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I Finished A Story Once…

Posting fragments of my writing reminded me that I did finish a piece once. Several years ago I wrote a whole novel, a fantasy story which I was rather proud of. Some people read it, liked it and after a few polishes I sent it off to agents. Cue the tumbleweed. Naturally, I was disappointed and I moved away from it, convinced that it wasn’t what I supposed to write. But I’m not sure it doesn’t deserve a life away from the laptop.

So here is the opening chapter. I may go back and try to breathe some new life into it. I think Madge deserves to meet her public!

Madge woke with a start. Someone was pounding on her door. Shaking the sleep from her tired body, she peered through the window, being careful not to be seen and saw two men standing outside. They were wearing soldier’s uniforms and one of them was beating his hands against her door as if he intended to knock it down. Madge cursed under her breath and went to open it. The soldier who had been pounding looked down at her, relief flooding his face.

‘Thank heavens you’re here, missus. You must come at once, it’s an emergency. Bring all your supplies and stuff. Please hurry!’

He started to run down the street, turned to make sure she was behind him and swore when he saw that she wasn’t.

‘Calm down, young man and tell me what you want.’

The second soldier, less frenzied than his friend, placed a hand on her arm. She pulled it away as he started to speak.

‘We urgently need your help. There has been some trouble at the barracks and one of our company has been injured. You are one of the best healers in this part of Lunecaster so we came straight to you. Can you help us?’

Madge bristled slightly at being referred to as one of the best but she could see the desperation in the young man’s eyes so she nodded and grabbed her bag from the hook by the door, where she always kept an emergency kit. Closing her door behind her she followed the soldiers down the streets, breaking into a trot to keep up as they strode ahead.

They set off at a brisk pace, turning corners and crossing streets as they headed towards the barracks. This was a part of town that Madge rarely visited. The soldiers had their own healers, some of whom were her friends. She had heard tales of the dreadful accidents and scrapes they managed to get into when training. Many a young person had left the army with less limbs than they joined with and decided a career as a merchant or in a tavern was less exciting but allowed for a longer, more intact life.

The city was closing up for the night and lanterns were being hung outside taverns and inns, stalls being packed away carefully ready for trading the next day and weary bodies trudged home, hoping that someone had started the evening meal and lit the lamps outside their homes. As they got closer to the barracks Madge cursed the young legs running ahead of her. If only another healer lived nearer she could be enjoying her nap even now. Instead she was hurrying towards the barracks, slipping through the gate and trying to catch her breath where she could.  

Madge hurried through the barracks noticing the noise and chaos of a community in shock. She passed soldiers with worried looks on their faces and other members of staff who were pale and shaken. She struggled to keep up with the soldiers as they ran confidently through doors and passageways. Suddenly she lost sight of them and had no idea where she was or where to go.

‘Help me!’ she yelled. ‘Those soldiers are too fast and I can’t keep up. You’ll have to show me where to go.’

A man in a white baker’s apron pointed towards a door in the corner of a courtyard and she dived through it away from the crowds. The door was closed behind her and the noise of the barracks was muffled behind thick wooden panelling.

She took in the room, partly to get her bearings and partly to get her breath back. Her attention was grabbed by a young man on the bed beneath the window. He was pale and sweating, tangled in a sheet and writhing in pain. Madge walked towards him and put her hand on his brow to feel the depth of his fever. His skin was hot and clammy, slick with sweat and his hair was plastered against his scalp. His eyes flickered open and he moaned.

‘Please help me.’

He was so young, too young to be thrashing about on a bed in the barracks while his worried friends looked on from the other side of the room. The taller soldier was chewing his thumb nail and Madge barked an order at him.

‘Fetch water, both cool and warm, as many strips of linen as you can and hurry.’

He jumped into action and left the room. She turned her attention to the calmer of the two soldiers.

‘You will have to help me lift him. I need to change this bedding and make him more comfortable.’

The soldier hesitated, staring at his feverish comrade.

‘Is it safe? Can I get sick too?’ he murmured in a low voice.

Madge sighed. They were all so young and knew little of the world. Plenty about fighting she guessed but that was no use to them or her now.

‘I believe it to be safe, there is no immediate sign of infection but we need to get him into a clean, dry bed. The fever is high and there will be more sweating before it breaks. He needs to be cooler and dryer. Then I can treat him. So, if I am to save him you need to lift him.’

The soldier nodded and he moved the ailing man from the bed to a bench and Madge put fresh linen on the bed. Once he was more comfortable Madge was able to assess his condition. She felt his brow again, listened to his breathing and looked deep into his eyes. This was serious, more serious than she had seen in many years.  The other soldier returned with the linen and Madge started to bathe the patient to make him more comfortable. 

Madge worked slowly and methodically until the young man’s breathing became slower and easier. She rummaged through her bag for the things she needed. She arranged bottles and boxes across the table, muttered to herself as she decided which potions she would need. She poured weak wine into a glass and tore spearmint leaves into it. This she dripped between the young man’s parched lips to help bring down his fever. He drifted into a quieter sleep and Madge began to mix and measure herbs for the next part of the treatment. The two young soldiers leaned against the door frame, watching with interest. 

‘You can leave now if you have more pressing business. He will sleep for a few hours and I have much to do. Your friend will be safe in my care, I promise you.’

They exchanged glances, at each other and at the sleeping patient, nodded and withdrew. Madge sighed. There was indeed much to do and the worst may be to come.

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Sharing is Caring…

It’s always interesting knowing what to share. Most of the pieces I have are fragments, the start of something or an unfinished thought. I’m mindful that this means there are many unanswered questions about who characters are or what happens next. Perhaps they will live on again but maybe they are complete as they are, wisps floating in and out of my imagination. I share them here in the hope that they take flight and enrich someone’s day.

This piece is one such fragment. It stands alone as a possible beginning.

It started with a boat.

A tiny speck, hardly a smudge on the horizon. I almost believed I had imagined it. The sun was rising behind the city and I sat on the harbour wall, legs dangling, shoes bumping against stone. One moment it was there, then it was not, then it was again. Far away, out of focus, hardly visible.

A shaft of light between the buildings bounced its glitter on the water. Still as my thoughts this morning. I watched the horizon, trying to keep the speck in my eye line. But my eyes wandered, so easily distracted. Birds, waves, clouds, all appearing from the dim early light. I swung one leg over the wall, lay back against the dressed stone and let my arms dangle down. I lay along the wall until my shoulders began to burn. I lay for longer, drinking in the pain, suffering as I believed I should. Then I sat up, jumped down and walked towards the city walls. In one rounded corner there was a door, bleached by the sea and wind. I pulled the thick rope handle and entered the stuffy, fetid corridor that ran all round the city, embedded between thick stone walls. The stairs wound round in a tight spiral and I climbed.

At the top of the wall I peered through the battlements across the water. Although still far away the shape was definitely a boat. Too far away to see its size or type but a boat of some sort. The sky was bright and cloudless, a beautiful morning, perfect for drawing or painting. I had prepared a canvas last night and it waited on the easel for inspiration. Now I knew I would paint a boat bobbing along the horizon in a sparkling light.

I stared as the boat grew slowly larger but it stayed too far away for me to see any details of its structure. I knew it would have a mast, all the boats that sailed to our city had masts, those small boats that traded with us from across the horizon. Our small boats had no masts, they were rowed around the city walls as the scavengers picked weed and shellfish from the slimy stone. The traders sailed from over the horizon, bringing cloth and dye and fragrant fruit. They were men and women of diverse looks, different complexions, strange adornments in their hair, new languages which our most skilled merchants knew. I wondered what this boat was bringing, always curious about new things and new people, objects which might find their way into my art.

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Upstairs People

A week ago I took the plunge, published my first piece on this blog. Some traffic and much anxiety later I’m back to post another piece.

This is the start of an idea I had about a locked room and a curious child. It’s got supernatural elements to it and was sparked by a memory of a locked room in the house I grew up in. The story hasn’t really developed yet but I may return to it one day. Let me know what you think.

Upstairs People

The light moved slowly across the two glazed door panels of the locked room, left to right and back again. In the kitchen the dog whimpered in his sleep and listened for the sound that never came. The cat arched her back, hissed and sent the cat flap spinning. The light moved on, flickering a dull yellow flame, moving slowly and silently. As the dawn began to break the light paused, flickered one last time and vanished. The upstairs people went away until the night returned.

The child sat cross legged on the landing and watched the light go to and fro, back and forth, there and back. Behind the painted glass the light changed from red to blue to green. For a second it paused where the paint was scratched away and blazed white before moving on. The child held her breath as the light paused and let it out when it moved on. Her eyes became heavy and she yawned, fighting to stay awake. As the minutes ticked by she lay down on the landing and watched the light move up and down the tilted window until her eyes closed and her breathing stilled.

In the locked room it began to snow. Large flakes drifted from the ceiling and piled up against the door in pillowy drifts. Fingers of frost crept across the glass panels and the light grew hazy. For a moment it paused, flickering in an icy breeze before popping out, a trail of pale smoke diffused by the snow. The dog sniffed the air and returned to sleep.

Strong arms scooped the child up and carried her to bed where she tossed and turned until morning.

Dora brushed her fingers lightly across the peeling paint on the locked room’s door and waited. Sometimes she felt a tingle, like the static she felt when she touched metal coat hangers. This morning the room was still and a tiny sliver of paint caught under her fingernail. She looked closely at it , looked at the glazed panes and saw water running down the glass. Tracing the rivulets with her finger she was surprised to find that the glass was cold and there was a tinge of frost on her finger tips. She tilted her head to the right, frowned and stood a step back from the door. The room was changing again. 

The child watched the snow drift behind the glass, flakes sticking to the surface for an instant, melting down, rivers of snow. The wintry whiteness faded as the sky around her darkened and she  waited for the cold to touch her nose pressed against the glass. Behind the door a purple tinge rose up and filled the sky as the snow grew heavier and darker. The child felt her nose chill and pulled it away before the pain began. The night closed in, dark around her like a blanket and she waited for the cold again.

The locked room watched the child, waited for her every day. Put on a show for her and kept her entertained. Today was snow, a winter scene that thrilled the child as she watched through the glass. The heat of fingers and nose on the glass melted the snow, pouring cold water down the painted panes. The child took her nose off the glass and the cold spread across once again.

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Reboot

It’s a long time since I visited this blog. I had to clear cobwebs and brambles from the door, push the rusted hinges until they squeaked in submission and fumble for the light switch before I could get in.

But I’m here now and keen to get started.

I’ve decided to revamp the blog. It wasn’t working – I wasn’t working in truth – and I want a space to share my stories. I’ve got lot of fragments, flash pieces and short stories with no homes so I’m creating and curating a place for them here. I hope to share a new piece every Friday and today is the first. This is a piece of flash fiction I wrote for a contest. The prompt was ‘They say he’s done time’. I hope you enjoy it and any comments are welcome. Pop back next week for another story.

“They say he’s done time.”

“Who’s ‘they’, Thelma?”

“Everyone. Seriously, Janet and Debbie and Sally…”

“All the girls in the band. Nobody who really knows anything then.”

The red light turned green, I slammed into first gear and spun the wheels. Thelma gasped, clutched her seat and swore under her breath. Thankfully my mask covered the smirk on my face and I slowed to stick to the speed limit.

“Thelma, where would Janet and Debbie get that sort of information?”

“Well, Sally’s aunt knows a woman who lives with a man who delivers pizza to the prison.“

“Well, that’s conclusive then.”

“So Sally says she’s been told that he was seen at the prison loads of times. So Debbie says that proves it and we should write to the headteacher.”

I pulled up at another set of traffic lights, dropped the window and hung my elbow out into the warm sunshine.

“And exactly what should we put in the letters to the headteacher, Thelma? ‘Good morning Mr McMichael, Sally knows a woman who knows a man who says the new Maths teacher has been seen at the prison, can you sack him please?’ Grow up Thelma, that’s such a crock of shit! And you know it.”

Red light, green light, we set off again. Thelma is quiet, I’m trying not to laugh because it’s so ridiculous when I turn onto School Road and brake hard to avoid running into a crowd waving placards and shouting outside the school gate. Without turning the engine off I’m out of the car. The noise is intense, angry and unexpected. Mr McMichael, arms crossed, frowns through the front gate.

“No criminals in our school!”

“Get him out!”

I leave Thelma who’s waving a placard and chanting. I collect Amelia, shielding her from the mob.

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The Prompt – History

I dated Andrew briefly one summer. He was a friend of a friend and we had a good time going to parties and hanging out with friends. It was the long hot summer of 1976 and we spent plenty of time outdoors. We went to the local park, lying under the trees as I pretended to revise for exams. We paddled in the children’s pool and ate ice creams, laughing and holding hands. It was all so innocent and yet as he was younger than me it felt very grown up.

We knew it was summer romance. I was due to go to college in the autumn and I knew that our fling would never survive separation. So we enjoyed the time we had together and didn’t pretend it was anything other than fun. I probably wouldn’t remember it if it hadn’t been for history.

One evening I arranged to meet Andrew at his home before a trip to the local pub where we all met on a Friday night. I strode up to his front door and rang the bell. As I waited I hummed a few bars of a tune I’d heard on the radio while getting ready. Footsteps in the hall and the door swung open. The blood drained from my face and I was frozen to the spot. She was standing holding the door open, smiling and waiting for me to speak. I opened my mouth but no words came out. She inclined her head like an inquisitive bird and I knew I had to say something.

‘I’m here for Andrew’ was all I could manage.
She nodded and stood aside, inviting me in. I walked past her and heat flushed up my neck and face. The last time I had been this close to her she had backed me into a corner of the playground and stood there barring my escape. Every day for a year she had done this, without a word. Walking towards me with a smirk on her face, making me retreat into the corner, standing over me and smiling. Every single day. Every single playtime.

I stood in the hall and she walked up behind me. I felt faint and pressed myself against the wall to steady myself. She passed me and opened a side door, disappearing from view. I managed to breath, sweat breaking out across my forehead. What was she doing here? How quickly could I escape?

Her face appeared round the door frame and I jumped.
‘Come and wait in here. He’ll be ready soon.’
The last thing I wanted to do was sit in that room with her but I found myself following her into the room and edging around the sofa before perching on the armrest. I kept my eyes down so I didn’t have to look at her and time slowed to a crawl in that room. Suddenly I was back in that playground, 7 years old and a victim. She was 11 and the bully who made my life bleak and scary. She was chatting away, enjoying the sound of her own voice and not noticing that I was silent and closed off. Thankfully Andrew arrived and I saw my escape route open before me.

But fate was playing cruelly with me that day. As I stood up to leave Andrew put his arm around my shoulder and said,
‘You don’t mind if Rosie comes with us, do you? She’s at a lose end this evening so I said she could come for a drink with us.’
A cold hand grabbed my heart and squeezed. My brain screamed that here was no way I wanted to spend another second with her but my head nodded and I heard myself say that it was no problem. Betrayed by my own mouth and sense of politeness!

That evening I sat quietly in the corner of the pub and watched her. She flitted about, chatting to everyone and flirting with some of my friends. I hardly spoke to anyone and several people asked if I was alright or feeling unwell. I managed to smile and whisper that I was ok but inside everything was churning. I watched and waited until I could bear it no longer. Pushing through the crowd I found Andrew and pulled him aside.
‘I want to go home. I’m not feeling well. You stay, I’ll get the bus.’
He looked surprised but didn’t try to change my mind. I picked up my bag and pushed my way through the Friday night crowd to leave the pub. When I reached the doorway I turned and looked back at Andrew. His head was thrown back in a guffaw and Rosie was locking arms with him as someone told an amusing story. She caught my eye, grinned and waved. I managed a weak smile and left.

As I stood at the bus stop, I thought about Rosie and how she had made a whole year of my life miserable. I had been so scared of her, feigning illness to avoid the playground, too young to understand that I was being bullied. Yet today she seemed not to recognise me. It had been 10 years but we had gone through secondary school together so she must have seen me since we left primary school. The bus approached and I scrambled to find the fare in my disorganised bag. As I took my seat next to the window and watched the city lights pass by. As I put distance between me and her I realised that I no longer had to be her victim. She didn’t know me and had no idea the impact she’d had on my life. I had been a mousey little thing for many years, never pushing myself forward, happy to stick to the shadows. She had robbed me of my confidence and made me shrink into myself. It was many years before I felt able to speak out and stand up for myself but now I knew that she hadn’t picked me out for any special reason. I was just the one she picked out in the playground, I was anonymous to her and she didn’t even remember the little girl she had tormented. I promised myself there and then to never be a victim again, to stand up for myself and trust myself, to never again let someone exercise that sort of power over me.

History would not repeat itself again. 

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Book Review – Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Sometimes when I’ve loved a book I worry that I won’t love the sequel as much and that the magic will be ruined. I confess to thinking this about Bring Up The Bodies; I enjoyed Wolf Hall so much that I was apprehensive that BUTB wouldn’t be as good. Boy, was I wrong! It is every bit as good and then some.

The story of the fall of Anne Boleyn is a familiar one and Hilary Mantel handled it beautifully. I particularly liked the way that Anne faded away during the course of the book, becoming less prominent as her demise drew nearer. By the time she was executed she was a mere phantom in the novel.

What I love about Hilary Mantel’s writing is the detail. You can sense the research that has gone into each episode, every nuance of the Tudor court rings true. Her spare use of words at times allows the reader to use their imagination to the fullest, yet she knows when to fill in more detail. For example, there is a scene where Jane Seymour and her sister are trying a different headdress on in preparation for her re-appearance at court; this scene is filled with delightful details about the fashion and the relationship between the sisters, it is glorious to read.

Thomas Cromwell continues to fascinate through the novel; at times complex and inscrutable, then charming and disarmingly open. I am so looking forward to reading the final part in the trilogy and watching his start fade, as we know it must.

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Very Superstitious

Archie crossed his fingers and hoped for the best. Friday the 13th wasn’t the best day for an expedition like this but the date had not been of his choosing. He put his hat on and buttoned his coat. No point in putting it off any longer.
A black cat scurried from under the hedge and darted across the path. Archie jumped, dislodging his hat in the process.
‘Just my luck,’ Archie thought. ‘As if I need anymore bad luck.’
He picked his hat up and hurried towards the station. A light rain began to fall and Archie cursed himself for having forgotten his umbrella. Thankfully there was time to pop into town and purchase a replacement.
Archie opened the shop door and entered. The smell of polish and tobacco made him feel uneasy. Trips to the shop for school uniform with his overbearing mother sprang to mind and he winced. Thankfully none of the same shop assistants worked here now so his embarrassments were hidden from everyone but himself. A young woman approached and Archie asked to see their selection of umbrellas. He blushed under her gaze and fought hard to suppress the stutter that surfaced when he spoke to attractive women. She pulled three umbrellas from beneath the counter and unbuttoned the fastening. Archie felt his heart quicken. Everything happened in slow motion and he was powerless to stop her. She shook the umbrella and reached inside. He watched a she opened it and twirled it before him. He turned and fled from the shop, bumping into a passing chimney sweep in his haste to escape.
The town clock chimed three and Archie picked up the pace. He had to make that train or he would miss his appointment. As he rounded the corner he saw the train pull into the station. He rushed into the ticket office and was dismayed to see a party of school children queuing for tickets. Thirteen of them for heaven’s sake! Archie fretted for a moment then decided on an uncharacteristic course of action. He ran past the ticket office, ignoring the cries of the ticket seller and jumped on the train without a ticket. He pulled the carriage door shut, slumped into the scratchy seat and sighed deeply.
‘Archie Brown! You rebel, you,’ he thought. He giggled thinking about what his mother would have said. The train moved off and he stretched his legs out, enjoying having the compartment to himself.
He reached into his pocket and stroked the rabbit’s foot that he always carried. It calmed him down and he stared out of the window as the countryside raced by and the rain scudded down the glass. The rhythm of the train swaying and rocking lulled Archie into a deep sleep. He dreamed about his mother, scolding him for travelling without a ticket while a mischief of magpies danced in the garden. Archie counted in his dream and woke with a start when he counted seven magpies.
”Seven for a secret, never to be told! What does that mean?’ Archie thought. He opened the door to the corridor and wandered down the train to calm himself. He spotted the ticket inspector at the far end of the corridor so Archie ducked into the nearest compartment and pulled the blind down.
Archie backed into the compartment and felt something solid behind his foot. He pushed against it and it pushed back. Slowly he turned round and saw the top of a ladies hat at eye level. Looking down he saw an elderly lady standing behind him with an expression that reminded him of his grandmother. He was instantly seven years old, sent home from school and about to be told what a disappointment he was. Archie mumbled something apologetic and shuffled towards the door. As he reached for the handle the elderly lady inhaled and screamed.
Archie heard the pounding of feet as the guard ran down the corridor towards him. He scanned the compartment for an escape route and panicked when he realised there was nothing for it, he had to jump from the moving train. He raised his hat and pushed as gently as he could past the elderly lady. He felt the rap of a handbag against his back as he opened the train door. Cold, wet air rushed in and Archie puffed out as he grasped the edges of the door frame. Saying a quick prayer he jumped.

Archie opened his eyes and winced. Pain shot through his body and he sucked air into his lungs to take the edge of the pain. His fingers brushed against something smooth and cool. There was a sharp antiseptic smell in the air and he could hear people bustling around. He turned his head slowly and caught sight of a young woman dressed in blue.
‘Miss? Please Miss, can you help me?’ Archie managed to squeak loud enough for her to hear. His throat was so sore and dry he had difficulty speaking.
‘Where am I? I remember a train but then it’s all a little hazy.’
She placed a cool hand on his forehead and gently held his wrist.
‘Don’t fret, Mr Brown, you’re quite safe here. You took a tumble from the train. And would you believe your luck? You tumbled into cargo heading for a local hotel. Smashed all the mirror into a thousand pieces. Hope you’re not superstitious, that’s a good few years bad luck!’
Archie felt hot, then cold, saw stars and passed out. The nurse tucked him safely beneath the linen sheets and continued on her ward round.
  

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Friendship

Today is my friend Alison’s birthday. We first met in 1977 at college and became friends. For 3 years we shared many of the major events in each other’s lives – all the drama that young women go through when they are away from home and finding out who they are. I thought she was the coolest person I had ever met. She had an interesting family dynamic that made mine seem dull and boring. She had a big sister who was her best mate and I wished I had that bond with someone (I now have that with my sister but we hadn’t got there at that time). She dressed in a very Bohemian way and had cascading red hair that I envied so much.

We shared so much back then. She introduced me to Leonard Cohen and roll up cigarettes. We watched black and white films together on Sunday afternoons with tea and cake. We talked books and boys and love and sex and music and everything in between. I enjoyed her company and missed her during holidays away from college. Alison was a huge part of my growing up from a child to a woman. And I’m sure I never thanked her for that.

All these years later and we don’t see each other very often. Life and several children got in the way and although we kept in touch we drifted apart from the closeness of college. But this year we are planning to meet up and I am looking forward to that so much. I hope that our friendship is as strong as it ever was and we will slip back into the comfortable companionship that we had in the 70s. But there is the chance that we will have moved so far apart that our friendship is different.

So how do I feel about that?

I have been lucky that I have had several good friends through my life. I have never been someone with a wide circle of friends. At school I had 3 or 4 good friends, people I could turn to and rely on. The same was true at college, there were 4 or 5 good friends and more people who I was friendly with but wouldn’t share everything with. Through the years I have been close to a few people but never had a large circle of friends. If pushed to name my best friend I would pick my sister. I know she would always have my back and give me sound advise. But having a best friend isn’t as important now as it was when I was younger.

Friendship is a wonderful thing and good friends should be cherished. I have made some great online friends through various writing groups and hope to meet with some of them in real life. The support they give me is invaluable but as we have never met how do I know if they would be friends with me in real life? We might not get on at all!

I have read that we need friends for good mental health.  Studies show that healthy relationships make aging more enjoyable, lessen grief and  help you reach personal goals. Maintaining positive relationships should rank up there with healthy eating and exercise as a necessary investment in your health. In times of trouble it is friends and family that we turn to. Some things are easier to talk about with a friend rather than family as you may not want to burden or worry them. Friends are a great soundboard for ideas and dreams and a good friend won’t judge you for the mad ideas you may have. I remember the blue sky thinking I did with Alison when we were at college, we were going to conquer the world. Even though we didn’t, obviously, it was important to bounce those ideas around and dream about the possibilities. You can do that with a good friend.

So today I wish Alison a happy birthday, raise a glass in celebration of friendship and start planning to meet up with my ‘old’ friend this year.