The excitement of writing for a competition…

I enjoy writing for specific events or audiences, as there is a kind of precision and framework to be considered. It’s quite an interesting mental exercise when you have a word limit, or when you have to create something for a specific genre. I like writing newspaper or magazine articles, poems, speeches, plays, all of which mean a writer must consider the use of words and the requirements of an audience really carefully. I’ve written things from song lyrics to pantomimes, and I love the mental challenge of slelecting words and phrases that fit a specific framework. Of course, I enjoy writing novels best: I love the freedom of letting a character take over and run with an adventure. But that’s for another blog post.

Recenty, someone in a creative work-sharing group mentioned that they were enterng a writing competition. In competitions, you’re generally given a few specifics, a title, a word limit, but you have little knowledge about what the judges want, so you have to think outside the box and try to be a bit original. I’ve entered a few competitions and had placings: I’m one of those people who often come second, and that in itself is a source of great happiness. The competition we were discussing demanded no more than five hundred words, based on a theme of Hope, so I wrote something as an exercise, although I have no intention of using the piece for any other purpose than this blog.

Recently, in one of my zoom writing groups, we discussed the importance of strong opening and closing lines, so I decided I’d incorporate this into my piece. In a subsequent class, we were asked to consider the power of the weather on our writing, so I incorporated the weather too.

I decided that, in these lockdown times, it would be easy to write a piece about how much we all hope that the separation and the threat to everyone’s health, mental and physical, ends soon, and that we can emerge from this situation intact and all move forward; that we can somehow use the experiece to grow. So, instead of writing about that as a theme, I thought about choosing a completely different location, a different time, and I moved my story to Canada in the 1930s. I’ve no idea why. Perhaps it’s a metaphor…

This is my piece, below, entitled Hope. I have written exactly 500 words. I hope you enjoy it..

Hope

‘God must be having goose for tea tonight.’

She looked upwards as she walked on, huddled inside the thin coat. Snowflakes fell like fat feathers, large as a baby’s fist, tumbling from somewhere above, filling her eyes, blinding her. She couldn’t see the night sky for the whiteness of it all.

She trudged on. It was fifteen miles to Québec. She would be there by dawn. Her sister would take her in, as long as her husband didn’t mind. She’d be useful.

Her fingers tingled. She’d never owned a pair of gloves. She’d seen kid gloves once as a child; she’d been with her mother outside a store in Québec and an elegant lady had stepped from a car, wearing a fur stole and the softest gloves. She’d never been inside a car: she imagined it was like a house, but smaller and warmer. Her own house had never been warm.

She tramped through the hard-packed snow, cold water seeping through the holes in her boots and she shivered. Her hands flitted to her belly and she thought of the baby there, small as a button. She hoped he or she – it was a girl, she was sure – was warm enough beneath the folds of a thin coat, a thin dress, thin skin. It was for the child she had done it. When the baby was born, she would be better without a father.

Her feet were stamping some kind of rhythm as she lurched onwards, her hair wet and bedraggled, her face so cold her cheeks burned. The wind blasted snow in her face and she was buffeted by the blizzard, but she forced herself forward.

Ice crunched beneath her boots as she set her feet down sturdily, hoping she wouldn’t slip. In the darkness, the snow was luminous, a soft light. Her thoughts fled back to the freshly-fallen snow outside her cabin, banked high on either side, as she had rushed from the house. He had chased after her, shouting, swearing, stinking of sour-mash whisky. Then he had hit her, full in the face, and she had felt her nose pop. She had pushed him; he’d fallen backwards and hit hard ground, his neck cracking like a twig. The falling snow had covered him quickly as she watched, and she’d been glad to see his twisted angry expression disappear. She’d gone inside, wiped the blood from her face, collected her bundle of rags and the money behind the clock, and ran.

Now, her toes were numb and her legs felt like soft sponge. Beneath the coat, her flesh was ice. She stared up into the dropping snow, blinking, letting the wetness of it fill her eyes like tears for a moment, then she slogged forwards. The road in front of her bent to the left and wound on into shadows.

She pushed her head down, lumbered forwards into the whirling blizzard and prayed between chattering teeth, ‘God, save a bit of that roast goose for me.’

Short story

It’s rare that I write about myself. In my novels, characters and situations are imaginary. I rarely bring myself into what I write, although I include what I know and if I don’t, my ideas will be inspired by other people or based on research. Many of my older characters have something of the inspirational men and women I am privileged to know personally, and I rarely allow a character to behave in a certain way without thinking or asking ‘Could *** do that?’ or ‘How would ***** react?’

But here’s a rare thing – a story about an early experience of my own. I wrote it in response to an exercise in a writers’group andf I thought I’d share it. I was about three years old and I remember it vividly.

I hope you enjoy the short story. I haven’t found a title for it yet.

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The damp stink of decay hangs in the air. Trees surround me, the tangle of spreading roots visible above the earth, and I stand close to a tall oak. I look up at a graze of light sky between boughs.

‘Stay there,’ my father says, his hands lost in the huge pockets of his coat.

He walks away and I do as I am told. My feet are firmly planted, but I don’t feel safe. I stare down at little wellingtons, wet mud squelching around them; at a few sodden twigs, skeletons of leaves. Empty acorns are scattered a few feet away. I watch the line of trees stretch as far as I can see and my father blends in: his coat is the same hard grey as the trunks, then he’s gone.

It’s cold, November. I know I have to stay where I am. A few leaves twirl down, dull orange, tumbling in the wind, spanned hands waving. I listen. The silence holds a breath and I wait. I gaze up again; branches interlocked, a canopy of foliage overhead, squeezing away the light.

I take a step forward and murmur ‘Daddy?’

 A twig snaps beneath my boot then there’s no sound. It’s quiet; then from somewhere in the distance, a wood pigeon coos, a low warning. I wonder if Death lives in the woods and if he is a man wrapped inside a tree, if he’s watching me now.

‘Daddy?’

I hunker close to a trunk, gnarled branches twisting up like knotty fingers, and put out my hand to touch the bark. It is rough, scratchy against my soft-pudding hands. There is a smell of rotting leaves, wet mulch, and I try not to breathe in too much.

A noise makes me jerk, a single crack like a whiplash, then there’s a fluttering of something falling from high, through leaves and twigs. I squeeze my eyes shut and try not to think. Another sound splits the air, exactly the same, a snap from a rifle, then the gentle tumbling.

I open my eyes and he’s striding towards me, feet soundless, tall in his grey coat. Then he’s here; he takes my hand.

‘Good girl.’

I notice my father’s coat hangs differently now; something else fills the inside pockets besides the barrel, something softer, still warm.

We walk back through the forest, with no sound but our feet snapping twigs and the sinking squelch of boots in mud.

My mother will be waiting at home: she’ll have everything ready, and then she’ll make supper.

A short story about Lockdown:

Here’s a short story I wrote recenty about lockdown. I know a lot of people are by themselves, in flats where they have no access to outdoor spaces. Thinking of what it must be like to be in that situation, I wrote a few lines.

The First Floor Flat

Outside is bleak.

Inside is quiet, except for the soft hum of the laptop. And the silence: silence has a hum all of its own.

I stare through the window again but I’m not sure what I’m hoping to see. There’s no activity below in the street. London is a ghost town. A zombie town. A lockdown town.

I go back to the computer; my next zoom appointment is in half an hour; it’s Carl. I have to talk to him about how he’s tried to find work over the last four weeks. I’m his work coach. It will be a short meeting.

I go over to the old armchair and stare at the mantelpiece. There’s a photo of me with Joanna and the girls from years ago, before the split. I pick it up and run a finger over their faces, over the layer of dust. I haven’t seen Hannah and Daisy since March.

I think about making a cup of tea. I’ll have one later. I sit in the armchair and the sagging cushions arrange themselves around me. I close my eyes, put a thumb and forefinger in the space between them and press hard. It offers no relief.

There’s a scratching sound, spiked claws against the upholstery of the armchair. It’s Bella. She’s revving up to ask for food again.

I bend over and rub the fur between her ears and the softness of it makes me breathe out. I think again that I shouldn’t have brought her home: a kitten confined in a first-floor flat isn’t really fair.

She springs up on my knee and nuzzles my hand, bumps against it with her wet nose, then she rolls over.

It’s the exposed belly that does it: utter trust. The legs lifted wide, the rounded hump, black and white, lightly furred. Her eyes are almost closed; there’s the edge of a fang, the hint of pinkness inside the mouth. I place a hand over her tummy and my palm fits perfectly. She doesn’t move; she is purring, waiting, sure that I will feed her. I press a finger beneath her soft chin and suddenly my face is wet. I swallow the sadness that constricts my throat, the realisation that I haven’t spoken to anyone today, that I haven’t held anyone in my arms for weeks. This small creature waves a leg, curls the tip of her tail: she seems to know.

I wipe my eyes on the sleeve of my jumper and pick her up, holding her against my cheek, then I place her on the threadbare carpet. She’s off, running between my feet, bumping against my ankles as we rush to the kitchen and I throw a few rattling biscuits into a cat bowl. She’s purring again, a little motorized sound of contentment. I decide I’ll make a cup of tea and go back to the computer. Carl will be on the screen soon to tell me how he tried unsuccessfully to get a job at Pret. I’ll need to sound optimistic.                                               

Gone Away: my scary story read by Julie on the radio

A while ago I wrote a scary story, Gone Away. This week, actor Julie Mullen read it on the radio. It is such a privilege to have my work featured on The Word Cafe, SoundArt Radio.

Julie is a talent: actor, poet, singer, painter, she is the compere and organiser of workshops and Word Cafe performances across the south west and beyond.

The atmospheric music is added by composer Martin Seager.

The programme also features another story of mine, The Driver, read beautifully by Michelle McHale.

The soap opera, The South Hams, written by Julie, is a weekly feature of the programme, which is every Monday at five o’ clock. Here is the link – enjoy.

Thank you to Julie and Martin and to Issy Mattesini and Michelle McHale.

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For Mums: flash fiction

On Mother’s Day, we remember our Mums with love and we give thanks for all they have done for us. Many of us don’t have our Mums any more and feel quite sad that maybe we did not say thank you enough at the time and it’s a bit late now.

I often think about how great my Mum was and how her life was tough on all levels, but at least she knew we all loved her, even though we weren’t always there with the right words, or there at all. But what about those Mums who give so much and receive very little back? I often think about what a lonely place that must be, to love and be a victim for loving, to be perceived somehow as weak for caring, or to care about a child who has gone away.

I never asked my Mum how she felt when I left home at 18. I was more interested in pursuing my own education and my own independence and it never occurred to me that it might feel to her like part of her life had changed forever.

This blog post is a piece of Flash Fiction, written for all Mums, but especially for those Mums who don’t get the love and thanks they should. In the lines of self-sacrifice and expecting nothing in return, I can also remember my Mum too.

Mother’s love

Gingerbread cake, warm as mother’s love. Spicy and harsh as an absent father.

Her whisk whirled in her hand as she beat away thoughts of the father’s leaving, his new lover, his old threadbare life, a closed door, a final slamming. The eggs dissolving, frothy: her marriage dissolving, messy.

The flour, light as hope. The sugar, each grain a birthday wish, the cake rising, foetal, new, golden and gifted as her son’s future.

She looked at her hands: cooking hands, caressing hands, empty.

She would keep active, useful, to forget.

The cake, displayed in magnificence, shining plate covered with a flurry of flour, icing soft as mother’s hugging, melt in the mouth then forgotten.

Soon her son would be like him. Gorged. Grown. Gone.