Reader’s Choice: Baker’s Practical Segue

Baker’s Practical Segue  

by Matthew C. McLean

The pentagram was correct, the symbols along its border were perfect. Dee had double checked each facet of the summoning circle seven times, once with the computer’s scanner, making sure everything was in place. The salt made a mess on the Persian rug, but he’d clean it up later and, if he couldn’t, it was worth the price. The ritual had to be performed in the privacy that only his penthouse could afford. Otherwise, his public might find out his secret, and the ideal life he had carved out for himself would come to an end.

Satisfied with the fidelity of the protective circle he smiled and walked to the piano.  Sitting on the bench he adjusted the small audio player on the grand’s top board, then pressed the play button. The ethereal voices of a cantata came forth from the box’s speakers and Dee took a moment to enjoy the high sweetness before he laid his fingers to the ivory of the keys. Like the voices, his accompaniment started out slow and light, but progressed at an increasing rhythm. His hands moving further and further down the bass keys of the piano as the voices became higher, strained and tortured, as if victim to the music itself. The dissonance between recorder and piano continued until it seemed to drain the light from the room itself, darkness enfolding player and piano, swirling out to occupy greater space until the crescendo mounted to its zenith. If anyone had been present there would have been nothing for them to see at the final notes, the room cloaked in blackness.

With a concluding, striking piano chord, the darkness dissipated with a quickness that belied its slow arrival. And standing in the pentagram, where no man had been before, stood a grey and tired figure: what might have been a young man, in tattered clothes and with a simple guitar, an itinerant in this life and the next. He kept his hat on, shading his eyes from the room’s central chandelier, and frowned a, “Hello Dee.”

“Hello Baker.  Feeling rested I hope?”

The grey around the spirit called Baker darkened into a shadow that poured down his body from the brim of his hat. “What do you want, Dee?”

“Good news! I’ve been invited to the royal wedding. They’ve asked me to bring a new composition to the reception. I need something light and catchy.”

The shadows around Baker darkened until he appeared as an onyx figure. “You know the kind of pain it causes me when to bring me back into this space. And you only want me to make you some ear-candy?”

“As only you can.” Dee arched his thin fingers together. “Preferably with some lyrics about eternal love.”

Baker shifted, holding his guitar by the neck as if it were a club. “My take on eternity is a little different these days.”

Dee used the temple of his fingers to point at the spirit he had called upon, as if it were a petulant child. “Don’t be so grim.”

“You bring me back here to write songs for you, making yourself rich off a talent that never got me recognition in life.” Baker’s eyes burned through his shadow. “And your advice is to ‘lighten up’?”

Dee smiled, splaying out his fingers, indicating an obvious conclusion. “Indeed. It’s not as if you have a choice.”

Baker stood, moments passing and the dark shadow around him draining away. “Maybe you should try asking Michael. I heard he was working up tunes for the Heavenly Choir.”

Dee frowned his disapproval. “You know I can’t bring up anyone with a recognizable style.”

“So you need someone who died in anonymity.”

Clapping, Dee spoke fawningly. “But a genius who died in anonymity!”

The shadow and his resolve drained away, Baker slowly responded, “Thanks.”  He shifted the guitar he carried into both hands, cradling it. “Could I at least get a stool?”

Dee gave a laugh that was famous among the media, a laugh some had privately thought carried a tone of menace. “That’s almost clever, Baker.  You know I can’t break the circle.”

Baker gave the guitar a strum. “Or I’ll get out.”

Tilting his bald head, Dee smiled pityingly. “You escaping is not what I’m worried about.  There’s always another unsung talent in the Great Beyond I can call on.”

“You’re worried about what I’d do to you if I got out,” Baker smiled.

Dee returned the grin. “I’m so glad we understand each other.”

“I’m not a killer Dee. Never have been.”

“Pardon me if I don’t take that chance.” Running a finger along his scalp, the necromancer turned to leave. “Now, get to work. The sooner you’re done, the sooner I’ll put you back.” Dee checked his watch, the anachronistic time piece so bejewelled it might have been the reason they invented the word bling. “How long will you need?”

Baker tuned his guitar, looking down the struts, pointing the instrument’s neck at his summoner like a gun sight. “Not long. I’ve got something I had been working on no one’s ever heard. I can rework it pretty quickly.”

Dee smiled with approval. “I’ll be back in an hour.” And in an hour he returned, sitting at the piano’s bench with a patient smile. “So what do you have for me.”

Baker didn’t reply, but instead began to play a song. It didn’t sound to Dee like what he had asked for, not some light pop tune, but had a familiar strain of notes. It so struck the necromancer that he began to play it out on the grand when Baker came back to the chorus a second time.

Dee felt the music move into a shifting etherealness that carried him through several more rounds of music. Accompanying the guitarist, he asked, “This is… unusual. Does it need percussion?”

“No.” The response caused Dee to jump, the music broken by the dissonance of his hands banging into the pianos keys. Baker hadn’t spoken. The voice came from behind Dee. Glaring over his shoulder, the necromancer saw another grey figure, a bearded and bald man in an ancient tunic with a flaring white ruff around the neck. His eyes burned with a fire not dissimilar to what Dee had seen in Baker not long ago. The man’s rigid posture held him taut like a string ready to snap.

“I’m happy to disappoint you Dee,” Baker spoke from what seemed a great distance away, “but that tune isn’t mine. I learned it from one of the Utom people on the other side.  They’re South American forest dwellers who speak to their ancestors through music.” To put a finer point on it, Baker concluded, “to summon the dead, but without circles or any components.”

Dee eyed the man standing next to him. “This is…?”

“Oh no,” Dee could hear a laughter in Baker’s voice. “He’s not Utom.  This is Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa. He’s a count and composer from sixteenth-century Italy.”  Baker paused, then added, “He also tortured and murdered his wife and her lover.”

“He’s got a thing about personal property. So I asked him to come up here and have a chat with you about stealing other peoples’ work.”

Matthew C. McLean is a writer living in North Carolina.

Our Reader said:

I enjoyed this story very much: not only is it focused on music throughout, but the ending was unexpected and amusing.

Reader’s Choice: An Unforgivable Act of Generosity

An Unforgivable Act of Generosity

by Jan Brown

Never date a collector. I speak from bitter experience. Unless you’re on the same track as train-spotters, collectors are beyond normal human comprehension. I had the misfortune to date a record collector, in my innocence. I say misfortune now; at the time, I was an innocent, blinkered by love and lust. I listened to bands I’d never heard of, admired freaky artwork and faked interest in sleeve notes. That’s what good girlfriends do.

I’ve been thinking about the warning signs I missed.

One: likely to be a total control freak regarding anything vinyl-related. I knew exactly which albums I was allowed to play and which were off limits. I was taught how to handle vinyl using only the pad of my thumb and middle finger, for fear of the dreaded finger mark. I learnt that the inner sleeve wasn’t just a bit of paper with a pointless hole in; it was an intrinsic part of the whole album and must never be forced into a space it might be reluctant to fill – and believe me, inner sleeves often put up a fight. When I chose an album to play, I marked the location with a slip of paper to ensure it would always be returned to where it belonged, according to a system unique and comprehensible only to my boyfriend.

Two: there may be obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Albums alphabetised on custom made shelves in a temperature-regulated room, many not there to be touched, let alone played. Just there. Immaculate hand-written catalogues with every minute detail transcribed, pored over daily and updated with each acquisition. Once a book was filled, a new one would be purchased but it had to be identical: black cloth, hard cover, A4, 100 pages. An inordinate amount of time spent on esoteric websites, tracking down deluxe editions, elusive new pressings, illicit recordings, maybe the rare album with the misprint that got withdrawn. Did you know there’s an early Beatles worth a small fortune because they printed Lennon and McArtney? Do you care? Apparently one should – such things are valuable.

Three: probably no idea about desirable presents but unfailingly generous with home-made CDs of rare downloaded tracks no one else would want to hear. Not me anyway. These CDs had to be played, usually in the car to and from work, because a quiz invariably followed (see Four). They were sweetly left on the pillow while I slept, a loving offering comparable to the mangled vole your cat might drop at your feet. The same flummoxed eyes when I expressed my thanks in underwhelmed tones which silently said ‘I’d rather have roses.’ At least I didn’t scream like I did at the vole.

Four: not the best conversationalist; in fact, a probable absence of people-skills. He would often embark on one-sided discourse (for that, read lecture) over ‘romantic’ dinners about what missing tracks had to be located, what constituted a reasonable price on his budget; what he could have got if he hadn’t had to pay for half this meal. What did I think of the CD he made me? He wasn’t trying to catch me out; he genuinely cared. Oh, and a distinct need always to be right. To be fair, he generally was, but a total intolerance of anyone who claimed to have ‘all the U2 stuff’ when he could be pretty certain they were completely unaware of the extensive catalogue of U2 stuff that didn’t reach the charts. Charts were anathema.

Five: cautious with money. Not a bad thing but, OK, tight-fisted. Never given to spontaneous expenditure because there was a strict budget and most of it was allocated to The Collection. Which brings me to…

Six: zero interest in fashion and incapable of brushing up well for more formal occasions; at least, not without assistance. A wardrobe of jeans, T-shirts (usually from gigs), button-down shirts in a vast range of shades of blue and grey – and Doc Martens. Smart meant putting on a suit jacket from the charity shop and swapping blue for black denim. Maybe a buff of the ancient bovver boots with his sleeve…

Seven: complete and utter heartlessness. He dumped me over a record. If I’d scratched a Comsat Angels or made dinky flowerpot holders out of melted Grateful Deads, I’d have understood. I was visiting my mum and asked if I could rummage among Dad’s old stuff in the attic. I found something I thought he might appreciate. I was so chuffed. I was no longer an outsider – I’d located a gem.

I rang him straight-off.

“Guess what I’ve found.”

“Oh God, not a lump.” (That’s Eight, by the way: a tendency always to think the worst.)

“No, silly. Listen. Remember I said Dad was into Dylan in his youth? He used to talk about how he visited New York – bragged about buying some Dylan album that got withdrawn?”

“The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” he replied like a computer. “1963, Colombia. Four tracks left off later pressings. Replaced with others but no one knows why. Stamped with -1A. Worth a fortune but you can’t find it for love for money.” (Nine: full of information of negligible interest to others, generously shared; oblivious to numbed reactions.)

“Maybe not for money, sweetheart, but definitely for love. I’ve got it here in my hand.”

There was stunned silence, a strangled moan, more silence. I could picture him struggling with his astonishment, the mental gymnastics as he cross-checked his catalogues with the online information he visualised, and I positively glowed. Surely this was worth an engagement ring!

“Yep, Dad had a copy and it’s yours, sweetheart.’

“Stereo or mono?” I should have expected that. I knew where to look by now. He’d trained me well.


“I don’t know what to say.” That was good enough for me. He was happy.

“And Mum’s written a little inscription on the cover for you: Dad’s name and then ‘given to Adam, with our love.’ Isn’t that sweet?”

More stunned silence.

“Well, aren’t you excited?” I felt a bit miffed.

“Have you any idea what that means?” I flinched at the cold anger. “That was worth twenty or thirty thousand dollars. It’s worthless now.” He slammed down the phone.

He dumped me by text that afternoon. Next day, all my belongings were delivered by a very embarrassed friend of ours who didn’t know where to look or what to say. Actually, I say all my belongings: my albums weren’t there. They’d been appropriated to his collection.

Eventually I would Google Freewheelin’ and realise the enormity of the desecration. But it wasn’t about the money for him; it was the ownership. With a few strokes of Mum’s pen, his dreams were shattered like an old 78 dropped on a scullery floor. But it confirmed for me that one should never date a collector.

Ten: unforgiving.

Jan Brown is still refining her writing skills and enjoying writing flash fiction, without dreaming of The Big Novel.

Our Reader said:

This story was well-paced, and felt very true to life. I really felt for both characters. Also, though Jan didn’t know who the Reader would be when she submitted the piece, I happen to work with music collections and collectors, so this is right up my street.

Reader’s Choice winner: Mariella and the Singing Flute

Mariella and the Singing Flute

by Margaret Gallop

Mariella lived with her brothers in a cottage in the dark wood. One day the oldest brother said ‘I must go and find work.’ And he made a tearful goodbye. ‘You are safe here little sister. People pass every day.’

A year later her second brother left to go and make his fortune. ‘Beware of strangers, little Mariella.’

A year later a tall man walked by and sat on the stone outside her cottage. She watched him. After a while he picked up his sack and walked on down the forest path. Mariella stepped hesitantly out and looked after him. He had left something on the stone. It was a little flute. Should she call out or pick it up and follow him? She did neither, but after a while she put it to her lips and blew. It played a tune she had never heard before and it seemed to be talking to her.

Far away your true love lies.
Leave your warm fire, go find your future.

Mariella wondered if she should she listen to the flute and follow the stranger down the road. She tried playing it again.

Beware, beware of leaving your fire
Stay in your small safe place, Mariella.

What should she do?

One day a beautiful doe walked past her door. Mariella felt restless and picked up the flute.

Follow the doe though the wakening wood.
Follow her gold tail flickering through shadows.

Mariella hesitated and played again.

Beware, beware of greedy eye,
Beware of the shining knife.

Mariella peeped out of the window. The doe seemed to be waiting for her. She hung the flute round her neck and followed the doe along the forest path. They walked through dark woods and open glades, meadow pasture and rippling brooks. She slept against the doe’s flank and climbed on her back when they crossed streams. One day they came to a watermill. Mariella asked the miller’s wife if there was somewhere to sleep.

She welcomed them. ‘What a gift you have brought me. We’ll have a feast tomorrow.’

‘Oh no,’ said Mariella, ‘the doe is my friend, but where can we shelter tonight?’

She put them in an outhouse. That night, Mariella woke to see the old woman creep in with a gleaming knife. Mariella pushed her away with a bale of grain and the doe slipped out into the darkness.

‘So,’ said the woman, ‘you’ve cheated me. You must work for me and sleep under the table.’

One morning she sent Mariella to pluck watercress from the river bank. A large fish swam up to her. She took out her flute and played.

Go, go with the glimmering fish,
His shimmering scales, his shining eyes.

She hesitated and played again.

Don’t risk the river, the rocky falls,
Beware its swirls and the fisherman’s line.

Mariella pondered a moment. Then she left the watermill and followed the giant fish up the river. She swam in the river, scrambled up rocks and rode on the great fish as he leapt the waterfalls.

They came to a bridge where a fisherman stood with his line. ‘Here, little girl, you have brought me a wonderful fish.’

‘No,’ said Mariella, ‘do not hurt him.’

The man laughed. ‘Get out of my way so I can cast my line.’

Mariella jumped off the fish’s back and swam towards the fisherman, fighting the river current. The great fish leapt through the water and disappeared under the bridge. The fisherman man shook his fist and Mariella ran up the path until he was out of sight.

As she walked along the river bank she noticed a boy with golden hair ahead of her. She got out her flute.

Go, go with the golden-haired boy,
A friend for life and a prince in hiding.

But she played again for the warning.

Danger waits for the golden-haired boy.
Envy and murder are waiting for him.

Mariella thought of the doe and the fish. She caught up with him.

‘Who are you?’ he asked.

‘I am Mariella and I have nothing but a flute.’

The Boy blinked. ‘And I am the true son of a king.’

Then they both laughed.

‘I will come with you to claim your Kingdom.’

‘It fear it will not be safe. Another man claims my place.’

‘I will come.’

As they entered the town an open coach followed them through the stone gate. A man in red velvet stood up in the coach. ‘Bow, bow you people!’ he shouted. ‘Your king requires your obeisance.’

‘No I don’t,’ muttered the old king beside him, ‘but there’s no stopping this young upstart. Would that my first wife’s child had survived. He might have taken better care of my people.’

The golden-haired boy didn’t bow.

‘You, peasant,’ shouted the Prince. ‘Who are you to disregard me?’

‘I have come to claim my rightful place in this kingdom.’

‘Seize him,’ yelled the Prince, ‘Bring him to the castle.’

‘Now that young man looks more like it,’ mumbled the old king. ‘Stands up to him. Reminds me of my first wife.’ He wept a little.

The castle gate closed to Mariella, so she followed the river path under the castle walls.

Inside the Prince took the boy to the river terrace where the King liked to sit.

‘So?’ said the Prince.

‘I have come to claim my lawful inheritance.’

‘Your lawful inheritance?’

‘I am the son of the first Queen, Wilhelmina, you Majesty.’

The Prince roared and slapped the boy’s face.

‘Your evidence?’ asked the King.

‘This ring, tied round my neck, which belonged to my mother.’

The Prince grabbed the ring and twisted the cord, lifting him off the ground.

‘Couldn’t he just take it off?’ asked the King, wearily.

The boy knelt and gave it to the King.

‘That looks very like….’

‘Fraud,’ yelled the Prince. He grabbed the ring and threw it over the wall and it splashed into

the river.

‘Destroying evidence?’ muttered the king.

‘A trickster,’ said the Prince, ‘put him in the Tower.’

Mariella was playing her flute by the river bank. The water stirred and a large fish tossed the ring on its cord back to her. ‘Thank you, Fish,’ she cried.

After dark she climbed lightly up to the boy’s stone window. As she looked in, a figure with a long knife stood over the boy’s bed. The moon flashed against the flute and blinded the wicked Prince for a moment and his knife stabbed into the bed frame.

‘Guards, catch this intruder!’

Next day, the Prince summoned the King to witness the execution of the boy.

‘Must we?’ asked the king.

‘Your Majesty, last night an intruder attempted to free him.’

‘Let me see this intruder.’

The guards brought in Mariella.

‘Please let her go,’ said the boy, ‘she was trying to help me.’

‘By stabbing you?’

‘No, she didn’t have the knife, she had a flute.’

‘How charming. Let me hear her play.’

As Mariella started to play, a doe and a stag leaped onto the terrace. Mariella put her arms round the doe’s neck.

‘Grab those deer!’ yelled the Prince.

‘No,’ said Mariella.

The stag dipped its horns and tossed the Prince over the wall and into the river.

‘Oh, well done,’ muttered the King. ‘This is more like it.’

‘If only you had the ring,’ he said out loud.

Mariella took the ring off her neck and, kneeling, offered it to the King.

‘Guards, release my long-lost son. My second wife told me you died at your birth along with my wife. She brought her own son instead. Now what shall we do with him? What he planned for you?’

‘Please, be merciful.’

‘That’s just what Wilhelmina would have said. I now have three proofs you are my true son.’

The Prince dragged himself wet and furious back into the courtyard.

‘What shall we do with him? Perhaps your friend could pay her flute while we think?’

Mariella lifted the flute to her lips. The words were clear to everyone this time.

Go, Prince, go to your mother’s land,
High King of all you could be…

The Prince stared, and then shouted for his best horse.

‘Wait…’ said Mariella, but the Prince strode away, mounted his horse and galloped out of the castle, grabbing the flute as he passed Mariella.

‘Oh, it wasn’t mine to give!’

In response a tall courtier stepped forward. ‘Mariella, the flute was yours. Your brothers

asked me to give it to you when I passed your cottage, but you were too shy to come out.’

‘My brothers?’

‘Yes, they are in this town.’

Mariella smiled with pleasure.

‘You will be reunited with your brothers,’ smiled the King, ‘but what can I grant you, my neglected son?’

‘May I choose a bride, your Majesty?’

‘Of course.’


‘Oh,’ said Mariella, ‘I don’t have the flute to ask.’

The Boy and the King laughed. ‘Take your time, Mariella.’

I wonder what you think she decided.

The End

Margaret Gallop has always enjoyed writing, teaching creative writing and poetry with children and adults, and helping people put their stories into words.

Our Reader said:

This story was a delight from start to finish. Not only was the theme of music central to the plot, but there was a clear story with a satisfying resolution, and I enjoyed reading it very much.

Our Reader for summer 2018

Our Reader for summer 2018 was Didcot Writers’ own Alice Little.

Alice Little.jpg

Alice enjoys writing of all kinds, and loves organising things for other writers, including workshops and competitions for Didcot Writers. She had had ten short stories published since 2016, as well as releasing three anthologies. Find out more at

Alice’s poem, The End is Nigh, was Reader’s Choice Winner back in April. You can read it here.

About the winning story, Mariella and the Singing Flute, by Margaret Gallop, Alice said:

This story was a delight from start to finish. Not only was the theme of music central to the plot, but there was a clear story with a satisfying resolution, and I enjoyed reading it very much.

All competition entries were received via the new Google form, and were read anonymously. If you would like to be Reader for any month in future, please get in touch.

We are planning to publish a short anthology containing some of the submissions to our summer music-themed competition. Further details will be announced in due course.

Competition Winners for October

Thank you to everyone who entered the June competition, on the theme of music.

Reader’s Choice winner –
Mariella and the Singing Flute, by Margaret Gallop

Other Reader’s Choice pieces –
An Unforgivable Act of Generosity, by Jan Brown
Baker’s Practical Segue, by Matthew C. McLean

Congratulations to all!

Don’t forget to ‘Follow’ this site to receive all winning entries straight into your inbox, compete with comments from the Reader, as well as details of the Reader themselves.

What’s happening in August and September

…it might be a bit quiet round here! Our next winning pieces will be published in October – here’s why the gap:

This summer we are extending our monthly competition so that rather than having three 500-word challenges, we’re having one prompt for 1,500-word pieces over the next three months, July-September. From October the usual monthly competition will resume.

You can write in any genre, and we welcome fiction, non-fiction, flash fiction, poetry and scripts; there is no minimum word limit. It can be a complete piece (or three shorter linked pieces!), or a stand-alone extract of a longer work.

For July-September the theme is music –

…whether it’s music to your ears, or time to face the music, your piece could centre on a swan-song, an ear-worm, or a one-man-band. Maybe your characters meet at a concert, disagree on which is ‘their’ song, or walk through life wearing headphones.

As usual, submissions will be read anonymously by a Reader, and their favourites published on this site. There is also the possibility that a print anthology will be created of these pieces early in 2019 – you will be notified if your work is selected for this.

Please note: there is now a google form for submissions here. The email address is still monitored for enquiries and other communications, but from now on please submit your competition entries via the form.

We will aim to have the winning pieces published as soon as possible in October, but please bear with us – it can take our Reader time if there have been a lot of entries! All entrants will be notified when the winning pieces have been published.

Read work selected as ‘Reader’s Choice’ in previous months here. Want to be a Reader for one of our competitions? Get in touch via

Deadline for submissions: 30th September 2018

[This text is copied from our home-page, full guidelines for entries can be found there.]