Tuesday 18 July 2023

A Tale Spinner by David Rudd, Gaelic coffee

 Never before had a tale arrived in such a finished form. Stories usually came to Mark Guthrie in dribs and drabs after a lot of painful straining. In fact, metaphors of constipation dominated. And, even then, there were still endless months of redrafting before a story felt right to him. This little gem, though, seemed to have plopped out ready-made.

   Although Mark was most grateful for this gift, he was also suspicious. As he sat in the taxi on the way to Indianapolis airport, his doubts grew. Did this story actually work, or were there some glaring errors he’d yet to spot? Was it a bit sensational, the language overly demotic?

   He was fully aware of what lay behind his concerns: his Irish gran. She’d been a brilliant spinner of tales. He remembered sitting round with his childhood buddies, mesmerised by her stories. It might not have been cool, but they couldn’t help themselves. She had them crawling up the walls: ‘Go on, Gran. Go on!’ they’d shout. Adults were the same, hanging on her every word. Meals would congeal and drinks turn tepid while a story unfurled. Life was put on hold.

   This latest story of Mark’s was certainly more like one of hers, especially in the way it had come to him. He’d had the idea while packing his bag, ready for his flight. He’d reached for his notebook before remembering his sprained wrist. He’d grabbed his phone instead, to record the insight. However, once he’d started speaking, he found he couldn’t stop. The story gushed from him. Not only that: in his lounge mirror, he’d caught glimpses of himself pulling faces and making flamboyant gestures, just as his gran used to do. Even more unnerving, he realised that the mirror in question — an ebony-framed cheval glass — had once been hers.

   Gran! He and she always had a love/hate relationship. Once he’d been her biggest fan, in awe of the simplicity, directness, and magical plotting of her work. But as he grew older and began writing himself, her stories seemed too simplistic, moralistic, and stereotypical — although, as he would be the first to admit, she could still have him hanging on her every word.

   ‘Show rather than tell,’ he’d once had the audacity to suggest to her, as though he’d been addressing his undergraduates.

   ‘I’ve never heard of a story shower, Mark, unlike a storyteller!’ she’d replied. ‘And if I might suggest something in return, Mark: less head, more heart.’

   The comment had hit home for, amongst his collection of rejection notices, criticisms of his prose for being arid and soulless were not unfamiliar.

   All of this was currently of concern to Mark, for he was shortly to catch a plane to New York to meet with a publisher who, following an award Mark had recently received, was interested in putting out a collection of his work. But the boss of Wine Press added that they needed one more, original story. Mark kept quiet about the six years it having taken him to write the stories they already had. He knew he was a slow writer, and, of course, his academic day job took up a lot of his time and energy. This was why he’d been so pleased to have this new work, even if he was also suspicious about its provenance, arriving with the speed of a pizza.

   As his taxi made its way through the busy traffic, Mark decided to give the story a listen, for he found he could hardly remember it in any detail. It was as though he’d been in a trance — not that he held to such superstitious twaddle. It was the sort of thing his students were always after: muses and other inspirational talismans.


   Though Mark tried to keep his phone at a low volume, the driver surprised him by shouting back, ‘Don’t keep it to yourself, bud.’

   Mark was happy to share it. It was rare to find his work exciting interest. However, minutes later, he began to regret it. Had his driver just run a red light? Mark also had the feeling that they’d slowed up, as though the man wanted to prolong the journey enough to hear its outcome.

   The final straw came when they almost became a bumper sticker on the car in front. As the car screeched and skidded to a halt, Mark snapped off his recorder, despite the driver’s protestations. He promised to send the man a copy of the story once it was published.


Things were no different on the plane when Mark again tried to listen to his story. Aside from wanting to hear it right through, other concerns had now troubled him. First, it had no title. Unlike his gran, he always liked to have some sort of handle on his stories, highlighting their concerns. She’d maintained that they tied a story down, inhibiting growth and change. If someone asked her for a title, she’d just say, ‘Invent your own.’

   His other worry was that this story existed only in oral form. His gran had always carried her stories in her head, but Mark needed something more tangible, fixed in print. Seeing the words also helped with editing, which again was something his gran never bothered about. For her, each performance was a new version.

   Accordingly, Mark decided that he wouldn’t just listen to the story; over the two hours he had to kill, he’d transcribe it. And he’d come up with a title.

   Though he found it difficult with his sprained wrist, Mark began laboriously tapping the words into his laptop, transcribing it phrase by phrase, repeatedly replaying sentences. He held the phone in his left hand, close to his ear so as not to disturb fellow passengers.  

   However, after only a few minutes, the woman next to him politely asked if he’d just play it through. Mark began to explain what he was doing when the man across the aisle joined in. ‘If you’d let us hear it first, perhaps? Transcribe it after?’

   Mark eventually agreed but laid down one condition. ‘I’ll let you hear it if you come up with a title. How’s that?’

   They readily agreed, and he turned up the volume. However, only moments later, those in the seats behind requested that it be made even louder. Mark was excited by their interest. He reiterated his condition about coming up with a title, promising an acknowledgement for whoever had the best suggestion.

   Having restarted the story for the third time, he noticed that the cabin crew had gravitated to his seating area, trying to look busy. Mark could hear call buttons sounding, but the crew seemed unconcerned. He was, of course, flattered, looking round at the hypnotic looks on their faces. It gave him a feeling of power he’d never experienced before.

   It was then that he noticed that one of the stewards had his thumb on the intercom button. Did this mean, wondered Mark, that they were listening in the cockpit, too?  He was just recalling his eventful taxi ride when the plane juddered and rocked before plummeting a stomach-clenching distance. It might only have been an air pocket, but Mark was not happy. He thought of that phrase people trotted out when reading a good story: ‘I couldn’t put it down.’ However, if you were piloting a plane at the time, it was less than funny! Mark found himself imagining a headline: Tale spinner ends in tailspin!

   Looking around at his fellow passengers, though, what most surprised him was that no one else seemed bothered. They all had that glassy look in their eyes. That did it. Mark hit pause. Within seconds, the protests and groans rose: ‘Come on, buddy, put us out of our misery’, ’Yeah. Don’t be a spoilsport,’ ‘Press play!’  Someone even attempted to grab his phone.



Back home in his apartment, Mark flopped into his easy chair. He was exhausted. It had been a fruitless trip and the blame, he knew, lay squarely with this wretched story.

   After his white-knuckle outward journey, he’d thought things were looking up in New York. There’d been a couple of meetings with the Wine Press team before Mr Grossman, the boss, had taken him out to lunch. This, thought Mark, was it, his golden opportunity. When the question of an extra story came up, Mark whipped out his phone and passed it across to Grossman — though stressing that the man should keep it close to his ear. He certainly didn’t want waiters delivering food into their laps!

   Initially, all went well. Mark watched as the story took hold, the next mouthful of Mr Grossman’s starter sliding quietly off his fork. The man sat hypnotised, his mouth agape, his salivary juices no doubt wondering why no more food was forthcoming.

   Like a hooked fish, Grossman was reeled in. Mark observed the man’s excitement increase, his eyes widen, his limbs start to shake. Unfortunately, what Mark took to be positive signs turned out to be symptoms of an impending stroke. The next thing Mark registered was Grossman going face down into his deep-fried Camembert. Mark quickly extricated his phone from Grossman’s hand before someone else spotted it. Waiters soon surrounded their table, hiding this spectacle from other diners.


Soon after that, Mark had found himself on the next flight back, the book deal having been put on hold. So, here he was, back in his flat, again staring at his gran’s mirror, a half empty bottle of whiskey beside him.

   He had to rid himself of this story, he decided. It was a jinx. It had already put a number of lives in jeopardy — including his own. That plane flight had been his scariest moment. He kept picturing the plane spiralling down in a fatal tailspin — all thanks to his tale. Could a story cause GBH, he found himself wondering.

   Focusing on the mirror, he swung back his arm. However, the pain in his wrist made him swap hands before he hurled the phone. Whether it was because he was using his left hand, or because he suddenly pictured his gran in the reflection, he didn’t know. But the phone missed the mirror entirely, ricocheting off the wall onto the floor.

   ‘Feeble!’ said Mark, addressing his left hand. ‘Did you deliberately avoid that mirror? Whose side are you on, anyway?’

   He might not have broken the mirror, but his phone was certainly busted. Going across to pick it up, he saw that the screen was cracked in several places. Straightening up, he once again caught sight of his reflection. Did it just wink at him? No, that was him winking, of course! But a sudden hint of his gran in his features was disturbing. He’d never noticed a resemblance before.

   He then realised that, although he was holding his phone in his right hand, in the mirror, it appeared to be in his left. With a shock, he remembered that his gran was left-handed. Not only that, but — and here he had a flashback to his recording of that troublesome tale — he’d held the phone in his left hand to record that, too.

   Mark tried to open the recording app, but there was no response — not that he ever wanted to use it again. He opened up his laptop instead. He’d had another idea. And, for this tale, he realised, he already had a title.


About the author


Dr David Rudd is an emeritus professor who, after 40 years, turned from academic prose to creative writing and found fulfilment. Recent stories have appeared in Aphelion, Bandit Fiction, The Blotter, Corner Bar Magazine, Dribble Drabble Review, Jerry Jazz Musician, and Literally Stories

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