Shadowmaker – the beginning

Teenage girl tattoos

Image : Pixabay

Here, just for fun, is the opening of my YA novel Shadowmaker, a time travel yarn that’s been sitting on my hard drive for a while now. It’s had a little notice – a shortlsting in a magazine competition and it made it to second reads in a Hodderscape open house – but no takers as yet. As I’m considering putting it back out there, any creative criticism – especially from you YA readers and writers – would be gratefully received.


 

The Gift

Edie looked around the kitchen, at food-splashed walls the colour of cowpats and woodlice moored to the floor by lakes of cooking oil. Shouldn’t August sunshine make a place look less like a squat?

‘It’s disgusting.’ She was tired of  carrying boxes and being sticky with dirt. And although they still hadn’t unpacked yet, she was already tired of living in a basement.

‘It’s fine,’ Mum said, dragging the bucket closer to her. ‘Just needs a bit of love. More importantly, it’s cheap. My new job doesn’t pay enough to be fussy.’

Edie groaned. ‘It doesn’t need love, it needs a blowtorch. The carpet looks like a defrosting woolly mammoth.’

Mum giggled. ‘Funny.’

Edie wasn’t trying to be funny. She’d left her friends and her home behind for a flat that smelt like a fish and chip shop run by rats. The thought made her want to punch the wall.

Mum hadn’t listened when Edie begged to stay in Manchester. So one Saturday, after an hour of swearing and door slamming, Edie stormed from the house to the nearest salon, where she’d had every inch of her shoulder-length copper hair shaved from her head. Mum hadn’t said a word when Edie returned home, but her eyes had spoken for her. She’d loved Edie’s hair – and Edie had been sure to keep it cropped ever since.

‘Make yourself useful,’ said Mum, emerging from the cupboard to flick her with a rubber glove the colour of phlegm. ‘Could you fetch me some fresh water, please?’

Edie twitched her arm away. ‘Well, that’s assault, for a start.’

Mum fixed her with cool green eyes and her ‘you’re pushing your luck’ face. ‘How about you mope less and help more. And after you’ve fetched the water, can you nip upstairs and ask Flora for the back door key.’

Edie sagged. ‘Can’t you go? The house stinks of poodles and pee.’

‘Don’t be mean, love. She’s an old lady living alone. She’d appreciate the company.’

‘She’d have more company if she didn’t smell of poodles and pee.’

‘Edie!’

‘All right, for goodness sake!’

      ***

If only she had a Taser.

As her finger touched the bell, there was an explosion of yapping from the other side of the door. Before today, Great Aunt Flora had just been spidery writing in birthday cards and a five pound note every Christmas.  Now they were living in her basement. Would Edie have to call her Aunty? Well, she could get stuffed. Mum and her Nan had been her only relatives for sixteen years. Now Nan had died, she didn’t want or need a replacement.

‘Bluey!’ Flora’s voice was the same pitch as the dogs’ yapping and was so loud, she could’ve been standing on the step beside Edie. ‘Leave Poppet alone or it’s the naughty step for you. Sammy, move your bum. Budge, you lot. Mummy’s got to open the door. Where’s that key?’

A couple of minutes and a torrent of swearing later and the key was found, two chains swung free and four bolts were loose. Despite the hot sun on the back of her neck, Edie thought of crypts as the door creaked open and through a narrow crack, she glimpsed a walnut face and two raisin eyes.

‘Hi, Flora. Mum asked me…’

‘Quick.’

She gripped Edie’s arm, pulling her inside as the front door slammed shut. Edie blinked in the gloomy hallway. There was a smell like public lavatories and soft, snuffling noises coming from somewhere by her ankles. She jumped as something rough and wet brushed the back of her hand.

‘They’re just curious, lovey.’ Flora’s voice receded along the hall. ‘Sorry if I was a bit rough, but Bluey’s a little sod. Nearly escaped yesterday when the postman delivered the nightie I’d ordered. A cracker it is, all pink and flowery. You can’t hardly see the bra cups for lace.’

Edie tried not to imagine Flora wearing a nightie, but failed.

‘Little bugger’s got an adventurous soul, see,’ said Flora.

‘Is that the dog or  the postman?’

Silhouetted against a rectangle of light from the kitchen doorway, Flora tossed a sluggish miniature poodle  to one side with a flick of her slipper. The dog shivered from nose to rump then trotted towards Edie, joining a circle of eager, weepy-eyed faces.

‘Don’t let’em bother you,’ called Flora. ‘Suckers for tickles, that’s all. Come to the kitchen. Got some squash somewhere .’

As her eyes grew accustomed to the light, Edie glimpsed walls crowded with photographs and portraits, surrounded by chocolate brown wallpaper and pale green paintwork – it was like an art gallery inside a mint Aero. Keen to escape all the eyes, she headed for the kitchen, dogs parting before her. She was pretty sure a grave would feel less claustrophobic.

The kitchen resembled a junk shop,  cluttered with stacks of yellowing newspapers, food packets, tins and dismantled electrical appliances. Edie picked up something that looked like a food mixer with a propeller on the top.

Flora blushed. ‘Great fun taking ‘em apart, bloody nightmare putting ‘em back together again. Now where’s that squash? Ah, pantry.’ Flora ducked through a bead curtain with a clatter of plastic.

Edie was reluctant to trust even mucky jeans to Flora’s chairs, which had the same greasy sheen as the basement’s kitchen counters. There were more photos hung by the cooker, so for lack of anything else to do, she wandered over, careful to avoid an Everest of mouldy tea bags heaped by the gas ring. The first picture she looked at was of a young woman in a long dress, hair scraped back from her face. Behind the woman hung a painted backdrop of broken stone columns and tumbling roses. On the cardboard mount in gold lettering, an inscription read Albert Dee esq 1881.

‘There you go. Found ‘e under a load of old fairy lights.’ Flora reappeared from the pantry draped in cobwebs, a sprinkling of dust in her hair. ‘Why’s it what you want’s always at the back?’ She brandished a mug filled with something luminous.

The liquid had a chemical smell, a mixture of fruit and plastic chairs. Edie forced a smile, carefully resting the mug on the draining board.

‘You found my pics, then,’ said Flora. ‘Gorgeous, wasn’t I?’

Edie looked between the graceful figure in the photograph and the gnome-woman beside her. ‘That’s you?’ The words were out of her mouth before she could think of something polite to say.

Flora just smiled. ‘Oh, yeah. ‘Bout 21 there.’ She pointed to the next picture along, which had crinkled from the heat of the oven. ‘Bit younger there. Too skinny, but that was mostly corset. Good one of the ghost, though.’

‘Ghost?’ Edie had seen the smudge of grey but assumed it was dirt. Now, as she peered closer, the mark resolved into a translucent figure, dark blotches marking the eyes and mouth.

‘I was so young when I met Albert,’ sighed Flora. ‘He was a snapper in town and I was a girl who saw dead folk. Being a medium was fashionable then, see.’ She traced the name with her fingertip. ‘So handsome ‒ moustache like a floor brush. All fake, o’ course.’

‘The moustache?’ Conversations with Flora mangled her brain.

Flora laughed, showing a mouthful of unnaturally white teeth. ‘Not the ‘tache, Muppet. The pics. You can’t photograph real ghosts.’ She dabbed at her nose with her cardigan sleeve. ‘Now, what do you want?’ Flora was soon scuffing back to the pantry.

Edie looked up at the gold lettering: 1881

 

Books in the Blood # 10: The Diary of Anne Frank

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I remember being a very self-righteous teenager. I believed that on many subjects, and despite their obvious advantage of years and experience, my parents had no idea what they were talking about – ever.

They didn’t understand how I felt about school. They didn’t get my lack of motivation, or why I became disruptive, abusive to teachers and somnolent in class after being such a hard worker until the start of my O Levels. (For those of you too young to know, that’s what GCSEs were called before they passed through the fiery furnace of Educational Restructuring and were reincarnated into their present, much-maligned form.)

To be fair, I don’t think I really understood why I became such a revolting specimen of smoking, drinking, lazy insolence either. I’d like to say I’d entered the chrysalis of my teen years and would emerge transformed into a colourful adult butterfly. But I’ve never felt like a beautiful butterfly, so that’s codswallop. I’ve occasionally felt like a caterpillar, and on really bad days a slug – but never a butterfly. Oh, and I was once convinced I was made of glass  – but that’s a story for another day.

My parents didn’t understand my relationships either. I had a best friend – a local beauty queen no less – who was the epitome of self-confidence, tall with a waist small enough to meet your fingers around, while I was shorter and wider and preferred to grovel in her shadow whilst simultaneously harbouring a slight resentment for all the attention she absorbed. She was smiley and ballsy and she used her assets to full advantage and my mum didn’t understand why I was happier to grow – mushroom-like – in her peaty shade.

But on a certain level, my friend ‘got me’ – she understood my moods and my sense of humour and my loves and loathings and being understood when you feel like an alien changeling in vaguely human form is not to be underestimated.

When my parents gave me advice, I’d shrug it off and make my own mistakes anyway. Maybe with hindsight they were right, but hindsight has been a long time coming – thirty years or so – so a little too late to be of any practical use.

My stepmother once told me

‘Youth is wasted on the young.’

She may have been right, but

‘glib clichés are also wasted on the young’,

so my only response was over-dramatic eye rolling. Although, inadvertently she taught me one thing – never tell a young person how lucky they are to be their age, how they should make the most of it and enjoy their youth. Maybe they should, but telling them won’t make them climb Kilimanjaro or go and build schools in war-torn areas of the world if they’d rather be playing Halo.

I was self-obsessed as a teen, filtering the world through my own experience. The only way to judge phenomena was on how it impacted on me. ‘Why is she such a bitch when I’ve been such a good friend to her?’ ‘How could he talk to me like that? What have I done?’

I was too egotistical to realise that the world spun on its own axis, not mine.

I was lucky. I had people who loved me and I didn’t get into the kind of trouble that killed or maimed me or changed the course of my life towards some scary, dark alleyway filled with dead cats and bin bags filled with bio waste. I may not be a high flyer, but I survived.

And there was a book that punctured my self-obsession just a little.

Today’s Book in the Blood is:

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.

I’m sure many of you have read this, probably when you were a similar age to Anne. It’s the diary of a Jewish girl, kept whilst she, her family and four others were in hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam during World War II.

The main thing I remember about the book is that in many ways, its preoccupations weren’t with the war, or even being discovered. Anne’s main concerns were her relationships with her parents and her sister Margot, the practicalities and irritations of living with other people. She talked of movie stars and her own developing sexuality, of falling in love – with Peter, the son of the other family in the house – and becoming a writer.

I guess I identified with her on some level.

You know from the first page there is no happy ending, that the families will not be saved, that of the eight people in hiding in that space behind the bookcase, only one – Anne’s father Otto – will survive the concentration camps.

Anne was  a normal girl caught up and eventually destroyed by global events and because of that, this book should never be allowed to go out of print.

When we watch the news and the real life horrors unfolding across the globe, we should remember that each of those victims is an Anne, a Margot or a Peter and each had plans for the future which were denied them through other peoples’ actions.