Short story about telegraph poles, read by Julie on the radio

Here is a short story about telegraph poles, recently read so well on Dartington Arts Radio by my friend, talented actor Julie Mullen.

I wrote it as a member of a writing group, where I’ve met so many other brilliant writers and artists. As a writer, I think it’s a real privilege to belong to a creative group, where all types of writers share their work and give feedback. So here’s a big thanks to Gill and the Totnes writing group and Peter and the Solitary Writers in Wellington. Groups provide us with a platform to make our single thoughts shared ones and to give our simple ideas the potential to become complex. Without the encouragement and dedication of group members, so many writers would be scribbling away alone.

 


Telegraph Poles

I see the crowd, a dozen people, all staring up. I push my way through to the front and look up, where they are looking. A dot of a green hat, a smudge of red anorak, a boy dangling.

Callum has the gift. His Daddy has it too, although he’d see it more as a curse than a blessing. His Daddy works away on the oil rigs most of the time and Callum’s Mammy is long gone, so the boy lives with me now. I thought the days were behind me when I’d be turning a teenager with a forehead full of acne out of his bed in the morning, but Callum only has me to look after him.

Of course, being fifteen is the hardest time for the boy. It was the same with his father, but I was younger then and I had a husband to help me and no rheumatism in the legs. Not that my Jacko was a lot of use to me: he’d spend most time in his arm chair with a Guinness in one hand and the horse racing pages in the other, but at least there was another breathing body in the house, another person besides me to patter around the place. Now there’s just me and Callum.

He is a bright boy, Callum. His teachers always said so. Of course, they said a lot of other things too. Like he was a bit mad, a bit different. Anti-social was the usual phrase. Just the same as his Daddy.

I first noticed the gift when he was two. I was reading The Irish Times and he was on my knee with a bottle of milk, sucking at the empty teat. Callum never let go of anything, especially his baby habits. He still sucks on the thumb now. Anyway, he’s on my knee and I’m reading The Times and he says ‘T- for Tiger, I for Ink, M for Monkey, E for Egg, S for Swan.’ I just looked at him. Then I realised it: he wasn’t reading. He was saying the letters from the alphabet book in his room. He’d memorised them. He could say them back to me, at two.

His nursery school teacher said he was incredible: she could send Callum to the library for any book. ‘Go and get ‘The Hungry Giant,’ Callum,’ she’d say and he’d come back with the right book. ‘Go and get ‘The Wind in the Willows.’ Go and get The Holy Bible.’

Every time he’d bring the right book back, and he was only four. He had seen all the covers and he remembered the colours, the words and the pictures.

Then came the Maths and we knew he was a genius. He’d counted a hundred and three telegraph poles between my house in Hamlyn Street and the school. There were sixteen lamp posts between my house and the corner shop. There were seventy two poles between home and The Flying Pig, where we’d go to find his Granddaddy on an evening. And then he’d add them all together.

‘I have seen 382 poles today, Grandmammy,’ he’d say.

Of course, Jacko would take him on: ‘No, Callum, lad, you’ve seen 191.’

‘Yes, Granddaddy, but that was on the way there- we came back as well. That’s 382.’ He was five years old.

The school said he was bright for his age. Then they said he was disruptive, then dysfunctional and finally unteachable. He bit Denis Brady so badly the blood dripped from his arm for ten minutes. He pulled Mollie Flanagan’s hair out by the roots because she called him weird. The head teacher told him to play football downstairs but she took exception to him booting the ball from step to step on the stairway and she was even more angry when she asked him what he was doing and he told her: ‘Exactly what you told me to do- play football down the stairs.’ He didn’t understand why she called him insolent.

Callum doesn’t go to school now. He is home educated, but he is rarely in when Elizabeth Dooley comes round to give him lessons. And I can’t keep him in. He takes off to the fields and spends all day there.

Today’s no different. I woke him up at eight- he likes to be exactly on time-and he came down in his pyjamas, ate his four sausages and two eggs and one piece of buttered white bread, then went to the cupboard looking for the wagon wheel biscuits. His food has to be on the same plate, the same amount, and I’m not allowed to change brands – he’ll know it right away! He is six feet tall almost. Of course, with Callum it has to be exact. ‘I’m 1.8034 meters tall today,’ he tells me, and I believe him because he knows all about meters and I don’t. What I do know is he is tall for his age, he’s growing fast, he eats me out of house and home and his Daddy doesn’t send enough money back from the rigs in the North Sea.

So this morning, Callum puts on his red anorak, the one he chose that had to be red, and his green woolly hat that makes him look a little demented along with the little map points of acne that flare on his face, and his size ten trainers that are now too small but he won’t take them off and let me buy new, even though the water seeps in through the sole. And away he goes, goodness knows where. I imagine he is in the fields down by Massey’s Farm, as he comes back smelling of hay and cow dung and grass. There are a lot of pylons and telegraph poles down there to count and it’s quiet, not many people to disturb him, and I remember his Daddy used to spend a lot of time by the farm at his age and later too, when he used to take Susie Duggan over to the barns and he got her in the family way with Callum.

The day goes fast, what with me deciding to clean the oven and it wears me out so I fall asleep in the big chair Jacko always used to doze in, with the telly on. When I wake up, the air is cold and my skin is prickling, so I put on a jumper. I realise it’s gone seven and I’ve not started to make tea and Callum’s not back yet.

I feel a surge of worry, a little fist at my heart, as he’s always on time. My knees ache a little and my knuckles are swollen from cleaning the oven, but I put on a thick coat and go out.

I turn the corner to Massey’s farm and I see the crowd, a dozen people, all staring up. It’s growing cold but the people smell warm, of sweat and cigarettes, as I push my way through to the front and look up, where they are looking. A dot of a green hat, a smudge of red anorak, a boy dangling from a telegraph pole. He’s shinned right to the top and now he’s calling down at me, waving an arm.

‘I can see the estate from here, Grandmammy. Seven hundred and five houses, a hundred and twenty two bungalows and I can even see The Flying Pig. I can see all over the farm. There are seventy nine cows and fifty six sheep and that makes 540 legs in total.’

Then he lets go; the body falls in an arc and lands with a thump. The crowd are on the move and, despite my aching joints and swollen knees, I am running in front of them. Callum is lying on his back, and his green hat has fallen sideways over one eye, showing dark curls and a livid rash of spots across his brow. He smiles up at me.

‘Seven hundred and five houses, a hundred and twenty two bungalows. If an average of 3 people live in each house…’ His eyelids flutter. ‘…that’s two thousand four hundred and eighty one people…’ I see blood coming from his mouth. Someone has phoned for an ambulance: its whine is in my ears. I kneel down and take Callum’s hand. It is limp.

 

 

 

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When a novel is finished, the editing starts…

Before I wrote my first novel, I used to think that ninety thousand words was quite a lot. Many people tell me that it’s a horrendous amount of work – I often hear people gasp when I say ‘I’m about half way through – I’ve done fifty thousand words…’

It isn’t that bad at all. I’ve written lots of things from scripts to dissertations, so thousands of words don’t really faze me, but a novel is a different animal. Although an essay, in any form, may need re-drafting, upgrading and improving, there is nothing like editing a novel to alter the word count considerably, both up and down.

Some novels will never be finished – they don’t deserve to be. I set myself a twenty to forty thousand word cut-off point with a novel, where I review both what I’ve written and how I feel about it. If I’m not enthused by it and desperate to write more, then I stop and file it away. If I’m not completely caught up in my novel, I can’t expect readers to be blown away either. It’s not a waste – an idea can always come back later in another form.

In truth, I suppose you never really ‘finish’ a novel until it comes out in print. More to the point, there are probably several stages of ‘finishing’ a novel. The first time you ‘finish’ is when you write the last words of the final chapter of the story, add the full stop and then breathe out: ‘Ah yes, that’s the ending I wanted.’ Of course that’s a false finish, one of many false finishes. In some ways, you’ve only just started.

The next stage is editing. I always edit as I write, going back to read through what I’ve written to check for sense, clarity, effective storytelling, style, continuity. That’s part of the revisiting process inherent in writing a novel. But when the work is completed, it’s important to read through the whole thing again, preferably aloud, to check for everything from silly typos, errors of continuity, to tension, character, voice, style and impact. Usually, there’s some dead wood to take out – unnecessary phrases, descriptions, repetition. Often, though, I need to add more words. I’m not an indulgent writer – I often tend to write just the ‘bones’ of a novel, so during an edit I have the opportunity to expand a situation and develop a character or a setting further to improve the effect.  I usually edit the novel twice at this stage and then I walk away for a day or two.

Later, having moved my mind away from my work, in the middle of an inane task an idea usually comes to me about the novel, one that I hadn’t previously thought of – an opportunity to add something that will make the impact even stronger or clarify a character. So I go back, include the new idea and re-read the chapters around it, checking that it’s integrated and that it makes sense in context.

After a couple more edits, it’s time to ask others to comment so that I can edit again, although it’s nice to have a reader ‘on the journey’ with me to test the effectiveness of story and character as I write and to make sure the tension works. I believe in the ‘other heads are better than just mine’ rule, or the ‘I don’t want to get anything wrong so I’ll check everything as much as possible’ rule. I am lucky to know people who always bring something special to my novel.

My partner, Big G, will suck his teeth and shake his head when he reads a certain passage and I’ll gasp ‘Oh no, what have I done?’ and he’ll sigh and say ‘In this paragraph, the (insert any type) car/ plane/ engine/anything mechanical, you’ll find that the engine/ exhaust/ wings/ anything mechanical/ nature/ chemistry/ physics won’t work the way you’ve said, it will work like this… (insert a long explanation I won’t understand…) etc. etc.’ So I change what I’ve written slightly to make the science right. Great to have an engineering perspective and I make the most of this resource all the time.

My agent is brilliant, sharp witted, intelligent, with boundless medical knowledge, grammatical knowledge, literary knowledge: her advice is a priceless resource I always benefit from. I try out chapters on family and friends to check that I’m getting an emotional response when I need one. One of my best responses was where my daughter read the scene where Nan comes to the rescue in The Age of Misadventure, and she clapped and cheered. The memory still brings tears to my eyes.

Then there are more edits. Everything from genre to gerunds comes under scrutiny, not to mention the legal perspective that could cause a very awkward situation if there is something in a novel that isn’t allowed to be included. It’s useful to work with professionals who understand marketing too. A clever editor might suggest ‘This novel will be out in the spring – you’ve written it to take place in the autumn. Can you change the seasons to coincide with the release date?’ It makes absolute sense when you think about it.

The advice that writer Stephen King gives about ‘killing our darlings’ (*) is good: we should never be afraid of rejecting whole chunks, characters or chapters if it’s not making the novel the best it can be. It doesn’t help to cling on to what we’ve written unless we are sure it is for the good of the whole finished novel. Flexibility is so important when we’re involved with editing. Most things we eventually change in our novels make total sense in terms of the overall package. If a writer thinks ‘But I’d rather keep this character or scene this way,’ we have to be sure it’s for the readers’ benefit and not because we, as writers, have developed a false illusion of its worth, which is very easy to do as a creative artist, always emotionally involved in the process.

Then there’s the incredible moment of realisation that the draft has become a real novel: it has a release date, a title, a front cover. But it’s still not finished: after line edits, word edits, type setting, there’s still one final chance to go through it all again. I always find that last edit quite scary: it’s the last opportunity to make changes before it’s too late.

I’ve just finished another novel this week and I’m pleased with it. It’s a great feeling, a bit like how it must feel to have constructed a newly-designed model aeroplane and now it’s about to be tested on the air. Are the conditions right? Will it fly? Will there be bumps on the way? Is it made of strong stuff to take any knocks and to withstand all weathers? Do I need to make some modifications or are any radical reconstructions needed before it can take off and soar? It’s at this point that I have to believe that it has strong wings and isn’t filled with lead. Self- belief comes from the instinct that what is on the page works and the knowledge that I’ve edited well.

Metaphors aside, finishing a novel is also about changing headspace and leaving the past work behind. It’s about clearing the mind, moving away from the story and the characters and doing something else, preferably outside, preferably in the sunshine, walking in the woods, lazing on a beach or travelling in the van.

There are two benefits to taking time out, other than the ‘I deserve it’ moment: rewards are something I don’t do for myself often enough. One payback is that when I return to a novel and read it freshly, if it feels good, makes me laugh and cry, entertains and moves at a cracking pace and makes me happy: then I know I’m on the right path. And secondly, taking time off from writing has a replenishing effect. One set of thoughts are blown away and a space is cleared for a new idea and project to float in. It’s a kind of spring-cleaning of the mind and the emotions that every writer needs – permission to move forward, if you like.

The truth is that I already have my next novel idea in my head; I’ve thought up the tension, the characters and setting. I just need to give my mind time and space to fill in a few gaps before I go back to plan a bit and then move to the computer and hammer it all out on the page, another ninety thousand words. Then the process starts again.

(*) ‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’ (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

My unconventional relationship with the sofa, based on Dr Who and the Champions’ League semi final game

 Perhaps I should start by saying that the only time I sit down conventionally is when I’m writing at the computer. And that is hardly conventional sitting – my cat, Colin, is behind me on my chair, occupying three quarters of the seat, so I am perched on the end, which isn’t a bad thing as it leans me myopically closer to the screen and the keyboard. Colin is purring, I’m typing away, so it’s a symbiotic situation that leaves me with a warm butt and Colin with a feeling of being connected to the person that feeds him.

Most of the time at home, I sit on the floor. At mealtimes, I am sometimes at the table, sometimes on the move, but for the purposes of reading or watching TV, I’m on the floor or on the exercise bike.

So – the situation with the sofa is as follows. I have one – a sort of soft sofa that visitors or family can lie full-length on with a cup of tea, nodding off if they wish, with a cat stretched across their torso. Sofas provide comfort. But, for me, a sofa provides more comfort than simply a place to stretch out and relax. A sofa is a sort of safe grandparent figure.

I only had one grandparent, and that’s a story for another blog. My Nanny Leigh was lovely but she wasn’t your conventional grandparent who lived in a conventional place and did conventional things. I certainly wouldn’t have crawled onto her knee for comfort. She’d have giggled and said something to me I wouldn’t have understood. So perhaps it’s not surprising that sofas are places I go to seek solace.

It started when I was a child, the first time I watched Dr Who and the Daleks. I was petrified. So, of course, I hid behind the old sofa and peered out at the scary metal creatures with the protruding stick arm that killed everyone with a blast of radiation and turned them into skeletons.

The good thinking about a sofa, and hiding behind one, is that it is big. You can duck behind it and just listen to the scary sound effects, or you can peek round the corner, having a huge barrier of safety, a wedge of furniture between you and the terrifying thing on the screen. It is also soft and giving, like a big hug, so you can lean against it and believe you are getting support from something larger and therefore less vulnerable than you are. Its solidity is solace itself.

Years later a student of mine, Magic Dave, recommended Gothika as a film he said I’d enjoy. Enjoy is one of those peculiar words. I did enjoy Gothika, but in the way that I’d have enjoyed having my toenails plucked out singularly for the fun of it. I watched the entire film behind the sofa, scared witless.

Peering out at Halle Berry’s psychologically terrifying and thrilling performance was even worse than the daleks. I took out my contact lenses and hid behind the sofa, peering out blindly occasionally to guess if the screen was safe enough to watch. I’d formed a habit now – the sofa was a shelter, a den and a giant brave grandparent all rolled into one.

And, of course,  there was the question of football. I’ve even put squashy cushions behind the sofa now, a duvet, pillows, a flask of soup, for watching football. Istanbul, the Champions league final of 2005, found me camped out for the entire 90 minutes plus extra time plus the heart-stopping Dudek heroics of the penalty shootout. And, cowardy custard that I am, I’ve hung out behind the sofa for most Liverpool games this season, both Premiership and Champions’ League.

This leads me to the Barcelona game last Wednesday, the game we lost 3-0 and still played very well. I was shivering behind the sofa singing ‘He’s Virgil Van Dyke’ at the top of my voice, clutching my flask of soup, hiding, peering out for a few seconds then diving back when the going got tough.

So, this Tuesday, with a 3-0 deficit, the game at Anfield, where will I be watching the entire match? I’ll be behind the sofa. I have no idea what will happen in terms of the final outcome, but I’m hoping for a miracle, a good result, the way my team often succeed by doing things the hard way and respond to adversity with heroics. We might score the first goal, a second before half time and then the second half is poised for a third goal. This will evoke memories of Istanbul, (seen from behind the sofa.) Messi may not turn up and maybe Mo Salah will. Maybe he’ll be fit and Sadio Mané will be on a roll and I may even be able to crawl out from behind the big sofa and watch some of the action before ducking back and shaking like a leaf, screaming ‘I can’t watch, I can’t watch’ at the screen.

Statistically, given that we’re three goals down, it’s possible that we’ll lose and I may emerge from behind the sofa to watch it all, Messi scoring the first, Suarez the second, and I’ll sit and watch the heroics of my team, playing well, missing sitters, not being quite incisive enough to score when we should have nailed it, but deserving to have found the net for a goal or two. I imagine I’ll sigh and be philosophical and say ‘Well, on another day we’d have won.’ ‘Who can play against that kind of Messi free kick?’ ‘We played much better than the result shows’ and ‘Next year, we’ll be there…’ I won’t need to be behind the sofa if we are five down on aggregate – the result would be a foregone conclusion, so therefore there’d be no tension, no fear. I’d be safe sitting on the floor in front of the screen in the knowledge that we’d lost.

But at least, although my air-borne dreams of football and trophies will have been dissipated, the sofa will be there in all its avuncular firmness, and I’ll be able to hide next season when, of course, my team will be beak with a vengeance, fully fit, ready to win the league, the Champions’ league, even do the treble.  The duvet and pillows and flask of soup will be at the ready and I’ll be able to dive behind for safety at any moment when a penalty is given, listening for the roar of the crowd to tell me whether we’ve scored or not before I can creep out safely and cheer.

I have a lot of reasons to be grateful to my sofa. But sitting on it is the last thing I use it for – unless guests come round and they’re not in my house to watch horror films or football.