as my fellow villagers had cast him out. Impure, sullied by crossing those forbidden oceans to the distant, unclean worlds beyond, he could not be allowed into the village, lest his presence pollute innocent minds. Young minds like mine: eager for the promise of excitement, adventure and more.

The old man had long passed away, and the harsh realities of life pushed thoughts of distant, forbidden adventures far from my mind, as I grew and matured into a young farmhand, learning from my father the tools and techniques of our most noble of trades, producing food (and money) from the land of our master, the zamindar. Even though I’d never met him, and he knew nothing of my existence, I was loyal to my master, who provided for me and saw that I was fairly rewarded with my share of the fruits of my labour. And so, when the recruiters came to our village, singing songs of riches, glory and opportunity, I too joined my friends in ridiculing their extravagant promises. In our small world, we knew little of the great war building in faraway lands, but we knew that the tales those crazy fools spun had nothing to do with us.

Four months had passed since we’d lost my father to sickness. My mother wept as the zamindar’s men carried on talking to her, but I’d heard nothing more after their first few words, the rest of the conversation drowned out by the singing in my head, so loud was the memory of the recruiters’ songs, which until then, I hadn’t even realised I’d listened to, let alone remembered.

Bharti ho jaa ve
Baahar khade rangroot!
Aethe khaavein sukki hoyi roti
Othe khaavein fruit!
Aethe paavein phate hoye leere
Othe paavein suit!
Aethe paavein tutti hoyi jhutti
Othe paavein boot!

Join up, join up
The recruiters are outside!
Here you’ll eat dried roti
There you’ll eat fruit!
Here you’ll wear torn tatters
There you’ll wear a suit!
Here you’ll wear broken, worn-out shoes
There you’ll wear boots!

The zamindar had not been so oblivious after all. He knew me to be a loyal, hard-working, strong young man, struggling to provide for a mother, two sisters and a new wife. When the recruiters came to him, requesting ‘volunteers’, he knew he could trade me in return for not giving up his own sons. After the men left, my mother spat curses on the zamindar and his family, swearing that she’d never let me go, but she knew we had no choice – earn the displeasure of our master, or have the family comfortably provided for directly by the King-Emperor himself. Besides, that old yearning had started to return from the depths of my conscious, where it had laid buried for so many years, and I again wanted to cross the kaalaa paani and see for myself the lands the old man had told me about as a child. Within days, I was bidding my wife farewell, the taste of her tears as I kissed her cheek reflecting the cocktail of emotions within me: the bitterness of parting and cold fear of the unknown mixing with a bubbling excitement of adventure and the sweet, intoxicating taste of freedom.

I’d been to sea before of course, going fishing in my friends’ boats. But this was wholly different, an entire floating village housed in steel. So many young men from all over India, all with different stories: the woodcutter Mir Ali, enticed by the money, riches and fame; Gobind Singh, a proud Garhwali, who’d recently joined the Army, just like his father and grandfather, and generations beyond; Kartar Singh, a farmer like me, who at the recruiters’ call, had instantly set off to faithfully serve the King-Emperor. Old hands, like Ram Singh, who’d fought in North-West Frontier, Waziristan and elsewhere, recounted war stories, alternately thrilling us with tales of their adventures and terrifying us with accounts of grave horrors. But the long journey took its toll, and we were all glad to finally reach the shores of Europe. As we arrived in Marseilles, we were shocked at the unexpected heroes’ reception: smart ladies with creamy soft, pale skin and the sweet scent of roses, waved to us as we marched past, one running out to hug me, another pinning a flower to Kartar Singh’s chest; pink, bouncing children marched along with us, towels wrapped around their heads as turbans, babbling away to us in their unfamiliar tongue; and sturdy, bearded, red-faced men shook our hands and patted our backs, tears in their eyes.

Marseilles felt like a whole world away, and home was but a memory. The rain wouldn’t stop, the knee-deep water in the trenches soaking through everything, bringing with it a bitter cold that removed all feeling from my feet and made it difficult to keep a safe grip on my rifle. I held each hand in turn in my armpit, and as I did so, I felt for the reassuring hard metal of my bayonet – already, it had saved my life more than once, just the previous day sinking into a young German soldier, no older than me, who’d tried with his troop to storm our position. As he’d fallen, in horror I’d recognised his face and the memory still made me shudder. Just three weeks earlier, against orders, our troop commander, Captain Matthew sahib had laid down his rifle and walked out into No Man’s Land, to meet with the Germans. After some time, he’d called to us to join him, and in a mix of English, broken Hindi and stuttering German, he’d introduced and brought together those who’d spent months trying to kill each other, and would do so again once the day was out. But for those precious few hours, we all shared and celebrated together, exchanging personal trinkets and cigarettes – sahib tried later to explain to us about his festival of ‘Christmas’, but I only cared that for a few moments, I’d laughed and found warmth in the company of others. A deep, gruff voice cut through my reflections, as another soldier arrived to take my place in the trench. I hadn’t eaten or slept since the previous day’s attack, and suddenly realised how much I needed both.

As I walked back to the lines, I saw some of my friends already there. The langris, the cooks, had found some fresh vegetables in a nearby market that day, and had cooked them up to go with our standard diet of dahl, rice, roti, meat and potato. And so we huddled together to share stories, eat, and enjoy the company of the closest friends we’d ever know, and as we talked and ate, we forgot all about the cutting rain, the falling bombs and the homesickness, and we planned and bragged of the bravery and victories the following day would bring, until we honestly believed that our small troop would bring down the entire German Army, single-handedly winning the war for the King-Emperor.

I didn’t plan to be a superhero, but just in that moment, sat around a campfire, in pouring rain, with a bunch of men just like me yet each so completely different, I truly felt like one.

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