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One Year On…

A year ago today – 29th August 2009 – while eagerly waiting for my Open University Creative Writing course to begin, I posted my first blog post.

It was a short story called Shoes. I thought at the time that it was a freewrite; I gave myself a very limited time to come up with something based on a prompt. Looking back I realise that it was actually an unedited first draft of a short story. I’ve just read it again and realise that it’s not bad for a first draft.

And now – coincidentally – as if marking that first year, I was given the privilege of being the NormBlog profile this week. Over on Norman Geras’s blog: NormBlog Profile No. 362

What I have learnt over the past year is that a course in itself is not enough. My writing style, the me that comes through hasn’t changed. From studying I have learned essential rules and valuable skills and also how to accept criticism, how to meet deadlines, and how to focus on one’s reader. I loved the course and thought it was worth every penny and it has encouraged me to study at a higher level to obtain a diploma and hopefully a degree. But the courses in themselves don’t give me much of an audience. I had a brilliant, lovely tutor and a handful of students (that I now class as friends) who shared and critiqued work but that was a tiny restrictive audience and we always knew we were writing to please a marking system.

Blogging has formed the missing link in all this. I know when I post a story or a comment to my blog that it will be read by people from all walks of life and sometimes all over the world. These are the people I want to reach. These people don’t give me marks out of one hundred. People can tell me if I’ve reached them, connected with them, struck a chord, how they can relate to what I’ve written… personal stuff that tutors and exam markers can’t tell me.

In the 3 month break between courses I have written more than ever, boldly gone into the realms of entering competitions, thrown myself into online flash fiction and mingled with writers online who are actually daring to write stuff without having it academically assessed by an official marker! It has given me enormous thrills and companionship and the confidence to think beyond a percentage mark, a diploma, a degree and just write for the pure love of it. I have a heavy year of study ahead of me but I can remind myself what I’m doing it for now. Thanks to everyone who reads this. I appreciate it.

Comfort Food

Decision made, deed done. Everything could go back to normal now and his family need never find out. So why didn’t he feel lighter? Why did he feel so troubled, sorry and guilty?

Adam dressed and went downstairs at the usual time, put the kitchen TV on and rummaged around in the cupboard for cereal. He sighed. He wasn’t hungry but he knew it would be noted and there would be questions if he didn’t eat, so he chose one of Millie’s kids’ cereals for a change. There was something comforting about the primary colours and child-friendly design. The jolly little shapes tinkled brightly in his bowl. Same stool at the breakfast bar, same morning news programme, same thumping, voices and watery bathroom sounds from above.

He looked down at his phone, thinking of Jess. He started to text her. ‘Hi. So sorry. Can’t stop thinking about you. Hope you’re ok?’
He didn’t send it.
They’d promised each other. No more texts. No one must know. He turned his phone off and turned his attention to his cereal. He forced in a couple of mouthfuls and looked up at the TV.

Poor Jess.

This was deep. He knew in years to come he would still feel scarred. He would carry what had happened forever and possibly never get to share it.

‘Don’t talk to me. Don’t talk about it,’ she’d said. ‘It hurts too much. I know we’ll see each other around the place but I’d rather we kept away from each other. Please?’
So that’s what they’d done. Or tried to do. He tried to block it and pretend it had never happened. But when she didn’t come in on Friday he knew why and he ended up looking it up on the Internet at lunchtime.
At eight weeks of pregnancy a six-week-old foetus is about one point six centimetres long… He got out a ruler and looked at one point six centimetres.

All weekend he’d thought about her bravery, her pain, his shame. This shouldn’t have happened.

He clenched his fist and thumped his forehead with his knuckles. ‘Awww Jess,’ he whispered, ‘I’m such an idiot. I’m so sorry.’

He forced himself back to the here and now. Life had to go on for them both. Separately. He looked at the time. He had a bus to catch in fifteen minutes and there was still three quarters of a bowl of cereal to negotiate. The multi-grained shapes floated soggy and lifelessly in the off-white swamp.
One point six centimetres…
He began to feel his chest heave and stomach lurch with an unfamiliar combination of sorrow and disgust and he swallowed hard to control it. He had to stop himself crying. He mustn’t cry in front of Millie whom he could hear bumping down the stairs now, chattering incessantly to her mother.

‘Morning love.’ A woman’s affectionate hand ruffled his hair and then she kissed the top of his head. Adam grunted and stared at the TV as he knew would be expected of him. But Millie, clever Mille, had spotted the difference.

‘That’s my cereal. He’s eating my cereal!’

‘That’s okay, Millie,’ said her mother, ‘there’s plenty left.’
She sat opposite Adam, blocking his view of the TV and examined his face. ‘What’s up love? Not hungry? C’mon. It’s me. I always know when something’s up.’
‘Oh… um… they were just talking about road accidents a minute ago and it made me think about when Cookie got run over.’
‘Bless him – the daft dog. But he was fifteen Ad’ and that’s a good old age for a dog, you know?’

She sighed and patted his hand. ‘It’s so sweet that all you have to worry about is our old dog. Oh – to have that innocence back again. Just school and mates. No commitments or worries at all, you lucky so-and-so. Long may it last. So cheer up young man and tell me what you’d like to do for your sixteenth birthday.’

A Person I Know Well…

I have a photo of her riding a horse before she began using hair-straighteners; a white-knuckled grip on the reins as they take a jump together. In those days, she drew horses and she drew horses and she drew horses. She drew horses until she could draw horses that looked like horses; from the first time she picked up a pencil until the first time she picked up a rock music magazine. Now she draws musicians, goes to their concerts and they autograph her drawings in admiration. Now her hands don’t grip reins, they spend hours controlling her hair and dancing over the strings of a guitar or the keys of her netbook.

She never returns my tweezers or my scissors and when I go to find them, her room looks like it’s been burgled. She sends me texts from the school bus to say ‘By the way, I’ve got a boyfriend…’ ‘My school report is on my desk…’ ‘I’ll be late home tonight.’
If you ask her, ‘Did you turn off your hair straighteners?’ she will always reply, ‘Yes,’ but the red light and the plug in the socket give a different answer.
If you ask her, ‘ Do you have any homework?’ she will reply, ‘No,’ but then her school report gives us a different answer.
Father’s Day came and went without a card or present while she moshed, mingled and burnt her skin in the June sunshine at a music festival and served cream teas to holiday-makers to earn money to buy more clothes.
She thinks about gigs, freedom and where she will go to university but when she forgets to eat properly, forgets to sleep properly, she lets me feed her, kiss her goodnight and send her to bed.

~~~~~

Inspired by the ten-minute writing exercise in last quarter’s Leaf Writers’ Magazine (which is fab and glossy!) to write about someone you know well without using adjectives, adverbs or abstract nouns to describe them.

Equilibrium

A quickie inspired by different thoughts mulling around my head for different reasons today…

The yoga and Tai Chi sessions on the wide sloping hotel lawn at dawn following early nights and early morning herbal teas; the perfect balance achieved by exactly the right amount of sleep, fluid and ‘mental attitude improving’ positions had grounded her. Everything was quiet, gentle, slow motion, thoughtful. After the first two days she had stopped drinking alcohol and caffeine, stopped biting her nails, fell asleep easily at night and now towards the end of week two could feel the strength in her back complimenting the strength of her mind. The anger and food cravings had passed, her countenance had softened and her equanimity had been restored to a state she couldn’t remember ever achieving before. As she took a ‘deep, deep breath from the diaphragm’ and prepared to ‘hold, hold, hold the position,’ she saw Sean and Jake running up from the beach after an early morning surf for their cooked breakfast and strong fresh coffee without her in the hotel conservatory as they had done every morning this holiday. Picturing Sean stepping into the shower in half an hour’s time, satiated by all but one of his favourite earthly pleasures she succumbed to an overriding desire to forsake the yoga, leg it ungracefully after him, lick her husband’s salty shoulder before challenging him to a tequila and card game tournament later that night knowing it would result in them spending their last day of the holiday blighted by alcohol poisoning.

Why dump @StephenFry & keep @LlamaKevin?

I joined Twitter in April 2009 because I was lonely and depressed. I wasn’t looking for love or a social life though, I was (and still am) married to the love of my life and don’t particularly like social commitments. I had started studying with the Open University again, had three children – one of whom was still pre-school – and I was suffering terribly from the recent vicious illness and subsequent death of my father. I wanted to share experiences and knowledge with like-minded people.
I was also quite simply over-powered by an enormous desire to write full-time and looked on Twitter for other writers. Without a clue where to start, I followed a few famous authors.

I also followed a few comedians and celebrities that I admired, such as Stephen Fry, Bill Bailey, David Mitchell and Bill Oddie (Bill Oddie, mainly because he was at school with my dad).

It took almost a year to get right but eventually I was tweeting with other OU students, juggling parents, writers and generally fun, intelligent people. I began to notice that complete strangers were often as funny, fun and intelligent (if not more so) than many celebrities and my followers and followees lists became more and more made up of male and female writers (mainly chatty females!), natural comedians, life observers and caring, sharing REAL people. I stopped following most of the famous people because they turned out to not be very interesting or obsessed with footie.

I am interested by other people’s recommendations as to who to follow and will follow fellow writers first and foremost. But I also follow back if a local person follows me or if I like the comments in someone’s twitter stream. People that write – in whatever phase of their career – are very interesting to me and I follow with great interest that first idea for a novel, a competition long-list/short-list/win, short story submission success, experiences of struggling with a family, etc, etc… I also love the sharing of useful and helpful information and websites. The ‘Retweet’ facility – although it may annoy some, has proved very useful.
I have a handful of favourite people on Twitter and they are in a private (at least I hope it’s private!) list. They to me are like real friends. I hope they feel the same.

By far THE best thing that has happened to me this year is the sharing of my writing and the reading of other people’s. I read a lot of writers’ blogs. I don’t always get time to comment so I send them a Twitter message or I retweet a link to show my appreciation. Feedback is essential to writers and I love it.
I have gained so much confidence this year from people who have read the Haiku on this blog that I thought were rubbish and I now participate in a weekly flash fiction group and let others know by using the hashtag #FridayFlash and posting to the fabulous @jmstro ‘s Utopia site

The support and camaraderie have been tremendous.

Today it finally became clear that there wasn’t anyone I wanted to follow if I couldn’t interact with them. If I want to know what Stephen Fry is up to there are plenty of retweets of his comments. I love him to bits but let’s face it – it’s a one-way street! I have also dumped any authors that don’t interact or reply to my messages. They are either too busy or too rude or both. The lovely ones remain (smile).

By the way Llama Kevin is real.

Omission

‘Sorry – do you mind? I’ll just sit here on the floor. I won’t get in your way.’

‘Doesn’t bother me. Seems a shame with that lovely skirt though. An hour they give me for these loos. An hour, I tell you! I could clean all day and still not get rid of that smell. Gawd knows what they do in here Friday nights and I’m not sure I want to know.
Someone’s wedding, is it?
Oh, there, there. Have some bog roll. Emotional things – weddings. A winter wedding, hey? Did she wear white?’

‘Hasn’t happened yet. Twelve o’clock. But I’m not sure she should marry. I don’t think she’ll be faithful.’

‘And you’re wondering whether to say something to the groom before it’s too late?’

‘Something like that. Be easier to stay here and not go at all.’

‘Sit there as long as you like, love. Nice buttonhole. What are they?’

‘Snowdrops for hope, violets for faithfulness. Talk about setting yourself up for disappointment.’

‘You married?’

‘Not yet.’

‘Still young, plenty of time. Me and Don never married. He wasn’t perfect but I loved him. I learnt to ignore him straying because it was better than the alternative.’

‘Which was?’

‘Not being with him.
Five to, love. You’ll miss it.’

‘It’s okay. They won’t start without me.’

‘You’ve pulled all the violets out.’

‘That leaves me with hope. It’s better than the alternative.’

‘It’s your wedding? But you said…
So who’s the lucky feller?’

She is. Bye.’

‘Oh…’

Venn and the Art of Paper Bandages

When it is all over.
When the cards and flowers cease, when the concern is no longer manifest, when the customary obligations tumble back into your path and the time has come to stop drinking yourself into a stupor every night. When you are stalked by a dark shadow-ghost, when you close your eyes at night and cannot think, blink or dream away the agonising picture memories of suffering and death. When you wake bruised with tiredness and remember that nothing is the same. When crime and horror films do not entertain but trouble and scratch at your weakened heart, when suddenly every phone call might herald bad news. You know that you are in your own circle.

It always comes back to Venn Diagrams. In a roomful of people at a wedding, a funeral, a birthday, everyone has something or someone in common. Linking arms, embracing, nodding in understanding and recognising similar characteristics creates overlapping relationships, unions. Intersections.

But the salient part belongs only to ourselves, and in our own circle we remain detached in our own cognizance.

The terror of an ugly death and loss of a parent left me bubble-like, floating, bumping, bobbing. I shared many experiences and sights, was involved with group discussions, linked to many by common characteristics and a common cause yet always looked at everything through my eyes, at my father dying, feeling my loss. I began to want less and less to participate.

After eight months I shrank the intersections, rubbed out the unions and retreated from the Venn Diagram. I tried to close my circle, but a great ugly gash remained. Scarred and scared, I was tired of sharing. I wanted solitude. I wanted peace.
The Autumn heard my plea and sent me to a sun-warmed garden step with a notebook and pen to witness blue skies, September sun and busy blackbirds. I found good. I found minute by minute simplicity and I found words. I sat still and enjoyed warmth, softly falling leaves and creaking trees. I wrote for no other reason than I needed to. Pages and pages of colours, shadows, smells and sounds. Mounded damp pages from my tears and from the bathroom where ideas sprang pay homage to nature frantically toiling around me while I merely existed and observed.

A year on, I wander the house with my soft-cover notebooks. I place one beside me each night and reach for it in the morning. I have found comfort and security in the healing properties of ink and tree pulp. I am not yet mended but I am patching myself with paper, righting myself with words and beginning to relearn the art of finding joy and success in recognising those with similar attributes and forming unions and intersections again.

Common Ground

From completely different worlds a parrot and a swan met by chance.
They saw differences immediately. They didn’t think they would get on.
Her parrot friends weren’t too keen on narcissistic swans, always admiring their reflections in the water. His swan friends thought parrots were loud-mouthed show-offs. But for some reason they found each other intriguing and ended up spending time together.

It was tricky. He fought against all his swan snobbery, she fought with her parrot urge to mock him and they fought with each other.
‘It’s not going to work,’ he said eventually.
‘It’s not going to work,’ she repeated.
They went their separate ways.

Days later the parrot found her fellow parrots unusually irritating and flew off to find peace by the river. Looking down she saw the swan necking with a female and knew then that she loved him. Seeing him with a new mate made her wish that she could have been a swan. But she was a parrot so she flew back to her own kind and tried to be a good parrot.
Meanwhile the swan realised that he didn’t enjoy necking with other swans and decided that he missed the parrot’s company. He really wished he could be more colourful and noisy and parrot-like. But he was a swan and couldn’t live amongst parrots.

Yet something deep within both yearned for a life-long partnership and they wandered restlessly beyond their usual boundaries, once again meeting by chance.
‘It was painful to see you with someone else,’ she said, ‘but it helped me realise that I can never be with you.’
‘It’s not that I don’t care for you,’ he said, ‘its just that we’re so incompatible.’
He talked for hours about his family and his home and she told jokes and they preened together. When they said goodbye they carefully placed one white and one red feather crossed on the ground and agreed to meet there as friends the following day.

Over time the pile of feathers grew from two into a cosy nest of yellow, blue, red and white and eventually the two birds stopped going back to their own kind. Away from their old homes their common ground became a place where their friendship could grow. They discovered that they could be close even though they continued to disagree for eighteen years.

After the swan’s death the parrot’s family came looking for her. But not wishing to spend the next forty years without her mate she had wound his limp neck tightly around herself until she could no longer breathe. And there her family found them, entwined together for all eternity.

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