Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Monday, 21 October 2013

Why I'm taking the Wendig challenge

For the past three years or so, I've been working with a friend on a fantasy novel. The fact that it has taken us three years and we are still nowhere near finishing it should indicate that it has not been a smooth process to say the least. Personal schedule problems and disagreements on the structure of the book have meant at least one full re-write and lengthy editing on the first draft, which is in itself a redraft of an earlier first draft (if you get what I mean).

All of which has left me with long stretches of time when nothing much seems to be happening, an inability to push forward since that would depend on my co-writer being able to do so and, nevertheless, a desire to be writing.

I've also had long periods of virtual writer's block when the interrogative process to which I subject my new ideas finds them guilty of being lame, uninspired, derivative or just plain wrong.

Recently, I've had an idea that seems to have survived the process, being based on an extrapolated version of a real incident from family history - that it is grounded in real life seems to have given it that much-needed believability that may well enable it to flourish.

So now I need to get writing. Earlier this year, I had discovered a page on the blog of Chuck Wendig which explained, in his rather fruity language [really, don't read it if you're easily offended by swear words], that I did not have to allocate hours on end to such a project but could instead write 91,000 words over a year at a rate of only 350 a day.

At my rate of 1,000 words an hour (an average, I hasten to add) that would only be about 21 minutes of my time a day, not including weekends. Something that I think I could probably realistically achieve.

So I'm starting it as of now. In September 2014, the British Fantasy Society is holding their FantasyCon in York, which is an achievable distance from my home, and gives me every opportunity to attend. I'd like to have something to show when I do.

Even if I don't get anywhere with it, at least I'm writing again, which can only be a good thing.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Haiku on Saturday #19


Shadow’s passage past
the window, marks the footsteps
of another day.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Haiku on Saturday #18


History brushes
Past them, while they are busy
Shopping, minds shut tight.


Saturday, 5 October 2013

Haiku on Saturday #17



Blinded houses, with
Their broken panes, the sad waste
In their brick faces.


Saturday, 28 September 2013

Haiku on Saturday #16


A silence, sucked dry
Of living sounds, dust-quiet,
the empty old house.


Saturday, 21 September 2013

Haiku on Saturday #15


Children’s dangling lives,
like charms on boredom’s wrist, dance
all holiday long.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Haiku on Saturday #14


Three-legged dog runs,
lollops its way home, as if 
Defying its loss.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Haiku on Saturday #13


Pulverised fragments
Of a car window, where peace
Of mind was stolen.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Haiku on Saturday #12


Drowned trolley, beck-mired,
A few yards from its fellows,
Suburban shipwreck.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Haiku on Saturday #11


Graffiti-clad fence,
Notepaper for today’s youth,
Seems tired of the words.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Haiku on Saturday #10


The past few haikus have tried to observe one of the rules of the form, namely that they should deal with some aspect of nature. However, the urban environment, with its man-made parameters, is a fruitful source of short images which, like snapshots, freeze the experience into seventeen syllables.


Worn, broken tarmac.
As nature fights back, it slips
off hard, cruel shackles.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Haiku on Saturday #9


It’s a comforting,
damp, living kind of silence
deep amidst the trees.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Haiku on Saturday #8


Tricksy season, spring
With its rainy moods and sun
Equally spread out.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Haiku on Saturday #7


Wind toys with branches.
Shrubs dance to a silent tune.
Wild spring stays awhile.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Haiku on Saturday #6


Autumn geese in grey
skies, the summer flees southward
as the days shrivel.

Friday, 19 July 2013

If you're any kind of reader, check this out...


Now this is a very useful (and addictive) website. Seriously, if you thought TV Tropes was a timesink...





Saturday, 13 July 2013

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Haiku on Saturday #4


Snowflakes on the wind.
The lake is slowly freezing.
Windows mist at dusk.


Saturday, 29 June 2013

Haiku on Saturday #3


Crow follows the plough.
Hungry crow, wolf of the fields;
Torn scrap of blackness.


Thursday, 27 June 2013

All at once or a bit at a time?

Here's a quick question. If you're reading a book and absolutely loving it, do you gobble it up as quickly as you can because you just can't stop yourself or do you ration yourself to a certain number of chapters at a time to make the pleasure of reading it last longer?

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Haiku on Saturday #2


What is left of a
lifetime’s dreams? All that remains
is seen in his face.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Haiku on Saturday #1

Frost on the fields makes
an old man of the landscape.
The year is ancient.

Haikus are great; little bite-sized nuggets of poetry, tightly packed and quick to read. I've got quite a few tucked away and I'll be posting one every Saturday.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Books I couldn't finish

It's normal for writers and readers to wax lyrical about the books they loved, or still love, years later. Less talked-about are the books that they didn't like (but I hear you cry, that's what we've got Amazon One-Star for, no?)

I tend to get most if not all of my books from the library first go and then if I like them, I buy them for the bookshelf. That way, I don't get my fingers burned as I used to, many years ago, when I belonged to a book club and bought on their recommendation stuff that got given to charity shops or donated to the library so that they'd have a chance of finding a more receptive home.

It's rare that I'll stop a book halfway through and take it back to the library unfinished. However, one of the recent ones was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. She's written this, and its sequel, Bring up the Bodies, about the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's fixer and schemer extraordinaire.


It's a big book (which was one minus point if you need to get a book read relatively quickly) and for some unknown reason, she chose to write it in the present tense and never actually identify Cromwell, merely referring to him as 'he' during the narrative, which made it immensely difficult to tell who was who when there was more than one 'he' present. It just didn't work for me and rather than slog on with it, I took it back, unfinished.

Another work that I had high hopes for to begin with was The Terror by Dan Simmons.


This is another big book (do you spot a trend emerging here?) about the loss of the Franklin expedition which disappeared whilst trying to find the Northwest Passage in the mid-19th century. It's a richly-detailed read and puts you right amongst the sailors and officers who made up the expedition but by jingo, it's long, long, long!  I felt like I'd accidentally ordered ten times as much of my favourite food as I'd intended and had to eat it all. In the end, I realised that I wasn't going to get to the end of it and skimmed forward to find out what the reveal was about the horrible monster which was picking off the sailors one by one. What a disappointment!  I won't give any more away just in case you've yet to read the book but for me, it was a massive let-down.

I won't go into too much detail on Dean Koontz's 77 Shadow Street.


I so wanted this to be everything that Apartment 16 by Adam Nevill wasn't (i.e scary), but after only a few pages, I began to realise that it wasn't. It veered off from psychological horror towards a strange sort of science fiction; indeed, it didn't really seem to know where it was going, which is probably why Bloody Disgusting, the horror review site, called it a 'boring, unplotted mess.'

I actually finished this one but it wasn't scary  

So what about you?  Have you started a book that you'd wanted to read but ended up tossing it to one side in either disgust, boredom or bemusement?

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The Hobbit

I've just finished reading the book that I got from my son for my birthday. Yes, I blush to admit it but although I had read it several times before, it never made it into my Tolkien collection. An oversight that I'm happy now to have corrected.

Of course, the book is back in the news now because of the trilogy of films that's been made from it. I have my own opinions about them; I watched the first one on DVD and was tutting throughout at the amount of changes that had been made (an experience that I recall having when I watched the Lord of the Rings films). I wonder why the film makers felt the need to tinker with what are rightly regarded as classics of their genre.

Still, it seems to be making them enough money and with that in mind, I don't suppose they care overmuch that Tolkien traditionalists like myself view the introduction of  'new' characters (i..e not in the books) as a kind of literary vandalism.

This grumble on my part gets us away from the fact that the book itself stands up very well to re-reading and is a fine work in its own right. It takes a slightly more light-hearted tone with authorial asides (in the same way that CS Lewis used to chat to the reader whilst writing the Narnia stories) but it cracks along at a splendid pace, never flagging or boring the reader.  Its relation to the Middle Earth mythology fell into place as Tolkien was writing it; he needed a name for the elf that they met at Rivendell and he chose Elrond, already a character in the legendarium that he had been working on since the First World War. With that, the references to Gondolin and Elvish history started to creep in, but at that point there was still no hint of the grander scheme of things that Lord of the Rings represented. In fact, this can be seen very clearly in the original chapter which dealt with the appearance of Gollum.  That Tolkien had to revise this heavily shows how he retrofitted the story of the Hobbit into the trilogy.

There's much in fantasy these days that's dark, gritty and generally grim; it takes all sorts to make a world and I don't deny anybody their right to read that kind of stuff. I dip into it myself from time to time. But the Hobbit takes us back to the 1930s, when the fantasy genre was only starting to develop into what it would one day become; it's a decent story, well-told, championing courage, friendships, truth and honour. Always recommended.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Too much coffee and not enough sleep #2

Another poem that arrived in my head following a caffeine and insomnia party. I've given up caffeine now. I wonder if I'll still write weird stuff like this.


SMOKE DOLLY

On that page, I saw her standing, a piece of shadow
shaped like her,

                        as if the daylight were afraid of her
                        and shied away;


and as she turned, I closed the book again.

I did not wish to hear that story. No-one ever knew
that I had been there.

I felt warmed by the smile she gave as the smoke
wrapped itself around her like a bridal veil.
She held out her hands and the book fell open
again, a different page of our history.

                                                       Crows laughed,
as if they were privy to our elaborate joke.
But each time we tried to touch, there was something
in the way. I pushed but it was too thick; it felt like
clotted dreams.

                       How many had I pulled from
her head before her soul was empty?

My coat is heavy on my shoulders and feels like
the skin of an old man, worn out and threadbare.
I pinch myself to stop from dreaming

                                                         and the
glass of every window shattered. Black smoke
poured out. The fireman shook me hard to wake
me from drowning in my screams;
                                                   something else was there
too, mummified grief and a tree bereft of leaves.
I choked on the size of my defiance and ran.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Too much coffee and not enough sleep #1

Sometimes I just find a poem pouring out of me and have no idea what it means or where it came from. This one happened after a morning of strong coffee following a sleepless night.

BLACK DIAMONDS

She sparkled somewhere in the darkness;
I could hear her and I could smell her
and then, like a slab of night come falling,
he was there and put his arm around her.

I heard their feet in the passageway as if
they were playing a rhythm on a giant drum,
and when the sound went out with them,
the night and the silence slid into the space.

There was nothing but a ticking, as if a clock
was shaving slices off the night while it waited
for morning to arrive. I pulled my blanket up
around my face and breathed its mustiness in.

And it seemed to me that somewhere I could
hear her crying, smell the saltiness as it came
flowing out of the two wounds we called
her eyes, put there by a heavy sharp hand.

Then, as if she was a fish we had once caught,
my dreaming reeled her back in. I woke or
thought I woke and there she was, that
diamante doll, standing and watching me.

I said I’m glad you’re back but why is it so early
when no-one else has come in, why is it so early?
Springs nudged me in the ribs to keep quiet,
saying can’t you see that this is all so wrong?

I breathed out and the darkness misted, and
then she was as if she had never been, a space
where she had once stood. The laughter of
the stars rang in my head like frozen blood.

Now two occupied coats hang in the doorway
and faces like leather masks move and blink
and let the words crawl out, slithering and
black like insect blood. I am led away by the hand.

Someone takes everything inside my head and
smooths it out, makes it black and white, sells it
to a man who has had his heart taken out with
a knife. I can see the scar where it happened.

Like a palimpsest, my life is erased. All that I am
is torn off like mouldy wallpaper. Something new
is fixed in place. I do not think that it will hold
but there is no wall there now. Nothing is there.

I can hear a dog barking, snarling at the future,
baring its teeth at something no-one else can see.
But I know that the night is just waiting to fall again
when it thinks that nobody is watching.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Blink

The boy I was watched from a window;
summers bled their yellowness across the landscape.

Then, like a cat, time played with me
and suddenly I was old.

I wore my history as if it were a tarnished medal.
‘What was all that about?’ I asked the years, who gave me

no answer but laughter, as if I had found
the stone at the centre of the peach.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith






There’s something very comforting about this series. It’s like settling down on a rainy night with a thick blanket and a cup of hot chocolate.  If you’re already a fan of the series, then you’ll need no urging to pick up this latest volume – in fact, you may well have done so already, but if you’re not familiar with these books, let me recommend that you make their acquaintance forthwith.

They’re set in Botswana, a country in Southern Africa but very little of modern African politics intrudes into the narrative. Very soon, you slip into the slow-paced way of life that carries the characters along like a sluggish river flowing gently to the sea. There’s no bad language, no real violence and no unpleasantness that isn’t resolved by the end of the book. In fact, it’s a perfect antidote to the contemporary obsession with grittiness.

I can’t really sum up the plot of any of the books because the plot isn’t what’s most important about them. It’s the time spent in the company of the characters that’s really what makes these books. By this volume, the thirteenth in the series, opening the pages feels like dropping in on old friends for a cup of tea. In fact, almost one whole chapter is spent discussing the merits of making and serving tea – but it doesn’t matter. Some people, who like fast-paced action and excitement may cavil at the laid-back pace but let them stick with their hard-boiled, cynical and ultra-realistic reading matter. I may join them, but only as long as I can pop back to Botswana to wind down from time to time. These books give me just such an opportunity.  

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

One-Way Return

It was only when the letter came through that he realised he had never been to Head Office – the new Head Office, the one in London, the nerve centre of the huge consortium that now made the life and death decisions for his company.

His company had once been a respectable building firm, making a small profit each year, keeping several dozen tradesmen in business, sending him off around the area, talking to workmen, site managers, merchants, inspectors, clerks of works; in fact, all kinds of everybody, they all knew him.

Then, about five years ago, someone somewhere made the Harrison brothers – joint directors – a very lucrative offer at a time when the industry was going through something of a dry patch and suddenly the respectable building firm was merely the South-West Construction Division of Brickline plc. Instead of going in to the office once a week with their NHBC forms, they sent everything by post and e-mail to the new London Head Office, a place to which, duty by duty, desk by desk and worker by worker, Harrisons’ office slowly migrated. Then the old 1950s office itself was pulled down and a steel and glass cube housing microtechnology firms sprang up in its place.

He loaded his battered old briefcase, its corners frayed, its locks scratched and dull, and set it down on the passenger seat of his car. It would be a long enough journey, he thought. The letter said half-past nine, so he had made sure he was ready to set off at seven, giving himself enough time to stop off at a service station and grab breakfast. The street was quiet, just the paperboy cycling idly past, giving him a curt nod, the smart businessman three doors up setting off early too, the old woman with her Westie, just too far away to notice him. Should he stay five minutes longer and pass the time with her?  Probably not a good idea, he thought. Tempting fate. He could imagine himself somewhere in London, trying to beg those five minutes back from the past.

He locked up, and got into his car, starting it up, flicking on Radio Two, letting himself melt into the companionable mix of music and chat as he headed for the A-road that would take him onto the motorway. It was an overcast morning, and he wondered whether it would rain later. He had groundworkers, bricklayers, roofers to think of. He had worked his way up through the trades himself, he knew what it was like to press on with a job in the full force of the British weather when every instinct told him to get under cover, hide in the portakabins, scrounge a mug of tea or skedaddle to the nearest sandwich van until he saw the site agent stomping round in his muddy riggers, looking for someone’s arse to kick.

Stuck behind a heavy gravel lorry, he waited for a gap in the traffic to pull out and past. He cast a glance into the back of the lorry, wondering what sort of aggregate it was, where it was headed, what it would be used for. Later that day, he was sure the driver would find himself splashing through muddy ruts, searching out the site office, asking someone on a high scaffold where they wanted the sand tipping.

Half-past seven, and the motorway reached out and pulled him in. He made a mental calculation, totted up the miles, divided by the time, was sure he’d make it with plenty to spare, squirmed in his seat, put his foot down anyway. That was the difference between A-road traffic and the motorway, the difference that the experienced driver recognised. A consensual agreement to allow the motorway to do half the work for them. On A-roads, there were choices to be made, manoeuvres to be negotiated, hazards to consider. On the motorway, there were three lanes of single-direction traffic and only two things to bear in mind – your speed and what was happening directly in front of you.  He flicked between the left hand and middle lanes,  passing camper vans, sales reps, innumerable articulated lorries with wording from every country in Europe, supermarket delivery vans and a Range Rover towing a trailer with two mud-spattered quad bikes on it.

He changed station to Radio Four to hear the weather – overcast but dry in London – then back to Two, to hear Wogan narrowly avoid crashing the pips. The news told its familiar tale of woe, and he found himself switching off before the radio did. He kept an eye out for the next services. He needed something to eat. He had drunk a cup of tea and eaten two chocolate digestives since waking – he had glanced into the fridge for anything to eat but all there he had found was the left-overs of the takeaway Chicken Jalfrezi that had suddenly made him feel rather queasy the previous night and ruined the second half of Taggart. He had left it there; he’d bin it when he got home.

Services two miles and twenty-one miles. That’d do. Twenty minutes for a traditional breakfast, pot of tea, a fiver if he got himself an Express as well. He flicked on the indicator, pulled off the motorway and slowed as he negotiated the sharp bend that slid him into the car park, stopping between a Mondeo and a Megane, both London registered.

As he opened the door, the fresh air and the rumble of motorway traffic hit him like a slap, waking him from the somnolence of long-distance driving. He walked across the car-park, joining the flow that poured into the foyer of Western Fayre’s tiled and plastic world of welcome. Around the foyer, franchises jostled for space. Costa Coffee, Patsy’s Parlour, News Cabin, Captain’s Catch, Antonio’s Pizzeria.
The young girl at the counter of Patsy’s Parlour, rosy-cheeked, frizzy hair gathered up in a bun and tucked under a straw boated gifted him with a smile and a cheery good morning as he paid for his breakfast and paper.
“Up to London, are we?”
“Yes,” he replied, feeling strangely reluctant to discuss his business. “Big meeting.  Head Office. Attendance compulsory.”
“Oh, right,” she said with mock-foreboding. “Hope it goes well for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you hear about these things, don’t you?  Invited to big meeting. Head Office. Attendance compulsory. P45 on table.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said. “I’ve been with the company for years. Too much experience. Too valuable.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” she said. He shrugged and walked off towards a nearby table, still glistening wet from its last wipedown.
Starting on his breakfast, he gazed out across the car park, the motorway, the fields beyond, stretching into the blurred distance of the Berkshire countryside. As he chewed his first mouthful, he mulled over what the girl at the counter had said. It was nonsense, of course it was. She must have heard so many moans from so many travellers that she had dredged up a meaningless memory of someone else’s life. He shrugged again, kept on with his breakfast, sipped at his tea. The thought was almost lost as he flicked the pages of his Express, tutting at the state of the world today, sighing at the stupidity of the rich and famous, shaking his head at the things they were said to have said.

He glanced at his watch and realised that he must have bolted his breakfast. He had a good few minutes left before he ought be back on the road. He picked up his paper and walked out into the foyer, then to the car park. Instead of returning to the car, he made his way up an embankment to the picnic benches and sat down, looking out again at the countryside, feeling that something was now troubling him, an itch inside his mind that he couldn’t shake off.
He took out the letter from his jacket pocket. It had the directions to head office but that was not what interested him now. Instead, he read and re-read the short paragraphs, trying to detect any coded hints as to the purpose of the meeting. He should have checked with his colleagues, contacts in other offices, checking to see if they had also been invited. He wondered what it would have indicated had no-one else received an invitation.
It was just plain ridiculous, he thought. No-one was called all the way to London just to be fired. They would have sent someone down, or told him in a letter, plain and simple. That was the way the Harrisons had done it; bulletting, they called it.
He’s not working out, it’s best we bullet him, Fred.
I think we’ll bullet him on Friday, Henry.
The phrase had caught on and he had found himself using it of hapless joiners and bricklayers many a time. 
Ah yes, he caught himself thinking, that was the Harrison way, but they aren’t here any more. Brickline plc probably have a more modern way of doing things. They probably have a huge Personnel - HR, nowadays – department, with hundreds of lawyers to make sure things are done by the book, no chance of an industrial tribunal or such things. When they sack someone, that someone stays sacked. Of course, it wasn’t called sacking now. It was called outplacement, or downsizing or letting someone go. Damn Americanisms, he found himself fuming, as if British management was afraid to call the sack the sack. 
And what better way to get rid of someone than to do it off their own turf, at some huge building in London, where they felt alone and friendless, no mates to encourage them, no familiar surroundings.
He looked at the letter again and the nagging doubt in his mind began to grow. The more he thought about it, the more he began to see things that had previously eluded him. That was why the young quantity surveyor had been sent down to their office. The official line was that restructuring had brought more work which the new arrival was going to help handle. But what better way to learn the business he was going to take over than to shadow the old boy, watch his every move, slide into the job before it was handed to him.
And the new computer system, all internet and intranet and e-mail and laptops. Guaranteed to sideline the oldsters like himself, who were unfamiliar with computers in the first place. A sure way to ensure that certain communications went unnoticed.
And that internal memo concerning his company car upgrade; the paragraph about waiting for new budget proposals, favourable tax rates, a newer model. They didn’t want to give him a new car because he wasn’t going to be there to drive it.

He wasn’t surprised, just disappointed. He had heard of so many like him, giving loyal service to their companies and then shunted aside in favour of those who toed the corporate line. He would find somewhere else, he was sure of it, or perhaps he might reply to that letter from the local college, asking if he was interested in teaching Building and Civil Engineering. He had thrust that one aside, insulted that they might have thought him past it and ready to power down, but now, it seemed like an opportunity that he ought to grasp at.

He took out Brickline’s letter, tore it into a handful of ragged pieces and let them drop into the nearest litter bin. Then he strode to his car, got in and started it up. The reassuring tones of Wogan’s blarney filled his ears again. He smiled at a particularly acerbic comment, swung the car round and headed towards the westbound lane of the motorway.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Gift

Overnight, as predicted, the temperature had dropped and it was through a frosty city that he walked to work that day. Anonymous in the throng of hundreds, if not thousands, a human river, he saw no-one and nothing;  he just wanted to get to the office. Clouds of steaming breath mingled with the acrid, milk-white curdlings of car exhausts, traffic noise and horns battled with Christmas carols and deep-bass hip hop for decibel dominance.

He had plans for the day, which included getting away early for the seasonal exodus. It was an unwritten understanding that his hours would remain unchanged, which was why he was coming in a full three quarters of an hour early; besides, he had things to do at lunchtime. Disgorged by the nameless throng that had carried him from the tube station across the bridge and into the financial quarter, he pushed through the revolving doors and drank in the quiet sanctuary of the foyer, marble-finished and tastefully lit, the logo of Pierpoint Brooker and Lomax picked out in five-foot gold flecked letters on the floor.
He met the eyes of the receptionist only momentarily as she handed him his post, which he clutched under one arm. The foyer was blissfully warm after the December chill of the walk to work, and he felt himself start to sweat slightly in his overcoat. The lift arrived and he punched in number sixteen, letting the stomach-lurching sensation carry him to the dizzy corporate heights of Refinanced Property Management Consultancy.

With a practised movement, he set his briefcase onto his desk, flicked open the locks, lifted the lid. Out came his laptop, several files, the FT and a well-thumbed copy of Monday’s City Trader Weekly. He had made sure it was pretty well obvious that he had been looking at the jobs pages. He had no intention of moving, but management didn’t know that and what better way to keep them keen than to hint that their star broker might be getting itchy feet.  He checked his e-mails, called up the spreadsheet he had been working on the previous night till half-one, then walked to the coffee machine to get himself an espresso.


“Coming to the bash tomorrow?” asked Jacobs from two sections over.
“Er, no, looking to get away tonight, if at all poss.”
“Oh, come on. It’s not as if there’s some piece of hot totty in the Cotswolds with your name on it, is there?”
“Who says there isn’t?” he snapped back, slightly irritated both that Jacobs had got to find out about Marielle’s brutal ending of the relationship and that he lost no opportunity to remind him of his single status.
“I think we’d know,” smirked Jacobs. “Chap like you wouldn’t want to keep something like that to yourself eh, would you? Especially after the way that Marielle…”
“Just piss off, Jacobs.”
“Compliments of the season to you too,” Jacobs laughed at his retreating back.

It rankled him all the way back to his desk. It was the one thing he didn’t seem to be able to sort out in his life. He had the job, the flat in one of the most desirable areas in London, the car (for out of town business only – damn congestion charge, bloody car parking fees), the membership of a very exclusive gym on the river (normally a two-year waiting list) but to lose the woman in such a spectacularly galling way (dumped by e-mail, copied to his friends for good measure) made it all seem somehow rather hollow.  It wasn’t as if he had the time to find anyone else, and all the executive dating agencies he had looked into seemed set up to prey on lonely and loaded suckers like himself.  So he had put the dumping behind him (or tried to) and buried himself in work, gaining good notices from the board and promising whispers of things to come at the next half-yearly appraisal.  That’d shut Jacobs up, he thought.

He opened a tightly-packed envelope postmarked Huntingdon and unfolded the sheets of paper. As he scanned it, he was confused. It was nothing that he knew about, yet it seemed to be some sort of précis of a very tasty land deal near Brampton, excellent connections to the A1 and A14, near Huntingdon race course, a bargain price to acquire, but the potential to make a very large amount of money. He could almost taste the commission when he noticed that the envelope and the letter were addressed to Andy Jacobs, Refinanced Property Management Consultancy, Pierpoint Brooker and Lomax


He glanced around; Jacobs was busily chatting to Kate Beaumont, one of this year’s graduate intake (clearly inexperienced if she thought Jacobs was worth getting to know, he thought) so he was going to be unavailable for quite some time. He picked up his mobile (leave no trace) and dialled the number. The dialling tone taunted him for at least twenty seconds. Come on, he thought, pick up.
“Hello, Mr Tenby?  Yes, it’s Pierpoint Brooker and Lomax here. No, it’s not Mr Jacobs, he’s tied up with a hot property locally and he’s asked me to handle your situation. Jamie Lessing. Yes, yes, I appreciate that. No, no, nothing that can’t be rescheduled. This evening?  Can’t see why not. Looking forward to it. You too. Bye now.”

He ended the call. Looking round again, he noticed that Kate Beaumont was laughing in an exaggerated way at something that Jacobs had said. A girl who laughs at your jokes, Andy, he thought; who could possibly ask for more? He slipped the deeds and details into his overcoat pocket and got on with the day’s business, sinking further and further into it until it was only the grumbling of his stomach that reminded him it was approaching lunchtime.

The cold air of the city, so heavy with exhaust and the exhaled dreams of millions that it clung to the buildings like a shroud, filled his lungs as he walked the quarter-mile to his favourite eaterie. It was run by two ebullient Kurds, who he was not quite sure were not gangsters. He had been going only a matter of weeks, and would abandon it when the broadsheets’ food editors discovered it too. Letting his pace drop a little, he had slightly more time to look around. The Christmas lights were on already and there were noticeably more children in the streets now that the schools were out. There in a little piazza was a Salvation Army brass band, puffing out festive melodies as deep and warm as a tankard of mulled wine (now that definitely meant Christmas was nearly here) and just there….

He stopped, gazing in at the window. Something like a thrill, a shiver that had nothing to do with the weather ran through him. The mannequin in the window of Broadhurst and Tompkins, Gents Outfitters since 1871 was wearing the most exquisitely tailored, superbly cut, class-oozing overcoat that he had ever seen. It was the sort of coat that he had always promised himself, a coat that made other coats want to run away and hide in shame. It made him acutely embarrassed of the worn and frayed effort that he was wearing. He nodded to himself and then, with the thought that a visit to Mr Tenby demanded the very best (as if the purchase of such a coat needed any further justification), he went in.

Ten minutes later he emerged, feeling somehow enriched by the new coat, putting to the back of his mind how much it had cost, knowing it was worth it. Success had its rewards and this was one of them. He quickened his step, knowing he had not that much of his lunch-hour left. The Kurds would not miss him. Perhaps he could get a take-away. Suddenly, he was jerked out of his reverie by a voice from practically underfoot.
“That’s a nice coat, mate.”
He glanced round, then down to see the man in the doorway, his grubby clothes and weather-beaten face a stark contrast to the immaculately groomed reflection in the shop window beside him.
“Yes, it is,” he replied, wanting to get away, yet held by something indefinable.
“Spare some change?” the man asked, and he held out a chipped and scratched enamel mug.
“I don’t carry any,” he said, which was the actual truth. “All plastic, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, right,” said the man with a half-laugh, accompanied by an exhalation of steam. That doorway might offer some slight protection from the cold but not much.
He reached into the Broadhurst and Tompkins bag and pulled out his old overcoat. There were still plenty of miles left in it. He handed it to the man in the doorway, then hurried off. There was a faint “Thanks, mate.” which was swallowed by the bustle of the city’s busy lunchtime.

The afternoon passed more quickly than he had thought, and outside, the cityscape gave way to the illuminated reflection of their office. He paid a visit to the coffee machine, timing his trip to coincide with Jacobs’ one to the washroom, got replies to several of his e-mails sent that morning about a lease on a dockside office block that had been sitting vacant since the summer, and played a game of Free Cell while waiting to be put through to a Herr Rolf Schroder in Dusseldorf. Finally, it was time to go. He cleared his desk in the exact reverse of the morning’s routine, spun the dials on the combination of his briefcase locks and headed for the lift. He was feeling so up that he even passed the time of day with Jacobs in an almost-friendly way until they reached the foyer and went their separate ways. He was headed for Kings Cross and Huntingdon; Jacobs, he hoped, was heading nowhere.  The earlier departure meant the streets were slightly emptier than they would be in half an hour or so. He dropped his pace, and – purely for reassurance – reached for the deeds to the Huntingdon property.

Oh my god, he thought, they’re not there!  Jesus, did I drop them?  No, I can’t have done. Did Jacobs filch them while I was away from my desk? No, he was always in view and so was my desk.
Then, with a realisation that made his face crease with anguish, he remembered. Broadhurst and Tompkins. The shop assistant, only too helpful, had folded his old overcoat and slipped it into the bag. And he had given it to the down-and-out. A tramp had the paperwork for the deal of a lifetime!  He altered course, heading for the shop doorway where he had been so generous and so stupid at the same time. That was what he had felt, that indefinable sensation – his future self shouting Check the bloody pockets, you fool!

He reached the piazza, started to hunt through the crowds of shoppers. Which doorway had it been? Blast, he couldn’t remember. There was no sign of any down-and-out in any of the doorways on the piazza. The man had probably vanished into the teeming hordes flowing though the city, along with his one chance at glory and fortune.
He kicked an empty Starbucks cup into the road where it was flattened under the wheels of a black cab, then sat down on the nearest bench. He was going to have to call Tenby, invent some plausible excuse for the delay. The man would have copies, of course he would. It would have to be after Christmas. But the delay might be fatal; it was a chance, a slim chance but a chance nonetheless.

“Hello.”
He blinked, looked around, looked up. There, looking down at him was a pretty young girl, her face framed by a black bonnet, wearing a black tunic with Salvation Army wording on her epaulettes.
“I’m sorry, I don’t carry cash. Just plastic.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” she said and smiled. “I believe that you’ve given already today.”
“I did?”
“I saw you at lunchtime,” she said. “When you gave that man your new overcoat from Broadhurst and Tompkins. I know how much they charge. You didn’t have any cash on you so you gave what you had. Do you know how rare generosity like that is these days?”
“Pretty rare, I guess.”
“Try nearly impossible,” she replied. “Anyway, it proves that the Christmas spirit isn’t completely dead.”
As if realising that she had been gushing, she blushed, which he found curiously endearing. She had brown eyes (Marielle’s had been a glacial blue) and her hair below her bonnet was dark and curly (Marielle’s had been straight and blonde). She turned to go.
“Wait a minute,” he called out.  “I don’t suppose you know the man in question?”
“Oh, of course,” she said. “We know most of them in this area.”
“Do you know where he is now?”
“He’ll be at the drop-in centre, ready for his hot meal,” she said and then an earnest expression crossed her face. “You know, you’re not just generous, you’re caring too; you were obviously worried about him and wanted to make sure he was okay.”
“Er, yes, of course. Who wouldn’t?”
“Lots of people,” she said with a hint of regret in her voice. “You’re a rare find, Mr…”
“Lessing,” he said, smiling “but call me Jamie.”
“I’m Ellen,” she said, extending a hand “Why don’t you come with me? I’m on my way there now.”
“That’d be nice,” he said. “Truth to tell, I could use the company.”
He set off with her, allowing her to direct him. Halfway there, he asked her to stop a moment.
“Is there a problem?” she asked
“No, just got to make a quick call,” he replied, then took out his mobile, pressed a few buttons and waited for his call to be answered.
“Hello?” he said, “Is that Mr Tenby?”

Thursday, 23 May 2013

New England, Old Shadows

                              
Parson Francis Moore, to the Bishop of London, Greetings.

In the year of our Lord, sixteen hundred and twenty nine, I took ship with a captain of the Massachusetts Bay Company, as your grace had bid me and crossed the Atlantic to embark upon my commission, viz. to establish the cause of the deaths of fully one quarter of the passengers aboard the ship Mayflower, nine years previous.

The crossing was unpleasant, given the turbid state of the seas, the driving rain, the winds that howled as if Satan himself were scourging them with serpents and the uncouth nature and demeanour of the seamen who plied their trade in a seemingly unending fug of rum and tobacco, against all sense and the preference of good King James, only four years in his grave. Mayhap they think the king’s writ does not apply to the Kingdom of Ocean.

We made landfall at Plymouth and there I found that the Massachusetts Bay Company, though nominally charged with the good administration of the Colony, makes free and easy with his Majesty’s authority. Though this was without my remit, I made careful notes of the liberties taken by those who ought to know better and enclose them with this packet, hoping that your Grace might convey them to the appropriate authorities.

Remembering your adjunct to be both thorough and speedy, I sought out the Colony’s doctor, Jacob Sawfield, and related to him my commission. He, though a busy man, for there seemed much to occupy a physician such as he, furnished me with all the information at his disposal concerning that first tragic winter, wherein so many poor souls perished.

I studied these names long. Though there seemed pattern enough to conclude that whatsoever sickness or pestilence had laid them low spread quickly and virulently, claiming husbands and wives, children and servants, discriminating little between saints and strangers, and making perhaps some cruel mockery of the hopes and dreams that had brought them so far to this unknown land, what did not seem apparent was the origin of that contagion. Armed with your warrant, your Grace, I bethought it fitting to have the graves themselves examined, lest any clue be left therein as to the nature of the sickness. I hired men and brought Jacob Sawfield with me to that sorry plot wherein the bones of they who perished are laid, whereat we commenced to dig, masking our mouths with clothes soaked in vinegar, a noisome odour and experience, to have no doubt, yet in far preferential to the fate that might have awaited us had we neglected this most important of measures.

After we had laid open the graves of some six or seven, and had gathered to ourselves a crowd, comprising the curious, the hostile, the intoxicated and the bored, Sawfield pronounced himself satisfied that nothing unnatural had laid these poor folk low, and declaimed that, in his opinion, it was due to the strange proximity of the pilgrims in the confinement of their settlement, owing to the unexpected cold that they had encountered that winter. ‘We might conclude,’ he said to me that evening, after we had striven to drive the smell of vinegar from our clothes and noses, ‘that whatsoever agent of contagion brought the sickness from person to person found it plainly easy to convey the harbingers of death, more so than if they had been sensible of their danger and secluded the sick from the healthy.’

This seemed, in truth, most logical an explanation, and so I prepared myself and my belongings for the voyage back across the ocean. Yet I was to find that my sojourn there was not to be so swiftly truncated. For, a week before I was to take ship again for London, a letter came to me which spake briefly thus

If thou wouldst know the truth behind the unseemlie end of those poore wretches who, though hoping for a better life here in the New Worlde, found instede merely dethe and by most terrible means, then I wouldst meet thee tomorrow night hence, on the townland west of the first milepost. Yours in haste, Ezekiel Crowe


Thus intrigued, and mindful of your admonition to spare no effort to uncover the truth, I made to keep this appointment and thus was introduced to the dubious company of this Ezekiel Crowe. He was of appearance filthy, of manner dissolute and of speech and bearing so unlike anyone that I have ever encountered in church or genteel society that I scarce deigned walk with him one hundred yards, let along the distances that he bade me do if I were interested in the truth. Yet thanks be to God that I did. For he, from a mouth clouded by drink and tobacco, possessed of few clean teeth and the breath of a hundred rotting corpses, told me a tale that chilled my bones and made me shiver as if the very hand of winter laid upon my shoulder and tightened its grip in some confederate’s embrace.

“They say as how ye seek news of what befell they who landed here nine years since,” he spake to me. “I am in a goodlie position to furnish ye with said details, but I am loth to do so, since ye, being a gentleman and of the Church, what is more, will surely judge me mad or possessed or both.”
“If you are so certain of my reaction,” said I, “then why sought you me out? Surely you must have thought me at least half-minded to hear you or you would not have sent me that letter.”
“Ye speak with good sense, Parson. I hope that your mind is similarly prepared for what we shall discover.”
And with that, he bade me meet him there the following dawn, with horse and food for one week, and – if I should deem it necessary, weaponry. I asked him what manner of situation might make it so that we might need such, at which he merely laughed in a way that I found most unsettling.

The following dawn, I met Crowe as I had been bid, and on horseback we set off, I mindful of the nature of the man. Once away from the influence of Plymouth, we found the habitation of man a scarcity in the wilderness. Here and there, a solitary farmstead might emerge, as though it had been lost and was now pleased to see us. The roads became tracks and they in turn meandered into the grass of meadows and the thickets of weeds and brambles and were lost. For all as has been made of our settlement in the New World, we have made but a scratch upon it and that scratch seems at times almost hasty to be healed of us. Each evening, as sun set, the darkness between the trees thickened and reached out its fingers as if to entwine us, and only our fire, a solitary isle of light sat between us and the great unknown. The hills ahead rose up as if the very land recoiled before us and sought to crush us neath its wild majesty. I sought comfort in Scripture but Crowe found his solace in the bottle and the pipe. He offered me both often and laughed when I refused.

Four days’ ride into the wilds, near a shining mere that rippled like some sinuous beast trapped between its wooded banks, we came to a place where our horses refused to go. At the head of a wooded valley, steep-sided and covered in old, old trees, they shied and whinnied and would not go on, even for the fear of the whip. Crowe did laugh here, and said
“This is surelie the place, for even dumb beastes knowe theyre peril. Mayhap we had more sense than they, we would not pass and leave this unseemlie place be.”
“I have faith in the Lord,” said I. “And I have not come this far, to be turned back by shadow and shaking. Let us strengthen ourselves with prayer, then shall I see that which you deem so terrible and yet so necessary.”
I knelt and prayed, and Crowe made semblance but his lips moved not, and if he swayed and trembled, it was under the influence of another spirit than that of our Lord. Then, armed with the consolation of God, I proceeded on foot into that accursed valley.

In truth, your Grace, though I was possessed of fortitude and faith, yet as I made my way further on, I began to feel real fear, of a kind that was previously unknown to me. As there are places in Judaea and Israel where the influence of the Baals is strong, so here I found myself of the conviction that I was being watched by some unearthly presence, which lurked amongst the dark spaces between the trees. Their trunks were shrouded in moss and the ground between them was heavy with old leaf mould and thick grass that so deadened the sound of our feet that we seemed to be wading through a mire. Several times did I turn suddenly, expecting to find the very Devil himself behind us, but there was nothing there; nothing visible, at any rate.
We neared the head of the valley, at which point, Crowe stopped and turned to me. He smiled again, and then pointed through the trees.
“It is yonder. Though I have been here before, I find that I have acquired some sort of ague and like it not. I will wait here for thee if thou hast the courage to proceed.”
I found that I had to dig deep within myself to find said courage, but be assured, your Grace, that I found it and more, and strode on to find that which the reprobate had indicated. A few yards further on, I saw it.

Your Grace, it was as if the earth had grown a tooth. A towering shard of rock rose up from the ground, fully eight feet high and five in width. It was black as night, so black that it seemed to drink in the light and make this place darker still, and yet upon its surface, I discerned patterns of some obscene and blasphemous design. And all around it, in the undergrowth, entwined and ensnared by the grass which dared to grow at the foot of this monstrosity were objects, rusted and rotten and corrupt, but each, as I could see, some poor wretch’s possession. I bent to pick up what appeared to be an ivory comb, and beheld upon the handle, the legend

Alys Mullynes, 1615, Dorkynge

And in similar vein, each of the artefacts which had survived to tell their tale did pronounce the names of those poor souls who had tasted only death as their reward for the brave pilgrimage on which they had embarked.

It was at this point, your Grace, with the trees crowded in around me, and the silence – even unto the absence of birdsong – so powerfully noted, that the sense of overpowering evil overcame me, as I realised that the only way in which these artefacts might have come to be at this place was by the agency of one who had dwelt with and shared the lives of the poor souls to whom they had belonged. I am sorry to say that I fled that place as fast as my feet would carry me. Crowe joined me in flight, for as he claimed, he had made the journey to that hideous thing more than once, and the strain of said journey had shown upon his face and upon his soul. In his weakness, he had turned to drink and tobacco for solace, and who, having made the journey that I made and seen that which I had seen, might blame him?

The fear has not left me, though I returned to Plymouth a trembling and nervous wretch. I write these words to you, your Grace and shall hopefully convey them to your own hand, that you might know what manner of creature lurks in the forests and the hills of the New World and lend your voice to those who say that they are the servitors of Satan, and must be destroyed. Crowe has long since vanished into the mire of humanity, those wretches who drown themselves in their own sin.

Yet how might it be explained that as Crowe and I rode into Plymouth, those who saw us glanced first at us and then behind us, and turned away in unease, though when we glanced over our shoulders, there was naught to be seen? Who was that dark figure who watched from the end of the street the night before I set sail for London? When I went to see, there was no-one there. And on the crossing, was there another ship, several leagues distant, as some sailors maintained, though none was seen to leave Plymouth matching that description, with sails of deepest black? And did the harbour master err, in counting the passengers who disembarked at London, and make our complement one greater than it had been when we set sail?

I cannot say. I have returned to my parsonage in the Suffolk flatlands and seek solace in reading and prayer, and attempt to put from my mind that sight in that valley in the wild lands of Massachusetts. Yet I find that I am unable to walk the short distance down the wooded lane to the church alone on winter evenings, and send a lad first into the building to light the candles. I cast glances across fields and meadows to the woods beyond. I look over my shoulder far more often than once I did. And thought it ill-befits a man of God to do so, I have taken to carrying a firearm with me, and although I find comfort in the solidity of its stock and barrel, I still hear the unsettling laughter of Ezekiel Crowe and shudder.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

On the Beach

It was awkward. It had always been awkward. He had always been awkward. That was my father; a nuisance to the end. And afterwards.

Susan came with me to the funeral, which was good of her, since she and Dad didn’t see eye to eye. She was a declared non-believer and I was officially agnostic (Church of England long since lapsed), so the fact that Dad had got religion on his death bed thanks to a happy-clapper hospice visitor (or perhaps a touch of the pre-Judgement collywobbles) made it all – to say the least – interesting. The enthusiasm of the congregation and their ebullient cheerfulness was rather embarrassing and I shifted several times in my seat, stood up at the wrong time, started to sing the wrong hymn and – worst of all – gave vent to a long, loud and unconcealable yawn right in the middle of the address by a nice young lady vicar called Frances. Much head-shaking and tutting ensued.

Many of those at the church were merely fellow parishioners or acquaintances and so, unlike we family members, did not feel the need to join the second part of the afternoon’s entertainment, the trip to the crematorium. They were the lucky ones. There is nothing quite so disheartening as strolling through a garden of remembrance, remarking on the beauty of the roses and the neatly trimmed lawns, only to glance up and see the towering chimney, dark against the sky. It was like a huge finger pointing towards heaven as if to speed the departed on their way. At least it wasn’t going at the time. That would have been a bit too much to bear.

“As his eldest son, I believe that these by right are yours to look after,” said the crematorium manager, handing me the shiny black urn as I was putting my coat on and preparing to leave. I stared in horror at the object in my hand as if I expected it to start talking to me. Susan glanced over my shoulder and muttered something less than complementary.
“Usually, we take care of them,” the manager said, “but I believe that there is something in the will…”
“I’ll pop them in my handbag,” said Susan. “You’ll only drop them.”

I was glad that she had decided to come. If she hadn’t been there, I would have had to have found a place to put them and driven home half distracted by the prospect of them falling off the seat and spilling as I negotiated a tight bend on the A120, or rolling across the floor and getting stuck under the brake pedal, as if Dad was trying to reunite us with all his effort.  Instead, they sat there in her bag, next to a travel pack of Kleenex, her glasses case and a half-used stick of Cerise Glory lipstick. It was probably the closest he had been to a woman since my mother left him.

And the manager was right; the will contained a surprise for me. It was one of his last requests that I, his eldest son, should scatter his ashes on the site where my mother was buried, so that they could be together at last. I rang her to check.
“Mum, did you and Dad ever discuss where you’d like to be buried?”
“Not that often,” she replied, the theme tune from Eastenders vying with her voice for the rights to the telephone receiver. “It might have come up once or twice. Why do you ask?”
I explained. She laughed.
“That sounds like him. The incurable romantic or a silly old prat. What makes him think that I wanted to spend the rest of eternity with him, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Remember, he doesn’t know you’re not dead yet.”
“Nor ever will he,” she said. “Just scatter him wherever you want. He’ll not know the difference.”

I took a few days off from the antiques shop, leaving Elaine to handle things, and – having racked my brains to think of somewhere appropriate – resorted to the old trick of a road atlas and a pin. On my fourth go – after discounting scattering sites in the Theatreland map of London, halfway through the index and Junction 10 of the M25 – I settled on a strip of beach near Hunstanton in Norfolk. Susan declined to come with me, which was entirely understandable. She felt that she had done her duty to the old man at both church and crematorium. To stand and watch me pour a jar of grit and sand onto a beach of grit and sand was, she said, taking the piss.

I packed a lunch, filled up the car at Asda and set off up the A134, taking it easy. The beach would still be there no matter what time I arrived, and Dad was in no hurry any more. I put the radio on and let the steady passage of the programmes mark my journey through the day. I made Bury St Edmunds by eleven, Thetford by five to twelve, and my approach to King’s Lynn was slowed only by the need to keep an eye out for speed cameras. Susan, the queen of speed, had three points on her licence, a moral advantage I did not intend to abandon lightly.
And then, perhaps a little after one, I turned down a minor road, came over a rise and saw before me, the glistening expanse of the Wash, a huge toothy bite taken out of England by the ravenous North Sea. I turned to Dad’s urn, secured to the passenger seat with several strips of parcel tape.
“Well, here we are,” I said. “This is where you and I part company.”

I couldn’t drive all the way down to the beach. There was a sign several hundred yards from the sea which read “NO VEHICULAR ACCESS - ENGLISH NATURE”
I parked the car, undid the urn, slipped it into a pocket of my coat and set off down the track towards the beach. It never occurred to me to just tip him into a ditch and drive off again, even though there was no-one around to see me. It had been raining the night before and the track was muddy, slippery even. I nearly lost my footing a couple of times but I was more concerned with not breaking the urn. I had visions of myself, cupped hands full of ash, stumbling the last few yards onto the sand.

Instead, when I reached the end of the track, there was no sand waiting for me but a vast panoply of saltmarsh, glistening and undulating like a sodden rag cast across the landscape. I let out a sigh through clenched teeth.
“Sorry, Dad, but this is as close to the sea as you go. Besides, give or take a few hundred yards, this is where the pin landed, so here you are.”
I took the urn from my pocket and gripped the lid, wondering if it was a twister or a puller. I struggled with it for a moment and it just came off in my hand. Inside….

“Excuse me, but what are you doing here?”
I turned, stopping up the urn again. A grey-haired, thin man in a waxed green jacket stood there, looking suspiciously at me.
“Just walking,” I replied, strangely reluctant to discuss my business. “Is that a problem?”
“Well, it might be,” he said “Depending on where you intend to walk. It’s the season, you know.”
“The season?”
“The nesting season. The grey-winged Samarkand mud wader.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “I see.”
“Do you?”
“Er…yes.”
“What’s that?”
“This? Oh, it’s my father,” I said without thinking. He raised his eyebrow.
“Take him out for walks often, do you?”
At that point, I shrugged, sighed and told him the full story. He seemed a harmless sort, and I needed someone who wasn’t family or friend to talk to.
“That’s a very nice thing to do,” he said as I finished. “Some folk would’ve just tipped the ashes into the dustbin and have done with it. But you’ve done the decent thing and that’s mighty rare in this world.”
“What more could a son do for his father?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’d like to think that when I go, my son might do something like that for me, but I know he wouldn’t. Him and that wife of his are only after my house. And my daughter’s only interested in me for child-minding when she goes off gallivanting with another of her fancy men.”
I didn't want to stand on a saltmarsh beach in Norfolk all afternoon acting as agony aunt for an amateur Bill Oddie, so I took the chance to ask
“So where do you think the best place to scatter the ashes is?”
“You could do worse than the headland, down there yonder,” he said, nodding away behind my shoulder. “I’ve often thought that when I go, I’d like to rest there. You get some lovely sunsets across the Wash.”
“Let’s go there then.”
We set off, he leading the way, picking the best route through the marshes, pointing out things that I might have – no, let’s be honest, would have – missed, dropping little asides from his life into the conversation. I discovered that he had been a fireman, retired early due to stress, moved to King’s Lynn, got a job as a security guard, lost that when the company went fully automated, then volunteered to help out at the nature reserve and eventually become the assistant warden.
“I’m hoping to become the head warden next year,” he said. “That’s when Harry retires. Not that I’ll really notice the difference. I’m here practically all the time.”
“You must really love it here.”
“We all ought to have something that we like to do, rather than have to,” he said. “What do you do with your days?”
“Oh, I run an antiques shop in a little village near Colchester.”
“Do you like it?”
“Yes I do.”
“Then you’re lucky. What did your father do?”
“He was a policeman for thirty years, then he moved into insurance, became a loss adjuster. Then he retired and then he died.”
“Do you think he liked it?”
“It never seemed to me that he did.”
“Well then, perhaps he’ll like this more.”
We had reached the headland, and he led the way up the earthy, crumbling slopes to a clump of trees that stood watching the shifting, shimmering marshes. My new companion stood a little way back as if not to intrude on this moment. But as I took the lid off again, I found that I couldn’t just cast him to the winds. Instead, I handed the urn to the assistant warden while I dug a hole in the ground. I took a fallen acorn I had found in the grass and popped it in, then poured the ashes in on top of it and filled the rest in with soil. We both stamped it down and stood there, as if the occasion demanded some deeply moving eulogy. In the end, all I could say was
“Be at peace, Dad.”
and hoped that somehow this might increase his chances of being so. I didn’t know. I still don’t.

The assistant warden walked me back to the car, but offered me a cup of tea at the warden’s lodge, a few hundred yards further up the shoreline. I still had my packed lunch in the car, which I brought with me to eat. When I had finished, I glanced at my watch. The afternoon was slipping away and at that time of year, it got dark worryingly early. I didn’t want to be driving that far in twilight, and so I made my excuses and set off for the car. He came with me to the start of the track.
“Thanks for coming,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t get that many visitors at this time of year. It was nice to spend some time with someone who’s not interested in birds. I am, I know, but everyone needs a break.”
“That’s true,” I replied. “Good luck with your grey winged Samarkand mud wader.”
“Good luck with the antiques.”
The last image I had of him was a figure dark against the brightening western sky. I remembered what he had said about the Wash sunsets. I hoped that evening would be a good one.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Winterbirth

You’ve probably not heard of Ruckley – this is his first book, as far as I know, the first volume of a trilogy (why do fantasy novels come in threes?) and he’s just released a new one about the body snatchers of Edinburgh. Must check that one out as well

The setting for the Godless World trilogy is Dark Ages with impressive scenery – Ruckley can make me ‘see’ his landscapes in a way I’ve not experienced since LotR. The first book is set just as winter begins, hence the name, and whilst it’s got some brutal scenes in, with unexpected deaths and cynical betrayals, there seems to be no language NSFW, which is quite refreshing. Ruckley also knows when to cut away and not revel in the gore.

There’s very little magic in this one. We’ve got humans, elf equivalents and half-elves who seem to be equally despised and distrusted by both. The elves and half-elves have something called the Shared, which seems to be very like the Force (even to the point that one character refers to feeling a disturbance in the Shared) but anyone growing up since 1977 is going to find that sort of thing hard to shake off.

What is quite ground-breaking here is that the elves (and I’m using that term rather than the in-book name, which will mean nothing to anyone who hasn’t read it) are tribal in organisation and more or less hostile to each other, to the point at which they launch raids and attacks on each other’s camps and territories. Some are nice elves, some are rather nasty – I was minded of the inter-tribal hostility of the Indians in Last of the Mohicans when I read this. They are also enlisted by the humans as guides and allies during their campaigns (again, another North American reference) but take offence quickly and easily and drop those who they don’t get on with.

There’s also precious little in the way of religion here (or priests); the series title “The Godless World” refers to the fact that at a certain point in the past of the world, the gods abandoned the races they had created; part of the driving force behind the wars that course through the books like a dark heartbeat is the effort of one particular sect to convince the gods to return. There are five specific races in the books, only two of which (humans and elves) we really encounter in Book One. There’s reference to what might be a race of werewolves, attacked and wiped out by a human/elf alliance in years gone by, and that’s something I hope we learn more of in subsequent books.

The whole thing weighs in at 539 pages and whilst it could probably have been shorter, I didn’t feel that at any point I was skim-reading. There are maps (which I found I was glancing at quite regularly) and a list of characters (which, until you’ve got your bearings, you’ll probably be checking on too).

Friday, 17 May 2013

Mercy

Liversedge Farm tried hard to bury itself into the landscape, at the end of a muddy, unsurfaced lane, hard-packed gravel and stones the only support for the few vehicles brave enough to voyage down it.
Fog faded the landscape to a dreary grey, Droplets of condensation on every surface, hanging from the branches and the twigs, glistening on the spiders’ webs.

It seemed that even the world had forgotten the farm, with its overgrown orchard, the rusting tractor in the ivy-strangled, crumbling barn.  Weeds gave the yard an unshaven, wild look, and the cracked panes in the mildewed wooden window panes seemed to suggest a history long since written and concluded.

But there was still life there. The old man wandered round the cold kitchen, poking from time to time at the coal in the stove, making sure that it was burning well. His gnarled hands slowly assembled the ingredients of breakfast, knocking dust off the knick-knacks that littered the shelves as he took something from them that he needed.

He glanced out of the window at the yard and barn, nodding to himself at the roke that seemed to have smeared the landscape into a featureless haze beyond the lane. He was glad that it was not raining. The house’s roof was missing some more tiles these days and he was running out of pots and pans to catch the leaks that had turned the attic into a fungus-riddled, dank triangular nightmare.

He filled the dented copper kettle at the sink, waiting until the spluttering taps had finished coughing up brown-tinted water. While it started the slow process of boiling on the stove, he checked the toast, found it done and with what he thought was a hasty movement, he withdrew it, noticing only after he had put the slices on the plate, the red mark on his finger and thumb that would later throb with hot pain.

As he made his way along the hall to the bottom of the stairs, he did not even notice the peeling wallpaper, marked with dark spots as if it had caught some unpleasant disease. The paint on the skirting board had worn away to reveal the wood in several places. The rattle of the crockery on the tray was the only sound apart from the slow ticking of the grandfather clock, all day, every day punching holes in the silence.

He started up the stairs, both hands holding the tray, not using the rickety banister that creaked and swayed if anyone was so foolish as to place their trust in it. The third and seventh stairs, covered by fraying carpet, groaned like slumbering donkeys as his steady tread fell upon them.  She would know he was coming.

And still the grandfather clock intoned the passing of the seconds, its pendulum shaving fragments off time.

He backed in, pushing the door with his bony shoulders, and so he smelt the room before he saw it, that familiar fug of must, of damp, the faint tinge of spilled urine, long since dried. The pungent undertone, like a cello being played downstairs, of stale tobacco.

The room had its dusty curtains drawn, but this made little difference to the half-lit scene. The bed was spread with two blankets, a quilt and a counterpane but the woman in it still felt as cold as ice. He put the tray down on the bedside table and sat himself down beside her, catching a glimpse of his reflection in the long oval mirror fitted into the door of the mahogany wardrobe. He noticed just how unkempt the decision not to shave that morning had made his chin and jowls. What was left of his hair waved wildly back at itself. His turkey neck hid in the shadows of his shirt collar.

He turned back to the woman in the bed, brushed what was left of her hair back from her lined and hollow-cheeked face. He half-started for the ebony hairbrush tangled with silver threads on the dressing table but then sat down again. Her dark eyes, the only things that moved, turned to watch him.

“It’s today,” he said quietly, and she tried a smile that got no further than her eyes. He started to feed her, piece by piece, her toast and marmalade, her scrambled egg, her porridge. It was probably only warm now, he thought, as he watched her try to chew and swallow each mouthful.

Once she had finished as much as she was going to eat, he stroked her cold cheek, then got up and walked to the window, glancing out to where a hedgerow ran straight as an arrow into the fog and disappeared like a ghost. He picked the hairbrush, knocking over two of the many bottles of tablets as he did, setting them aright with a shaking hand. He looked for quite some time at the glistening silver hairs, remembering when they had been chestnut red, and then he put it down again because his breathing and swallowing had become rapid and he was shaking.

He let his glance move around the room as he walked to the bed, picked up the tray, met her eyes again, then left. He went into the spare room where he now slept, and laid the tray on the bed. His pipe and packet of tobacco sat by the dusty glass on the bedside table, next to an equally dusty Bible.

He rarely went to church now. Even the hymns were different now, and the vicar’s sermons were dominated by terrible goings-on in faraway countries with unpronounceable names, for which he asked his dwindling number of parishioners to donate. And it was such a long way to walk, when no buses ran on Sunday  - and only once every other day during the week  - and taxi drivers didn’t even know where the farm was. The one who had brought them home the last time from the hospital with more bottles and more pills given to them by a sad-eyed young Indian doctor, had dropped them off at the end of the lane to walk the last half-mile back.

And he didn’t want to leave her alone, not even for a couple of hours.   

He went into the chilly bathroom, the wooden sash window jammed a half-inch open. He turned on the taps and put the plug in. It would take time to fill, but he was happy to wait. From the cupboard, he took the heaviest towel he could find and laid it into the warming water, pushing it down until the wet had darkened it so that it looked the deepest burgundy, rather than a faded red. Only once it was fully soaked did he turn off the taps. He felt the water. Good. It was warm. He wanted it to be warm. It was for the best.

He came down the stairs, carrying the tray. He was breathing shallowly and swallowing as he came. The seventh and third stairs groaned sadly. The grandfather clock ticked on, steadily, mercilessly. He walked along the hallway and into the kitchen, put the tray on the draining board, the cutlery into the sink, stained and scratched through years of use.

He pulled on his tweed jacket that had been too big for him, then just right, then too tight across the shoulders and now too loose again. He walked out into the yard and headed for the barn. The damp, cold air got into his lungs and he started to cough. Somewhere out in the greyness, a dog started barking, then stopped just as suddenly. He pushed open the door of the barn, sidled through the gap, pulled it shut again. What he was looking for, he found under an old table on which rusty and unoiled tools lay discarded since their last job had been finished.

Across the farm, across the damp and dripping landscape, silence held on. Then there was a sound like thunder and the sudden flight of birds.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Amulet of Samarkand


I’ve just spent a few days in the company of a djinni and a boy magician and loved every minute of it. I’m talking about Bartimaeus and Nathaniel, the protagonists of the aforementioned novel (2003) which, although aimed at the teen reader market is thoroughly enjoyable, fast-paced, very well-written and extremely funny to boot.

What’s it all about? Well, it’s set in an England that has all the hallmarks of the modern day (give or take a decade or two) but is ruled by magicians who summon and enslave the djinn, marid, afrits and various demonic entities of Arabic mythology. Imagine Harry Potter written by Michael de Larrabeiti and that gives you a rough idea of what to expect.

The viewpoint switches between the two main characters, with some backstory for Nathaniel, filling in some details on the world without going all Captain Exposition. The use of footnotes for Bartimaeus’ sections, in which he snarkily comments on the goings-on is a very witty and well-executed technique which had me laughing out loud on more than a couple of occasions. It certainly brings home the point of view of the summoned as well as the summoners. Something to think about when your magic user is standing in the middle of his pentacle, about to cast Spiritwrack.

I found myself making time to dip back into it in a way that I did not with some ‘grittier’ and darker adult novels and am delighted to report that there are two more volumes in the series and a prequel which came out a couple of years ago. All three have gone on my reading list.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Yes, sir, thats why I love my gun

see this notch on the stock there mister thats where
i shot jake mcmurty in sixty-one and that notch there
is for old man clayton i winged him and he took
three days to die when his wound got infected
that was the summer of sixty-three the long hot one
a good shot though i would rather have killed
him straight out still dead is dead and old man clayton
he sure aint coming back to shoot me no more
yes sir thats why i love my gun

see this pin here mister if you pull that out
you can take the whole chamber out i like to clean
the chamber and brush out the barrel cause
any dirt what gets into the barrel or on the chamber
it can really count against you if your gun dont work
when you need it back in sixty-five there were
three brothers zeke henry and elias cornwell
and me and my friend aaron goodspeed took our guns
and we went into the woods and shot them zeke
wouldve shot me but his gun jammed and we found
afterward there was dirt in his chamber so
that his gun wouldnt fire now zeke I guess he
got all the time in the world to think about how
important it is to have a clean gun

in the winter of sixty-nine aaron and me we was
herding cattle across the red river us all wrapped
up against the cold and two men on the trail got drunk
real bad so the drive boss sent them home without
pay but they got themselves real uppity and drunk
some more and came after us to get the pay
they said they was owed then aaron caught them
but they shot him in the stomach and he was a day
and a half hanging on until he died so i took my gun
and tracked them down and shot them one leg at a time
until they begged for the mercy they dint show aaron

so you can see mister there werent enough room
on my gun for all the notches i needed i had to hold
them names in my head and when you kill a man
you kind of remember it even though the man himself
werent nothing to remember it dont matter
how big or small how strong or weak they are
just one bullet takes the best of them down it kind
of evens us up us men makes us all equal
yes sir thats why i love my gun

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Hawkwood's Voyage


The history of Europe is a fascinating one and the 15th century is a particularly interesting time, what with the Voyages of Discovery, the development of gunpowder and the expansionist march of the Ottoman Empire. Yet it was still a time when superstition held sway, when the fastest thing man could use to travel was a horse, when great swathes of the continent were still uninhabited, littered with the ruins of fallen Empires.

Paul Kearney has set this fantasy novel, the first of several, on the cusp of mediaevality and modernity, hurling two power blocs against each other and giving us the tales of the ordinary folk who are caught up in the middle of things.

I came across this via Amazon’s “People who have bought this book also bought…” and I’m very glad I did. It was written in 1995, a year before A Game of Thrones was published so Kearney was in at the forefront of the gritty, morally ambiguous, hard as nails combat genre. He’s also a keen sailor and that comes across in his chapters concerning the eponymous sea voyage.

A brief outline of the set-up – an abandoned ship is found, its crew dead or missing and something horrible in the hold. In the captain’s cabin is a rutter and log that hints at a western continent unknown by the civilisations known as the Monarchies of God. Meanwhile, the magic-using peoples, persecuted by the Church are seeking escape and a young, free-thinking King realises that he can kill two birds with one stone. Before you can say Columbus With Spells, two ships have been chartered and filled with mages, dweomer-folk and a shifter – this world’s version of a lycanthrope.

Meanwhile to the east, the vast armies of the Merduks, (resprayed Ottomans) are marching to crush the infidels, having already captured Aekir, the Constantinople of this world. Once they’ve got that under their belt, they’re heading west – unless the armies of the Monarchies of God can stop them. And they’re too busy trying to work out a way of getting the too-keen-on-burning-heretics Church off their backs.

I must admit that for the first 100 pages or so, I was getting used to Kearney’s chop-and-change style of switching viewpoints; there are quite a few different plot strands but they’re needed because, rather in the fashion of journalists being embedded with the US and UK armies, his characters are right there in the forefront of the action. And there’s a lot of action to cover. Even the politics, which can sometimes make my eyes glaze over in other works, don’t have that effect in this one. The battle scenes really come alive, with changes of focus from the strategic to the personal exactly when needed. He also knows precisely when to switch characters in a way that gives the reader just enough to make them want to get back to that strand again.

Constructed to cover several books, Kearney is taking his time in developing the plot strands but even though he has to break off at some point, he manages the suspense in such a way that my reaction at the end of this volume was definitely not “Meh”. I’ll be checking out the second book in the series “The Heretic Kings” soon.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The White Darkness

As Winter cloaked the fields with snow,       
trying to hide from God this hellish place,    
he had eyes but refused to see or know         

what the pleas of the suffering might show.    
Their bitter tears that froze upon the face  -   
as winter cloaked the fields with snow     -

formed like tiny pearls that shone although           
beauty had never settled or left a trace.        
He had eyes but refused to see or know       

just where his chosen ones might go,          
and offered only sanctimonious grace.       
As winter cloaked the fields with snow,       

only the wire, with claws on show       
surrounded these souls with cruel embrace.   
He had eyes but refused to see or know   

how silence reigned, except the laughing crow
who watched over this benighted space   
as winter cloaked the fields with snow.
We had eyes but refused to see or know.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Desert of Souls



A fine book, this; Arabic-flavoured swords and sorcery but also a look back to the days when fantasy was expletive-free and concentrated on virtues such as honour, duty and loyalty to friends.

Set in Baghdad at the end of the eighth century, during the rule of Harun al Rashid, the heroes are Asim and Dabir, captain of the guard and scholar respectively. Stumbling across a legendary treasure, they are soon embroiled in a quest that becomes progressively more dangerous, going from scrape to scrape; people are killed on a regular basis but Jones does not linger over the gory details.

The pace of the book is steady and full of event, which means that it reaches the point by the halfway mark that other books might see as the end; Jones, however, manages to pack a lot of action into the second half of the book; there’s no anticlimactic wind-down to disappoint the reader.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and agree with the reviewer’s quote which described it as a cross between Sinbad and Indiana Jones. If you like either of those, or even if you think that Swords and Sorcery is not the genre for you, give this one a try.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Long John Silver



I’ve just finished this one and had to take the opportunity to recommend it to anyone who likes a good pirate story. But it’s more than that, actually. Not only does it riff off the original Treasure Island but it takes the Silver character and fleshes him out in a way that’s wholly respectful of the source material and yet at the same time very much an original creation.  The prose is excellent and totally in character for the eighteenth century, made all the more impressive that it was written in Swedish and translated brilliantly into realistically briny and nautical English.

Larsson’s Silver is a compelling and fascinating individual, powered by the desire to live on after his inevitable demise. To this end, he sets to penning his autobiography from the island sanctuary to where he has retired. Larsson has given him a truly memorable history, full of incident and adventure, stuffed to the gunwales with authentic period detail. Real characters and events mix with the fictional creations and it seems from the author’s postscript that the former might well outweigh the latter.

At a certain point, Silver starts to realise that the literary character bearing his name has taken on a life of his own; in a way, the act of writing down his account of his life is almost hastening his end. The flesh and blood fades away as the legacy steps forward to take its turn in the spotlight.

For all the treachery, bloodshed, rapacity and lusty seafaring, Silver’s character comes across as immensely likeable in a strange way. He breaks from the linear narrative several times, at one point encountering Daniel Defoe in a London tavern, assisting the author with his work “General History of the Pyrates” on the condition that Silver himself is left out.  As the story continues, an air of melancholy infects the narrative as, one by one, the old pirates are hunted down or die in mires of vomit and brandy. Just as Pike Bishop saw out the era of the traditional outlaw, so Silver stands as sentry at the exit door for such colourful characters as Flint, Taylor, Hands and England.

A thoroughly enjoyable work and recommended – not just for pirate enthusiasts but for anybody who is starting to look at the story of their own life and wondering how they will be read by generations to come. 

Sunday, 5 May 2013

In The Shadow of the Sword




This book is not an easy read; firstly, it takes, as one of its objectives, a review of the historical evidence regarding the birth of Islam and the conclusions to which Holland has come have attracted the opprobrium of certain adherents of that faith.

Right, that’s the elephant in the room out of the way. Secondly, the book covers a period from 224 to 800, which is a lot of years to cram into 430 pages (which does not include the chronology – vital – the dramatis personae – likewise – and the many pages of supplementary notes on the points raised in the chapters.) This is not a book to rush through; it will need the backflipping of pages to refresh yourself on details that you may have noticed but – due to the densely-packed narrative -  you might have forgotten about.

This is because Holland’s prose style is almost novelistic and this makes his account of the end of the classical world and the rise of the three monotheistic faiths and their transformation into the religions we know today a very entertaining read.  The bloodthirsty nature of both large-scale events – battles, massacres and plagues – and individual deaths (often gruesomely described with relish by Holland) is brought into sharp focus and we’re never allowed to forget that these deeds were carried out by men who firmly believed that what they were doing was right and sanctified.

Because he does not focus primarily on a simple chronological progression but rather examines his topic subject by subject, we retread the same years but from different perspectives. Holland slowly builds up his evidence in the style of a lawyer presenting his case; such is his technique that when he finally drops his bombshells, as outlined above, you find yourself nodding to yourself and saying “Ah yes, of course, I see it now.”


If you're able to give this book the time it deserves, you'll find it sheds a great deal of light on an area which has previously been thought merely a transition between the ancient and mediaeval worlds; in fact, this era was much more than that - incipient within it were the seeds of a major element of the world in which we live now.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Peace In Our Time

Two boys and their mother, through a haze of steam
sit in the kitchen, reading books, listening to the radio
while, many miles away, their father has a smoke.
Their mother says “your dad could be home soon, boys”,
her dress smudged with floury fingerprints, white on black,
as she tries to marshal rations and scraps into a meal

the boys will eat. It seems to be like every other meal
these past six years. The whistle of a distant steam
train cuts through the austere mood. One boy, black
hair cut so short, looks up. There is a tune on the radio
that he knows. His brother hums it too. The two boys
wonder about their father. He, closer, enjoys another smoke,

then opens his paper. In the kitchen, the smell of smoke
cuts through the heady dampness of the coming meal,
which alerts the mother to a burning pan. “Go outside, boys
and see if you can’t fix that old bike”. The distant steam
train, not so distant now, whistles again. On the radio
the news is of towns with German names, black

marketeers, bombs on Japan.  In the kitchen, the black
stove radiates heat. The mother remembers the smoke
from the raids on London, hearing about it on the radio
and wondering if her husband was due leave. Her meal
sits and simmers, softening blandly. To let the steam
escape, she opens the windows, and hears the boys

talking. The older of the two says that other boys
at school who have lost their fathers have to wear black
armbands for two years. Their father, getting off the steam
train five miles distant, looks across fields, chimney smoke
like ribbons winding into the sky. He hungers for a meal
cooked at home. He is tired of working on army radio

equipment, and wants to make pots again. On the radio
that morning, he heard about home, peace, our brave boys
but he remembered the brave boys whose last meal
was tack biscuits, a canteen of water. The boys’ hands are black
with oil from the old bicycle; though they do not yet smoke,
in the cooling afternoon, their breath comes out as steam.

The boys wash their black hands, breathing in the hot, moist
steam from the basin. They smell cigarette smoke on the air
and, walking in for his meal, their father sings like the radio.