Sunday, 27 December 2009

Letting sleeping dogs lie

I stumbled over the zipped-up bags of clothes on our bedroom floor (substitutes for wardrobes), negotiated my way around the metal poles holding up the ceiling in the hallway, gingerly crept into the kitchen, found the recently moved light switch and overcame my surprise once again that the room looks entirely different from how it did a week ago. Having done all that and on my way to my arsenal of medication, I almost tripped over a fat slug heading in the same direction. The appearance of uninvited guests is somewhat inevitable due to the holes in the walls but it was enough to destroy my illusion that I was destined to go back to sleep at any time soon. I wasn't sure what to do with it. Elongated, shiny and probing its way across the lino, it clearly needed to be stopped. Taking it outside would make me cold and I didn't like the idea of putting it in the bin so that it could squirm its way around the Christmas rubbish. So, I picked up the salt cellar and tipped out a neat ring around it, about 8 inches in diameter. I think I was hoping that after I'd left the kitchen, it would consume the salt and go quietly. Not so. It instantly sensed what I was up to. I'd left it room to reverse and do U-turns, the kind of which I hadn't considered slugs to be capable. A panel of judges sitting on the perimeter would have had their work cut out in criticizing its lightness of movement and manoeuvrability across the dance floor.

Now, here I am, back in bed, wide awake and checking my emails, only to hear that my sister in Australia has problems with wildlife too: bats, mango trees and her dog. You see, she wants the mangoes but so do the bats. The dog could scare away the bats except that the dog isn't nocturnal and obviously, the bats are. It's a bit like the slug problem. Had it been daytime, I would have asked my husband to dispose of the slug and he would have gleefully skewered it or something equally disgusting. He's asleep and not at all nocturnal. Presumably, the reason why we all sleep in shifts is to make room for twice as many creatures to coexist. So, you let sleeping dogs lie and let your slugs and bats do their own things and try not to notice what's going on. Or you write about them.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Tiny Christmas Story 4

He thought he'd missed the shooting star but as Roger unfolded the paper, there it was. Because everyone else was so engrossed in their own presents, they didn't notice it travelling around the room. Roger made his wish and watched as it came to rest on top of the tree.

Friday, 25 December 2009

A (Tiny) Christmas Story

Traditionally, it is the children who are awake at 4am on Christmas morning so here's to breaking with tradition and wishing you a very early Merry Christmas, unless, of course, you're in Australia in which case I'm rudely late.

Anyway, here goes:

Caroline was doubting her sanity. She found herself wanting to put exquisite things under trees, to bake moist, dribble-inducing cakes and to arrange colour coordinated tableware in patterns. She didn't know whether to sweep up the footprints or to leave them as evidence that the fantasy world wasn't hers alone.

The prompt for this one was 'Stealing my mother's spectacles'. This was actually one of Sarah's going way back to August. I squirrel them away so that I can use them when the creative cupboard is a bit bare.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Tiny, tiny story 2

Yes, Officer, I can describe her. Her head's usually down. Looks like she knows her place. Doesn't push the boundaries. Rarely looks you in the eye, not wanting to attract attention, I expect. She's let herself go. She's been inside a lot but always comes out or writes at Christmas.

In case you're wondering, the prompt was 'Your neighbour describes you to the police'.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Micro Fiction

I don't usually post any of my creative stuff on here, preferring to keep it for myself until it has fully developed into something else or not as the case may be. However, seeing as it's Christmas and I'm not working on my novel or doing much else in the way of writing, I thought that I would, just for the holiday period.

Very generously, Sarah Salway posts daily writing prompts and I enjoy responding to these as a means to keep my creative juices flowing. I tend to keep to a 50 word limit because this seems to work well for me, not only in the context of it just being an exercise but because it's fun and feels like playing. I tend to write them very quickly and this is an important part of the process. If I thought too much about what I was going to fit into 50 words, I'd tie myself up in knots! So, here is a taster of what I get up to when I've got 5 minutes to spare:

Hiding the gun in the cake seemed like a good idea at the time. It was only when Bert remembered how Charlie never chewed, he'd realised it would be a problem. Charlie happened to contract a cold and within a week, he'd started coughing up bullets. He killed ten people.

You will have gathered that these are not serious pieces of writing and most frequently, I don't even save them anywhere. They probably reflect my mood at the time which is maybe a little disturbing when you think about it .......

Friday, 18 December 2009

Snow Friends

I decided to take a picture of Monty in the snow, knowing that sadly, this will probably be his last winter. He's particularly doddery at the moment although no doubt he'd say the same about me. Just as I was about to snap the picture, Marmaduke crept into the scene and for a moment, I think Monty forgot that he's around 108. Apparently, you're never too old to play in the snow.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Rambling Through The Rubble

I've been writing a bit less recently, not necessarily by choice but because I'm tied up trying to maintain some sort of order in the house. My MA and Counselling courses are well and truly finished and the our building work is well underway. Our living room resembles a squat, with the number of bodies sleeping in there having increased to three. Floor space is at a premium and competition is hot for room to make footfall between the boxes of Lego and piles of clothes.

My laptop gets moved around periodically to protect it from falling plaster and is generally less available to me. Therefore, I've spent far less time on Facebook, checking my email repeatedly and asking Google random questions. I thought that this would be a good time to be reunited with my journal, which, I am ashamed to admit, I had neglected whilst writing my novel in November. It feels like a good time to pick up the pen, embrace its portability, spontaneity and freedom from electrical cables or absence of threat of perilous destruction from dust penetration. What I hadn't expected when I reached underneath my bedside table for my journal was to discover that there was rubble in my pencil case. It's not a particularly fancy case, made of clear plastic, not because I'm going to enter any exams but because I get a bizarre pleasure from looking at my collection of pens and highlighters. However, it is dulled and fogged over by a salmony coloured brick dust. At first, I was a bit saddened, then amused by the idea of 'rubble in my pencil case' as a writing prompt. I turned back to my laptop. Caressing the film away from the screen, again tinged pink, I felt a very familiar phrase bouncing like a ball inside my head and rebounding off the dusty shelves. 'Think of the end result, it will all be worth it' I tell myself. And it will. So rather than focus upon the rubble in my pencil case, I will look at the dust as a rose tinted view of the future.

Now I am going to snuggle down underneath the quilt on the settee, turn up the television and use the cat to get warm.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Destruction and Creation

The builders have been in for two and a half weeks now. We've never done this before, not to this scale. They're remodelling downstairs to make the kitchen bigger and knocking down the walls of the smallest room to accommodate a staircase for the loft conversion. As the practicalities of our plans unfold daily before our eyes, we are thinking more creatively about the space.

It's all very exciting seeing our home change by the day. Yesterday, was exactly a year since we moved in here with the intention of making these changes. We're not property developers, we just liked the feel of the bungalow, its location and saw its potential. You don't have to watch too many property programmes to know that it always costs more than you think, you will hit problems and you will inevitably change your mind about a few things along the way. We're ticking all those boxes at the moment.

It's all very well seeing the potential from the outset but as walls come down, we're getting more creative. Perhaps it was the night we spent (me, fully dressed) in the freezing cold with our bedroom opening on to the kitchen, a hole in the ceiling and the roof where a chimney has been removed, separated only by a hastily-erected dust sheet? Is open plan the way to go? No, I don't think so. We're not really open plan types. I understand to a point, that if you have limited space and need to move around more freely, then of course it makes sense. It also makes sense to be able to close a door on the rest of the household at will. But yesterday, in between counting chickenpox and nursing my own sore throat, we looked around our expanding kitchen and made a big decision. The pantry and the boiler cupboard are going. I love my pantry but here's the truth: it's full of rubbish which could easily be condensed into something much smaller. My fantasies of popping in and out of the pantry, Nigella-style will have to stop. It would allow us to have a bigger table in the kitchen and will create much space because its walls are so thick. As for the boiler cupboard, well, the boiler is being replaced next week anyway so it could easily go somewhere else. And then the back door which is between the two cupboards in question can be bricked up because we're getting a new one at the back of the house and hey presto, we've got ourselves a whole wall to play with and against which we can place our range cooker. Simple.

So, just as we thought the main demolition activities had ceased (and no doubt, so did the builders) I'm going to break it gently to them over another bacon and egg sandwich that they'd better order another skip and some more bricks. Does it sound like we're out of control? We're not really. We have made a huge concession. The planned conservatory is being either put on hold or scrapped and we'll wait until the new year to get the existing bathroom done so we're not being completely daft but there's no point in going around doing things half-heartedly, is there? My only worry is that in doing so, we lose the charm that first attracted us here in the first place. But that's just it. So much attention to detail and care was put into the original construction of the house (it was built by a builder for himself) that it deserves the same now. Yes, we're changing certain things. It's going to have an upstairs for a start but it should blend seamlessly with the original style. We're not even changing the footprint of the house. Yes, we're ripping out the pantry but it's to make space for us so that we can continue to protect the house's identity and yet breathe a new life into it. The whole kitchen revolves around us retaining the original English Rose sink unit, built, we believe, by bits of leftover metal at the spitfire factory after the war. You see, they knew about making old things into something new. They knew that some things have outlived their use and rather than become a museum piece to be preserved for nostalgic glances, they can be remodelled into a new form. To get to that moment of realisation, they must have had to tolerate some uncertainty and chaotic thought. Then, unexpectedly, someone in mid creative flow came up with the idea of making kitchen units instead of aircraft intended for battle. Creation arising out of the ashes of destruction. Isn't that what creativity's all about? As a pair of very nice 'cultured builders' (their words, not mine), I'm sure they'll understand.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Getting Back to Normal

I've been away from here for a while so I thought I'd let you into the secret of what I've been up to.

I'd heard about National Novel Writing Month from Sarah Salway on her blog. It sounded interesting but as a short story writer, the idea of producing a novel in a month seemed far fetched. With many other things going on, as they do in the lead-up to Christmas, I decided not to pursue it in 2009, not least because I wasn't a novelist. However, when I found out that three of my fellow students from my MA were taking part, I could no longer resist the challenge. The trouble was, it was already 2nd November by the time I signed up. I had no plot, just a vague idea. I started writing, building up the characters, describing their lifestyles and relationships to each other. By the 3rd November, I had made up the deficit accrued by starting late. I worked out that I had to write 1,666 words every day for the rest of the month. I knew that it would be tough but having taken part in Your Messages in 2007 and 2008, I was accustomed to the demand of writing daily and had enjoyed the challenge of writing within a word limit. I seemed to have forgotten my earlier resolve never to write a novel. Ever.

My vague idea expanded and developed but it wasn't until about half way through that I had a definite plan of how the novel would end. Even so, the detail of the ending, without which I don't feel that it would have been anywhere near as good, didn't come to me until I was within the last 5,000 words.

My adopted a varied writing style throughout. Sometimes, I wrote in an almost unconscious way and at others, I was far more deliberate and manipulating. Interestingly, the days when I resented picking up the laptop and getting on with it, those times when I really didn't feel that I had anything to say, were when I produced what I think are the best bits. Sometimes, I could feel my interest tailing off and I took this to be a signal that the narrative needed to be woken up. I worked upon the principle that if I was getting bored then so too would a reader. I believe that this helped me through the more difficult days when my motivation or energy was lower. I got a perverse pleasure from exceeding my 1,666 daily target, feeling as if those extra words were 'in the bank', relieving me of some pressure for the following day.

Just as I'm sure anyone else who takes part in NaNoWriMo does, I faced my own challenges along the way. Good television programmes, meals to cook, washing to hang up and children to ferry around to start with but in the last week, we had builders in demolishing a chimney right above our bedroom where I sit and write. But sit and write I did, amongst the brick dust and between making tea and I got to the golden 50,000 mark. The last few pages were difficult to write and perhaps this was some form of resistance to it all coming to an end. The novel's title didn't come until the day after I'd crafted the ending. I'd had two working titles along the way but neither seemed to hit the nail on the head. It was like searching around in the dark trying to grab something I couldn't see but once I found it, I was so pleased.

So, it seems that I can write a novel after all. It's really no different to short story writing. It's not such an overwhelming prospect when broken down into manageable chunks and if it is approached with the same discipline, authenticity and intensity of the short story, the narrative speaks for itself.

I have a huge pile of ironing in the corner and a number of other tasks to see to but I just can't wait to start editing. Neither can I wait for someone else to read it and tell me it's wonderful. Or to see it with a cover like a proper book. All I need now is a publisher.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Frogs, Ponchos, Blazes and Guinness

Early on in the summer, we dug out a small pond. Although we'd talked about it on and off, it was an impulse buy when visiting the aquatics shop for tropical fish. It was one of those pre-formed, plastic ponds like a large, black jelly mould. It wasn't too hard to dig and impressed the children no end.

We bought a water violet. Unfortunately, it didn't survive the constant prodding from children wielding fishing nets but the buttercups and the michelmas daisies which grew and draped into the water like small-scale willows thrived. We'd filled the pond with water from our butts. That's water butts and I'm not sniggering. Not a bit. Anyway, there were lots of wriggly things in there, mosquito larvae so we were told but at least something was already alive and visible.

I am ashamed to say that in my impatience, I kidnapped a large frog my husband disturbed whilst weeding. I put him in the pond. The frog, not my husband. The following day, it was still there. Within a week, our daughter spotted a different frog, a medium-sized adult one. And then another. And then some froglets (it was well past the spawning season) one of whom liked to float on the breeze from one side of the pond to the other. Now, we have a collection of adult frogs who seem to be permanent residents. The maximum number we've spotted in one go is five. This is fairly amazing considering that the pond is only about three feet by one and a half at its widest points. Our regulars include a red one, an absolutely huge one whose body is the size of my palm, another with a silver-coloured throat, a lighter yellow one and a darker browny one. They all seem to coexist quite happily, hiding under the vegetation with just their eyes and nostrils above water. Whilst their eyes are characteristicly bulbous, their nostrils are so tiny and delicate. I am envious of their stillness, the way that they can emerge from beneath and break the water's surface without any ripple or sound. If startled, as you approach, you may hear a 'plop' or see a pocket of air, a speech bubble rising from beneath shouting 'Go away, you great oaf!' You might get a glimpse of their fat little thighs as they retreat amongst the roots of the rushes. I wonder what they say about us?

This has become such a subject of fascination to us all that we've decided to add another, much larger pond. This time, we've used a heavy pond liner. In the photos, you'll see the pond in the making. Again, we've filled it from our butts so the food for the frogs should be present from the outset. We've got to move a fern to the water's edge so that they've have cover and it would be lovely to see some frog life in there before they go into hibernation. I am trying so hard not to 'encourage' our froggy friends to move across to their new habitat. It's almost next door. Barely separated even. In fact, if you screwed your eyes up, it's almost one pond. Sort of. If you examine the photos of the new pond, you'll see just how close the old one is. So it's not really like I'd be moving them, is it? OK, I won't but I can't wait to see them there and I'm looking forward to what the spring might bring to the pond. Maybe I should write a story about frogs whilst I'm waiting?

So whilst the frogs slip beneath the surface of the world and hibernate at the foot of our pond, we've got a new pastime. We've got a fire basket for the garden which is what you will see in the last two photos. It's probably what men have been doing around their garden incinerators for decades. The only difference is that it looks a little more ornate and has a wire rack on the top for grilling. We've only had it out once so far but it was great fun. A bit like having a camp fire without the singing. I did make up some stories for the children whilst we sat there trying not to set fire to ourselves. One of my other recent purchases has been a poncho-type thing. Unfortunately, I couldn't wear the poncho around the fire because I didn't want it to be ruined. I'm sure that the cowboys in Blazing Saddles didn't worry about the sparks or human combustion. Once the building work gets under way (and I'm sure it will eventually, soon, maybe), it might be useful to be able to grill the odd sausage or pot of beans outside. Maybe we should take a lily pad out of the frog's book and hibernate until the house is more habitable. I've got a wetsuit but does anyone have any flippers I can borrow?

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Going Green

Since our house move and the shift towards a more elemental existence (eating huge amounts of seasonal vegetables), I've begun to approach food preparation differently. The first glut was the lettuce, then came the cabbage, the cauliflower, followed by the runner beans. What I can't do with a tomato is nobody's business.

Never having had such vast quantities of fresh food at my fingertips, I would be found at the local supermarket doing one of two things: I was either buying something exquisite but limp and expensive from a far-flung country or I was buying what the supermarket flung in my face at the end aisles. The former would inevitably be disappointing because most vegetables don't travel well. Consequently, their taste is impaired, probably their nutritional value too and not only that, their constant availability gives the illusion that their appearance on the shelves is somehow effortless. Of course, you can compensate for their deterioration by adding things, smothering them in over-complicated sauces and feign authenticity.

The second option was to buy the seasonal vegetables, often at a reduced price due to increased supply. This was no bad thing at all and something I still do when it's a crop we don't have ourselves. However, having witnessed how quickly vegetables deteriorate without swift and proper storage, I am more trusting of our own produce. I know exactly when it was harvested and that nothing has been added to preserve its condition.

Yesterday, we harvested our crop of butternut squash. I say 'crop' but it was only one squash. Not what you might class as a glut. We think that it was overwhelmed by the sweetcorn and didn't thrive too well. Anyway, I wondered what to do with it. Clearly, it deserved special treatment. Usually, I just roast them and they're delicious but this particular one was a little stunted and wasn't going to go far between five people. I had a flick through the recipe books and stumbled upon the idea of making pasties. I happened to have a large quantity of homemade pastry in the fridge so it seemed sensible. I added grated cheddar to the pastry, chopped celery, onions, potatoes and carrots into tiny pieces, crumbled some blue cheese and made up a small quantity of onion gravy to moisten the mixture. I made four huge pasties and although I was a bit worried that they would burst open, they turned out perfectly. The children didn't detect the blue cheese, ate the vegetables without complaining and tell me, why don't we add cheese to all pastry? Delicious!

The inspiration for this combination didn't come from any of the fancier books on my shelf. It came from one aimed at vegetarian students. In other words, for people who haven't really cooked for themselves before. My point is that sometimes, the simple things are the best. Take away the complications and sophistications of over-travelled ingredients and recipes and you're left with the best, the cheapest and the tastiest. And it gives you the chance to get creative and to stop banging out the same old tried and tested menus week after week which, in my experience, is what would happen on my weekly trip around the supermarket aisles.

How can one little squash give me so much pleasure? Size isn't everything you know. It's elemental.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Flying Pigs

The school term has been going for just over 2 weeks now and I had hoped to have posted here sooner. Even my journal writing seems to have a desperate tone to it with lists of things I must do before ..... and this, for me today, is the interesting part. I'm not sure if I'm alone here but at the back of my mind there is always the thing which is so prospectively delightful that I almost can't bear to engage in its execution.

I'm torn in 2 directions here. My personal philosophy from a creative viewpoint is that the present moment is most important, that you shouldn't put off doing things or make excuses for the lack of the perfect conditions. However, a tension arises between this and responsibilities to others. Don't get me wrong. I don't resent or see my family responsibilities as obstacles to happiness but it's interesting that I am placing them in front of the goal.

There comes a point where the 'To Do' list will grind to a halt and I think I'm nearly there. In the past 3 months, I have reorganised every cupboard, redesigned our household filing system, gone back through all my MA folders and associated writing and shredded mountains of unwanted paper. In a sense, it is a process of reclamation of the self. Two years of putting things on the back burner whilst I struggled to write, study and be a reasonable mother are over. I've discarded the pieces that I know are irrelevant and ordered the remains in the most reverent fashion. To recognise irrelevance I must have reached a point of knowing. Otherwise, I've made a huge mistake and thrown away all my best clothes, shredded vital documents and the most important parts of 2 years' work! No. I think it's been good. Cathartic even.

OK, so the house still looks messy but I know that underneath, it's organised. And anyway, it'll all be pulled apart in a month or so when the building work starts. But there's another reason for all this frantic organisation. I seem to be losing my memory on a regular basis. Now, I have to rely heavily on my diary and calendar. This is a new experience for me as I've always had at least a vague idea of what I'm supposed to be doing. Remembering to look at the calendar is something else. I'm thinking of tying it around my neck. Last week, I only remembered my doctor's appointment half an hour beforehand and that was only because my mother rang to ask if I needed a babysitter. I went to the surgery not knowing precisely why I was there, came out and suddenly realised that it was our daughter's first Brownies evening starting in half an hour from then. Brinkmanship is not the way to a peaceful life. Needless to say, I'm still in contact with the doctor, trying to rectify the mess of turning up and forgetting half the things I went there for. Brownies, at least, went well so disaster there was averted.

Maybe my head has been too full of filing and catharsis. Maybe this week I will write something astonishingly good. Maybe. I'm afraid it won't be here because I'm going to be working on submissions for competitions but I might pop in to let you know how it's going.

Today, I am going to defrost the freezer and plan the week's menu. Today, I hope that our son's (suspected) swine flu is on its way out and that no one else takes up the baton and runs with it instead. Oh, and I've got just an incy-wincy little bit of filing left to do ..... Tomorrow is another day.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

The Hardware Shop

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker ….. a nursery rhyme about people who actually did things, made stuff. They were the job they did. Will it come around again?

Yesterday, I wrote a piece about the greengrocer's and today I am moving on to the hardware shop and its natural relationship to the modern DIY store. A sort of bipolar snapshot that is less about the history of retail outlets and more about what we value as a species. A bit like yesterday's attack on fruit and vegetables so I apologise for the recurring theme but maybe it's useful to examine the idea of the shopping parade and what it represents. Let's turn the clock back and see what is revealed as I ram-raid the shops of my youth.

The parade itself is L-shaped but the overall effect is that of a square with the missing corner occupied by a box they call a public house. There are two paths into the parade: the pavement leading down from the community centre, past and under the bridge made by the old peoples' flats and then the more direct route from the car park which takes you along next to the pub. This second entrance is flanked either side by grassy areas, littered with cigarette ends, teenagers on bikes and I think, some picnic-style benches belonging to the pub. But that's the thing. That's what would be there today, I imagine. I do know that it was a foreboding path to follow. Maybe I'm just projecting what is common now back into the past. A flaw in my memory. I'll assume that we've negotiated the teenagers, the pub's guard dog and resisted looking in through the darkened windows at the fruit machines twinkling hedonisticly. Not fairy lights. You'd go to the hardware shop for those. Right. Up the steps, don't hold onto the metal handrail, it's got chewing gum stuck to it. Now, at the top, dead opposite is where we're headed. The serious shop. All the others on this side of the L are lightweights. This is the shop to buy the things you really need.

The glazed door is a mozaic of stickers arranged around the 'Open' and 'Closed' sign. Unlike the greengrocer's, the door is usually closed or maybe in summer, wedged a few inches open with a piece of wood. As you push your weight against the glass, a bell tinkles above your head alerting the shopkeeper to your presence. The fact that you've stumbled in from the sudden give in the door's hinge mechanism or that the only line of vision you have is the tiled floor leading you straight to the till seems to be ignored as a means of announcing your arrival. The layout is a labyrinth of shelving stacked higher than you dare look for fear of flinching and knocking the displays over.

If the shopkeeper is occupied with another customer, you may get a chance to browse around this grotto but inevitably, you will be greeted with 'Can I help you?' and the fun will end. I remember tap washers, screws, rat poison, mops and rabbit food. There is always one of those portable gas heaters and a smell of paraffin. Mr Hardware wears a brown cotton coat, a bit like a doctor's. Mrs Hardware is never to be seen but her touch is evident in the knitted toilet roll covers and doilies in the window display and the varieties of threads and floral sticky-back plastic rolls.

It was the shop you went to buy everything that you couldn't get in the other shops. That much, I suppose, is obvious as it wouldn't be sensible to have an overlap but what I mean is that he sold the means to mend things. He sold little things. Or just one thing if that's all you needed. No sales, no offers. I don't think he wrote to any of his customers. They just came to him when they needed something.

This weekend is 15% day at our nearest DIY store. They sell similar stuff to our Mr Hardware but in bigger quantities. It's such a bargain to buy these quantities that if you're lucky, you might even get one free. For what? They probably won't have your tap washer because they're all made to a special design, you may have to replace the whole unit and hell, you may as well buy a new sink, a new kitchen even and yes, today is 15% day. So you've saved all that money.

I may hear you saying that the hardware store was old-fashioned and out of touch with modern style. Perhaps it didn't even address the issue of style at all. And that's a good thing. Mr Hardware didn't try to decide your style for you, he respected what you already had and helped you to fix it. If he couldn't then so be it and you could go off to make your choice elsewhere. The DIY store has already lured you out of town, swallowed you whole in its cavernous hangar and convinced you that their range is style itself, that you have a choice. Their choice. So you don't need to bother yourself with going elsewhere. A little Orwellian maybe?

Friday, 28 August 2009

The Greengrocer's

The shopping parade of my youth: butcher's, baker's, mini-supermarket, newsagent, greengrocer's, hairdresser's, off-licence, fish and chip shop, launderette and hardware store. The pavement outside would always have been fouled and there would be a dog chained up to the railings outside, snarling and leaping at passers-by Nervous cats could be seen peering through the gaps between shrunken yellowed net curtains at the windows of the flats above but then taking your eye off the pavement below was always a mistake.

This morning, I revisit the most curious of those shops: the greengrocer's.

The heavy glass door with a thick diagonal handle was always propped wide open with squashed cardboard boxes, regardless of the weather. The air was warm with business, thick with the smell of bruised green cabbage leaves, earthy beetroot and damp newsprint. They rolled around the dusty floor with odd cooking apples as if being coated for batter. Thick brown paper bags hung on hooks by a loop of string next to the oversized scales, waiting to be punched into life in order to receive their cargo; produce deftly tossed in by dirty, lined hands belonging to weathered ladies with an intimidating patter. Greengrocer speak. Not the coarseness of a market trader but loud enough that their voices never faded even when they had their backs to you, shuffling and grabbing crab-like from the crates lining the shop walls.

Then we all got a taste for packaging. The ladies must have retired from the shop. They'd all looked like they were ready for it anyway. The earth and the smells gone, we ate varieties of fruit and vegetables only distinguishable from one another on the basis of shape and colour. Taste was as uniform as the supermarkets themselves. They were so pretty and we could buy them at any time of the year and we proudly stacked them up neatly in our trolleys. We would buy one and get one for free, the one which ended up in the bin because it not longer looked perfect. We congratulated ourselves on our wealth. Improved travel and international markets allowed us to interpret the availability of beans and tomatoes of exotic origins as proof that we'd conquered the seasons as well as our body clocks.

So how come it feels so good to eat runner beans for days on end, to give courgettes away to your friends after a rainy spell in summer? That they are so abundantly delicious that you search recipe books for new things to do with .... with whatever this week's crop is? Because we're celebrating the natural alliance between man and nature, trusting that harmony between them is more valuable than aesthetic perfection or material wealth which only ends up in the kitchen bin with the packaging. Oh, and it is real and can be right there in your garden. That's real fast food.

I'm sad that summer is ending but the pumpkins are swelling, tanned and promising another delve into the recipe books as well as excited children anticipating October 31st.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

He's worn me down

Monty seems to have found his voice again. He's been pestering me, trying to get to the laptop and I've finally given in. After all, what can be the harm in the innocent ramblings of a senile old dog?

I, meanwhile, am at some sort of in-between stage with my writing. Making lists, plans, writing the odd poem to keep the creative juices flowing and waiting for school holidays to end before I start writing more seriously. So much material accumulating it almost hurts. Anyway, I'm going to pass over to Monty now. Perhaps it will keep him quiet for a bit.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Hello Strangers

Well, it's done and dusted. The dissertation is handed in and I'm in a very foreign place. I have nothing academic to do. So this is it. I just start writing now. Easy, huh?

The holiday's coming up and I will be taking my little journal along with me but it's SO nice not to feel the pressure of having to do something in particular. Except the housework .... but even that is only to maintain hygiene seeing as how it's all going to be ripped apart in a couple of months.

The best bit is coming up; all the planning, choosing things to go in our new space. I'm sticking my head well and truly in the sand and definitely not thinking about 'having the builders in', a phrase which seems to hang over people like a black cloud. We have suffered from our lack of space since we moved, whilst waiting for the planning and quotes and no doubt when it's all finished, we'll look back and wonder how we ever survived. At the moment, we can afford to be positive because it's all still a dream or at least it is until the end of September when reality will come knocking at the door.

In the meantime, I'm back here even if it's only a few days until our holiday. It will be odd not having access to the internet. Or shops, or civilisation. Yes, it really does look isolated and yet on the beach. It sounds rather perfect doesn't it? As I write, my son is on his way back from a month-long holiday in Australia. Thanks to the internet and phones, I've exchanged snippets of information with him throughout. This is reassuring as a parent, of course, but I think that if it was me, I would prefer to disappear altogether. Otherwise, you're not really gone, are you?

Now, time for a celebratory glass of wine and to put my feet up. Tomorrow is the last day of the school term, my last day of solitude until...until September and then the builders turn up!

Monday, 1 June 2009

Re-tail Therapy

Apart from 'lurking' on a Facebook group for RA suffers, I have resisted signing up to online support groups in case by registering myself as such, I would get worse. I do know how weird this is, by the way. However, on Friday I succumbed and joined NRAS. Yesterday morning, I was flicking through their website and found an article on Canine Partners. Now, before I go any further, I want to state that I am not mocking the programme or its service users in any way at all as I am sure that it has been of great benefit to many RA sufferers. Basically, these dogs can be trained to carry out chores for you. Thinking of our dog, Monty, who has never lifted a tea towel in his life or offered to go out and buy some milk, this is a hard concept to grasp. Apparently, they are able to pass you your purse at the checkout or assist with dressing. This is disturbing on many fronts and raises questions about the limitations of their responsibilities. Firstly, do you they do the scanning at the self checkout? When purchasing alcohol, is their age calculated in dog or human years? I know for a fact that if you go shopping with your children in tow, you end up with more treats than you would normally buy. Does this mean coming back with a trolley full of dog biscuits? On the personal care issue: do they pick out your clothes for you to wear and if so, is their choice influenced by their colourblindness? I think I'll have to ask Monty. Oh no, I can't, he's deaf. So answering the phone is out then?

I think I might join a few more of these organisations. It's been such fun.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A Home from Home

A small caterpillar has taken up residence in our bedroom. Found grazing amongst the cabbages, he was rescued from death row by the children. They made him a new home and plan to keep him until he has made his cocoon. I like the artistic way that the mini flowerpot has been arranged amongst the blossom and chive flowers don't you?

I don't think he's got a name yet. I will keep you informed of his progress. I think he's having a bit of a rest at the moment. Lucky him. Just wait 'til they get home from school.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Lovely, Lonely Rose

I've got new batteries in my camera now so there's a bit of catching up to do with things blooming all over the place in the garden. And it's not just the plants. I was blooming all over the place today too. I was hanging out the washing, lost my footing and landed on my head in the rockery. The speed of the thoughts cascading through my head as I tumbled to the ground was unbelievable. I actually had time to think Oh no, I'm going to lie here unconscious and no one will know I'm here until it's too late. Not only did I have the time to formulate a plan to jump up and go to the telephone and alert someone, anyone, but I managed to execute it on the moment of impact. Quite impressive. However, in the grand narrative of my demise and resurrection, I didn't include a plan for letting go of the clothes pegs in my hand. If you look closely at the picture of the scene you will see 2 red clothes pegs. I am sure that a story will emerge from this. One day, when my head stops hurting. You'll pleased to know that no plants were harmed (apart from some superficial squashing) in the making of this post.

What I really went outside to do with my camera was to take a picture of the first rose of the bush climbing up the front of the house. I think it's a rather nice one if rather lonely. There is the promise of more to come but this one seems holds the most power because we didn't know what colour it would be. The secret is now out and soon, so will the rest of the roses, hopefully. Yes that's it, hope. Hope I don't fall into the rockery again.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Blooming Marvelous

I'm afraid that I don't have much to report. At least nothing new, anyway. I've been a recluse for the past week due to illness so it's all gone by in a bit of a blur. So I thought I'd post this picture of a rhododendron because it looks cheery which is more than I can say about myself!

The only good thing about all this is that my dissertation creative writing is finally coming together which is a relief. I've abandoned the idea of extending it to full novel length because I've decided that I'm more of a short story person. There's no reason why I can't write collections of short stories and as a form, I find it far more inspiring creatively. So that's that then.

This weekend, we're probably going to be digging a hole in the garden. Don't worry it's not for Monty but for a pond. When I said 'we', I strongly suspect that I will be making tea and supervising. Or even catching up on the sleep I'm missing out on now. Talking of which, I really should try again because I've got to be up in about 3 hours. Oh no!

Friday, 8 May 2009

Moan moan moan moan moan moan moan

The conifer towards the back of this photo is where I hope to be one day. Tall, poised, balanced, reaching for the sky in a dignified sort of way. The hedge leading up to it is the other aspects of my life, neatly pruned, flowing along their journey. The bit between here and that conifer is a bed of in a state of transient wilderness, a mixture of mature herbs; bay, rosemary, sage, mostly nice things. Just out of sight to the right, there is a small tree, as yet unidentified by us. We're just waiting for it to do something to make itself known. In the meantime, my attention is drawn towards the burgeoning weeds, the curse of any garden. The weeds have arrived there, either by seeds carried on the wind or from roots that have lain dormant, waiting for the right conditions to shout out their existence. The weeds come in the guise of illness and I'm pretty fed up with them.

Of course it's a way to meet new people. I'm on good terms with the phlebotomist at the hospital. We meet fortnightly and I look forward to the delicious free coffee (the treatment isn't) although I was alarmed this week when a notice went up on the machine stating that it is now forbidden to take your drink into the treatment areas. What kind of customer service is that? The result is that I knock back two in a row in the waiting area and arrive to see my new best friend on a caffeine high.

I have noticed that health care appointments are as much about the journey as the destination. There's a lot going on out of our view - probably the source of much stress to those working in the field - with the patient's arrival in the correct place to meet the right person who can corroborate that their notes correspond to the person in front of them being the most significant. Yesterday, I was an unlikely auditionee for the role of Goldilocks. First I sat in the chair in the doctor's consulting room. Then I was admitted to the inner sanctum of the surgery's administrative office whilst the secretary made some phone calls on my behalf. Next I was sent downstairs to sample another chair. As I sat outside the nurse's room at the GP's surgery, journal on my lap and scribbling away, one of the GPs (not the one I'm seeing currently as I like to spread the cheer around fairly) came past and said to me 'Are you writing your life's memoirs?' and my reply was 'Well, I may as well do something whilst I'm waiting'. I think he kept walking in case I was contagious.

The day carried on in the same vein. I caused the same sort of scared amusement at my evening class as the blood pressure monitor inflated at inappropriate moments. I started off having it covered by my cardigan but then realised that buzzing and going red in the face with overheating was a little startling to my fellow students. As it is a counselling training course, being anything other than totally candid in your exposition of your woes or joys is frowned upon. I have yet to find a simple way to articulate the process I am undergoing which could result in me being diagnosed with the same illness that King George is supposed to have suffered (yes, he was mad too) and is the basis for the myths of vampires and werewolves. I know that I'm doing a bad job in disentangling the knot of curiosity. Any attempt to offer a watered down synopsis of the plot so far inevitably leads to the unfortunate question of 'So, what are the symptoms then?' at which point, I hope for a distraction. Nothing is ever simple.

So, back to the garden. As I hold the camera to take the picture from the perspective you see here, my own distraction is the unidentified tree. It's probably a very innocent, common one. It's probably one that can co-exist happily with the conifer. I'm very interested in the concept of perspective. No view is ever so clear-cut, there's always something just outside of the picture that changes the way you look at the object of your gaze. The key to living artfully though is to watch and wait. It will identify itself in good time and I can take another picture. Who knows, I may even have got rid of the weeds by then.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Yesterday I got to live out one of my imaginary lives as a doctor. No, not through any magically-acquired expertise or Hypocratic oath but I was appointed as Senior Consultant at the Insect Hospital. Alas, the first patient was a sorry case. He (or she, this has yet to be determined) was admitted after being found lying prostrate on the front lawn. The team worked hard on the victim of this savage attack, a dragon fly, which, it is thought, was unprovoked. The hospital spokesman has described the patient as critical, having sustained severe abdominal injuries and says that the next few hours will be crucial. He (or she) is receiving round-the-clock attention including little bits of rock, a bowl of water and blades of grass.

A witness (who prefers not to be named) has given a description of the assailant. He is said to be of muscular build, his coat an orange hue with slightly darker stripes and amber eyes. Anyone with information should come forward.

Monday, 4 May 2009


I'm beginning to wonder what it is about gardening and the pleasure of it that drives us to see it as a worthwhile pastime. Aside from growing vegetables for obvious reasons, and the need to present our homes in a pleasant context, I suspect that there is something else happening.

Yesterday, I decided to throw away all the plastic containers, most of which were left by Mrs G (to whom I owe an apology as I inadvertently added on an extra 10 years to her age yesterday) and I have taken a disliking to. That's the container's, not Mrs G, in case she reads this which I'm sure she won't.

Anyway, I am going get rid of anything that is plastic or ugly as I see no point in displaying beautiful plants in hideous pots. I will then take pleasure in arranging the pots around the garden. Yesterday, I spent a while finding the perfect spot for an old sink in which I was planting some salad plants, parsley and thyme (photo to follow later on). I decided on a vacant patch of concrete up against one of the greenhouses; hardly glamorous but it seemed important to have it placed correctly. So, the positioning and presentation of plants, even in an almost agricultural context, is key to my satisfaction in having been 'gardening'. Curious.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

She has told me that I don't have time to write my own blog any more. True, I am busy on another project and my time is limited but I do miss the contact I have with you, my adoring public.

I thought you may be wondering if I was still around so I managed to persuade her to post this photo of me. It think it shows my best side (not that there are any really bad ones, of course) and was taken when the older boy was home from university. He's gone now so the explosions and gunfire has died down (I have noticed that I'm not as deaf as I thought) and they're clearing up the debris. The one thing I'll say about us dogs is that we don't eat and sleep in the same place or leave our bowls scattered around the floor.

Soon, She will be pestering me for the first drafts of my writing. She is so impatient so I bid you goodbye again for while.

A Match Made in Heaven

I used to have a thing about shoes when I was very young. I am frequently reminded of the fact by those members of my family who were present at the time (along with the fact that my sister changed my nappies when I was a baby) that I liked to go into shoe shops and try on every single one on the racks. This was something I grew out of which is just as well beccause life is too short to spend it procrastinating over your footwear. However, yesterday, I did find myself taking a trip back in time. OK so the shoes lined up in front of me on the carpet (there's something very particular about shoe shop carpet) were there not because I was just working my way through the shop although it may well have appeared so to any witnesses. The reason this time was that it is hard for me to find shoes to fit, especially with swollen ankles. So, I fully expected to walk out with sensible shoes but I didn't expect black patent leather AND a matching handbag. Today, I so nearly wondered into another shoe shop. The good times are back! Whooohooo!

Friday, 1 May 2009

Snap Happy

The other day I went around taking photographs of all the flowers in the garden. We first saw the house in October and moved in at the beginning of December and although we suspected that little surprises were lurking beneath the cover of winter, we had no idea just how many or how beautiful they would be as they sprung up. The previous owner sent us a card at Christmas saying how she hoped that we would enjoy the garden because there would always been something in bloom. How right she was, although it was somewhat of an understatement. She lived here for 60 years so that's a lot of work, the fruits of which I almost feel guilty for snatching from her as in her 100th year she moved to a flat. I do feel like we stand alongside her now in the queue of unlikely murderers lining up to exterminate the local pigeon population. On the Christmas card she also wrote 'Don't let the pigeons eat all the sprouts' and it seemed a little bit over the top. Not so. It's not just the house we've taken over but the battle too. No doubt the pigeons will greet the bank holiday weekend with mixed emotions; more human presence but more crops being arranged in the soil for their delectation.

Anyway, I just had to take another one of the clematis this morning. It climbs up an old stump in a way that made me think how artful its positioning is but also a little anxious as to what might replace it once its flowers have died. I suppose we have to trust Mrs G's words and wait for the next surprise.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Voices from the Grave

Well, here we are on my new, relaunched blog. I hope you like it. I'm not going to be writing creatively here unless I feel it is appropriate but I will be thinking out loud creatively, if you know what I mean. Neither will I be boring you with the details of what's been going on because I'm sure that if you really want to know, you know where to find me! I'm hoping to be a little more reflective than that and when that isn't possible for whatever reason, I will be posting images of what's going on around and about, just things I find interesting. So, you'll probably learn more about me by seeing what fascinates me than if I told you what we had for breakfast. Or it might give you something to think about, I hope. The reason for this change of direction is not one of paranoia about my privacy (I'm not actually that interesting) but purely mercenary. My writing style is rooted in the domesticity of modern life and as such, if I want to get published other than on a blog, I should be a little more discerning about where I write. For example, my dog, Monty's voice is woven into my novel and 'his' blogging has been a great help in developing his voice but it does present a problem should I approach a publisher. I know that he was particularly appreciated so have no fear, he will still be writing but he's going to be saving it all up!

Anyway, enough writing about writing! Or is it? Yesterday, I went to sit in the graveyard at St Mary's Church in Horsham. It was quite noisy not from the dead people but with children's voices from the local school, passing trains, an aeroplane, cars and not to mention birdsong. I can only assume that the graves are soundproofed; either that or some very restless spirits must be in residence. I went there to do a bit of quiet reflection and maybe some writing. I sat on a bench and watched and listened. The bench's proximity to the church in this town centre location made me think about perspective and scale. The church steeple seemed to loom angularly, hence the diagonal image which was otherwise difficult to capture. It was as if it was struggling to escape the grasp of my gaze, growing up frantically into the sky like a magic beanstalk. It wasn't why I went there at all but I got some great ideas for my novel, much of which is devoted to the idea of perspective and the smallness of things.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Goodbye to Comic Relief/The First Cut

Thank you to all those of you who sponsored me so generously to write for Red Nose Day. I hope that you enjoyed your stories as much as I enjoyed writing them. So that's it for now folks. Back to normal and I'm doing it for free until I hit the big time.

Today is Sunday and my husband sneaked out of bed so quietly that I didn't hear him. This is unheard of (obviously) as on weekdays when he is off to work, he is anything but quiet. So why the rush? Yesterday evening, he took delivery of a lawn mower. This is no ordinary lawn mower. This is the cylinder mower of his fantasies, the type that does stripes. Actually, I encouraged him to make this purchase. In fact, I actively dragged him along to a proper lawn mower shop (yes, we have one in Horsham) because I was fed up with him moaning about the two rotary machines lined up in the garage, neither of which functioned despite having spent all of last weekend trying to change this. It is almost like he is off on a date with someone. He has got the children their breakfast, made me a cup of tea and I can hear him emptying the dishwasher. He is setting himself up for an uninterrupted session of indulgence. It's a bit early to cut the grass, maybe, but he did comment last night that it's surprisingly quiet so perhaps he was planning his early morning sortie, even then.

I wonder if I should throw my clothes on so that I can witness the event? My own early morning trips around the garden in my dressing gown with the dog have stopped since someone moved in next door. Perhaps I should just clarify that I didn't go out into the garden for the same reason as the dog, I was just his chaperone although by the look of me, I was probably the one who looked as if they were in need of restraint.

And talking of restraint, I've noticed something this morning. Every time I decide that I spend far too much time on the internet writing rubbish that no one reads, I start rambling even more. This is a little perverse. So am I writing because I know that no one will read it? Perhaps. I don't always keep a handwritten journal, partly because my hands are sometimes a bit stiff, but also because I touch-type and so the flow between my thoughts and the virtual page is faster than it might be on old-fashioned paper.

I suppose that the end of the Red Nose Day thing made me think again about what I write here now or even why I write here at all. I've also been thinking about what to do after the end of my MA course. Suggestions on a postcard please! So is that the answer then? Writing and rambling like this is a bit like sending a postcard. I'm here and you're there and I'm telling you what's going on. A little snippet of what's going on. So there you go. Yet again, I have found a satisfactory conclusion by plucking a metaphor out of the air. Oh no, there I go again ......

I think I should get dressed and do something useful. Have a good Sunday. Wish you were here.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Comic Relief No 11 - For Claudia

It was the best day of the year so far. Test results behind her, the midday sun beaming down from an azure sky and the path ahead just seemed so, so, uncluttered by the past. Its pattern, the staggered slabs, had fascinated her since she was old enough to stand upright although obviously, being able to express this preoccupation with what went underfoot when she was out and about, didn't come until later. Much later. But today, she was pleased to see that the little piece of the world which was passing along below, like a newly serviced and oiled escalator (but not an escalator, one of those things that went along horizontally, not up, a travelator maybe?) was perfectly aligned. Let her explain what she means. There was a pair of slabs, the line dividing the two, the left and the right, dead in the centre. On a good day, the width of the pavement would be restricted to the totality of their combined measurement. Just so. Their position would be confirmed by the staggered placement of the next row, the middle slab's centre being equidistant to the previous' join. Of course, this rarely happened, was just her fantasy because in reality, things just weren't like that. Not so cut and dried. It wasn't all about two bits of slabs joined in holy matrimony. There would always be other influences. Like, like, oh, she couldn't say because they were too numerous. In simple terms, she could only see the path in front and if it was straight then she had a good idea of how to make it perfect in her head. She could choose to avert her gaze away from the car crashes on the road or look to the right at the crocuses (croci?, she never knew what the plural should be) but at least she knew what she was dealing with. Around the bend, where she sometimes found herself, she had no control over where her long shadow might fall. But today? Today, the sun shone down on her crown and she was on top of the world.

One should celebrate these moments, she thought. But should one celebrate alone? Maybe. In a moment, a pub would come into view. This is not to say that she had negotiated the imperfection of the deviations in the pavement yet but this road was one she had travelled many times before and she knew that the wiggly bit ahead was only a temporary insanity on the part of the council and looking on the positive side, its return to the original route did allow her to see the pub before she was fully entitled to. In her opinion. Anyway, outside the pub there were picnic benches. They were greyed through urban neglect and the passing exhaust fumes but the way people sat under the parasols bearing adverts for beer amused her. Some had their backs to the queues of traffic, t-shirts stretched over their beer-swollen abdomens revealing the tops of their buttocks, others, usually ladies, she noticed, looking outwards, gloating and decadent with their false nails overlapping as they clasped their hands around alcopops bottles. Not really ladies then, she was just being polite. So you can see how she wouldn't want to join them, this brigade of street drinking pavement dwellers with nothing better to do with their time. No, she would sit on another bench. She wished for a circular, wrought iron table but it didn't come so when the barman asked where they would be sitting for the delivery of the meals she had ordered she indicated to the bench dead opposite the keep left sign on the little central reservation serving to protect pedestrians from their deviation from the post office to the pub.

She carried the drinks to the bench and sat down, facing outwards. She drank the first glass in one. The second followed immediately along with the feeling that she didn't need the sun any more, that she had an inner warmth sweating from her pores. The food arrived, and the barman put the second plate opposite her. Not wishing to explain her intimate details to a complete stranger for the umpteenth time in her life, she left the food where it was. At least until he had gone back inside. She didn't want him to think she was mad, even if she was. He wouldn't understand, of course. Not having travelled the same path to get here, he would have no idea or see things the way she did. He may even have his own dark side, she would never know. But she did know that her own was hungry. Very hungry. In fact, she'd discovered that if she didn't feed it properly, take it out for lunch now and again, it found all sorts of devious ways to get her attention and engulf her. You see, sometimes, she had walked along the pavement and been unable to see the slabs for what they were. Sometimes, the shadow had been too hungry, too long and she had ignored it. At the end of the day, she wanted to feel that she had followed her heart, not her shadow. At the end of the day, the shadows were longer on the pavement but if she stood at the right angle against the setting sun, she was at one with her shadow. Sometimes, her shadow shared her chips with her. But she always asked first. She didn't want to them to fall out. She would never let the sun set on an argument with her shadow because actually, she was quite good company. That was the bright side of madness. A companion for life.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Comic Relief No 10 - For Gabi

He was still. Out of the patch of concrete on the wide grass verge and in between the banks of violet and yellow crocuses yawned a damp bench. Or was it? She wondered this because she needed to know how long he had been there. She didn't want to touch him, to wake him from his dreams and be responsible for jolting back into this miserable, cold and wet Sunday afternoon in March. Not for the first time, the monologue in her head switched to her native language because that's where she went in her head when she wanted to know what to do. In this case it happened to coincide with the place she had trained to be a nurse before she had transferred this skill and her body to this foreign country. She wondered whether one day, her mind would make the same journey. But some things were universal and here was a man lying on a bench, possibly dead. There was little of his face visible, his overgrown whiskers shielding the bottom half and the peak of a brownish hat covering the top. The bulbous end of his nose, a scaled-down version of his protruding belly was blue and veined like a map of the meandering Elbe. She really didn't want to do this, fearful of unleashing a torrent that she couldn't control. She wished that she was anywhere but here.

She leaned over, trying not to breathe in, to disturb the still and tense air between her body and his where this moment seemed to be contained in isolation, away from the disturbance of the passing cars and the weather. She reached into the space between the cuff of his brown jumper and his puffy, white hands and felt for a pulse. As she had feared, the pressure of another human's touch on his skin roused him and he jerked his arm towards the sky as if she were an irritating fly. The suddenness of this movement disturbed the hitherto hidden bundle underneath his coat and a bottle smashed onto the concrete below. She was grateful that the contents, cheap gin had had an antiseptic effect upon the air of their intimate, isolated world which was much needed because, eyes still closed, a foul-smelling chasm in his beard had opened and he had begun to sing. He slurred in a gravelly fashion but the tune was still recognisable; Kde domov můj? (Where Is My Home?). In that split second, she was all at once joined and separated from this man with whom ostensibly she shared her roots. But then their temporary world shattered as quickly as the bottle had done. She didn't want her memories of home ruined by his slurring, she wanted them kept as pristine as the sparkling cobbles of the Charles Bridge on a frosty morning.

She didn't know how he'd come to be here; she would never know. She would never know because she didn't want to so she she walked away, leaving him to drown in his own mess of gin and shattered dreams. He was alive and that was good enough for her. Her work here was done. She was alive too and that was how she wanted to keep her memories of her motherland. Pravda vítězí" (Truth prevails), she thought as she pulled the drawstring on the hood of her raincoat, put her chin down to her chest and headed on up the hill into the wind and rain. If the crocuses could survive this temporary doubt, then so could she.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Your call is being redirected

Marmaduke, aka the Ginger Ninja has finally got around to posting.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Comic Relief No 9 - For Pierre, again!

Elvis has left the building. There it went again, that phrase, one of many, the origin of which she couldn't quite fathom. Elvis had died when she was sixteen. She hadn't even been particularly fond of Elvis other than in a kind of evolutionary way, the primeval stirrings of a future, more sophisticated taste in music. Up until then, he had been there somewhere in her unconscious, a pelvis gyrating in the amniotic fluid, a precursor to Cliff Richard, Dr No and the assassination of JFK. So she wondered why she couldn't shake off these five words niggling at her day and night, especially at night when she sank into her pillow and went to the place where she let go of her daytime worries.

The Elvis of her unconscious was untouchable and multitudinous. At night time, he danced and sang, wowing audiences across several continents simultaneously. The Elvis in her dreams had lunch with her dead grandmother, organised tropical parties and built vast castles for his own occupation in every state. He could fold napkins into swans, swim up Niagara Falls and if ghosts threatened to engulf him with their angry, rotten mouths and bulging, green eyes, he could fly at them and make dissolve into a heap of nothing-dust on the floor. This Elvis was someone to be admired and feared but most importantly, someone to inhabit. At least for the duration of her dreams.

Now, if you thought that Elvis' life sounded complicated, then I must tell you that her life - the one that other people saw - was a complete shambles. She lurched from one man to another, one job to another and one town to another; the only notable change in her would have been the lines on her brow and the sagging of her stomach together with her willpower not to sink underground and completely give up. Elvis probably kept her going even if she didn't notice. Perhaps he was even relieved that she never actually asked him to sing, that he could just do his thing, whatever that was. And so they were a fine pair in ignorance of each others' needs. They would have carried on that way too if hadn't been for the writing course.

What happened next was as unplanned and unexpected as the manifestation of Elvis serving at the Meat & Fish counter in the local supermarket. Running out of new directions to take, she'd signed up at the local college, hoping to find her perfect man. She didn't even believe in taking courses but it made a change from the singles nights at the wine bar or smiling at sweaty men on rowing machines. What happened was that she stopped running and Elvis caught up with her.

What happened was that she learned to write and Elvis started speaking onto the page, uninvited. Before she knew what was happening, Elvis was popping out all over the place. Sometimes, he distracted her and she forgot where she was going. But this was good. She learned to follow Elvis without thinking about anything at all and discovered that what he had to say or do was often far more interesting than any of her grand schemes. She learned that each time Elvis was about to leave the building, she should follow because you just never knew what would happen next. The niggling feeling became more of a tingling and she felt a certain smugness that she knew where Elvis was hiding, that she could uncover him bit by bit in her writing.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Comic Relief No 8 - For Pierre

I didn't have any prompts for this one and so I used an idea that came to me when I woke up this morning!

Just stand back for a minute. No, don't take me literally, I mean up, not back. That's it, right up, up, and hold it there. Make sure your body is absolutely straight, perfectly horizontal, as if you're being suspended by invisible wires from those ceiling tiles and that each is calculated to precisely the right length. In fact, imagine that you are invisible too. Now, relax, let the strings take your weight. And look down.

Can you hear the noise again now? Good. Let it seep into your pores. Practice letting each voice you hear get louder, and louder until it is as sharp as a pin. Listen to the words, to the pitch. Is it a child? An adult? Male or female? Look for its partner but be quick before the moment passes. Now allow them to fade back into the crowd. Write it down in your head with your fast pen. Don't worry about anyone else being able to read it. Just get it down. Rewind the tape in your head. Not too much, just back again to that moment. Which walkway were they on? Were they arriving or departing? Think about where they were coming from. Perhaps it was somewhere tropical or cultural. Look back at their appearance. Tattoos, expensive luggage, sombreros and make up all give away so much. Now look again to the things underneath that you can't see. What are they trying to cover up? Perhaps there is something about the way they are walking. Pay attention to the way they hold their shoulders, whether they are tense or relaxed as this will tell you much about their journey. Or maybe it will tell you about their whole life. Are they pleased to be back or to be escaping?

Now jump back to the present again. Look at your people and where they are now. Yes, they are now your people because you've created them. Start the whole process again only this time they will obviously be more familiar to you. Make a comparison of how they have changed from the first moment when their voices pierced the bubble you naively surrounded yourself with when you set out for your holiday this morning. Think about the journey they have taken between those moments in relation to the one they probably think that they have taken. Marvel at the possibility that they are completely unaware of the stranger who is both their creator and their stalker. Imagine their reaction when they notice you observing them, their outrage or pleasure when your thoughts tumble out onto paper, the details you have to give to the police officer who is demanding to know all these things about who you are and what you're doing hanging about in an airport entrance and imagine what the final statement will look like when it's written down at the station.

But surely they'll understand. Surely those nice policemen will understand that a writer is never off duty, that if he is then he should re-evaluate his career choice, because he does not have the right mental attitude to be a writer.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Comic Relief No 7 - For H

A mound of minute granules of chewed up bits of earth, that's how we see an ant hill. But a house? More elaborate perhaps but the same amount of chewing up goes on in its creation. Let me explain.

Barbara was a shy little girl. She had goofy teeth and knees that knocked together. When they played British bulldog in the school yard – a harsh game for a four-year-old girl – she retired, flushing with fear to the safety of the wall, one leg bent up underneath her and leaning back, rather like a drunk flamingo. The boys' wore scratchy blazers just the same as the girls but they always looked more layered somehow and as they tore backwards and forwards during the game, each component of their uniform took on a life of its own. Barbara's clothes, on the other hand, remained rigid, neatly tucked in and she couldn't bear the tickly feeling she got on her back if her blouse slipped out and her jumper rode roughshod through the open gap. Appearance was everything to her and from her point of observation at the wall, she sensed that it meant nothing to the boys; that whilst she was nurturing perfecting her outer shell, they prized the way their inner warriors burst through their shirt buttons and spilt out onto the playground, completely spent. This uncanny intuition was to save her from many a fall in the playground.

As she looked on at the game, she knew that one day, she would have to let one of these nasty little beasts through her outer shell; that if she wanted wedded bliss like every other little girl, she would have no choice. It was disgusting. She'd read about it. Every night, the same thing happening in bedrooms up and down the country. Yuk. She loved her invisible fairy wings and reached back over her shoulder to stroke their downy hair, almost believing that they were real. She knew that one day, she would leave her parents' nest and the nuptial flight would be her last before her wings were chewed off.

And so it was. But she was prepared and in a big way. During playtime one day, she went upstairs to the school library. From up there in her castle, she could see the other children charging around outside like mad things propelled by the hidden energy to self destruct that she seemed to be lacking. She sat down and surveyed the spines of the books. She half pulled out the odd one here and there until a particular cover caught her attention. It was about The Stupa in Sri Lanka, a huge brick construction that looked like the biggest ant hill she'd ever seen. Occupied by Buddhist monks, apparently. Now you might think that at this point, she decided to become a nun. Not so. At this point, she gazed at the image of The Stupa and vowed instead that she would have the most huge, the most elaborate brick palace built for her by her suitor as compensation for having to take that nuptial flight. So from her seat at the library window she looked down again at the ant-like figures darting around on the playground. She was looking for the fastest, the most aggressive, the one using the cleverest tactics to conquer the enemy. Little did Barbara know that sixty years later, she would just be satisfied with finding one using his own teeth.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Poor Koalas

Last week, you may remember that I wrote about a mysterious piece of newspaper that turned up in the post from my sister, Maureen, in Australia. Initially confused as to why she should be sending me adverts for mobility scooters and various other matters of interest for the over 60s, I eventually - perhaps optimistically - realised that it was a feature about someone who had got a publishing deal from blogging. Okay, so she was 77 so really, the whole two pages were devoted in some way to senior citizens which makes you wonder whether it was the whole paper was like that or if Maureen just saw it and felt compelled to rip it out and send it to me. If you can tell that I am becoming a little paranoid by all this then you may be right especially as I only came here to tell you about the latest post from the other side of the world.

Again, I thought it was going to be stamps for my father-in-law. But no, it was koalas. Not whole ones, obviously as this would be cruel but pictures of them. Now I think I quite like koalas even thought I've never seen one as I've never been to Australia but they have nice faces. They look sort of loved, patchwork in some way, maybe because of the shape of their ears and it is like someone has thoughtfully just sewn on a nice new leather nose. They also look slow, as if they are unlikely to make any sudden moves and this, I like. I also like the idea that they smell of eucalyptus and this reminds me of our children's bedtime creatures that we put in the microwave (obviously, I'm not suggesting that I would microwave a koala any more that I would like to put one in the post) so there's something very comforting about the image of a koala.

Anyway, the pictures were of koalas who had suffered in the recent bush fires. I had already seen some images emailed to me by my brother-in-law and if you click here, you can see them too. I'm trying to think what to say. The scale of human loss is unspeakable and although the images depict animal suffering, their very existence seems to capture the essence of what it is to be human, of being fragile. I will say no more now because I think that the pictures speak for themselves.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Comic Relief 6 - for Judith

This one comes from my sick bed but more exciting, it comes from my brand new netbook:

She'd been sporty when she was younger, for about a month, but it was long enough that she could regale her friends with tales of pulled ligaments, going for the burn eighties-style, thus providing an explanation for her creaky knees. Now, at forty-five, any hint of a weekend sporting event and she would be found either in the local supermarket or the coffee shop. The former she found rather depressing as even the displays for pizzas and barbecue food were were studded with flags, the latter a welcome relief from the national frenzy which on this particular occasion was directed towards the Olympics.

That Sunday, she almost turned around and walked straight back out of the shop. It was as though all the local mothers had decided to bring their offspring here. It was an Italian shop, well established in the town and one of its appeals for her was that the décor was brown and dingy. For her, it had the air of a proper continental cafe, the sort where you could drop in, read the paper, write a bestseller and not be under any obligation to leave before you were ready. The ban had seen to it that the umbrella of Galoises smoke was in her imagination as was the bohemian customer base. The reality was that the small middle-class population flocked there competing for window seats, ignoring their wayward, sugar-fueled children whilst they gossiped at ever-increasing volume to drown out the next table, a mirror of their own except that the children scattering in different directions would shatter the illusion of glass existing between them. Sometimes this unhappy fact intruded upon her ruminations but today, the coffee was especially good and she was able to shut them out and slip through the door into her imagination.

She was already on her second latte. The last square of her complimentary bitter, dark chocolate was melting on her tongue. She watched the brown sugar flow from its little tubular wrapper into the centre of the surface, its edges darkening as they became saturated and finally sinking, dissolving in a spiral, still swirling as she sipped it, lifting her up, up so that she could take a deep inhalation of the Galoises whilst ignoring the clattering below. What she breathed out onto the paper would be a mystery until it emerged; a plan for a story, a few notes, observations of the way the barista danced to the rhythm of the coffee machine, the way his black apron was tied as if he had been giftwrapped that morning, but no, today her plans were skipping sideways and then forwards rather than dwelling on the here and now.

Four years from now, she would be sitting here, slightly more grey, skin fading and the children snapping around the wooden tables would have moved to the doorways of the burger restaurant or the fountain. Four years from now, her husband would be sitting in their lounge in front of the latest technology (a necessary purchase for such a big occasion) watching the Olympics again.

Four years from now, there would be at least two major conflicts in the world, troops would still be somewhere foreign, at risk from insurgents, politicians from opposing parties would be battling over tax and expenditure and we would still be fighting climate change. All this much was certain. What was also certain was that the rift between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, the hungry and the overfed would remain. She knew that the flags would come out again and she would take herself off to the coffee shop to hide with her fellow sport-avoiders. Absentmindedly, she had written down two words: coffee and olympics.

The barista with the bow-tied bottom had just been dismissed from her thoughts as the solution of caffeine and sugar deluded her into thinking she had found a solution of a different kind. Her tangential plan was one of pure and simple and genius. Even the traditional Olympic motto: "Citius, Altius, Fortius" - "Faster, Higher, Stronger" could be reused in 2012.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Comic Relief No 5 - for Chris

The outward bound instructor surveyed the gathering of souls around him. He thought that one looked a little more on edge than the others. Physically, they matched his expectations all having donned a comfortable attire, a weathered face, possessing feet clad in seasoned walking boots. Standard stuff. Except that one. That one, whom, he could tell, wasn't paying attention now to his exposition of the current health and safety risks. He would have to speak to him privately later.

The teacher fingered the folded up piece of paper in his coat pocket. Aside from biscuit crumbs and an empty cellophane wrapper, there was also a biro. He hoped that it still worked, that the crumbs hadn't clogged up the ballpoint. It gave him a secret sense of security outside of the classroom. He couldn't risk taking the paper out now, it would be considered odd. He would check it in private later. If there was a later.

The boy's father was worried about his son. He shouldn't have brought him on this foolish trip. Should have listened to his wife, taken a proper weekend away. Somewhere like Chichester where they could all enjoy themselves together, she'd said. She could wander around the cathedral, visit the theatre and then on the Sunday they could have gone to the Harbour. But he never went for the safe option and now here they were miles apart. Like this.

The writer was feeling on edge. He wasn't really here for the outdoors experience as such, more as an observer but then again, his existence depended upon that. Always on the outside then on the inside but never quite fully engaging with his subject. But this wasn't the moment for beautiful prose or poetic descriptions of the Welsh wilderness or indeed any form of introspection, come to that. He should pull himself together. He looked down into the icy water. He marvelled at the depth, the layers of the non-colours, all distinct, solid yet fluid. Yes, it was the movement of the water that was hard to capture in words. The bubbles, the foam on the surface; they were the defining features of what was going on underneath, of what the conditions were really like in the body of water.

One canoe, that was all the rapids had left behind. One canoe, one boy and an ensemble of characters who should have been a strong and united force just like the rapids but instead, were a feeble trickle of drips being blown indiscriminately by the slightest whim of the breeze over a fragile shield of glass. The boy looked at them. Unnoticed, he climbed down the bank and into the remaining canoe. It rocked precariously as he eased himself in and pushed off with the paddle. He turned back to look at the spot he had just left. There was one man staring back at him.

He might have expected a crowd as it seemed to him that adults made things overcomplicated, made themselves overcomplicated. Why couldn't they just be? Why couldn't they understand that sometimes, sometimes, you've just got to get into your canoe and paddle?

Friday, 13 February 2009

Comic Relief Number 4 - for Sarah Salway

I'm afraid, Sarah, that this one's way, way, over the 500!

It had been one of those nights. You know, one of those nights. Whilst his younger workmates were probably worrying about their pulling power and shining up their Friday night shoes, Bruce had gone into the corner shop with every intention of getting a six pack of bottled lager, some corn chips and salsa dip. It was one of those shops for which he was both thankful but yet despised. It was so in your face. The chiller units against the wall were oversized for the width of the aisles so that in order to squeeze past the cardboard boxes of wine on offer (surely a contravention of some health and safety rule), you could almost fall inside them. Even when not falling in, you could breathe in the gases being exhaled from their vents, both warm and cold which pretty much described the contents on display too. Not much of an invitation for Bruce to indulge so he slithered sideways through, only knocking one of the price labels off from the perspex strip along the edge.

The prize for being able to negotiate his way to the back of the shop without picking up what he didn't want was the holy grail of seizing what he did want. When Bruce finally got there, he gazed despairingly at the gaping chasm on the shelf in the drinks chiller. No, it couldn't be. Surely they knew it was Friday, that he would be in. Anyone taking a cursory glance in his direction would have seen a middle-aged man, in smart, casual attire in autumnal colours with his head bent, hands over his ears, possibly conferring with his wife on his mobile over the choice of wine to go with dinner? But no. If they'd lingered a little longer, the picture would have become far more horrific. This was a man pushed to the brink of despair. There was no phone. No emergency service that could save him from what was about to happen. No choice of white or red. Just red.

In the queue of customers (and they did have the cheek to call themselves that), was a mixed group of youngsters, late teens, laughing and texting, jostling for position of top dog, excited about an imminent party. They had a trolley. The trolley was full of Bruce's favourite bottled Friday night lager, nicely chilled. Oh, and six bags of corn chips.

Bruce was beginning to lift his head now and as he did, the rage pouring forth in their direction may as well have burned a trench in the shop floor. Had there been room for more people in the aisle, they surely would have parted to allow what was about to happen. It had been a tough few days. This week's special offers: credit crunch, cut backs, no bonuses. Next week? No job.

Bruce ran his fingers through his scalp as if that by making his forehead more taut, he would appear more fierce. But there was really no need. After all, if you saw someone charging towards you with the acceleration of a cheetah, letting out the most soulful roar, you may pause before retaliating. You may just stand back in wonder as the middle-aged man with the boiling, crimson face draws level with you like a freight train rushing past the platform of commuter station in rush hour and deftly swipes your trolley from under your nose. After all, it's not paid for or anything and it's a bit of a laugh, really isn't it?

Meanwhile, the cold air had smacked Bruce in the face and panic began to set in. He couldn't go back. He couldn't go home. So he kept running. He ran in the darkness under the subway to the park, through the gates around the pond and sat, panting heavily on one of the benches there. He was in no doubt that they would find him but the reeds and laurels would buy him time.

In the distance, he heard a siren and he wondered if it was for him. But then again, he wasn't alone in all this mayhem was he? There were the ducks for a start. Was it the end of the world to lose your job? He could live just paddling around his flat, being thrown crumbs by the state with no stress. The ducks weren't stressed. There would be no Friday nights, no wind up, no wind down, no high-flying career to aspire to. He sat back and smiled.

The yellow street lamp on the perimeter of the pond reflected on the wire of the trolley, glinting conspiratorily at Bruce. He reached in for a bottle of lager, opening it on the gaps between the slats in the bench seat. He may as well enjoy his last moments of freedom. He rummaged a bit deeper down in the trolley for the corn chips. He was feeling much more relaxed now. As he felt around for the packet, he realised that his bounty was greater than he'd thought. Delighted at his find, he unwrapped it, bit off the top, stuck his tongue in down through the hole and waited to feel the sweetness of the yellow centre dissolve and slip around inside his cheeks.

He heard footsteps beating across the frozen grass and torch beams filtered through the bushes. This was it. In no time, he would be been positioned leaning forwards over the bench, gripping the back with his hands whilst the officers frisked him. They would feel egg-shaped protrusions.

'What's this then, mate? Would these be eggs or are you just pleased to see me?'

But Bruce wouldn't respond, maybe saying 'So how do you eat yours then?'