Category Archives: The Duck Side (dark)


I wrote this short story during the latest round of SPARK (a quarterly collaborative event pairing writers and artists), in response to a photograph by Rachel Brown. You can see the two together here.


Captain Yang was on watch when exoplanet ZX159c came within view. The sensors showed that gravity was high, but within tolerable levels. The planet had a breathable atmosphere, an ideal temperature range, and initial readings suggested it was teeming with life.

The captain woke up the others – Flight Officer Lin and Science Officer Tan – and all three prepared for the most dangerous part of the journey so far. Their descent through the atmosphere was even more hair-raising than expected, due to strong winds and heavy rain, and Flight Officer Lin had to make an emergency landing.

The spacecraft had come to rest on a rocky plateau near two massive boulders. A sheer cliff face rose above them on one side, and on the other side could be seen the distant glimmer of the ocean.

Despite the sensors’ reassurance that the atmosphere was breathable, the captain insisted that they suit up before they went outside. The rocky terrain was full of undulating ridges and was difficult to traverse.

After walking for about an hour, they came across an enormous conical structure about the same size as the ship, with vertical ridges and subtle bands of colour in green and sandy brown. Science Officer Tan identified it as a giant marine mollusc. When the others looked shocked, she explained that it was almost certainly a herbivore, so posed no danger. Nevertheless, they made sure to give the massive creature a wide berth.

Half an hour or so later, they came to the shore of a lake. Science Officer Tan collected a sample of the liquid from the lake and tested it.

‘It’s water, with fairly high concentrations of dissolved ions. Not drinkable as it is, but it could be made safe to drink through distillation.’

‘Very encouraging,’ beamed Captain Yang. ‘It looks like this planet might be the ideal place for a new colony.’

Flight Officer Lin looked at his watch. ‘Time to head back,’ he said.


After the storm, Mary took Barney for a walk along the beach. The little cocker spaniel ran ahead of her, splashing and snuffling in the rock pools.

When it was time to go back home, Mary called Barney to her. As she was putting on his lead, she noticed he had something in his mouth.

‘What have you got there, Barney?’

Mary reached gently into the dog’s mouth and pulled out a little model, about two inches long. This wasn’t the type of cheap plastic toy given away in cereal boxes; it was made out of metal and was beautifully detailed. A child must have left it behind when they were playing on the beach, thought Mary. Well, their prized possession wouldn’t go to waste. She’d give it to her five-year-old grandson, Noah. He had a big collection of toy vehicles, but as far as Mary knew, it didn’t yet include a spacecraft.


(C) Helen Lewis, 2018


I wrote the story below during a round of SPARK in response to this painting by Sukia, entitled ‘Agave’.

Rose awoke to a gentle jolt, a pneumatic whoosh, and a rush of hot, dry air. She opened her eyes and looked out of the window.

This was the place from her dream. Not just similar, but exactly identical in every detail: the undulating smudge of hills in the distance, the rocky outcrop whose outline looked like the profile of a human face, and the cluster of agaves in the foreground.

In her dream it was night-time; the agaves’ grey-green foliage shone silvery blue in the moonlight, and the distant hills were backlit by the glow of an unidentified city. Rose would hear the unfamiliar sounds of the desert at night: the chirping of crickets, and numerous unidentified hoots, barks and howls. Then she’d become aware of another noise: the sound of a vehicle’s engine. She’d turn, and see a pair of headlights approaching. She’d walk out onto the side of the road, and stand with her thumb out.

And then she’d wake up.

‘Fifteen-minute break,’ said the coach driver, taking a packet of cigarettes from the chest pocket of his short-sleeved shirt and disappearing down the steps.


Rose had been brought up by her grandmother. Her grandmother’s interest in alternative therapies, her eclectic dress sense and her love of cats (she had eight of them), led to whispers among the local children that she was witch.

When a five-year-old Rose asked, ‘Nana, are you a witch?’ her grandmother answered, ‘Everyone has magic in them, Rosie. I’m one of the lucky ones; I was born knowing it. Most people don’t recognise the magic inside them until life cuts them open, but then the magic flows out, like blood from a wound.’

They say the first cut is the deepest. But not with Max. With him the cuts just got deeper and deeper. And then one day, while giving Rose a particularly violent beating, he collapsed and died. The doctors said he’d had a massive heart attack.

It was then that the dreams started. Or rather the dream – it was the same dream repeated over and over.


Rose stepped off the coach, her rucksack slung over her shoulder. This was definitely the place from her dream. She wouldn’t be getting back on the coach when the fifteen-minute break was up. All she needed now was a distraction – something to grab the driver’s attention, and make him forget to take a head count before leaving.

There was a sudden squeal of tyres and a brown station wagon slewed into the car park. A teenage boy leapt out of the driver’s seat, yelling, ‘Is anybody here a doctor? My brother’s been bitten by a rattlesnake!’

‘I used to be a paramedic,’ shouted the coach driver, running towards the station wagon.

Rose slipped around the back of the toilet block and leant against the wall, enjoying the coolness of the shade. Within a quarter of an hour she heard an ambulance siren, and five minutes later, she heard the coach pull off.

One of the agaves behind the toilet block was in flower. The flower stalk was at least five times as tall as the plant itself, with green florets branching off the top half. It looked as if a giant had been throwing trees around, and had speared one of the agaves with a gangly pine tree.

Rose’s grandmother had grown agaves in her sprawling back garden. They’d never grown this big, though, and Rose had never seen one in flower before. Her grandmother had explained that an agave flowers just once, and then dies. Or rather, the old growth dies back, but the plant lives on in the form of suckers that sprout from the base of its stem.

Rose sat in the shade and waited for nightfall.


Rose woke up shivering. It was dark. She opened her rucksack, put on a jumper, and then hoisted the rucksack onto her back. She emerged from behind the toilet block.

The car park was empty. Beyond the low wooden railing the landscape looked exactly as it had in her dream, and the night noises were in full swing. She wondered which city was lighting up the horizon behind the hills, and thought perhaps it was Phoenix. When Rose was growing up her grandmother had had a fire screen in the shape of a phoenix rising from the flames. Whenever Rose had suffered losses and setbacks as a child, her grandmother had urged her to remember the phoenix. ‘Don’t forget, Rosie,’ she’d said, ‘whenever our lives are consumed by fire, it’s an opportunity for us to start again; to build an even better life out of the ashes of the old one. All you have to do is be open to the possibilities that present themselves.’

Rose didn’t have to wait for long before she heard the engine and saw the headlights on the horizon. The vehicle was heading west. Rose took up her position by the side of the road.

The vehicle was a van. It pulled up beside her.

The lettering on the side of the van read, ‘Back to the Fuchsia – floral arrangements for every occasion’.

The driver of the van was a woman in her fifties. She had a friendly-looking face and an unruly mop of dark, curly hair streaked with grey. She leant across and opened the passenger-side door.

‘I’m going to Phoenix,’ she said.

‘Me too,’ said Rose.

‘Hop in, then.’

Rose got into the passenger seat.

The air in the van was filled with the scent of freesias and carnations.

Rose was on her way to Phoenix. She had a feeling it was her time to bloom.

(C) Helen Lewis,  2012

Mile 392




punch through

the darkness.

One of my hands grips

the wheel, knuckles white. The other

cradles a cigarette, lifting it to my lips, then

flicking it out of the window in a shower of sparks. I look over my shoulder.

Bobby’s lying down on the back seat. A fly that’s been

buzzing around since Monroe lands

on his upper lip.

He’s smelling





© Helen Lewis, 2011



I wrote this poem during a round of SPARK in response to a song written and recorded by my brother, John. The mood of the poem doesn’t match the mood of the song at all, but that’s the way inspiration rolls sometimes! 😀

Click here to listen to the song.


Finding Charlotte


It was Freshers’ Fair, and Emily was wandering round on her own. She stopped at the Science Society stall, which advertised its presence with a huge black and white photo of Albert Einstein poking out his tongue. In multicoloured lettering across the bottom was the caption, ‘SciSoc: not as boring as you think’. The boy sitting behind the trestle table wore John Lennon glasses and a Metallica T-shirt. He looked about as bored as it was possible to be.

‘Want to join?’ he asked.

‘Yeah, why not?’ Emily replied. She handed over her student union card.

‘Emily Brownlee,’ the boy said, reading from the card. He looked up, suddenly interested. ‘Do you have an older sister?’

Emily’s heart jumped. ‘You knew Charlotte?’

The boy handed back the student union card. ‘I’m Dan,’ he said. ‘I don’t know if Charlotte mentioned me.’

‘Of course she did,’ said Emily.

Dan picked up a SciSoc leaflet and scribbled something on the back. ‘I finish at five. Come and see me then.’


Dan’s room was on the seventh floor of one of the tower blocks on campus. A lard-faced stick insect of a boy let Emily into the flat. He indicated with a flick of his green Mohican towards the end of the corridor.

Three minutes later Emily was sitting in Dan’s armchair, trying not to wince as she sipped a mug of sugarless tea. Dan was perched on the edge of the bed, poking at a rip in his jeans.

‘It was the morning after the May ball,’ he said. ‘My mate Dave wasn’t in a fit state to walk home on his own, so Andy and I volunteered to help him. Charlotte said she’d meet me back at the flat. I didn’t think…’ His voice trailed off.

Emily was trying to think of the right words to fill the silence when Dan saved her the trouble.

‘I think I know what happened to her,’ he said.

Emily put down the mug of tea and leant forward.

‘When I met Charlotte I was working on a teleportation device, like the transporters in Star Trek. I’d managed to teleport a paperclip, but I was having problems with anything bigger; things would disappear at one end and wouldn’t reappear at the other. Charlotte was always pestering me to let her try it out, but I wouldn’t. A couple of weeks ago I was cleaning under the bed when I found one of the earrings Charlotte was wearing on the night of the May ball. She must have come back here before she went missing. She’d had a few drinks. She wouldn’t have been thinking straight. What if she tried to use the transporter?’

‘Can I see it?’ asked Emily.

Dan opened up the wardrobe. On one side was a haphazard pile of clothes. The other side was empty apart from three halogen spotlights screwed into the ceiling of the wardrobe, and a large brass switch at about shoulder height.

‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ said Emily.

‘No, it’s for real all right,’ said Dan, closing the wardrobe door. ‘This is only half of it; the transmitter. The receiver’s in the shower cubicle.’

‘Any chance of some sugar in this?’ asked Emily, holding out her mug.

While Dan was in the kitchen, Emily opened the wardrobe door and flicked the brass switch. There was a low, throbbing hum and the lights in Dan’s room dimmed. Emily stepped inside.


Emily found herself in Grandma’s back garden on a warm and sunny afternoon in summer. The house had burned down years ago, and Grandma had spent the rest of her life in a rest home, but here were the house and garden, exactly as Emily remembered them. When she and Charlotte were little they used to spend every Saturday with Grandma while Mum worked an extra shift at the hospital. In the warmer months the girls loved spending time in the garden. Sometimes they’d help with the weeding, water the tomatoes, or plant snapdragons and sweet peas in their own little corner of the garden, but most of the time they’d simply play.

Something was moving near the house, so Emily decided to go and investigate. The next thing she knew she was looking in through the kitchen window without any knowledge of how she’d got there. She looked down. She could see her own body, but she could also see through it to the paving slabs below. She felt a wave of nausea.


Emily turned round. Standing in front of her, hands on hips, was a Charlotte-shaped apparition, wearing a strapless ball gown and a frown.

‘You’re an idiot!’ said Charlotte.

‘You’re alive,’ said Emily. The tears began to flow.

Charlotte softened her expression. ‘I would give you a hug, but I can’t touch anything. It’s good to see you,’ she added.

‘What’s going on?’ asked Emily.

‘I’m in two places at once.’

Emily looked blank.

Charlotte continued. ‘When I first arrived, I thought this place was all there was, but then after a while, I started to hear a noise which didn’t belong here – like waves breaking on the shore. So I concentrated really hard, and found I was able to ‘be’ in the place the noise was coming from.’

‘What place?’ asked Emily.

‘I don’t know. It’s totally dark – even with my eyes open I can’t see anything.’

‘Sounds freaky.’

‘Actually, it’s kind of relaxing,’ said Charlotte.

Emily peered through the kitchen window. ‘Is Grandma here? Have you seen her?’

‘No,’ said Charlotte. ‘She must be out.’

‘But she’s bound to come home some time.’

Some time, yes,’ said Charlotte, ‘But not this time. We’re in a time loop. The sun starts pretty much overhead, then moves over that way, and then there’s this sudden jump in all the shadows and the sun’s back overhead again.’

‘If Grandma’s out she’s probably down the shops,’ said Emily. ‘We could -’

‘Nope,’ said Charlotte. ‘Can’t get through the gate. I’ve tried. Can’t get inside the house, either. I can’t touch things properly, but I can’t pass through them, either. We’re stuck here.’

‘Maybe not,’ replied Emily. ‘If you’re in two places at once, then I’m probably in two places at once as well.’

‘I guess,’ said Charlotte.

‘Which means we’re both half a person. If we could find some way of joining together we might become one whole person. Maybe then we’d be able to touch things.’


I’m hungry, thought Charlotte.

That was a clever idea of mine, wasn’t it? thought the part of her that was Emily.

It worked, and I’m really grateful, but right now I need something to eat, thought Charlotte.

Spaghetti hoops! thought Emily and Charlotte together.

Walking was a real effort, but Charlotte thought it would probably get easier once she’d had a bit more practice. Grandma’s back door key was under the mat as usual. Manipulating the key in the lock was tricky, but eventually she got the door open and stepped into the kitchen.

What was that smell? Never mind, there’d be time to deal with that later. Food first. Grandma had a gas stove, and she kept the matches on the top shelf of the pantry, which had been out of Charlotte’s reach when she was little, but not now. At the back of the middle shelf she found a tin of spaghetti hoops. She had a long struggle with a can opener to get it open.

What was that smell? She almost had it now. It was on the tip of her tongue. This two minds thing was going to take a bit of getting used to.

She lit a match.

Still the smell. It was something you couldn’t see. It had no smell of its own, so they added an artificial odour to it. Ah yes, that was it. Gas.


When Charlotte and Emily’s grandmother got back from the shops an enormous cloud of black smoke was hanging over the street and three fire engines were pumping foam on the charred remains of her home.


After a while the ringing in Emily’s ears subsided, and was replaced by a new sound: a rhythmic swishing noise. She was floating in a warm liquid. She wasn’t breathing, but this wasn’t a problem, because she didn’t feel like she needed to.

A thought began to form. Is this the ‘other place’?

Yes, thought the part of her that used to be Charlotte.

Emily opened her eyes. Darkness. She kicked with her arms and legs. She was encased in a rubbery cocoon. Her heart started racing.

Calm down, there’s no need to panic, soothed Charlotte’s mind.

But Emily was already panicking. She knew where they were.

And then the contractions started.


(C) Helen Lewis 2009



A teenage girl walks

the November woods at dusk,

leaves no trail of breath.

                                                                        After three hundred

                                                                        years I still look like the child

                                                                        I was modelled on.

Low shafts of sunlight

cut between branches; the girl

stops in a clearing.

                                                                        I’ve known everything

she’d have known and more; lived her

 life four times over.

The girl bends down, scrapes

back leaves to reveal bare earth;

a lone blackbird sings.

I’ve never known the

grip of pain before, and now

I can’t escape it.

The girl claws at the

soil with her fingers; the trees

breathe in unison.

Before yesterday

I’d never harmed another

sentient being.

The earth will not yield;

the girl drops to her knees, mud-

caked hands to her face. 

I am made of earthstuff –

ores torn from the planet’s womb

by those who made me.

The girl lies down, scoops

a blaze of leaves across her

legs, belly and chest.

Ice-hot pain that comes

from everywhere and nowhere

is calling me home.

Now the final leaf

is placed; one uncovered eye

flares, and then grows dark.


(C) Helen Lewis 2011


I’m sitting on a single bed

with pounding heart and aching head.

My memory’s stuck – it won’t rewind.

I haven’t lost my mind.


The décor’s apple-green and chrome.

Wherever I am, it isn’t home.

They say I’m free but I feel confined.

I haven’t lost my mind.


The pills they make me take are brown.

The nurses have to hold me down,

but first they close the roller blind.

I haven’t lost my mind.


The girl next door to me is nuts –

her arms a mess of razor cuts.

I don’t belong here, with her kind.

I haven’t lost my mind.


And all the other women here

are tainted with the smell of fear

and search for things they cannot find.

I haven’t lost my mind.


Respect’s a quality they lack.

They whisper things behind my back.

The words they say are so unkind.

I haven’t lost my mind.


The doctor says when he is through

I’ll see the world like others do –

I’m not sure I’m that way inclined.

I haven’t lost my mind.


The things he says are just not right –

that black’s not black and white’s not white,

and every cloud is silver-lined.

I haven’t lost my mind.


The doctor smiles but I do not.

He wants to know what I forgot.

He makes my tangled thoughts unwind.

I haven’t lost my mind.


The doctor says I’m almost there;

I’ll start to heal if I can bear

to drop the mask I hide behind.

I haven’t lost my mind.


Oh God, did I do something wrong?

I can’t forget for nine months long

my blood and hers were intertwined.

I haven’t lost my mind.


For eighteen hours on the trot

she cried and cried and wouldn’t stop.

A swirling redness made me blind.

Perhaps I’ve lost my mind.


For hers was such a little life

it only took a pocket knife

to cut away the ties that bind.

I think I’ve lost my mind.


(c) Helen Lewis 2006


Family heirloom

[Click here to listen to an audio recording of this story. (Read by me, and not a professional voice artist, unfortunately!)]


My grandmother’s house was just as I remembered it. The crunch of gravel on the front path, the lion’s head knocker, the smell of beeswax, and the umbrella stand in the corner of the hall.

When I was a child the umbrella stand fascinated me. It had an off-white circular base; ivory, Oma explained – like the piano keys. The umbrella bin was shaped like an umbrella itself; inverted and partially opened. Its spines were ivory too, and stretched between, forming the fabric of the umbrella, was a beige-coloured translucent material that reminded me of the hide on my bongo drums.

Whenever Heike and I stayed with Oma the umbrella stand was our touchstone. One of us would stand next to it, close our eyes and count to a hundred while the other hid. It was our hiding place for the sweets we smuggled in for midnight feasts. As teenagers it was where we stashed our make-up.

It didn’t take long to clear the house. I got the umbrella stand and the contents of Oma’s bureau. Sorting through her papers the next day, one handwritten letter caught my eye.

June 14th 1943

Sehr geehrte Fräulein Schwartz,

Please accept my deepest sympathies. Your late father’s patronage of our work has helped to make this country great. Your own generous donation from your father’s estate will allow us to continue our research for many years to come. Please accept this small token of my appreciation: an umbrella stand, fashioned entirely from waste materials.


Joseph Mengele


(C) Helen Lewis 2010

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