The Good the Bad and the Unreadable

It would not be an exaggeration to say that writing has spoiled reading for me. This is not to say that I no longer read. I do. In fact I consider that reading-widely and variedly-is essential for anyone hoping to produce any written work of their own. But the sheer hedonistic escapism that ensues when you are engrossed in a rip-roaring, breath-taking story is rare nowadays.

I became a voracious reader as a child, devouring the written word as soon as I could read; beginning with fairy stories and developing an appetite for fantasy in the form of the Narnia books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and the Alan Garner novels. A friend with a penchant for Enid Blyton led me to flirt briefly with The Famous Five but I was soon disenchanted by the formula aspect of the plots [although I was keen to replicate the ‘gang’ aspect by forming a club and pursuing some vague exploits].

Later I flogged my way through Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, indulged in an Ian Fleming phase with some gentile porn thrown in [a furtive, febrile partaking of Lady Chatterley plus a few dismembered sections of Frank Harris’s ‘My Life and Loves’ undertaken during geography lessons and passed around partly opened desks-little wonder I was not invited to pursue my geographical studies].

Later, during my hippy phase I spent every spare moment during one week reading The Lord of the Rings and became sucked in to the extent that when Gandalf disappeared down the chasm I was devastated to the point of despair and felt my own life to be at an end. Such is the susceptibility of youth-and Tolkien’s writing of course.

As a student I was influenced to read more widely and began to enjoy modern classics like Catcher in the Rye or Sylvia Plath’s fascinating and darkly comic The Bell Jar. I became aware that there were differences between good and poor writing.

Once real life had set in with the onset of work, marriage and babies there was a hiatus in my reading while I dipped into Dr Spock and Penelope Leach whilst wringing out the nappies. Still later, teaching left no time or energy for reading outside of holiday periods, when I’m sad to say pure escapism took over in the shape of thrillers. There was a Stephen King period, a Ruth Rendell/P D James/Minette Walters period and even a Lee Child stage before, short of a book I stumbled upon a dog-eared paperback in a hotel in The Gambia. It was The Blind Assassin. The title grabbed my attention then I was gripped, following up by reading more Margaret Attwood. I discovered Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and began to read Sebastian Faulkes, Ian McEwan etc

At last the work of good writers lured me into having a bash myself-a foolish notion. The work of such writers only serves to underline how futile my own attempts are. Worse than this-the [still published] work of poor writers induces a powerful frustration. I wasted a lot of time last year trying to read ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’, which won the Booker Prize!

Onwards and upwards…

Advertisements

Fiction Month Week 3-New Short Story Begins Today!

Caught

Trap! Paralyse! Consume! An unwitting moth flutters in an innocent, random pattern only to be ensnared, caught in a mesh of elastic threads, thrashing wildly but doomed as the predator pounces to inject the body with piercing jaws, stilling the spasms, rolling it with rapid efficiency into a food parcel; to be consumed later.

Here in my father’s back yard, in the still warm air of a September evening, I am glad of a distraction from my task. I light a cigarette and inhale, watching the curling twist of smoke wind upwards. Excitement over, the rotund spider withdraws to the shadows, out of sight until aroused by the next tweak.

Back inside I gaze around at the devastation I’ve wrought and think it’s enough for today. Amidst the piles of books, sets of musical scores, files of correspondence and personal papers in my father’s study there is a box containing old photographs and it is these I’ve been perusing, losing a sense of time both literally and figuratively as I delve back into his life; a jumble of grey-brown, faded and dog-eared images chronicling events and scenes, depicting some characters I remember and many I do not.

I realise I am hungry but have no wish to eat here, alone amongst the detritus. I will walk down through the village to the pub. Before leaving I slip a photo into my pocket, a picture of Imberton Village Dance Band on stage. In the twilight, the quiet of the somnolent village street is punctuated only by the last, retiring song of a blackbird as he defends his province and by the distant, mechanical hum of a lawnmower.

To stroll along this street is to walk in my childhood steps, the way I went to school; down along the hot tarmac, treading on the raised tar bubbles that erupted like sticky larva under the sun’s  hot rays. Here in the gateway by the open field my brother and I paused to see who could pee the furthest as our exuberant, steaming fountains arced over the gate. On past St Mary’s where we languished, imprisoned at Sunday school, the time hanging heavy until we could loosen our collars and race back home to lunch, through the ivy clad churchyard, whose deceased inhabitants now play host to a newly interred inmate.

It is growing dark by the time I am level with the gravel track that slopes up towards Abbott’s, where a lone street lamp casts enough light for me to make out vestiges of the faded imprint on the side of the building; ‘Abbotts Grocery’. I pause for a moment, remembering. The old red brickwork had been painted yellow, the words in red and green, though now all that is visible is a faint square of flaking cream with a few pinkish lines. Old Ma Abbott, who’d seemed ancient to my seven year old self, must be long gone by now. But what of June? To my naive, infant scrutiny she had appeared grown up, although she couldn’t have been much more than sixteen when we plagued the shop in our crude, heedless bids for amusement. She would greet us, soft voiced, smiling with wide spaced, guileless eyes like a baby fawn’s as she tipped Rhubarb and Custards from a jar into a paper bag or ladled out ‘Eiffel Tower’ lemonade powder. I’d peer at her upswept, beehive hairdo and the way her wide skirt fanned out like daisy petals, buoyed up by layers of stiff petticoats as she climbed the step to replace the jar.

I’d been the youngest, tolerated but not acknowledged, the tagger-along, more spectator than participant as we roamed the village in search of diversion. We built dens, made bows and arrows or rudimentary, wooden guns, climbed the hay bales in Worts’ barn, fished in the stream, spoke in hushed whispers about the mysterious Bryant sisters, whose nocturnal activities had provoked speculative gossip from our parents. We played endless games of Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers, when my involvement was accepted if I agreed to be the Indian, or the ‘baddie’ and submitted to the inevitable tying to a post to be danced around and jeered at or executed by bow and arrow or firing squad.

A few heads turn as I enter the pub, one or two nodding and murmuring in uneasy recognition. I am known to them nowadays only by association with my father. They are caught in the uncomfortable circumstances that accompany a meeting with the newly bereaved. I order my meal and take my pint to a lone, corner table, allowing them to continue their conversations unburdened by the obligation of sympathy.

While I wait I withdraw the photo and place it on the table. The band members are on a wooden stage flanked by velvet curtains in what looks like the village hall. My father is seated on a stool at an upright piano, to the right of the picture so that his face is only visible in profile, mouth open, his head tilted down, intent on his fingers as they depress the keys; one foot underneath pushing down on a pedal. To the left of the stage his brother Dib sits leaning forward to strum his banjo, a bowler hat perched at a jaunty angle, staring a broad grin into the camera despite the cigarette jutting from the corner of his lips. I guess that the slim, smiling woman in the centre at the microphone, dressed in a neat, dark frock with a lace collar is Doris Lampard. Behind them, less distinct are a guitarist and a drummer.

I am aware of someone standing at my elbow; a stooped, portly, elderly figure leaning on a stick, sharing my view, peering with rheumy eyes at the picture. I recognise him as Arnold Goodridge, one of my father’s friends, although I’m unsure of the connection. Perhaps he’d been a fellow parish council member, or they went to cricket matches together.

“That would have been a Saturday nighter,” he says, gesturing at the photo. “There’s your Dad, on the old Joanna, and your Uncle Dib up front. He was a lad, that Dib!”

The bloodshot eyes are lit with interest as he leans forwards to peer closer. I pull out a chair, inviting him to sit and he accepts my offer of a pint. He squints at the aged image, pinching it by the narrow, white border as he holds it up to the light.

“I know that Doris used to sing,” I tell him, “but who are the other two- the guitarist and the drummer?”

I wait while he examines the scene, his breathing rapid and wheezy, the sound my father’s piano accordion made when he was warming it up. He takes so long to answer his pint arrives and he lifts it to take a long draught before he speaks.

“That there,” he prods the guitarist in the picture with a thick, stubby finger, “is old Ernie Brabrook. He used to have the butchers, up on the Copseway. That’s up the road behind your Dad’s place. And that fellow behind the drums is Dick; Dick Abbott that had the grocers shop. You’ll remember that from when you was a nipper.”

I nod.

“I do remember. Walking past it tonight made me think of when we used to go up there for sweets. I’m afraid we went in more for the thrill than to buy anything. We were terrified of Mrs Abbott so we dared each other to enter.”

The old man smiles his understanding.

“Oh ah! She was a hard woman, Mae Abbott. Bitter, with a wasp sting for a tongue. Weren’t no one missed a tongue lashing from Mae at some point. ‘Course Dick got it the worst. He spent as much time as he could out of her way; he had his grocer’s round in the daytime, doing deliveries, then he’d be out with the band as often as you like, four or five nights a week sometimes. He played in the darts team, too.”

“So Mae didn’t go along to see the band? I suppose if Dick was on stage she’d have no partner for dancing.”

“Mae? No! She weren’t one for dancing. Back when they was first married she had June to look after. She only ever went out on a Sunday, to church, as I recall.”

“June must have been born quite soon after they were married, then.”

He scratches his head, frowning at his glass.

“Things was different then.”

For now the old man has completed his narrative. He drains his pint and hauls himself to his feet as my meal is delivered to the table with enquiries as to whether I’d like any sauces and another drink.

Arnold is shrugging his coat on, turning to leave then he stops to voice a thought.

“I might have one or two of them photos at home, the band and that. I’ll have a look and bring them round, if you’re interested.”

I am. I thank him.

“Arnold, before you go, can you tell me anything about June? Does she still live in the village?”

He grips the chair back as he faces me, his knuckles white, his breath whistling.

“I’d have thought your Dad would have told you. She passed away. Must have been twenty years ago; not that long after Dick, but before Mae. It were a sad business.”

The spiders have retired for the night when I go out to take a last cigarette in the cool air of the yard. This small space, illuminated by a shaft of light from the doorway is cluttered with accumulated rubbish and scruffy with weeds, neglected and unloved, another task to be undertaken before I leave. My father had been devoted to his small garden, growing gaudy dahlias and rows of fat onions, trimming the hedge and tending the pond, now relapsed into a murky, stagnant pool, clogged with choking blanket weed. When my mother died he’d withdrawn to the house, leaving his beloved plants to fend for themselves, as if the garden itself had been responsible for her death. Grief affects people in strange ways, driving them to relinquish lifetime habits and adopt new ones. I think how little I knew him in the later years, my visits short and peremptory and executed from a sense of duty.

I make my way to bed in the tiny, inhospitable guest bedroom, crawling between slippery sheets topped with unaccustomed, heavy layers of blankets and an eiderdown; the bedding a relic from when we were boys, although never in this cramped bungalow designed for retirement. The elderly bed springs creak and protest as I fidget, sleepless with memory. June Abbott; she’d have been in her sixties now. What had happened to her?

Pass!

One of the phenomena I’ve noticed in the process of getting older is the process of things passing me by. Some of them pass by from my not having noticed them, some from my not liking them and some from my not knowing about them in the first place.

Is this a natural part of ageing? In his dotage my father took impressive steps into the world of new technology when he not only mastered some elements of word processing but also managed email [albeit in a somewhat antiquated manner, beginning all mails with ‘Dear’-letter fashion, unable to quite take in the informality]. He never got to grips with surfing the net, fearing the exposure of his personal details, perhaps his previous role as secretary to the parish council or membership of the village history society.

The phenomenon of ‘Things passing me by’ has crept upon me despite efforts to keep up. I feel it is the tip of a large iceberg, the top of which is visible, the underparts carrying a mass of culture, technology and who-knows-what-else I cannot even dream of. But here are some of the items on the top-the visible-part of the obstacle:

  1. I know what a smartphone is. I own one. But aside from texts it is rarely used, or even switched on, except for an occasional look at internet, as long as it is not too onerous to access. Most of my smartphone is a mystery. I don’t use the camera. It took me over a year to be able to swipe to answer a call [my call-answering is still not reliable]. I haven’t been able to memorise the number. It has passed me by.
  2. I understand that apps are applications. I just don’t use them. It seems that as soon as I have made the effort to acquire one something else has superseded it. ‘WHAT?’ friends and relations cry, ‘You don’t use ‘Picsnap’ or ‘Instabomb’? How do you manage to live? Surely everyone does ‘Smype’? No, they don’t.
  3. Hit TV programmes. I like thrillers. I like corny, old-fashioned cop detective shows, [like soon-to-be-axed ‘New Tricks’]. I can’t get to grips with ‘Game of Thrones’-nor do I want to.
  4. Talent shows. X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent et al. Contrived, hyped and wearisome. The only exception I make is for ‘Strictly’. I recognise few of the ‘celebs’ but I like the dancing, although the programme, with its padding, pretend humour and feeble, contrived banter is nowhere near as good as it was in the beginning. I do not, however feel enslaved to watch every episode.
  5. Contemporary music. By which I mean Rapping [I know it is all social comment/poetry and all that, but I can’t conceive of the likes of Tiny Someone, Master Monotony or Kanter East as actual music], Plastic pop [of the ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ band kind] and that monotonous, thrumming, repetitive techno you are so often assaulted by in European bars. Give me a blast of Eric Burden delivering his stark rendition of ‘Bring it on Home to me’ any day of the week.
  6. Piri-Piri chicken, Nando’s etc. Where and when did Piri-Piri spring from? I went into a Nando’s for a coffee once.
  7. Dresses worn with leggings. No. Pass by. Please.

If all this sounds curmudgeonly it is probably because I am becoming a curmudgeon. Kay Sera.

Fledglings, Families and Feelings

Parenthood is an expensive, glorious, heart-breaking, exhausting, rewarding, demoralising, satisfying and confusing state. There is the fever of anticipation [whether planned or not], the anxiety, the draining tiredness, the anxiety, the frustrations, the pleasures and the…yes…anxiety. And then just when you think you have safely despatched your duty, done your best, got them to fledge, downsized, bought the yacht, booked the world tour, had a lie-in,the inevitable happens-they return!

There is no model for this in nature-although I believe female elephants stay in their families [the boys must go and fend for themselves and prepare for fighting and finding mates]. Baby birds do not return to their nests when they are unable to find worms for themselves, young lions must go out and seek their own gazelle to slaughter and sheep may safely graze unaided once weaned.

The returning, grown-up offspring is a double edged sword. You can no longer gripe about never hearing from them or seeing them. On the other hand you must reclaim the room they once slept in, played and made a mess of, which may now be a beautiful guest room, study, motorbike disassembly workshop, dressing room or pottery studio [or simply a repository for all the items you have no idea what to do with]. You may no longer choose to loll around on the sofa with a bowl of cornflakes and watch ‘Eastenders’ rather than making dinner. You cannot slouch about upstairs ‘au natural’ as the unedifying sight of your [=my] ageing physique is likely to be frightening, and/or sick-making at the very least.

If you are lucky enough to possess multiple rooms with TVs you can avoid conflicts over programmes, although you still can expect scoffing over your choices and disbelief over your ignorance on the subject of films/actors/music from any time from the last twenty years [or more].

There will also be stashes of the kind of snacks you had sought to avoid since children no longer shared your house. You open the fridge and the shelves are stacked with chocolate. The cupboards house multi-packs of Cheesy What-nots or Monster Crunch.

Over time you adapt. You squidge up. You make room on the sofa, in the wardrobe and at the table. You increase your grocery shopping, attempt to avoid the chocolate and try to remember who is the current Dr Who. You begin to appreciate the benefits of having an on-site computer technician who can reclaim lost documents, eradicate malevolent, lurking viruses and show you for the hundredth time how to play your music, not to mention the opportunities to gossip about other members of the family and take girly shopping trips with intermittent coffee and cake.

One day, though it is ended. That’s it. You’ve removed the stabiliser wheels and let go of the saddle.  The room is cleared, cleaned of belongings and fluff; reverted into its original ‘guest room’ status. Bare, clean and sad.

A Bucket Seat Full of Cinematic Musing

It is film award season. Oscars, Golden Globes, ceremonies, red carpets, gowns, overblown, tearful speeches, lovies, tabloid bitching. What fun!

Most the world has adopted the term ‘movie’ these days and although I have stepped cautiously into the use of the word, ‘film’ [if I’m honest] is still my word of choice. I say this because ‘movie’ is what I regard as an Americanism.

I have apologise to American readers here, right at the start of this post, since it will seem as if I am anti-American, which I am not; it is simply that growing up, the terms I was used to hearing were ‘film’, ‘flicks’, ‘the pictures’ and sometimes-‘flea-pit’.

My earliest experiences of going to ‘the pictures’ were treats, to be enjoyed during holidays-or as an escape from relentless rain on one of our family camping jaunts [described in a previous post]. Although there were earlier visits to the cinema, the first film I can recall is seeing ‘Swiss Family Robinson’, the 1960 Disney version, in ‘glorious technicolor’. It was a captivating adventure romp involving shipwreck, pirates, an island, treehouses, wild animals and a dramatic rescue.

As an adolescent, trips to the cinema were at first thrilling first outings alone with friends, then more adventurous attempts to flout censorship laws by getting in to see films we were too young for. It was more about the preparation than the activity, a lengthy Saturday afternoon with cosmetics and wardrobe choices-memorably to get into ‘Cathy Come Home’, a ‘gritty realism’ film about homelessness but containing a birth scene, which I am ashamed to say was the main reason for our attendance.

Soon after this, cinema-going took a new turn with the film itself becoming immaterial, the principal motive being getting ‘a boy’ to take you. This objective, I seem to think was rarely an unbridled success, since some assignations resulted in ‘no-shows’ and those boys who did turn up would have arranged to meet inside the cinema in a bid to escape paying for two tickets.

The cinemas were vast auditoria with prickly upholstery, intermissions, ‘B’ films and Pathé News.

Later I became a fan of thrillers, with Bond a clear favourite, although Sean Connery was, for me the only conceivable choice for the lead and all successors paled in comparison. I also loved the ‘Doctor’ films, mild comedies with gorgeous Dirke Bogarde starring [no one knew he was anything but heterosexual then].

What did most of these films have in common? They were either British made, or were dominated by British actors.

These days I rarely visit the cinema, since Husband seems to dislike film-going. I tried ‘Sky Movies’ but not being a fan of rom-coms, cartoons and action-hero movies I found nothing I could watch! I have, however discovered the joys of ‘Blinkbox’-a streaming system that allows me to catch up on the flicks I’ve missed. Now all I have to do is think what they are.

Fiction Month 4

This week’s contribution to Fiction Month is a flash fiction-a short story in its entirety.

Alfie’s Monster

On the landing, between Alfie’s bedroom and the bathroom there is a monster. He thinks the monster must be nocturnal, because he has been learning about nocturnal animals at school. Alfie has needed to go for a pee for about the last ten minutes, but as yet has been unable to muster the nerve to cross the landing under the monster’s menacing eye.

“I’ll count to twenty” he murmurs “then I’m going.” Proud of his newly acquired skill in counting, remembering that until recently he’d have had to count to ten twice, he begins as slowly as the urgency allows.

A shaft from the landing nightlight illuminates where Alfie’s door is ajar, so he darts first to the edge of the shaft before steeling himself to leap across, hurling himself into safety and slamming the bathroom door. Despite having taken a mere fraction of a second to get there, he catches a glimpse of the fiend that has been threatening to overwhelm him; a huge head balanced upon an open, slavering jaw that mocks him with a rictus grin.

The pounding in Alfie’s chest has subsided by the time he is ready to make the journey in reverse. This time, having opened the door he keeps his eyes screwed shut and launches himself in the direction of his bedroom, knocking his elbow painfully on the bedroom door handle in the process. He dives into bed, plunging beneath the duvet and rolling into a ball like a hedgehog into its daytime nest.

Next morning, as Alfie conducts yet another extensive inspection of the landing, hoping to discover the burrow that the monster is using during daylight hours he can see nothing to suggest a hideaway but for the third time in a week he trips over a plastic sword, shield and helmet that are part of his brother Callum’s medieval knight outfit.

“Watch out!” Yells Callum emerging from the bathroom. “I need that stuff today for my history project.”

Rubbing his knee, Alfie frowns back at him. “Well don’t keep it here then. I hurt my knee on it.”

The period after supper is dominated by an animated account of Callum’s day as a medieval knight, including a reprise of the outfit, during which Callum, in a spasm of over-excitement leaps upon Alfie, shrieking, “Die infidel!” and in wielding his sword manages to capsize a vase and several family photographs. The boys roll together on the carpet, locked in mortal combat, Alfie banging his head on the coffee table and Callum losing his helmet. Their mother comes in to remonstrate, rights the vase and the photos, lifts the helmet from the floor, its visor hanging open. From his vantage point where Alfie sees the helmet’s silhouette on the wall he gasps. The monster!

In the warm, safe haven of his bed, as Alfie reflects on his foolishness the tousled head of his brother peers around his door. “There’s a snake living under your bed. A huge snake! It’s coming to get you!”

A Matter of Time [part 2]

…For anyone who has stumbled here, this is the second part of a short story, part one of which can be read in the previous post…see ‘A Month of Stories’ for an explanation!-

There is a diminutive, amber globe attached to one of the plants, glowing like warm, evening sunlight. She bends to peer at its parent plant. There are two more ripening fruits clinging to the foliage, shining with impudent optimism. Frith stares then throws her head back, an almost hysterical laugh erupting from her lips and her eyes wet with tears.

The sound of footsteps crunching on the path causes her to turn and see the tall, bulky figure of Cal approaching then he is there filling the doorway, his woolly hat jammed tight over his dreadlocks and long scarf wound around his face and neck.

“A brace of coneys,” he tells her. “Not much meat on them but they don’t look to be in too bad a state. We’ll get some broth out of them anyway.”

Her eyes, turned to him are radiant. She shows him the tiny tomatoes illuminating their corner of the greenhouse. “Should we move the plant, do you think, Cal? We could take it inside the house. It might be special, have some immunity. And if we kept the seeds maybe they’d grow into stronger plants still!”

Cal reaches out to pull her to him, enclosing her in his arms, her cheek against the rough tweed of his overcoat. He looks over the top of her head towards the little plant with its defiant tomato warriors and thinks of the children he and Frith might have had. Her face, when it turns up to his, still damp from tears is itself reminiscent of a child’s.

“We’ll leave it be, love. If it is going to resist the blight it’ll do it here. Moving it will make no difference. Come back to the house now and help me skin the rabbits.”

He watches her later, staring at the flames flickering blue around the remnants of decaying logs in the fireplace and knows she is allowing herself to dream of a future.

“Frith love,” he murmurs. “Don’t get your hopes up. I know it was good to see, but not enough to signal any kind of recovery.”

She looks up, frowning, irritated; the extinction of possibility is hard to bear. He takes her hand. “We’ll keep watching it. It could be resistant. Only time will tell.” And he turns back to where the flames are ebbing in the fireplace, reducing the logs to glowing, flaky ash.