The dry river bed shimmered, glassy with sun haze. A few cattle – bony as xylophones – followed tribesmen, nudging at rocks, chewing tufts of crisp grass.
The distant outcrops were scorched barren, a thicket of acacias turned khaki by weeks of drought.
He tugged his scarf over his nose to fend off a sand squall. So different from home. And yet….
Through squinted eyes, the dry riverbed became the River Affric, the cattle shaggy Highland cows, bellowing across the Glen. The outcrops were the mountains of Kintail or Mam Sodhail, the only Munro he was ever likely to climb.
In the sting of sand he felt pricks of snow, on the wind he smelt the heather, the tang of loch water.
He’d never imagined he would yearn to feel cold again, to chip at ice with the heel of his boot.
Sighing, he walked on. Towards the acacias and a hope of home.
Tasha had taken the cold journey from home in her stride. She examined every passersby closely: the women with their head scarves in shades of mud; the men’s faces hidden by Party caps, their hunched, overcoated shoulders.
She watched the trams and buses jostle through the city, along Gorky Street. The child hardly spoke, her expression curious but calm – she hadn’t reached for her grandmother’s hand once, not even when a milkman’s horse reared as they crossed the road.
‘This way, Tasha.’
The girl followed Ludmilla obediently, wide, dark eyes everywhere as they entered the metro station. The vaulted roof was golden and blood red with Soviet stars, chandeliers and mosaic tiles blinding in electric candlelight.
Ludmilla caught a glimpse of Tasha’s reflection as they rode the escalator to the next platform. That river of brunette hair, the narrow, pale face – she could almost be her Kaya at that age.
The golden station glittered and dissolved. She turned away, not wanting her tears to be seen. Her poor, betrayed Kaya.
A small hand slid into Ludmilla’s and she shivered. ‘Aren’t you looking forward to me getting my special prize, Babushka?’
‘Of course,’ said Ludmilla, trying to smile.
Tasha held her hand for the rest of their journey and it took all Ludmilla’s strength not to scream.
During the Soviet period, children were actively encouraged to inform on adults, even if they were relatives – even if they were their parents. See the story of Pavlik Morozov. Though the truth of the Pavlik legend is contested, the fact he was hailed as a hero by the Soviet state is not.
Madge slipped into her boots and headed for the garden. The boots slipped back and forth on her feet, still heavy with mud from the previous day.
She’d always enjoyed this time of year. The spring pruning, the pot scrubbing, righting the gnomes upended by winter storms. There was an excitement to it, an anticipation of summer in the scent of compost and the rows of brightly coloured seed packets.
She hadn’t sown any seeds this spring. She wouldn’t see the cherry blossom break pink against a blue May sky. She wouldn’t sink her teeth into an apple fresh from her own tree. Those thoughts gave her a pang – who wouldn’t want just one more summer?
But the garden would grow lush without her, the bees would still come and visit the trees and plants she’d tended.
Solomon crouched to the last snare. This was often the best place – dense shrubs in the lea of a tumbledown wall, the sound of waves crackling over the shingle beach below.
The blackbird eyed him. It lay on its side as if tipped by the wind, exhausted from fighting the snare. A young cock, strong, clean feathers. The scales on its left leg were torn away, bloodied, the foot nearly off where the wire had pulled tight.
The sun was almost up, the world all greys, the blackbird a scrap of night with a golden beak.
Solomon enclosed it in his hand, rubbing the soft head with his thumb. The bird was too tired to fight, breaths coming fast and shallow.
I’m away from my laptop this week so thought I’d share this, a story that won first place in a competition a few years ago. It’s a longer read than normal but worth it, I hope. As it was part of a Bronte anniversary comp. can any of you guess which of the sisters’ novels inspired it? Answers in the comments, please.
‘Got the look of an old lag about her,’ said Grandad, fingertip tapping the rain speckled pane.
‘Like you’d know,’ said Mum. ‘Come on, you’ve sagged again.’ She slipped her arms under his, yanking him up in his chair, plumping his jumper like she was arranging a cushion.
‘Leave me alone,’ he grumbled, swatting at her. ‘I’ve met crooks enough to know one. Come here, our John. Have a look.’ He tugged me close, pointing towards the street below.
From our sixth floor window, I could see the roof of The George Inn where Mum worked on weeknights and next to it the playground, with its crisscross paths and the frame with the missing swings.
‘What?’ I said, not sure what I was looking at.
Then I saw her, hunched against the wind, hair the colour of Tizer whipping from a squashy knitted hat. She pushed a tartan shopping trolley that flapped with empty carrier bags.
‘She’s wearing slippers,’ I said.
‘You see,’ said Grandad. ‘Probably pinched’em from Terry at the market.’
Mum had put on a rain hat and her coat, transforming the hat’s slithering ties into a bow with a twist of her fingers. ‘Her name’s Gracie, she comes in the pub. Downs three milk stouts every night then rolls home.’
Mum headed for the door. ‘The only criminal thing about her is the quarter of gin she hides in her trolley to sneak in her stout. Now Dad, stop talking codswallop. John, off to bed – and mind you brush your teeth.’
The next time I saw Gracie, I was sitting on a bench in the playground with Ed and Dougie from the flats. Ed had a bottle of Cream Soda and I’d brought two Penguin biscuits from home to share. Dougie didn’t bring anything – the cupboards in his place were always empty.
I was licking the last squishy chocolate from a Penguin wrapper, when Dougie said, ‘Seen her?’ Gracie was crossing the park with her trolley. ‘Nutter,’ he said and returned to peeling the label off the bottle.
‘Don’t do that,’ said Ed. ‘I want the money back on it.’ He nodded towards Gracie. ‘Mum says we should keep away from that old cow. Says noises come out of her flat at night.’
‘What kind of noises?’ I said.
Ed shrugged. ‘Weird ones. Mum says the old woman’s neighbour Mr Brocklehurst has complained to the council but they don’t give a monkey’s so long as the rent’s paid.’
‘Her trolley rattles like it’s full of empties,’ said Dougie. ‘And she smells like the drain outside the pub.’
‘Wonder what the noises are,’ I said.
Dougie snatched up the Cream Soda bottle and threw it hard. It fell just short of Gracie’s slippers, shattering into a million shards that skittered over the tarmac.
‘Bloody idiot,’ said Ed, punching Dougie hard on the leg. ‘You owe me the money on that.’
Gracie didn’t even pause, but trudged on towards The George.
We were walking back from school the next day when Ed raised the subject of Gracie again.
‘I went up to listen at the old bag’s flat last night.’
‘Cos Mr Brocklehurst is above us and he was moaning and pacing and banging his stick on her wall – noisy pig. So I waited till my dad was watching the news and slipped out. Wanted to hear for myself.’
‘And?’ I said.
His pace slowed to a crawl. ‘Voices. Hers – and others too. Women mainly, but a man an’all – he was shouting. And there was a scraping noise – like chairs dragging across a floor.’
My pulse thudded in my throat. ‘My mum says she lives on her own.’
He nodded, eyes on the ground. ‘And she’s got no telly.’ We walked on in silence, sucking our liquorice sticks until they went soft.
As the shadow of the flats fell over us, Ed said, ‘I’m going back tonight. Coming?’
I stopped. ‘What?’
‘Don’t you want to know what the noises are?’
I was curious, but I hated walking round the flats in the dark. There were too many shadows.
‘Well, I’m going tonight. Coward.’ Ed banged through the double doors.
I paused just a second. ‘Ed! Wait up,’ I shouted.
Mum was working at the pub that night and I knew Grandad would be asleep in his armchair by half nine, so I found the torch, put it in my coat pocket and sneaked both into my bedroom. Grandad was snoring by quarter past nine and he didn’t stir as the front door clicked shut behind me.
The light was out on our landing and the weak glow from the torch only lit a small puddle at my feet. Cigarette packets, stubs, a baby’s dummy, all slid in and out of the puddle as I walked.
My heart beat in my ears, the torchlight quivered.
Ed stood in the shadow of a flight of stairs, coat over his pyjamas. A second figure stood beside him.
‘Alright, John.’ It was Dougie.
A click and another beam of light shone out, wavering upwards to settle on Ed’s face. ‘I told him what we were doing and he just turned up.’
‘Let’s go sort this old bird out then,’ said Dougie, heading for the lift.
I gave Ed a look but he just shrugged. ‘Yeah, I know. But what could I do?’
All I could think of was spikes of a shattered Cream Soda bottle.
‘Stinks of pee in here,’ said Dougie as the lift groaned and rattled.
A few seconds passed, there was a ping and the doors juddered open.
‘This way,’ said Ed, shining his torch along a row of blank doors.
At each flat I heard a muffled telly and dull voices. I was sure at any second someone would tell us off and send us home. But the wind tumbled empty crisp packets and whistled along the balconies – and no one came. At the end of the row, Ed stopped.
Shining his torch on a peeling door, he whispered, ‘Mr Brocklehurst’s.’ Then, the light slid sideways and we were there.
We listened, breathless.
A thump – loud and solid, like a body hitting the floor – followed by voices. A woman was singing – a tune that pulled at my insides. A man’s voice barked orders – the thwack of a stick. And weeping, the quiet kind of crying someone does when they don’t want other people to hear but can’t keep the tears in. Sadness filled me up, sitting behind my eyes till I felt like it would spill over.
‘What do you think?’ It was Ed, face pale, eyes big as golf balls.
For a second, I had been in the flat with the women, waiting for the stern man with the stick. ‘Is it the same as before?’ I whispered.
I tried to keep my fear pressed down, reminded myself we weren’t babies, that there would be good reason for the noises. But all I could think was one thing.
‘Ghosts?’ I whispered.
A fresh noise – the screech of unoiled metal, so sharp it pricked my eardrums like a needle. My heart beat against my ribs. I ached for the loo, for my bed and realised we hadn’t decided what we’d do when we reached Gracie’s door.
‘It’s open.’ Dougie stepped inside. Ed snatched at his sleeve, but grabbed only air.
‘What shall we do?’ said Ed. In the torchlight, he looked smaller than he did in the day.
There was nothing for it. I took a step, another and I was in.
Soon Ed followed on behind me, our torch beams overlapping, brightening the darkness so it was just light enough to see without bumping into things.
‘Don’t like the smell,’ said Ed.
It was like burning and wee that hadn’t been cleaned away.
‘Dougie!’ I called, but quietly, hoping I was loud enough for Dougie to hear and quiet enough for Gracie not to.
Thwack! The sound of a stick against railings. The pitter-pat of tiny paws.
‘Hell.’ Scampering from the torchlight, over a heap of rags and old newspapers, went one small tan body then another. ‘Mice,’ I breathed.
Crying again, from our right. I felt Ed’s arm brush mine and realised we’d huddled so close we almost tripped over each other as we walked, though neither of us pulled away. We followed the noise along the hall, towards a doorway glowing with dull orange light. The burnt smell grew stronger, catching at my throat.
‘Dougie?’ My heart tripped fast.
We turned into the room, into the sound of crying, the squeal of metal hurting my head. I stopped, unable to think what was happening.
The air was filled with smoke that stung my eyes and there was an armchair with a body slumped in it, another kneeling on the floor and the noise was so loud and the kneeling figure was Dougie and he looked up at us, his face shining and wet.
‘I think she’s dead,’ he said.
Someone had put blankets around our shoulders. Someone else had made us tea.
‘Don’t like tea,’ said Dougie and an ambulance man cuffed him round the head.
I heard the clack of Mum’s heels before I saw her. She stood apart, rain hat in her hand, nodding as a man in a uniform talked.
‘… old asylum nurse … lived onsite there for thirty years – turned her a bit odd I reckon. Didn’t like the quiet when she retired, so one of the staff made a recording – crying, the wardens, squeaking hinges – to help her sleep. Nowt so queer as folk, eh?’
Mum arms were crossed, face stern as the Queen’s on a stamp.
‘What were you thinking?’ she said.
I shrugged, too tired to explain and not sure I could. ‘Is she okay?’
Mum sighed. ‘She will be. Dropped a fag on the carpet – could’ve burned the whole of Thornfield House down. Come on. Let’s get you home.’
Ed raised a hand as I passed, Dougie too, his face smeared with drying tears and dirt. Both of them looked worried, as if they could still hear the women crying.
The path was still there but narrowed in places where trees had encroached, wider where some had been felled.
The fence was new to me – a relatively recent addition. So like my father to erect a fence around his wife’s grave, possessive of her even in death.
I think that was what made me most angry, the fact that even now he’d pegged her in, limited her to a little patch of scrubby earth under the yews. When I was growing up, he’d contained her with a scowl at her evening classes, a tut at outings with friends, until the time away from him dwindled just as she did. Now all he had to use was cheap cedar panels.
Crispina Kemp has many talents. As well as an accomplished writer, prehistorian and photographer, she can now add self-published author to her resume, having just made her five book fantasy series – The Spinner’s Game – available for pre-order on Kindle.
Today, in the first in a series of posts, she tells of the series’ journey from initial draft to it’s published form.
To whet your appetite, I’ve included a summary of the first book, The Spinner’s Child.
Kerrid, a fraudulent seer born of a fisher-hunter clan, holds two beliefs. That in her psychic abilities and exuded light she is unique, and as Voice of the Lady she’s exempt from an arranged marriage. Both convictions are shattered when nine boats arrive from the east carrying the ancient Chief Uissinir who wants her for his wife, and five of his sons who emit similar lights and share tricks like her own. Forced to make an unwise judgement, a trail of death follows.
Questions plague her. Why does she dream of babies dying? Why does a voice in her head taunt her: Suffer the loss, suffer the pain? And what is she that no matter how lethal the wound, she does not die?
From First Draft to Amazon Kindle: How did I do it?
My first answer is… not quickly. But then, what began as the first draft of In the Beginning with 150,000 words ended as the five books of The Spinner’s Game with 550,000 words. But how was it done?
Determination and persistence, self-discipline and self-belief… bolstered by the invaluable support of fellow-bloggers, particularly those who, over the past seven years have become my firm friends.
The most significant move was on 25th November 2017 when I announced my intention to publish Feast Fables (the evolved and swollen form of In the Beginning) as an e-book (See post). In the same way, participants of NaNoWriMo, in stating their plans to their cabin-mates, are more inclined to strive. I now had gone public; I had to keep to my word. Thus, began the monthly updates.
From In the Beginning to the Feast Fables trilogy to The Spinner’s Game’s Five Books
For three years, starting December 2012, I posted weekly instalments of the Feast Fables trilogy on my Feast Fables site. Meanwhile, reading Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal, and John Yorke’s Into the Woods (A Five Act Journey into Story) had called into question my use of the three-act structure. When I applied the five-act structure to (what was still called) Feast Fables, lo! It all fell into place.
Although internally everything else hit the mark, the restructure, from three- to five-acts, required me to look again at the opening chapters and the endings. Once happy with that, the five books went out for critique and to my fantastic team of beta-readers.
What’s in a Name?
In the Beginning had morphed to Feast Fables, and in the restructuring process Feast Fables became Asaric Tales (because protagonist Kerrid and her companions call themselves Asars, from asa, to burn). Now Asaric Tales became The Spinner’s Game, a name suggested by my critique-partner Lauren and two of my betas. It fits. It’s right. And it opens up the potential for many a play on words. Love it!
The Vital Role of the Critique-partner and Beta-readers
Writers when writing, have their focus on the story, and the crafting of it. Their attention is far less on the reader – except to ask does each chapter and scene begin with a hook, does each end with a tension unresolved? To put the book out to beta-readers can deliver a bit of a shock: how others see your precious baby!
In my case, I soon learned that I’d taken the oft-given advice to “start late and end early” to the extreme. Many of the rewrites were because of this. And with each additional rewrite, the wordcount swelled.
Then there were the several occasions when I thought I had clarified a situation, a decision, a character’s action. But apparently not. More words, more rewrites. As I remember, only once was I told a scene was exposition-heavy.
Yes, betas and critiquers are crucial in helping to perfect the told story.
And the rest of the story, as they say, is history; every step of the way recorded on my monthly updates.
The Spinner Enters Amazon’s Web
The process wasn’t glitch-free. It took two days – full days – to upload the five e-books and five paperbacks with their covers, and to check them, and amend and upload again. And then to wait for the books to go live.
The e-books – The Spinner’s Child, Lake of Dreams, The Pole That Threads, Lady of First Making, and The Spinner’s Sin – are available on Pre-Order. But Pre-Order isn’t available on paperbacks; those become available shortly after the publication date of Saturday 21st March. The easiest way to access is through my Author’s Page on Amazon.com. From there, a click on a book will take you to whatever your usual version of Amazon. Alternatively, crispinakemp.com/books has all the book descriptions and the Amazon links.
As a gift for those who Pre-Order, I’m offering a full-sized, full-colour map of Lake of Skulls (see image below). Just send me proof of pre-order (a screenshot would be ideal) via my Contact Me page and a copy will wing its way to you.
I’m on the roof, the constellation of street lights and advertising signs gradually losing its brilliance to the sunrise. The sky is every shade of bruise, the volume turning up on the traffic, down on birdsong.
“What do you say?”
He’s been silent so long, I almost forgot he’s sitting beside me. But he’s always known when to whisper, when to roar.
My throat is dry and I wonder if we’ve been here mere hours or whether he made the world turn slower, just for me.
“All of it?” I say.
I can smell him, the sun and the city heat peeling scent from his body, sending it into the world.
“All of it,” he says.
I reach for what I’m about to give up, but feel nothing. Who knows what it is to have a soul until it’s lost.
With my last breath I say, “I’ll take it.”
Written for What Pegman Saw, the prompt that uses Google Street View as its starting point. This week we’re in Xinhua, China. See here to join in.
Dates were important, number sequences – on hoardings, in newspapers, on television – their sum, whether they were prime or perfect.
Natural phenomenon were noted, too. Snow that fell earlier than usual. The late migration of geese.
He’d collate the information he gathered, created charts of beautiful complexity with the findings, their arcs and swirls beyond my understanding, the notation written in an alphabet of his own invention
Those charts are all that remain of him now. Wonderfully unfathomable just as he was, they hang on my walls, the secret code to an alien universe.
Written for Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s Friday Fictioneers. See the picture and scribble a little tale to share with the group. See here to join in.