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The Cat, the Bull and the Madman

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The Cat, the Bull and the Madman was first published on the Laurel House Creative Workshops (LHCW) website, where it won their annual short story competition. Sadly, the website no longer exists.

Prior to this, the story was entered in the Biscuit Publishing annual short story competition, where it failed to be shortlisted (there were 429 entries, the top 10 of which are published in an anthology – what was nice about the Biscuit Publishing competition was that the judges wrote comments which give some nice insights into how the competition is run and some brief but good writing advice regarding entering competitions). This website doesn't exist anymore either.

Below is the story, the critique I received from Lynda and Barrie (the Laurel House judges) as part of my prize, and my comments based on the experiences I’ve had with the competition.

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The Cat, the Bull and the Madman by Christopher Fielden

Part 1 - The Cat

I’m awake, but I’m damned if I’m letting Mr Pooch in on the secret. Every morning is the same. According to Gwendolyn, my counsellor, settling into a routine will help my recovery, but when each day starts with a war of wills with a cat, it can’t be healthy, especially when the cat is accustomed to victory.

I’d been enjoying a magnificently surreal dream. I was in a kitchen, watching an impossibly fat cook basting human heads on a baking tray. The heads were all chatting amiably about the manner in which they’d been murdered. This might sound like a scene from a horror film, but to me it felt as normal as a pint at the pub.

As the cook went to shove the heads back into the oven, she stumbled, wobbled like a Weeble, and the tray tumbled to the floor. The heads all started laughing about her clumsiness as they bounced around. I found their laughter so infectious that I joined in, but my giggles boomed like cannon-fire. The cook swung to face me. She looked like an entire tug o’ war team in one body with one thing on their conjoined mind - my complete annihilation.

As she charged at me, I drew a blade from my belt and, just as I was about to unleash a murderous blow, He appeared, malignant pleasure at my return written across His wicked face. His laughter rumbled and then...

...I woke up. A familiar, crushing sense of loss filled me as I realised I’d been dreaming and had again deprived myself of the delight the night offers. In the past this feeling might have consumed me, until my hunger became impossible to control, leading me to seek His counsel in the darkness. As I lay there, wallowing in despair, Mr Pooch jumped onto the bed, distracting me and, as always, saving me from this destructive thought path. But there’s a small part of me that doesn’t want to be saved. It’s the cruel, night-craving part of me that knows it’s dying and, in futile defiance, it encourages me to feign sleep.

Mr Pooch moves to sit on my chest, making a point of not purring. I find this disconcerting, for I know what’s coming next. I wait, and... there it is, he’s flicking my bottom lip with his paw, as if testing whether a mouse he’s caught is dead, almost dead or playing dead and about to leg it. I fight not to react and eventually he stops. My lips are probably lacerated beyond recognition, but I’m pleased with myself regardless. Usually his relentless lip flicking tactics are enough to defeat me. I feel him spring off my chest and hear him prowling around the bed, as if considering his options. I wonder what’s coming next...

Mr Pooch jumps back onto my chest and forces his paw between my lips, into my mouth. Then he just sits there, with his paw, lodged in my gob. Despite being on the receiving end of this fiendish move, I find myself impressed with his ingenuity. Still, I’m not giving up. We both remain motionless for a while. Then, as if bored with awaiting the inevitable outcome, Mr Pooch flexes his claws. They dig into my tongue. In addition to the pain, a foul taste seeps forth. I fight not to gag, but remember that personal hygiene isn’t high on Mr Pooch’s list of priorities.

‘A-ight,’ I say, through a mouthful of fur, claw and God knows what. Outwitted by a cat. Again. Healthy routine my arse. As I sit up, Mr Pooch gracefully sidesteps off my chest and sits on the duvet, subjecting me to a stare only achievable by felines that says, ‘Cross me again and you’ll find me as forgiving as Hitler.’

He’s a smallish cat with grey… well… hair. It could be lovely and long, but Mr Pooch only likes to lick one thing, and it isn’t his fur. Thus his coat has become so matted, he looks like a walking dreadlock. He has one ear and scar tissue where the second should dwell. One of his eyes is yellow, the other a misty blue, so unnatural it looks like a special effect in a pirate movie. He’s capable of using said eyes to generate an abominable stare that can terrorise the blind.

‘What time is it?’ I ask.

‘Same time it always is,’ he says. ‘Six in the a.m.’

I know he’s trying to look after me, but I’m not a morning person. OK, my problem is more apparent late at night, so I go to bed early, take a sedative and sleep through the troublesome hours. But still, ‘Is 6 a.m. really necessary?’

‘Yes.’

‘But-’

‘Routine is good, Brian.’

‘What about taking the advice of a talking cat?’

‘Don’t make me hurt you.’

I remember the last time I had to pry Mr Pooch from my face. Never has something so small caused me so much pain. I admit defeat and swing my legs out of the bed.

‘I’m hungry,’ he says. ‘Let’s eat.’

I pull on my dressing gown and follow Mr Pooch downstairs, trying not to look at his posterior. There dangle clumps of matted fur so disturbing they make Freddy Kruger’s knife glove look like a fluffy pink mitten.

I make breakfast; cereal for me, tuna for Mr Pooch.

‘So,’ I ask, ‘what’s the plan?’

‘Rest, lots of it,’ he says, licking his fishy lips.

‘Boring.’

‘You have your review tomorrow.’

‘I know, but-’

‘Honour thy mother, thy father and thy sanity.’

How many times have I heard him deliver this saying? Too many, but he does so with good reason. In the past I found it impossible to understand why anyone would want a firm grounding in reality. Now, I’m still a fan of escapism, but recognise that I used to take it too far. With Mr Pooch’s help, I’ve come to realise that there’s no harm in a little imagination in my routine. It’s when said imagination goes to war with reality that bad things happen. Now I do more than honour my sanity, I respect it. But there’s one last thing I must do before I can sleep through the night and awake happy, with no sense of loss, and Mr Pooch isn’t going to like it.

I play with my Coco Pops for a while, using my spoon to sink the few that remain bobbing in the muddy milk, trying to summon the courage to say what needs to be said.

‘What?’ says Mr Pooch, patently bored by my cowardice.

‘I need to tell you something,’ I say, looking him in the eye. In return, he delivers a withering feline stare of unfettered wrath. ‘I must confront Him.’

Mr Pooch shakes his ugly little head, ‘No.’

‘I have to tell Him I’ve won.’

‘No.’

‘But-’

‘The dark holds a power over you. It’s too dangerous. If you succumb...’ I nod. There’s no need for him to finish the sentence. I’m prone to doing terrible things at night, after which I talk a load of mental sounding drivel about Him making me do it. The fact that it’s the truth is unimportant; I’ve still done what I’ve done. What I seem unable to explain to Mr Pooch is that if I don’t risk facing Him, I’ll never know if I can leave the night behind forever.

‘He has to know I’m leaving,’ I say. ‘I have to be sure I’ve won.’

‘Tomorrow is too important.’

‘Gwendolyn thinks I’m ready.’

‘Gwendolyn is a big fat bitch.’

‘Coat it in sugar, Mr Pooch,’ I mutter.

‘All she cares about is her performance record and her bonus. She doesn’t give a flying fornication about you.’ I can’t argue - I know he’s right.

‘Do you trust me?’ I ask.

‘Do you trust yourself?’ he counters.

There’s a question. I feel a tear well in my eye, for Mr Pooch is as wise as Ghandi. Do I? Can I trust myself in the shadows? I wish I could say yes. Although a long absent feeling of hope has grown within me over the last few months, I cannot say for sure.

As if reading my thoughts, Mr Pooch says, ‘You’re strong, Brian, and I’m proud of your progress, but you can’t risk seeing Him.’

*

We spend the day watching Only Fools and Horses repeats on Gold while grazing on junk food. Del Boy and Rodney are another positive part of my routine. They give me a sense of calm and I find I can watch every episode time and again without feeling like I’m wasting my life.

But as the day fades to dusk, I realise with certainty that I have to face Him. Hoping I can do this isn’t enough. To cope with tomorrow’s review, I have to be certain. I know Mr Pooch is looking out for me, but my gut tells me this is one of those rare occasions when he’s wrong. I have to risk the worst to achieve my goal.

Throughout the day, I’ve made sure I keep waking Mr Pooch from his snoozing. If I keep disturbing him, he’s more likely to sleep into the dark hours. He’s vigilant, but he’s old.

We come to the end of the episode about Peckham Spring Water. I go to make a cuppa, but there’s no milk left. Good, perfect.

‘We’re out of milk.’ I whisper, ‘just popping to the shop.’ I unlock the backdoor and ooze into the night.

Part 2 - The Bull

It’s dark in the underpass and I’ve acquired milk. I managed to make the purchase without maiming anybody, so I’m feeling particularly pleased with myself. I can do this.

I’ve chosen this part of the city for a reason. Here dwell the members of society people don’t like to acknowledge. In such an area I’m more likely to be confronted by an opportunity to face Him while only endangering those who deserve punishment.

The deeper into the shadows I move, the more I become aware of madness sneaking up on me like a stealthy brain ninja, hell bent on consuming my sanity. Fags, whiskey, sharp metal, soft flesh - I duck and weave through my thoughts, hiding from the naughty while hunting the sanctity of nice, just like Mr Pooch taught me.

I’m so consumed by this game of mental hide-and-seek that I almost fail to notice three figures emerging from the shadows. Two of them carry knives, the other a bad case of acne and cruel eyes.

So here it is, a chance to say goodbye to the night, an opportunity to bid farewell to Him. It’s time to summon the monster; it’s time to recite the words. I say, ‘Smoo Choo is a Magic Moo, who keeps the world safe from harm. He lives in the Devonshire countryside, in a cowshed on Milky Moo Farm.’

And then he’s there, a massive bull that walks like a biped and wears a tattered cape. His horns glisten like poisoned blades of silver. Smoke curls from his nostrils, between which dangles a nose-ring of flaming metal.

The three figures start sniggering, blissfully unaware of the danger they’re in. All they hear is a children’s rhyme on the lips of a lunatic. They can’t see what I see.

‘It’s been a long time, Brian,’ says Smoo Choo, his voice as empty as death. ‘I imagine you’re gagging to release some kill-crazy-woo-ha?’ I remember when the sound of that voice would fill me with peace, for it rang with the confidence of a decision maker, someone who could make those difficult judgements I didn’t want to face. That was a long time ago. Now I hear it for the poison it is.

‘No,’ I say, watching the three figures advance, obviously bemused by my lack of fear and the fact I’m talking to empty space. ‘I’m here to say goodbye.’

‘You think yourself strong enough?’

‘I do, Magic Moo.’

Smoo Choo smiles thinly, ‘How foolish.’

‘Who you talking to?’ says Spotty, unaware of the confrontation he interrupts. The three youths spread out to surround me.

‘Smoo Choo,’ I reply, nodding at the mammoth bull they are blind to.

Spotty nods like a ham-actor, as if he can see what I see. ‘Who’s he then?’

‘An enchanted bull who walks like a man.’

I can see the conviction in my statement confusing them. The two knife boys laugh nervously. Spotty smirks. I know from experience that if you show no fear to pricks with knives, they don’t really know what to do with it.

‘Look, retard,’ says Spotty, ‘tell your mate with the udders to piss off.’ His devoted compadres undertake some orchestrated sniggering. ‘Then hand over your wallet.’

I notice Smoo Choo watching me with interest. It’s as if he can sense that I want to lash out and is amused by the fight I’m putting up. He thinks I’ll fail. He believes he’s won.

‘Look, we don’t want to hurt you,’ says Spotty, his eyes telling a different story. ‘Tell Mr Choo his uncle Bo said it was OK for us to take your money. You know his uncle, don’t you? Bo Vine?’

This resulted in some genuine laughter and lots of finger pointing in my general direction. Fair do’s, clever idea, but I find Spotty’s laughter hard to bear. His manner is cruel, and the pointing, well, that’s just rude. For the first time I feel I may lose the fight.

‘This imbecile dares to mock me?’ Smoo Choo’s voice rumbles like thunder. He’s ignoring me now, his livid eyes focussed on Spotty. ‘You mean to let them insult me like this and do nothing?’ I look up and see Smoo Choo’s cape ignite, becoming a sweeping mass of red flame. Now he’s ten, eleven, twelve feet tall, his face a mass of scowling wrinkles, his eyes as black as tar. ‘Kill them,’ he bellows.

‘You do it,’ I say. He turns towards me, wrath and malice dancing a tango behind his eyes. ‘Can’t, can you?’

‘Do as I decree.’

I shake my head and recite the words I’ve never dared to before, ‘Smoo Choo’s tired, the day is saved, all is peaceful and calm. So he lays himself down to sleep in the hay, in his cowshed on Milky Moo Farm.’

A look of disbelief washes over Smoo Choo’s features. I see his fury turn to fear, and then he’s gone.

I fall under an onslaught of punches. The three thugs have gathered the courage to launch themselves at me. As I fall they kick and they stab; I do nothing but smile. Their faces are alive with victory. They’ll find about twenty quid in my wallet. It’s a lot of money to me, but let them take it. It’s a cheap price to pay for the fight I’ve just won. Now I know. Now I’m sure.

Part 3 - The Madman

I wake in a hospital bed. Apparently I’m lucky to be alive. The police ask me some questions and I indentify Spotty from a photo which seems to please them. A month later I’m discharged and return home.

I get out of the taxi, enter the house, and at last it sinks in - the battle is over. An incredible sense of relief consumes me. I stagger to the couch and sit trembling, relishing the quiet of an empty space after the hubbub of hospital.

Mr Pooch stalks into the room, looking properly pissed off. He hops onto the arm of the chair and stares at me. After a long silence, he says, ‘Well?’

I tell him the story. His unblinking eyes stay locked to mine the entire time. I conclude with, ‘...and tomorrow, I have my review.’

‘Gwendolyn visited you?’

‘No. She called and asked one of the nurses to let me know.’

‘Quelle surprise,’ he mutters.

‘Doesn’t matter,’ I say. ‘I’ve won.’

‘Not quite.’

For some reason butterflies start performing an air-display in my stomach, ‘What do you mean?’

‘You’re having a conversation with a talking cat.’

‘No, no, no-’

‘You left the Bull behind. You have to do the same to me.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Turn off your doom siren. I’ll still be here, I just won’t be able to talk.’

‘It won’t be the same.’

‘Do you want to say goodbye to the Madman?’

A tear wells in my eye, ‘More than anything.’

‘Then you have no choice.’

*

Gwendolyn arrives thirty-five minutes late and acts like she’s early. She’s lost some weight and her new tan suggests she’s recently been in the close vicinity of a nuclear explosion. The stink of perfume fills the room as she sits at the kitchen table and prepares her papers.

‘Be a love and make me some tea,’ she says.

‘White with two?’ I ask.

‘No sugar, Brian, the new me is sweet enough.’

I make us both a cuppa and join her at the table. Mr Pooch hops onto one of the empty chairs and stares at Gwendolyn. She seems blind to the hatred festering in his eyes and goes to pet him, making some inane ‘cutesy wootsy’ noises.

‘So,’ I say, drawing her attention before she can touch Mr Pooch and give him the opportunity to tear her hand off. ‘What happens today? I assumed there’d be someone with you.’

She gives me a patronising smile, like an incompetent teacher might deliver to a nervous child, ‘No, Brian, today I make my decision. Then, if I’m happy, we go to the review board. If that happens, I’ll tell you exactly what to say and when, so there’s nothing to worry about. It’ll be a doddle.’

It amazes me that she’s failed to consider how unlike a doddle it might be for someone like me. From how many people has she withdrawn assistance, allowing them back onto the streets before they’re ready? If Smoo Choo were still around, he’d probably make me stop her. I’m relieved to feel no arousal at the idea. No dark thoughts; nothing, save disappointment at being let down by someone who is supposed to help me.

‘So,’ she says, taking a sip of her tea, ‘as you know, there are stringent rules in place to make sure you’re fully rehabilitated.’ I nod. ‘Have you been meditating?’

Yes, in my own special way, I suppose I have - I decide against voicing the thought. Instead I say, ‘I’ve had an epiphany.’

‘Really?’ She sounds as interested as an agnostic answering the door to a Jehovah’s Witness. ‘Tell me about it.’

‘I... sorry, this is very hard for me to explain.’

‘Take all the time you need.’

‘I feel different. I’ve been having inspiring thoughts, like there’s... I don’t know, a new me surfacing.’ This is so hard. I’m aware I’m pausing for ages between words. I can see Gwendolyn’s eyes glazing over with boredom, but this doesn’t matter to me. She has no idea what I’ve done. I’d be in prison if they knew who I really was. I’m amazed they never completed the jigsaw puzzle laid out before them. OK, Smoo Choo ensured I always covered my tracks, but if all the cop shows on TV are to be believed, they should have caught me years ago, not allowed me a decade of murderous mayhem. Eventually I was arrested for GBH and, due to my clean record and psychiatric history, they helped me readjust, ready to rejoin society.

I suddenly realise that I’m trying to understand what’s happened to me. I’m not hiding from the difficult questions I’ve avoided in the past. I look at Mr Pooch. His stare is absent of its usual contempt, replaced with anticipation, as though he’s proud and willing me to go on.

‘I’m considering positive ways forward,’ I say. ‘Things I can do to better myself, to help others, to try and make up for the bad things I’ve done. I’ve always had an over active imagination, so I thought I might channel that creativity into something positive, maybe have a go at writing.’

‘That’s good, Brian,’ says Gwendolyn, stifling a yawn. Her gaze moves back towards me from the fascinating vista of the breezeblock wall that can be viewed from my kitchen window. ‘This just reinforces what I’ve believed all along. You’re ready. I’ll book a date with the review board and then we’ll talk about what you need to say. Sound good?’

It sounds frightening, but I nod. I feel ready.

Gwendolyn fills out some paperwork, coerces me into signing it without reading it properly, and leaves.

I turn on the TV and sit in my armchair. I’m not trembling anymore. I feel calm. I pick up the children’s book that rests on the table and think of my mother, how she would read me the stories of Smoo Choo the Magic Moo every night, no matter what my father had done to her. I remember when I first recited the opening words aloud, how He had come to me and showed me what I should do. I recall the knife, the blood, my father gurgling. The memory used to fill me with a sense of righteousness and glee. Now it just makes me sad.

Have I really succeeded? Has the will to heal mental scars done what medication couldn’t? I know I’ve been determined, I’ve desired this more than chocolate, but can you quit anything, be it nicotine, alcohol, narcotics or the lust for blood, just because you want to? And can you then channel all that misspent energy into something good? I don’t know, but I intend to find out.

I look at the ugly little cat sitting opposite me. ‘Have I done it?’ I whisper. ‘Have I really said goodbye to the Madman?’

‘Meow,’ says Mr Pooch.

THE END

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Critique Received from LHCW

The following critique appears with the kind permission of Barrie and Lynda at LHCW.

The Cat, the Bull & the Madman - Chris Fielden

The Cat, the Bull & the Madman is a story about Brian’s escape from madness. I was hooked from the first line. The narrator’s voice is engaging and the reader is never sure if he is a reliable narrator or not. There are some lovely sections that conjure up strange images – such as: I’d been enjoying a magnificently surreal dream. I was in a kitchen, watching an impossibly fat cook basting human heads on a baking tray. The heads were all chatting amiably about the manner in which they’d been murdered. This very interesting dream gave an insight into the state of Brian’s subconscious and pulled me right into the story.

The section where Mr Pooch tries to wake the Brian, though possibly a little too long, was believable and when Mr Pooch spoke it did not jolt me from the narrative. Later there is a very intense scene when the narrator encounters the bull and yet the language he uses to conjure him and dismiss him added humour, which made the story even more powerful. This really was compulsive reading by then.

Spotty’s dialogue brought him to life and made me feel angry and disgusted – he is not a sympathetic character. ‘Look, retard,’ says Spotty, ‘tell your mate with the udders to piss off...’ and ‘...Tell Mr Choo his uncle Bo said it was OK for us to take your money. You know his uncle, don’t you? Bo Vine?’ By this time, I was with the bull! I was hoping Brian would kill him!

Despite the fact that Brian is almost killed by the yobs, he is also triumphant in that he feels cured of the mad dependence on a Bull that compels him to kill. This is shown so well: ‘As I fall they kick and they stab; I do nothing but smile.’

After this it is revealed that Brian has been on a ten year murdering spree and evaded police capture. Some of this I already knew from the story, which is a good thing, but because you are using a first person voice, it was a bit awkward that the narrator has to tell the audience the back story. It was also strange that you felt you had to tell us this when the story is more than halfway over. You take a long time to reveal exactly what he is prone to do at night – the demon he is trying to fight. Why does it have to be a mystery that he is a killer – or that he has got away with it? This could easily be dealt with earlier when Brian is talking to Mr Pooch about his need to confront the Bull.

I like that Mr Pooch is more help than Gwendolyn, the counsellor, and the turn of the story is that Brian has to stop talking to the cat, even though this is what’s healed him. It makes good sense and creates a good story.

It felt uncharacteristically untrue and silly when Brian says, I’ve desired this more than chocolate [I totally agree with this and would change it to, 'I’ve desired this more than whiskey, fags and murder,' but have left it as is so the critique makes sense - CF] The will power he has used to cure himself of his murderous tendencies is much more important to him than the willpower he needs to stop craving chocolate could ever be. This one thing weakened the story for me, because it wasn’t true to Brian’s voice.
On the other hand you handled the hint at domestic violence by Brian’s father towards his mother and the murder of his father very well. It was not over emphasised or explained and I really liked that.

And “‘Meow,’ says Mr Pooch.” is a great last line ending a particularly entertaining and well-written story. Well done.

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About the Laurel House Creative Workshops Competition

Laurel House Creative Workshops Logo LHCW

This was an annual short story competition with a 4,000 word limit, but has now changed to be a 2,000 word competition in 2012. It offers a £100 first prize. The winner also receives a full critique for their story. If you win, LHCW publish your story on their website (with your permission) along with the critique.

I like the Laurel House website and the ethos behind it – it’s aimed at helping writers learn new skills to improve their writing. I found the critique I received insightful, offering sound advice and valid points of consideration for improvement. In my opinion, it offers an excellent example of how professional, constructive criticism can help writers improve their stories and give them a better chance of winning competitions. Below are some other comments about this competition:

  • The thing I like best about this competition is that they offer a short critique to every entrant. This is a fantastic offering for writers and encouraged me to enter the competition, as whether you win or not, you will receive some direct communication from the judges enabling you to learn what was liked / disliked about your story. This is rare in short story competitions and a lovely touch – all too often non-winning entrants receive no communication at all which can become disheartening. It also helped assure me that the ethos behind LHCW is genuine – they really do want to help writers.
  • When reading the competition guidelines, LHCW stated that they like unusual and interesting, original stories which inspire the imagination. Again, this attracted me to the competition as a lot of the stories I write tend to be quirky, so it seemed like the right competition for me.
  • Communication is good and the website is kept up to date, informing entrants of progress and likely time scales for results and receiving critiques.
  • The guidelines are clear and fair.
  • Entry is cheap (£4 when I entered, up to £5 in 2012), especially when you consider Lynda and Barrie write short critiques for every entry.

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The Critically Acclaimed Thriller by Christopher Fielden.
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Your comments:

Janey E
Yay for Topher!

Jennifer S
Well done clever boy! See you Saturday x

Georgie F
Go baby! xxx

Janet G
I liked this story a lot, a clever way to be drawn into the mind of a killer? - was not sure at first. Some reservations as expressed by the critique.