Joseph made it a habit to check the flower bulb hidden in the inner pocket of his coat each day, even when the sea was craggy with waves, or the crew limp as windless sails in the overheated air. And every day of the eight weeks it took to reach Portsmouth, the globe remained hard as a pebble, the papery skin sweet smelling.
As his hammock swung in the humid crack of darkness below deck, he imagined the fortune he could charge the plant collectors at Kew, the dresses he would buy Mary, the house he could leave his son.
Aliena stared through the window to the street below.
‘Yes, yes, I know,’ she said, absentmindedly stroking her cat, Mika. ‘We should have left months ago.’
Pulling at the balding, leathery ears, she smiled. She’d so loved Mika that when he’d died her husband, Dimi, had the creature stuffed. How long ago? Too long to remember.
A tank rumbled past, shaking the glass. Wehrmacht. Once it had been Soviets, later the Poles. She and Dimi had watched it all from this same tiny window.
Before that, when they were a young married couple, it was the Cupid bronze in the communal garden that had drawn them to the place. ‘Keeping guard,’ Dimi had said. ‘A good omen.’ He’d smiled, kissed her.
‘Where are your omens now, old man?’ she said.
But she spoke only to the air and to a stuffed cat.
Minsk has been at the centre of various conflicts for centuries, overrun by various nations. I saw the Cupid statue, that little window overlooking it and wondered what they’d both seen over the years.
Mum decided to sort the spare room in time for New Year. There was a pile to go to charity, black bin liners filled with old clothes and what Mum deemed ‘tat’ in the centre of the room.
On a scuffed table were items she wanted me to put in the loft for her. A black and white print lay on the table, an image of a man who died before I was born. ‘What did granddad do again?’
She paused in her sorting. ‘Worked at Heathrow, ran a grocer’s. Did I tell you about the time the police came for him?’
Written for Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s Friday Fictioneers. Let the image inspire you to write a tale. See here to join in.
Reading Rochelle’s story about her grandfather led me to think about my own.
Horace Reuben Ayres was born in the East End of London within the sound of Bow Bells, making him a true Cockney. He was by all accounts a bit of a rogue.
He did run a grocer’s and work at Heathrow Airport later in life, but early on he was somehow involved in the boxing world (he was said to know the Kray twins, but everyone in the East End involved in boxing would have known them, I’m sure) and supposedly with gambling, illegal outside of racecourses in those days.
He went by a couple of different names – most people called him Len, though my mum doesn’t know why. My grandmother said he was born to a Jewish family, though if he was he was lapsed by the time Mum was born.
Despite searching, no one has ever found a birth certificate or a record of his birth, so we don’t know exactly how old he was and yes, the police did come to the house for him one day. He was in a reserved occupation during the war and left without permission which was a criminal offence. He apparently legged it out the back door while the police came in the front.
I wish I’d known him. He skirted the edges of the law but my mother adored him.
‘Lesley Howard?’ Patricia pulled on her cigarillo, puffed a cloud of blue grey smoke into the air. ‘Is that the Brief Encounter chap?’
‘No, that’s Trevor Howard. Leslie Howard was Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.’
Patricia selected a card from the hand she was playing and slapped it on the green baize table. ‘So in answer to the question, “which film actor would you want to be”, you choose the one who loses the girl.’
Bobby rubbed his stocking feet against the flank of a dozing Labrador. Firelight flickered around the living room, casting picturesque shadows over the threadbare rug, the stacks of mouldering newspapers. ‘Always seemed like a decent sort,’ he said. ‘Shot down over the Bay of Biscay, 1943.’
‘A dead war hero? So decent, so proper, such a good egg.’
He recognised the hard chink in her voice. ‘You and Scotch do not make happy companions.’
She raised a hand. ‘I’m just saying you sound very alike, you and your dead actor.’
‘Always doing the right thing. Fighting for King and country. So noble. So very, very bland.’
Bobby reached for his own glass. New Year’s Eve and she was as impossible as always. Well, this year he refused to bite. ‘Who would you be then? Greta Garbo, I suppose, wanting to be alone?’
Patricia’s teeth chinked against her glass tumbler as she threw her head back, laughing hoarsely. ‘No, not Garbo. Too sulky. Perhaps Marlene Dietrich in Morocco. Remember that scene? Her in a top hat and tails?’
‘Huh. Very, very you.’
She raised her glass. ‘I always was the butch one, dear.’ She drained the last of her Scotch, rolled the glass between the palms of her hands. ‘Ideally, I would have been Gable.’
Patricia nodded. ‘That sharp moustache, the oiled hair, stamping around the Deep South, shooting Yankees.’ Then with a watery smile, she added, ‘Not giving a damn.’
I’m currently planning a new novel and these are two of the main characters. Their spiky relationship keeps drawing me back and Patricia talks to me, even when I don’t necessarily want her to.
For reference, the novel is set in the early 1970s and they’re both in their 70s, hence the selection of old film stars.
Toward the end of this year, I had a particularly inspired time as a short story writer. This was due – in very large part – to the change of seasons.
Autumn and winter days are gloomy and brief, the nights long and forbidding as one of the original Grimm fairy tales (before they censored the really nasty bits). The weather here in the UK is by turns warm, wet and windy, and clear, still and crystal bright with frost.
While the summer inspires me to be outside, writing never feels a more attractive prospect than during the colder months, when there are no butterflies to chase and bees to bother.
And so this autumn I found myself entering several writing competitions*. Okay, it helps that Halloween brings a swollen crop of writing challenges and there’s nothing excites me more than dipping my stubby toe in the murky waters of the dark and the creepy.
The idea for one competition sprang from another favourite past time – television.
The Antiques Roadshow was on the box. For those unfamiliar with the programme, the Roadshow is a BBC staple (it first aired in 1979) which encourages people to raid their attics, empty the contents into the grounds of a stately home and stand for hours in the pouring rain/blazing sun waiting for an expert to tell them their treasure is worthless tat or – very occasionally – that it really is treasure.
The fun comes in watching the reactions of the owners as they hear the news, usually falling into two camps,
The ‘Well-I-love-it-anyway-despite-how-obviously-ugly-and-worthless-it-is’ Camp
The ‘It’ll-stay-in-the-family-despite-being-terrifically-ugly-and-worth-more-than-my-house’ Camp.
Which if you believe them means no one sells anything that’s been valued – ever.
Anyway, we were watching an episode that featured Victorian mourning jewellery made from human hair. Because the Victorians had very different views on death and thought it perfectly acceptable to pop their dead granny down to the photographic studio to have her portrait taken for the album before lopping off her hair and having it woven into a brooch, a watch chain, a ring or even a framed family tree – if there were enough dead relatives to make a tree of course.
Watching this fascinating piece, my writer’s mind wandered …
Along the back streets of Victorian Manchester, to a lace maker down on her luck who one day takes on a rather unusual commission …
Don’t let anyone tell you being away from your laptop/typewriter/notepad is a waste of writing time. Watching TV and films, reading books, going for long walks and communing with bumble bees all have their place in the writers’ life and in feeding your inspiration.
Just make sure you get your bum on a seat afterwards so you can carve a story from those sparks of creativity.
*Of the other three stories I wrote this autumn, I wasn’t placed in one and haven’t yet heard about the others. Watch this space. Or not, because, let’s face it, I’ll only write a post if I win.
That’s when he’d say anything about those days at all.
Of course, he was wrong. Because you can’t unsee what’s been seen, can’t unremember a thing that’s happened in your own street, at your own door.
Between one neighbour and the next.
You just push it down, away, paste a smile over the grieving as you paint new walls where the old ones stood, plant geraniums in the ashes and hope they’ll grow.
Forgetting’s not forgetting, it’s denial. And denial’s a cancer burrowing at your heart, forming wormy pits in your soul until one day you’re nothing but hollows.
Written for What Pegman Saw. This week we are in Tulsa. See here to join in.
This week’s an unusual one as Josh and Karen, Pegman’s founders, have asked us to write a story on a specific time and place, namely the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921.
Others – Iain, Penny, Rochelle and Josh himself – have made such a good fist of relating elements of the events, I felt anything I added would ring hollow. Instead, I chose to focus on the fact that this event seems to have been largely ‘forgotten’. Not taught in schools, not widely discussed. I considered what this ‘forgetting’ might do to some.
When I was a little girl, sand meant days at the beach building castles with a bucket and spade. Once the work was done we’d sit back and admire our hard work, eat shrimp paste sandwiches with crusted nails as the sea undermined the foundations, as the walls softened and melted into the brine.
No castles here.
The sand is too dry – it sucks the moisture from my skin, grinds at my teeth and the corners of my eyes. It’s harder too, filled with the rubble of ancient cities, fragments of musty tombs returned to the light, the secret corners of a lustrous palace laid bare.
The castles melt away and city’s fall. Only the wind remains.
Written for What Pegman Saw, the prompt that uses Google Street View as its starting point. This week we visit Old Dongola, Sudan.
Years ago I was lucky enough to visit Egypt, to the north of Sudan. Venturing into the Sahara Desert, I can vouch that the sand is pretty much as I describe here – definitely not fit for making castles.