‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’ – a Halloween(ish) tale of a ghostly (maybe) gran

drawing of people on a sofaDrop Dead Gorgeous – a Halloween(ish) tale of ghosts (maybe) and quantum phasing (your guess is as good as mine). Bit sweary so don’t let the kids loose.

I first met Dillon when my dead Gran tripped me up in front of him. There was me, meandering along the sea front watching small dogs on extending leads crochet themselves into yapping compounds each time they encountered others of their ilk; and there was he, arrowing through them, the sleek lycra-ed warp to their woof. I was ok but he landed up in hospital with several broken bones and his bike was a write-off. Gran beamed like it was her birthday and she’d knocked back her celebratory bottle of whisky all in one go.

I wasn’t planning on visiting him; after all he’d reason to be mad and maybe even to monetise that. Can you sue pedestrians? But Gran had other ideas; I got the train to uni, it broke down and the replacement bus dropped me outside the hospital. I walked, there was an incident and a diversion that went right past A&E. I tried taking a taxi; the driver had a heart attack. So to avoid any further disasters befalling the largely innocent public, I gave in. Five minutes tops should do it, I reckoned.

‘Ok, I’ll go,’ I said. ‘But I don’t need an audience, right?

Fat chance. ‘Lovely, innee?’ Gran said, breathing pickle fumes over my shoulder.

‘Shut up,’ I said, trying not to move my mouth as if this somehow compensated for the conspicuous absence of a third party. It didn’t. Dillon looked around the room and started to reach for the call bell. I could see his point.

‘No, not you,’ I said, and fiddled around with a fantasy earpiece under my hair. ‘Bloody signal’s gone,’ I said, palming the non-existent device and shoving it in my pocket. I gave him one of those modern technology, what can you do? looks and shrugged at him.

Gran continued her onslaught. ‘Physicist,’ she said, picking at teeth that would be at least a hundred years old if she’d managed to haul her liver past eighty-six. ‘Should suit you, with all your book-learnin’ an’ that.’ She gave me a shove, ‘Go on, sit on his bed.’ I was propelled forwards and alarm spread across Dillon’s face as the woman who had put him there in the first place threatened to flatten him all over again. I grabbed at a drip pole. It was on wheels so we took each other down, along with a vase of flowers, a jug of water, and a box of tissues. The almighty racket drew the attention of a frosty-looking nurse in pink scrubs who rushed first to Dillon to inspect him for injury, and then turned her rather less solicitous gaze on me, sprawled on the floor at her feet.

‘And you are?’ she said, like we were at a posh party and I wasn’t on the guest list. I opened my mouth preparing to kill two birds with one F-bomb but …

‘My girlfriend,’ said Dillon, into the gap.


‘Yes,’ Gran said through my teeth, tittering in my ear and making kissy-kissy noises.

The nurse glared at me, then at Dillon, ‘Well, in that case …’ and she stomped away to find a cleaner she could terrorise.

‘Jeez!’ Dillon said, rolling his eyes. ‘I owe you; bloody woman’s been ogling me since I got here. Never seems to be off-duty. Have you seen that Stephen King film?’ He smiled one of those crooked smiles you read about.

‘Look look look!’ Gran whickered at me, ‘Drop dead gorgeous!’

I cocked an appraising eye, ‘Well, actually …’

‘You saw it, the movie?’

‘No, I meant – anyway, how are you?’

He told me.

We laughed.

I stayed two hours.

I promised to pick him up and take him home when he was discharged, and cook dinner as he couldn’t use his hands that well. Turned out he could. Whole other story.

I moved in.

Gran stayed away for quite a while, probably to focus on another deviant descendant, then suddenly, back she came.

‘Cheating gigolo,’ she announced from behind the sofa. I nearly lost my takeaway. ‘Quantum research shove-it-up-your-jacksie conference, my Aunt Fanny,’ she said. Gran liked an expletive or two, albeit somewhat retro ones.

‘What do you mean?’

‘So-called research assistant – more bosom than brains,’ she said, ‘And the bosom’s not much to write home about, if you ask me.’

Gran was right; Rihanna, her name was, and I met her at the faculty Christmas do a couple of months later. There she was, goggling at Dillon, passing him wine and nibbles, chirping about quantum entangled whatnots and superstring that apparently has toes, and Dillon mesmerised by her heaving chest. Gran dug me in the ribs then grabbed both my ears. This, apparently, was a way of establishing a conduit between her plane of existence and ours. She shrieked at Dillon, ‘You cunning, conniving, slippery little wormhole, you!’ Then she rose into the air and loomed over Rihanna, ‘And you should know all about quantum, with your itty bitty IQ and your Schroedinger’s now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t brazz-ee-ere!’ Gran had evidently upgraded her vocabulary since our last encounter; she embarked on a cackle.

Then somebody with a beard that looked as though it might house a decent sized lunch, and a T shirt bearing the periodic table in swear words said, ‘Quantum phasing,’ in hushed tones like he was in a church. He gawped, simultaneously awestruck and terrified and Gran turned on him, treated him to a blast of old onions and fried liver right into his face. She clacked her teeth, ‘Phantom,’ she hissed, and hovered yellow fingers over his throat.

‘Cobblers,’ said Dillon. ‘No such thing as ghosts. Quantum phased reality shifts though, there’s mileage in that.’ His face went into intellectually distracted mode. It was short-lived. Gran loomed back in Dillon’s direction, ‘Quantum reality shift, my arse,’ she said. ‘Tell you what, though, let’s put it to the test.’ And she dropped the ceiling on him.

Some days it’s just Dillon sitting behind me on the train; sometimes it’s Gran; other times it’s the pair of them. They’re still arguing the toss about ghosts versus quantum universes and they can’t agree on suitable boyfriends for me, which threatens the long term survival of potential suitors. So Gran borrowed me a part-time dog for company. ‘Big bugger,’ she said, handing me his collars, ‘And he’s got what you might call ongoing duties elsewhere, but he’ll keep the riff-raff away; happy clappies, dodgy roofers, Tories.’

He is and he does because he’s got one helluva howl on him, but he’s a poppet and when all three of us are indoors together, we each have a head to pat.

(c) suzanne conboy-hill 2017

‘God’s Scrubber’

“Valerie’s mother is nagging and she’s doing it, frustratingly, from under the screwed-up paper towels and muddy-looking wipes in the sluice so Valerie can’t dig her out. She’s doing her best with the unfinished business but it isn’t easy with the constant interruptions. This time though, despite the noises, she hopes she has succeeded because, a few yards away in the communal dining room, Pete is turning blue.”

Excerpt from ‘God’s Scrubber’, finalist in the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities’ Pen2Paper competition and free to read as a PDF from their site http://www.txdisabilities.org/pen-2-paper. Winners to be announced on October 30th.

‘Dog Day’

dogday5‘Lazy, idle, unreconstructed encumbrance,’ she remarked to the air. ‘Useless git!’ she added with satisfaction. Alice was peering down from the upstairs window at her sagging husband cocooned in his sagging lounger out on the patio. Dog Day is published by Cut a Long Story, price 99p.


‘Lovely Girls’

From the re-cycler ;Lovely Girls’ is a story about the life of a young woman in an institution for people with learning disabilities.

Amy watches the door; that grimy, finger-stained, gobbed-on portal to fleeting respite from the chronic stink that makes her eyes water.

First published by The Other Room Journal, it moved to Scribd when TORJ ceased operating. 1999 words.


‘Emily Buckingham and the Major’s Madam’

SCEBATHDMrs Wilberforce, fending off the attentions of her visitor and bending forwards in an attempt to field the low grasps of his hands, while also pulling at the leg of her outfit, was reversing into the street, presenting a set of cheeks such as might be seen in an exotic zoo. 7269 words in the fine spirit of farce. Emily Buckingham and the Major’s Madam‘, a paid download from Ether Books, September 2014.

‘Sequenced Heir, Nipped Rind’

spider web


“The ambient light is the colour of swamp fog; I am suspended from the ceiling in a net like a balloon at a solstice party; and there is a worm in my mouth. This has to be the mother of all hangovers.”


On Readwave 


It’s a Dog Day on Ether

Dog Day

Within the hour, all four were done up like dogs’ dinners, installed in a stretch limo with cheesy piped music, and deposited in front of a gilded reverend of questionable denomination.

‘Dog Day’ is the story of an easy marriage that rumbles along until the social wheels fall off. For Alice and Frank, this could be a breaking point. On Ether Books today.

‘Lovely Girls’

Lovely Girls is a story about the dismal and abusive life of a woman admitted as a young girl to a large institution in the early 20th century. It was first published in 2011 by The Other Room Journal which has now ceased operations and finally removed its archives. Here it is re homed to This Personal Space.

How many characters can a short story accommodate?



survey (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)


Some people had trouble downloading the report on PDF (How many characters can a short story accommodate 2 pdf) and some quite rightly don’t trust documents from the internet, so here it is in glorious WordPressy HTML! For the (obviously erudite and entertaining) preamble, go here.




How many characters can a short story accommodate?








We have all read novels in which entire dynasties of personnel are detailed, each individual with their own plot arc from the tiniest bit player to the central character. The theory goes that a novel has time and space to introduce us to them all, to elaborate them and make their role memorable[1], although some do resort to glossaries which seems to be a tacit acknowledgment that the burden on memory may be a little too great for most.




For short stories – and probably especially flash fiction – there is less time for such elaborations and probably less tolerance of guiding footnotes, never mind appendices, and so the received advice is to have no more than three characters[2]. This is clearly aimed at reducing the potential for confusion and distraction that a greater number might bring but what is the evidence for that?




After being asked to consider losing a character – one that I felt was doing a pretty good job of nipping the story along and whose actions I thought could not easily be given to someone else – I suggested that, since he and another key character operated throughout as a duo, perhaps the strain on memory would be lessened as each would call up the other as a unit and not as separate entities.




I was speculating that a cognitive process called ‘chunking’[3] might be taking place whereby information is processed in organised parcels, when these make sense, rather than as individual elements. Thinking of a phone number; once learned, the dialling code becomes a single entity and not the several constituent digits and the remaining string is often mentally broken up by a rhythm that parcels the digits into smaller packages. Similarly, words soon become whole units rather than strings of letters – and if you have come across the, apparently fake, experiment in spelling manipulation[4] whereby several letters in all the words on the page are changed and the text is still readable, you will appreciate how that economy facilitates reading.




I had no evidence for my theory, I remarked on this during a tutorial and I was challenged to find some. Quite possibly, an experimental methodology was not the one anticipated, but for me here was a hypothesis in need of testing. There follows an account of a very preliminary investigation into whether or not chunking might be operating when characters come as pairs rather than individuals. It is probably the first layer of quite a large cognitive onion.








I found a number of fictional and non-fictional duos[5] that seemed likely to be recognisable by most people, especially in the UK but possibly also elsewhere: names such as Morecambe and Wise, Mork and Mindy, for instance. Then I found a similar number of names that had corresponding contexts but were not paired: (Han) Solo and (Jean Luc) Picard (star ship captains in sci fi films/programmes), Sherlock and Poirot (detectives)[6]. I designed two very brief tests of memory – recognition and recall – that were, in fact, not testing memory per se but the distribution of items remembered.




The Recognition test




Using SurveyMonkey[7], I presented participants with a list of names drawn from one half of each pair: Morecambe  Mindy, Picard, and Poirot, for instance. I asked participants to read through the list of 28 words twice at most and then go to the next page. I gave them no information about the purpose of the survey, or the nature of the stimuli – that these constituted paired or non-paired names.




On this page, a further list of words was presented, half of which were ones the participants had seen before, the rest being the corresponding item in the pair; for instance, Wise, Mindy, Solo, and Poirot. I asked people then to use the check boxes to show which ones they recognised from the first list.




The hypothesis I was testing is this: there would be more ‘false hits’ or intrusions [identification of a name not seen on the first list] among characters normally found in pairs than those of non-pairs because pairs constitute a single item in memory i.e. they would be chunked.




The null hypothesis – and there should always be one – was that there would be no difference in false hits between the two groups of paired and non-paired names.




I asked people to resist the temptation to go back to look at the list. SurveyMonkey is not geared to experimental designs and would allow that function although I had disguised the button that effected this.




The Recall test




On the next page I presented participants with a further list of names. These were all the names they had not seen in the earlier lists – just 14 in all – and included Mork and Sherlock, for instance. Again I asked people to read through the list no more than twice and to go on to the next page. Here, I asked people to list all the names they could remember from that list without going back to look. Again, I gave no information about the aims of the study or the paired or non-paired nature of the names. Recall is much more difficult than recognition and so a smaller group of words seemed adequate.




The hypothesis for this test was not the number of names recalled but the nature of them. I expected to see a number of intrusions from the corresponding duos with more of these being from the paired than the unpaired category. The null hypothesis was that there would be no difference in the distribution of intrusions.








I was looking for intrusions into recognition and recall of unseen items that might have been triggered by associations among items that the participants had seen. I expected there to be more of these in the case of paired items than non-paired items because I believed that well known pairs of names may be stored as a single unit – chunked – not as individual items and so have the cognitive load of one and not two units of memory.




I put out a link to the survey via twitter, Facebook, my blog, and LinkedIn. The target population was likely to include both writers and health scientists. There was a number of re-tweets of the link which potentially widened the catchment population.




After five days, sixty six participants had completed the study. I closed it at this point as a number remarked on what they saw as their ‘appalling short term memory’ and it seemed judicious to remove the temptation to return to the study from a different computer in the hope of a ‘better’ score.








The sixty six participants generated a total of 637 responses to the items they saw on the first list, 88 of which (13.8%) were intrusions.




Of the 88 intrusions, 77.27% were of paired items, 23.26% of non-paired items.




As percentages of the total of responses: 10.68% (68) were from the paired category, 3.4% (20) from the non-paired category.




This distribution is in the predicted direction: i.e. there were more intrusions from the paired category than the non-paired category.




To examine the significance of the figures, I applied a t-test for independent measures. This is a way of making sure that the outliers that can affect averages and percentages are put into proper perspective and checked against expected statistical norms[8].




This gave rise to a t value of 1.87 with 12 degrees of freedom. Using one-tail values because my prediction was only concerned with one direction – I did not expect a deleterious effect of paired items on recognition – this is significant at the .05% level, which means that the result could be expected to come about by chance on only 5% of occasions. Put another way, there is a 95% chance the result reflects a real effect.








The sixty six participants reported 217 items, including 20 (9.22%) intrusions. The range of reporting was 0-12 items with most people (15) recalling around three items.




Of the intrusions; 9 (45%) were from the paired category, 2 (10%) were from the non-paired category, 5 (25%) came from the first list and 4 of these were paired, and 4 (20%) were miscellaneous and may or may not have been associated in some way with seen items.




Paired responses, including intrusions, constituted 115 of the total – 7.82%




Non-paired responses, including intrusions, made up 93 of the total – 2.15%




The numbers are too small for statistical analysis but again the distribution is in the predicted direction.








This was a somewhat off-the-cuff study[9] using item pairs that had not been independently validated, survey software that did not preclude re-visiting of the lists, and an uncontrolled sample with no systematically recorded or required demographic data. For these reasons, the direction in which the results point is probably more valid a platform for discussion than the percentages and statistics. Nevertheless, these support my hypotheses that pairs intrude more often than non-pairs even when the non-pairs are contextually associated and might trigger each other, which may have been the case with Dobby, Porlock, and Zippy [Noddy, Warlock/Gandalf, a Rainbow character like Bungle].




This might mean, as I suspect, that they are being chunked and so represent less of a cognitive load, and this might in turn mean that where characters consistently operate together in fiction, you might just get away with exceeding the stated dose.




What this exercise goes no way to answering is whether the premise is valid in the first place – can people really manage only three characters in a short story or flash piece?  How closely related/interactive/similar do the characters have to be in order to be chunked? There is, I think, a plethora of dissertations in that.




[1] I have found very little direct evidence or theoretical rationale for this, although it seems to make intuitive sense.

[2] Again, evidence for a rationale seems to be lacking although there is plenty of repetition of the advice which is occasionally presented as a rule.

[3] ‘The recall or forgetting curve illustrate that each item in a cluster typically requires about the same amount of time to recall’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chunking_(psychology)

[8] Robson, C. Experiment, Design & Statistics. Penguin, 1994. P 71-81.

[9] A scientific report would necessarily include a greater amount of theoretical background into which findings would be placed for discussion. This is a ‘quick and dirty’ exploration based on a small component of memory which itself is influenced by many factors not taken account of here.


‘The Justice Box’

justice box book cover‘Jesus loves her, Jesus loves her, Jesus loves the murdering bitch.’ Emmy chuckles to herself in that private way only people whose heads are somewhere else can do. She hunches up on the bed and grabs her knees; pulling them up to her chin, and hugging them like babies.

‘Pretty boys,’ she says; and bites into her knee cap.

On Ether Books September 2012