In the Podcast Milestones blog post (July 2023), I revealed how I’d forgotten to celebrate the milestone 75th episode of my storytelling podcast, Tall And True Short Reads. And that I’d also neglected to mark its 50th and 25th episodes. I corrected this oversight and promised to post future episodes and milestones.
That leaves a “back catalogue” of 76 episodes to share on the Tall And True blog. And because that’s a lot of podcast episodes to read about and listen to, I’m spreading them across several posts over the next two to three weeks:
- Season One, Episodes 1 to 32
- Season Two, Episodes 33 to 55
- Season Three, Episodes 56 to 77
By the time I’ve shared the last blog post, I will have released another episode of Tall And True Short Reads. But I’ll share Episode 78 and all future episodes as individual mini-posts from September onwards.
All this means I’ve got a lot of blogging to do in the next few weeks, so I’d better get cracking!
Here are the 32 episodes from Season One with release dates and opening lines, links to the episode on Tall And True Short Reads, and an extract from my writer’s insight for each story.
Season One – Episodes 1 to 10
Five Meet On Zoom (Episode 1, 10 September 2020)
FIVE logged onto their first Zoom meeting. “Right-o, can everyone hear and see me?” asked Julian, who, as the leader, had scheduled the meeting and emailed invites with help from his clever-clogs cousin, George.
My boyhood love of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books inspired Five Meet On Zoom. And our socially isolated times, where it seems everyone is meeting via Zoom, even the family dog.
A Moving Sculpture (Episode 2, 20 September 2020)
“And now the piece de resistance,” the old Colonel announced, leading his younger guest to a sunlit garden. “What do you think?” he enquired, waving his walking stick at the garden’s centrepiece. There stood a life-size marble sculpture of a man and woman, hands caressing each other, lips fused in a kiss.
I wrote A Moving Sculpture in 1992 when I lived in England. Looking through my original notes, I can’t find the reason why I wrote it. Perhaps I just came up with the idea and explored where it took me.
Too Late, Lenny (Episode 3, 1 October 2020)
Between you and me, Lenny, there are more mourners at your funeral with the COVID restrictions than would have been graveside had you died before the pandemic. Streaming it over Zoom helps boost your numbers. Mind you, most of the faces on my computer screen are strangers, or I haven’t seen for ages.
I thoroughly enjoyed writing Too Late, Lenny for Furious Fiction. However, I changed the narrative slightly when I shared it on Tall And True. Bob’s still our first-person narrator, but he only addresses the reader in the original version. Revisiting the story, I thought it sounded better for Bob to speak to his old friend Lenny in the opening and closing paragraphs.
A Song on the Radio (Episode 4, 11 October 2020)
Elliot parked at the side of the road close to the beach. He grabbed a brown-bagged bottle of tequila and the lemon and salt shaker he’d pinched from the restaurant where he worked as a kitchen hand. Tie a Yellow Ribbon was on the radio, and Elliot turned it up loud to hear it over the breaking waves.
A Song on the Radio was my first attempt at Furious Fiction, and it was timely because it coincided with the first full weekend of COVID-19 lockdown in Australia. As I later wrote in a blog post about the experience, I typed in the brief and stared at it on my otherwise blank computer screen. It felt like a Rorschach test, only with words instead of inkblots. But slowly, my writer’s eye discerned shapes in the random pattern.
The Cat in the Trunk (Episode 5, 26 October 2020)
Stevie was slumped on the living room sofa when his mum and dad returned home from the shops. Their raised voices drowned out the old gangster movie on the TV. “It’s junk,” Stevie’s mum snapped. “No it’s not,” his dad retorted, “it’s an antique. And a bargain. Only 30 quid!” Stevie slid down the sofa.
I was (and remain) fascinated by the possibilities of space-time travel, whether real-world, hypothetical or the stuff of dreams. Looking at my original notes from the 1990s, I borrowed the old travel trunk from another plot idea. And for The Cat in the Trunk, I added Stevie’s arguing parents, the gangsters, and the curious cat.
A Jittery Journey (Episode 6, 9 November 2020)
JITTERY. 16-down, “Nervous or unable to relax (7 letters)”. Loud voices in the street drown out the TV. I put down my crossword, walk to the front window and part the curtains. They’re at it again, the neighbours across the way. I can see them pointing and shouting at each other under the pale street lights.
A crossword puzzle gave me the perfect device for my first and last words and the game to meet the short story brief. And I used our jittery COVID-times to tell the journey of an older person living alone under lockdown while the neighbours argue. As for the required “missing the boat” phrase, who wouldn’t wish they’d missed boarding a “COVID Princess” cruise ship?
The Dark Web (Episode 7, 18 November 2020)
Kevin caught the news in a chat room on the Dark Web. NASA had detected an unidentified object on a collision course with Earth. He wasn’t surprised NASA had kept the news secret from the public. It was further proof of a plan by scientists and elites, backed by billionaires, to create a new world order.
The brief’s final words, THE MOON, set me thinking of space and NASA and conspiracy theories. And this led me to write a story about a man who spends too much time in the dark alternate universes and truths of the internet and not enough time in the real world with his family.
Splendid Views (Episode 8, 30 November 2020)
The trip app listed the hotel as an “Exotic Getaway” with “Splendid Views”. After the year-long anxiety of COVID-19 and lockdowns, it looked perfect. I tapped BOOK on my phone, entered my credit card details, and texted Sally: “Pack the bags. We’re off to the mountains for the weekend.”
Part of the brief was the story had to contain humour. My writing is often humourous, so I thought this would be the easiest part of the brief. However, I soon discovered the difference between doing something naturally, for instance, writing a humorous scene, versus being forced to think about a punchline.
The Cruise Ship (Episode 9, 13 December 2020)
Should have done this years ago. But don’t tell Pearl I said that ’cause she’s been on at me for ages to do a cruise. I kept telling her I didn’t want to be stuck on a floating hotel with a bunch of strangers. I’d rather spend our holidays towing a caravan around Australia, where I know the score.
The ship deck photo in the story brief had me thinking of cruise ships, and that led me to write another COVID-inspired story based loosely on the Ruby Princess debacle in Sydney in March 2020. I know someone who travelled on that cruise with his wife. And while thankfully neither of them got sick, his Facebook photos of the Captain’s farewell party made it look like a germ factory, even without coronavirus!
Escape to the Beach (Episode 10, 22 December 2020)
The golden sand squeaks in protest as Megan presses her body more firmly into the beach towel. A gentle breeze carries a salty scent and chills the sweat glistening on her sun-toasted skin, as gulls crawk and waves break in a relaxing rhythm. Megan licks her lips and sighs. And then a phone rings.
Setting aside the silly storyline in the original story, almost thirty years on, I still loved the contrast between Megan’s dream and her response to the phone call. And so I reworked my short story and, with middle-aged insight, added her desire to shut out reality and escape to the beach.
Season One – Episodes 11 to 23
Her (Episode 11, 10 January 2021)
It’s a warm, sunny day, and I’m strolling along Brighton Promenade during my lunch break. Seagulls are circling and squawking, and sunlight shimmers on the blue-green English Channel. I look away from the bright horizon and see her walking towards me. Twenty metres and twenty years separate us.
In 1992 when I had a vivid dream that felt real. At the time, I was experimenting with form in my writing. And I used the dream to write “Her”. It’s part reality: I lived and worked in Brighton, England. And part fiction: I was thirty when I wrote the story, and any relationship from twenty years ago would have been a school ground romance. But mostly, “Her” is a surreal interpretation of my dream.
The Al-Rabie Hotel (Episode 12, 25 January 2021)
The photograph is gloomy, and the colours are fading. But it was twenty-five years ago. I’m sitting in the high-ceilinged inner courtyard of the Al-Rabie Hotel in Old Damascus, catching up my travel journal. My wife calls out from the first floor. I stop writing, look up and wave for the camera.
I was working on a travel piece when the brief arrived, based on ten days I spent backpacking in Syria in 1995. In addition to my travel journal from that period, I had pulled out photos to use in the piece. And one was of me sitting in the courtyard of the Al-Rabie Hotel in Damascus, a perfect fit for the requirement that the story take place at a hotel and include a photograph!
The Gift (Episode 13, 4 February 2021)
“Happy anniversary, Darl.” My blank look doesn’t wipe the smile from his face. “It’s our double anniversary, remember?” he prompts, presenting me with a single red rose. “Nine months since the party and six months since you moved in.” My nan taught me to tell the truth. “Of course I remember,” I lie.
I had 55 hours to write The Gift. But as I later tweeted, I “wrote” it while walking my dog that Friday evening. By the time I got home, I had fleshed out the characters and plot and ticked off the criteria. All I had to do was get the words out of my head and into my computer.
Classroom Conservation (Episode 14, 15 February 2021)
My class had a lesson on “conservation” at school today. Miss said it’s where people reuse old things or use new things more thoughtfully. Or do stuff differently to stop using up the Earth’s resources. She said conservation is important because our planet is sick, and we need to help make it healthy again.
Classroom Conservation was written for a BBC Radio 4 environmental program in 1992, Costing the Earth, which is still in production. I enjoyed writing the story and exploring a schoolchild’s perspective on conservation. But it’s a shame that almost 30 years on, many do not heed the teacher’s message.
The Choice (Episode 15, 27 February 2021)
We hit the road at sunrise. Anna complained about packing the bikes in the pre-dawn dark. But we had to make up for the kilometres we’d lost yesterday to punctures and her mishap. Our reward was a crimson landscape when the sun crested the horizon. I rode ahead, and Anna fell behind, as usual.
The plot and characters for this story came to me very fast while walking my dog, similar to my December 2020 Furious Fiction, The Gift. I decided on a middle-aged couple on a bike tour that goes awry. And I wrote it as a two-hander, with Frank and Anna’s voices and thoughts revealing a shorthand tale of the ride and their life together.
Three Minute Microfiction (Episode 16, 10 March 2021)
By its definition, the key to good microfiction is brevity. There is no time for plot and character development; every word must count. The writer plunges the reader into the story and wrenches them back out, leaving it to the reader’s imagination to reflect upon what they have read.
I wrote these three microfiction pieces at different times in my life. There Is No Need Wake Up was written for a local radio competition in 2000. And I Didn’t Even Get Convicted was also written for a local radio competition in 2014. The final short piece, We Need To Talk, was written for a competition run by Meanjin Quarterly to celebrate the introduction of 280-character Twitter in 2017.
The Performance (Episode 17, 24 March 2021)
Three minutes into the performance and I stifled a yawn. Crammed in the front row with a clutch of fellow bored hacks, I hoped no one had noticed. However, the acclaimed actor and playwright and recently appointed head of NATS, Barry Lazarus, turned and fixed a beady eye on me from centre stage.
The brief for this story was it had to begin with the word THREE. And by a circuitous route, which I can’t explain, I wrote the line, “Three minutes into the performance”. I had small parts in amateur plays when I lived in England. And I know there’s nothing worse than being caught yawning by a director during a rehearsal. I’ve also seen powerful performances on the stage that have shaken me awake.
Back to School – Chapters One to Six
The wooden bench in the hallway outside the headmaster’s office was hard. It made you squirm. But once you’d sat on it, you daren’t wriggle to relieve the creeping pins and needles. Because if you did, old Heavy-Handed Hamilton would look up through his glass office door and note your fidgeting.
I wrote a version of Back to School when I lived in England in 1992. In the original handwritten draft, the working title for the story was A Second Chance. But when I typed it up on my old Amstrad PC, I changed the title to Another Chance. And finally, when I shared the short story on Tall And True in 2017, I renamed it Back to School.
I left high school at sixteen, the same age as Charlie in the story. For many years, I dreamed of being sixteen again, back at school, and studying for my final exams. And one day in 1992, I decided to exorcise those dreams by writing this short story, presented in six instalments, one per chapter:
Season One – Episodes 24 to 32
Memories and Marshmallows (Episode 24, 19 May 2021)
The sky-blue swell pounded the breakwater at Borthel on Sea in a steady rhythm. John gazed out at the mountains across the broad bay and drew a deep calming breath. The anxiety that had built up and wracked him in recent months and on his spontaneous long drive from the city eased its intensity.
I gazed at the photo in the brief and reflected on my summer holidays. Of the favourite rundown places I’ve visited over the years. And the quaint fishing villages of southwest England. I thought about how the hurly-burly of work can take over our lives and distance us from happy memories and places. And how we may not realise this is happening until it’s too late!
Signs of the Second Coming (Episode 25, 31 May 2021)
At primary school in Perth, Western Australia, in the 1970s, I had a teacher who was also a lay preacher on the weekends. Before schoolwork, he started the day at our (supposedly) secular state school with the Lord’s Prayer and gospel readings. And his favourite scripture topic was Signs of the Second Coming.
The writer, John Banville, observed, “Memory is imagination, and imagination is memory. I don’t think we remember the past, we imagine it.” Some parts of Signs of the Second Coming are from my memories (or imagination, as Banville would describe it). And other parts are my writer’s imagination and licence. I leave it to the listener to separate fact from fiction in this short story. And to decide if the memories of an eleven-year-old boy are pure imagination.
Both Sides of the Story – Introduction (Episode 26, 13 June 2021)
Phil Collins released Both Sides of the Story in October 1993. It was a catchy song, but I remember it more for the music video. Scenes of homelessness, domestic violence, military patrols on streets and a ghetto kid mugging a white man juxtaposed with Collins crooning, “We need to hear both sides of the story.”
In February 1994, I started working on a short story for the Ian St James Awards. It was my third submission to the then annual awards, at the time, the UK’s biggest fiction prize for unpublished writers. The idea for the story came to me while working out in a gym. The news at the time was full of items about people for whom the public (including me) had little sympathy. I watched Phil Collins and his Both Sides music video on MTV in the gym, and it set me thinking: Could I show both sides of the news in a short story?
Both Sides of the Story – Westminster (Episode 27, 23 June 2021)
Westminster (England, 1993): “Madam Speaker, I —” Baxter groaned and lifted the pen. He stuck the end in his mouth and sucked on it, searching for a better opening line. He crossed out the first words and started again. “Madam Speaker, the —” His pen froze again. “Damn it, why won’t the words flow?”
I wrote Both Sides of the Story as four self-contained vignettes and a fifth piece to tie together and resolve the five short stories. Westminster, set in England in 1993, is the first of the vignettes. It deals with a familiar subject matter of infidelity in high places and the consequence of keeping secrets for careers and families.
Both Sides of the Story – Bosnia (Episode 28, 1 July 2021)
Bosnia and Herzegovina (1993): The roar of explosives devastated the peace of the valley. Tibor had covered his ears with his hands before Milo flicked the detonator switch, but the thudding explosion set off the bells in his head again. He dropped his hands as dust and grit rained down on him and his men. When the dust cleared, it revealed the shattered shell of the century-old farmhouse.
Bosnia, set in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993, is the second of the five parts from Both Sides of the Story. And the material for it came from the news I read in the daily newspapers and saw on the evening TV back in 1994 about the war taking place in the Balkans.
As I stressed in the earlier Introduction episode, my intention in writing this short story in 1994 was not to be an apologist for the characters or their actions. Then, as it is now, my goal was simply to follow Phil Collins’ lead and try to imagine both sides of the story.
Both Sides of the Story – A Council Flat (Episode 29, 14 July 2021)
A Council Flat (England, 1993): The sound of the twins fighting in the bedroom filled the flat. Their screams drowned out the drone of sport on the TV and the sizzle and bubble of dinner on the kitchen cooktop. “For Christ’s sake, Ruth,” Stu bellowed over the TV, “shut those bloody kids up, will you!”
Warning: This podcast episode contains strong language and themes that may distress some listeners.
A Council Flat, set in England in 1993, is the third of four vignettes from Both Sides of the Story. And the idea for it came from the newspapers and radio and TV news I consumed in 1994. As I said in the Bosnia episode, my intention was not to be an apologist for the characters or their actions. And I unreservedly condemn domestic violence against women and children. However, my goal with the vignettes was to imagine both sides of a story. And in this case, explore why Ruth had remained silent in the Council flat.
Both Sides of the Story – The Gym (Episode 30, 27 July 2021)
The Gym (England, 1993): “Come on, Winnie, push.” Winston arched his back and strained against the bar. “Push!” The muscles in Winston’s arms and chest burned. He closed his eyes, let out a primal roar and fully locked his arms. The weights rattled for a moment before Winston steadied the bar. “Yes!”
The Gym, set in England in 1993, is the fourth vignette from Both Sides of the Story. In 1994, the memory of Ben Johnson’s doping disgrace at the 1988 Seol Olympics was still fresh in our collective memory. And more athletes had fallen from grace at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, including Britain’s Jason Livingstone, nicknamed “Baby Ben”. The Gym is not their story, nor that of any other athlete banned for doping. But it is an attempt to imagine why they might risk doping.
Both Sides of the Story – Bad News – Part One (Episode 31, 12 August 2021)
Bad News – Part One (England, 1993): The evening news was depressing—all bad as usual—and the weekend weather looked just as gloomy. I got up and went to the kitchen. “Do you want another wine?” I called back to my wife. No response. I’d swear she’s going deaf, but she hears everything I mutter under my breath.
I commented in the Introduction episode, quoting from my 1994 diary, how Bad News was the most difficult of the five parts of Both Sides of the Story to write: “Struggling with ending of story. Pivotal last scene is in danger of sounding trite.”
Twenty-five years later, when I revisited the short story in 2019, Bad News again proved the most difficult of the vignettes to transcribe. And in the end, it required more edits and structural changes than the other four parts combined. Perhaps this is a testament to its importance in resolving Both Sides of the Story?
Both Sides of the Story – Bad News – Part Two (Episode 32, 23 August 2021)
Bad News – Part Two (England, 1993): I woke in the middle of the night with a full bladder from the beers and more than a little aroused from a dream I’d just had. As I sat in the bathroom, waiting to pee, the dream replayed in my head. I was glad my wife was asleep. She’s a mind reader, and I’d be dead if she knew what I’d been dreaming.
I wrote Both Sides of the Story as four self-contained vignettes (or “news items”) and a fifth piece that ties together and resolves the larger story. Bad News is the final piece, presented in two parts for the podcast.
Looking at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, our narrator recalls the evening news. He’d commented to his wife, “It was full of bad people who got what they deserved and their victims.” But how different is he from the Westminster politician, Baxter, who’d resigned over an affair? And if our narrator can sympathise with Baxter, what about the combatants in Bosnia? Do they ever question or regret their actions? And the mother in the council flat: why hadn’t she called the police? And wouldn’t he take the risks Winston had in the gym for the chance of fame and fortune?
The man in the mirror doesn’t have the answers. But our narrator’s happy to be asking questions, realising it’s a step towards seeing both sides of the story, as his wife had urged. And Phil Collins sang.
Future Episodes and Milestones
Season One of Tall And True Short Reads concluded with Both Sides of the Story – Bad News – Part Two. In a post marking the launch of Season Two in September 2021, I announced I’d be expanding the podcast to “feature my blog posts and other writing from Tall And True”.
So in the next post, Season Two, Episodes 33 to 55, you can expect more opening lines, links, and writer’s insight from my short stories and a variety of other writing.
In the meantime, you can listen to the podcast episodes from Seasons One to Three on the Tall And True Short Reads website. Or follow and listen to and rate and review the podcast on all popular podcasting apps, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and YouTube.
And as I say at the end of each episode, please tell your family and friends about Tall And True Short Reads and the Tall And True writers’ website.
© 2023 Robert Fairhead
N.B. Here’s a link to my blog post, Introducing Tall And True Short Reads, in September 2020.
Note: This post originally appeared on Tall And True.
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of Robert Fairhead. A writer and editor at the Tall And True writers' website, Robert also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast. In addition, his book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media, and he's published several collections of short stories. Please see Robert's profile for further details.