Terrifying photograph and author interview : The People’s Friend

 

This is week sees the final instalment of my serial The Mermaid of Mortling Hall in The People’s Friend magazine and what a lovely experience it’s been, from the writing and drafting of the story under Alan Spink’s steady tutelage, to kind comments of support from family, colleagues and blogging friends.

As a finale, Alan emailed me and asked if I’d like to give an author interview on the magazine’s blog, so if you’d like to learn a little more about the story, about my writing habits – and see a terrifying extreme close-up of my toothy mug – then pop along here.

Many thanks go especially to all bloggers who left encouraging comments and to all those who bought the magazine – your support has been amazing.

 

Valentine’s Day : That baby faced killer thing

rodent

https://pixabay.com/en/meerkat-fur-small-face-mouth-316736/


 

He rests his elbows on the rail, gazing out at the twitching streaks of sandy fur, a few square yards of mounded dirt littered with scraps of drying vegetable.

‘Aren’t they amazing?’

‘I guess,’ she says.

‘You don’t like them?’

She shrugs. ‘They’re a bit done, aren’t they – meerkats?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘All that standing on your back legs looking cute and killing snakes – ‘

‘I think it’s mongooses that kill snakes.’

Another shrug. ‘What’s the difference? Anyway, they’ve got the baby faced killer thing down. But they still smell like my hamster after it ate one of its babies.’

This wasn’t how he’d imagined the conversation. ‘But they look out for one another. Their family units …’

He feels her body stiffen against his.

‘You want to talk about that here?’ she says.

‘Well. You know. Spring. Nature in all its fecundity.’

‘And kids screaming for ice cream. And kids screaming because they “didn’t see the monkey pooing, Daddy”. And kids just screaming because that’s what they’re good at.’

‘I just thought …’

‘No, you really didn’t. And next time, take me somewhere that doesn’t stink of dead rodents.’

He smiles. ‘Next time?’

 


First posted in response to for Roger Shipp’s Flash Fiction for the Purposeful Practioner, Week # 15 2016. See here for full Ts and Cs.

Another repost, this time with a Valentine’s Day theme. Well, ish. Look, it’s about as romantic as I get, alright?

Will be posting and commenting in the flesh again soon, when normal service will be resumed.

 

The death of Jesse

beach-690487_1280

Image : Pixabay

 

Others are up ahead, a clump of black silhouettes, paled by a haze of sea spray.

I check my instinct to call Jesse to heel. Stupid dog’s too far away, closer to them than me. If I call they’ll see me.

There was a storm last night. Idiot! I stumbled from the shack just as the cold sun was lifting over the bay, only half awake, unprepared. If only I’d made coffee, got the stove going, sparked some brain cells to life. But the wood store was empty, the coffee jar too.

I watch Jesse for one second, two, as he jogs towards the hunched figures, his tail swinging. Only now do I notice wreckage littering the sands – a plastic bottle, half full of  something blue (shampoo? mouthwash?): sodden paper: a splash of red cloth, bright as spilt paint. The others will have been out all night scavenging for what’s left of the boat’s crew.

One last glimpse of golden fur and I turn back, walking fast, forcing myself not to run, not wanting to draw their attention. I sink my hands deep in my pockets, feel the bag I’d brought along to collect Jesse’s morning mess – a hangover of more civilised times.

Stumbling over a silver belt buckle, a boot with no laces, I hear Jesse bark, growl, yelp.

Poor Jesse. I bite my lip hard, blink away salt water.

I determine to find more coffee.


Not sure if it’s the hunched, hooded figure in the foreground that turned my thoughts to the dark side, or just the fact that I’m a miserabilist.  What do you think of when you see this picture? Is it more cheerful than the way my tale went?

As the Valentine’s Day rush of roses and desperate paramours is upon me, I find myself absent from the screen for a few days. So here’s a tale I penned a year ago.

Apologies to all who comment in the meantime – I shall reply once the madness is over.

 

The Daily Prompt:Melody:The polite men

Van on the horizon

Image: Pixabay

 

‘Can’t you hear it too?’ she says.

Her face is so pained, lines of worry scoring her forehead, deepening her wrinkles, that I’m tempted to lie for her sake.

Tempted to take her hand –  shrivelled, soft skin and long yellowed nails, a mole’s paw of a hand – and smile and laugh and say Fooled you. Of course I can hear it. 

But even though I open my mouth the words won’t come. Terror seals my throat shut, as if it’s plugged with cooling candle wax.

Because there is only ever one outcome for those who hear the Melody.

One day when you’re at work or walking the dog or eating fish and chips in front of the fire, a black van filled with polite men in dark suits will pull up outside your house. And they will knock at your door – a light knock, meek as a spinster. And they will invite you to go with them. And they will always be polite even as you protest you can’t hear, even as you scream, even as you’re dragged away, feet kicking, heels catching on the kerb.

Even as the van door slams your protests shut.

I take her hand and say, ‘No, Grandma. I can’t hear anything.’

And in my heart I say goodbye.

 


Written for The Daily Post’s Daily Prompt MELODY. See here to join in and to read the other posts.

Writing Magazine competition win

 

Gold winners trophy

Image: Pixabay

Back in April, I entered a short story competition run by Writing Magazine. For those unfamiliar, it’s probably the biggest selling writing magazine in the UK, aimed at aspiring and professional authors.

I’ve entered a lot of their competitions over the years – I could wallpaper my spare room with the submissions they’ve rejected – and only been shortlisted twice, once for a short story and once for a novel extract.

The notification period for this one came and went and I experienced my usual emotions, telling myself it was fine not to have won – no, really, FINE – analysing why the story was bad, why my work wasn’t sodding good enough for those darn picky judges – again.

Then an email plinked into my inbox – congratulating me on my competition win.

And you know what, instead of being delighted, chuffed, bowled over my my own skill and talent – I assumed the email was fraudulent and forwarded it to a writer friend for a second opinion! 

Well, my loves, the story did win and has now been published in print and online – the link’s here for all who want a few minutes’ read. May I recommend making an event of it – perhapes fetching a nice cup of something hot and a biscuit (a Penguin for that retro feel, or perhaps a chocolate Hobnob for you dunkers)?

It feels like quite a milestone, after submitting to the magazine so often. Seeing the story there in print and reading the editor’s comments online was the most delightful thing I’ve experienced since I started writing.

And for those in the UK who want to feel the paper in your hands, do rush to your local WH Smith’s and buy a copy (October issue). Even if you don’t like my story, the rest of the mag is very good.

Happy reading all.


P.S A public thanks to Maureen (whose glorious poetry you can read here and here) and Jackie (a wonderfully talented short story writer), my writing group pals, without whose advice and feedback the story would not have won.

 

The Daily Prompt : The Last Parcel

Crumpled paper

Image: Pixabay

 

The box had been  on Mags’ sideboard for six weeks, gradually being enveloped by paperwork – Mum’s solicitor, insurance companies, utility bills. It had become part of the room, along with the sagging sofa and the coffee stain on the carpet. She almost didn’t see it any more.

The day it arrived she knew who it was from. Thick packing tape along each edge and on the corners, name and address written in neat block capitals in black marker.

Mum.

How had a woman who’d been strapped to monitors, pricked with needles, attached to various bags for the previous three months, managed to pack a parcel? The postman arrived as Mags was rushing – one shoe on, slice of toast clenched between her teeth – to see the consultant. After the meeting she’d got home, poured a large glass of red wine. Stared at the parcel until it turned blurry with tears.

In the following weeks she couldn’t clear enough space in her head to open the parcel. The more she thought about it, the more important the act felt. It was a bundle of lasts – Mum’s last letter to her, last parcel, last act that seemed like normal life – until it was too much. That’s when the box became part of the room.

Now the funeral was paid for, legal wheels set in motion.

It was time.

Mags cleared the dinning room table as the coffee brewed, excavated the box from its paper cocoon. It lay naked, exposed and she watched it for a while, its last moments of wholeness. With a small knife she fell to slicing the tape, careful not to push the blade too deeply in case she damaged the contents.

She opened the flap and jolted to a halt as a flood of scent hit her, the one she’d given Mum every Christmas for over twenty years. Heavy and floral – a perfume for romantic novelists – it never suited her, but Mum was always stubborn and had refused to even try anything else.

Mags let the pain ease, waited for the clawing horror that had first gripped her in the hospital pass – that knowledge that Mum was gone forever.

Hand shaking, she pushed back one flap, allowed her nerves to settle before pushing back the other.

Gently, she pulled aside a mash of second hand bubble wrap, bunched newspaper, a crumpled shopping list – tea bags, sliced loaf, dusters – to reveal a familiar face. Her Panda – threadbare, nose pressed flat from hugs. An ache pulsed in her throat as she lifted him from his nest. A flash of red caught her eye – a ribbon, shining like a new painted letter box. She remembered the colour, knew it had tied up her hair but the details of when and where were lost. The rest of the box was filled with drawings, school reports, photographs of them at the seaside, them on a steam train, them sitting on a picnic blanket eating Scotch eggs and sardine sandwiches.

Finally, Mags opened a single piece of notepaper, Mum’s writing still elegant even so close to the end.

My darling girl. Take things slowly

And her voice was in Mags’ head,  by turns joking, cheeky, stern. And after she finished reading Mags smiled and read the note again.

 


Written for The Daily Post’s Daily Prompt – SLOWLY. See here to read other contributions and to come along for the ride.

 

 

The Daily Post : Darkness my ally

Alleyway at night

Image: Pixabay

Master Scance reached for Thom’s hand for support, nails thick and ridged as sandy oyster shells.

Thom had been his apprentice for six months now, but still those nails repulsed him – the jagged rims, the beds blackened by constant use of the pipe. The old man’s hands were thin, the skin dry and papery. But those nails … Thom wondered what they could cut. And what they couldn’t.

‘Are you listening.’ The Master tugged Thom close, pressed flaking lips to his ear. ‘Repeat the First Lesson.’

Thom swallowed. ‘Darkness is my ally.’

‘And the Second?’

Thom could smell the old man’s tobacco – sweet cherry and tar and burning thatch. ‘Darkness is a weapon.’

‘Good. The Third.’

‘Use my enemy’s strength against him.’

Anyone passing would have heard a gasp, a ripping sound like nails through paper, a rustle of fabric and the soft thud of old bones hitting cobbles.

‘Lesson learned,’ whispered Thom.

 


 

Written for The Daily Post’s Daily Prompt : Darkness. Good fun, just pop along here and take a look.

 

W4W: What insane kings, painters and fictional detectives can teach us

Black and white photograph of an old man

Image: Pixabay

 

Our son is away in Spain at the moment – no doubt desperately trying to forget he has parents – so on Sunday, husband and I decided to stop obsessively checking our phones to see if he’d texted* and find a way of entertaining ourselves. Through this experiment in distraction, I stumbled upon the ideal way of contemplating my own

MORTALITY.

This is how.

In the morning, we mauled our way up Park Street (not – as a passing drunk wearing a beanie hat and carrying a stuffed monkey once told me –the  UK’s steepest shopping street, though it does a pretty good impression) to see the National Gallery touring exhibit Self-Portrait at the age of 63 by Rembrandt (below).

 

 

It’s a painting I’d seen in reproduction may times, but never as it where in the oily flesh. It’s stunning. From the reddened, bloated nose to the Bassett hound wrinkles around the eyes and the tufts of springy hair like fluffy headphones, Rembrandt looks like the kind of older man who’s seen a lot, done a lot, loved a lot, regrets some, but definitely not all. He looks like he has some great stories to tell and will relate every single one over many pints of beer – as long as you’re paying.

After breathing in the seventeenth-century,  we rolled back down the hill to the 250-year-old Theatre Royal to see one of the country’s finest stage actors ‒ Timothy West ‒  tackle King Lear. (See here for a pretty fair review).

The role of Lear’s one of those that makes actors wish decades of their lives away, as they get to play adoring, irrational, raging, grieving, playful, barking mad – and finally dead – in the space of an afternoon. I rarely find Shakespeare moving – perhaps the language takes it too far away from our own time to make a strong connection – but the late scenes between blind Gloucester (played by David Hargreaves) and his believed-to-be-lost- but-actually-just-naked-and-pretending-to-be-the-crazy-beggar-Poor-Tom son Edgar, genuinely brought a lump to the throat.

Three hours and a stage full of death later, we staggered home to eat chilli, stoke up Amazon Prime and watch another English knight – Sir Ian McKellen – as the  great detective, Mr Holmes. Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, this Sherlock is reduced to living in the countryside, away from the intrigue and peasoupers of London. He’s reduced in his faculties too, as the once sharpest mind in Britain has its deductive powers near destroyed by dementia. He has to write people’s names on his sleeve to remember them. Details of old cases float through his consciousness, dashing away before he can catch them. He’s still brusque, still superior, but McKellen gives him a fragile dignity as his mind crumbles that makes his portrayal the most sympathetic Holmes yet.

So, after a day stuffed with old men, what commonalities did I dwell on as I hugged my cocoa to me and sleep’s sticky fingers tugged my eyelids?

Well, that these depictions reminded me how mortal we all are, of course. That even the greatest of us – genius artists, kings, great minds – all face death the same. Also that there are many different ways to age: you could make the worst decision, with terrifying consequences for yourself and your loved ones as Lear does; or feel you have one more thing to prove, one more puzzle to solve, as Holmes does; or be alone, resigned, a little sad, as Rembrandt seems in one of the last portraits he painted before he died.

But one thing these old chaps (Rembrandt, West, Hargreaves, McKellen and Holmes) all have in common is showing that something wonderful, something great and beautiful – something near perfection – can be achieved no matter how many more years you have behind you than before.

Not a bad lesson to learn.


Written for dear Kat’s W4W.

*If you’re wondering, the answer was yes during his journey through France, but no from the moment the glorious Mediterranean sun hit his face. Rotten little swine.

 

Moral Mondays: A Freedom State of Mind

Swallow diving

Image : Pixabay

 

The building had large plate windows on all sides with views onto the surrounding fields: yellowing knee high grass interlaced with poppies red as a fresh scald. A flash of black and white cut the yellow – a swallow skimming up gnats in its scalpel sharp beak.

‘What’s to stop me running?’ asked Nick.

The guard threw a rock that arced so high it vanished in the glare of the sun. ‘You can run,’ he said.

A bang. A shower of earth. A flutter of black and white feathers.

‘But remember freedom is a state of mind, son.’

 


 

Written for Nortina’s Moral Mondays. See the moral – this week being Freedom is a state of mind and write 100 words or fewer to go along with it. See here for full Ts and Cs, people. 

 

moral_mondays_logo

FFftPP: Scorched carpet and ash filled shoes

 

Shoes

https://pixabay.com/en/light-paint-leather-boot-boot-shoe-316067/


 

‘There’re his shoes. Where’s Simmonds?’ Constable Grant points at the lace-ups with his Biro.

The end’s chewed, suggesting he needs something to do with his mouth while he’s thinking. Never a good sign.

‘If you have more searing insights, be sure to tell me,’ says Butler.

Butler passes from the bedroom (scorched carpet, floorboards untouched; ash filled shoes) and into the kitchen. A sink of dirty crockery – a lot for one person – and an odour only a single man would live with: feet, stale cigarettes, badly aired clothes. It’s a smell Butler knows from his own flat.

‘Grant,’ he calls. ‘Check out the bathroom.’

‘Sure, guv.’

Was he as clueless when he started? Too many TV coppers, that’s the problem. Too many Morses, too many Frosts.

‘Guv.’

There are more scorch marks along the kitchen counter and one on the wall above the hob, as if a flaming tennis ball as bounced along the surface …

‘Inspector.’

‘What?’ he snaps. He needs the forensics. That’ll kick start his brain. And a double espresso.

‘Inspector Butler, you need to see this.’

Fear in Grant’s voice.

‘Alright, son, what marvels do you want to share with me?’

Butler walks into the bathroom. The smell of drains, of burnt flesh – sulphur. ‘Christ,’ he says, staring at the walls.

 


 

Written for Roger Shipp’s Flash Fiction for the Pureposeful Practioner. See the photo, use the sentence – this week it’s There’s his shoes. So where is …” – and scribble away. See here for full Ts and then some Cs.