Month: Mar 2019

Minute Poem – ‘Upside Down’

Minute Poem

1 (8 syll) The straw that broke the roofer’s back

2 (4 syll) A roof of thatch.

3 (8 syll) With match to watch, his aerial 

4 (4 syll) Came unattached.

7 (8 syll) First mend the fault, then watch the sport.

8 (4 syll) That was his bid.

5 (8 syll) First roof, then tile, then aerial,

6 (4 syll) That’s when he slid.

9 (8 syll) He clung to life on gutter weak.

10 (4 syll) And fall he did.

‘Hot and Cold’ – short story

Perfection. That’s what she was, and I was sure that today would work out just the way I’d planned.

I first saw her on the castle walls and our eyes met, just for a second.  I yearned to catch up and not to lose sight, but her tour party was turning the corner, and mine was five minutes behind and still being forced to listen to the John Major impersonator who masqueraded as a tour guide.  I knew the history of the King’s Tower as well as he did.  When you live in a tourist location and have a season pass, you tend to come every day, just for somewhere funky to eat your lunch. This is my place, and I knew she’d come today.

But I stayed with my group of misfits for a little longer: the elderly and the bored, the kids who wanted to be on the beach, and the mums who wondered if incorporating education into their annual vacation was necessarily a good idea.  As if to answer, a boy of about six elbowed his mother in the thigh. She turned to glare as he moaned ‘This is boring’ at the top of his little voice. Donald, the tour guide pretended not to hear, but I knew how often such things happened, especially to Donald.

It didn’t matter. She was the one, and today was the day. My shoulders hunched as the tour guide droned on about the monks who had built the castle’s brewery and had supported their order with the proceeds. I followed each word, and mouthed them along with him.

I adjusted the hoody around my face, then smoothed it down around my waist. It was of a snorkel style that wasn’t at all appropriate for a summertime holiday destination, but it suited my needs.

Pushing a black curl behind my ear I tried to disregard the heat emanating from beneath the matching fleecy black fabric of my hoodie. It was too bad that the day of her visit was also the warmest day of this Welsh summer, but I had coped with worse in my life, and for worse reason. 

Walking like a drunken crab, I followed the tour party, while poking my head round each gate and turret and wall to catch a glimpse of the girl and ensure I didn’t lose her.  I thought I’d been mistaken and she’d gone already, but no. We arrived at the second west-facing tower as the girl’s tour party was just leaving. She lingered, just a little, at the rear, and I took advantage of the crowds to change my tour group allegiance. It went without a hitch.

There were only two more stops to go on the tour. We’d just been to the north tower with views over the kelp-covered rocks of the defended coastline, and our group were passing in and out of the gatehouse dungeon, before being directed to the inevitable gift shop and tea shop. Never a café.  Always a tea shop.  I moved closer to the young lady, and we stood alongside each other at the entrance to the dungeon. I nudged her Indian-cotton-clad arm with intention.

She turned, expectant, and smiled at the face inside my hood.

‘You’re Tarim.’ More a statement than a question.

‘Marta,’ I said. ‘Shall we do it?’

She nodded with vigour. ‘I’ve built myself up to this for weeks and can’t change my mind now. It’s the right time.’

The tour party had already begun to move off, and I could see my original party leaving the north tower to walk over to join us at the dungeon. We didn’t have long but I was ready. My camera was ready. Marta was also ready.  Allowing the remainder of the earlier party to leave ahead of us, I stood with my back against the now-closed heavy wood door and sighed deeply. We’d be lucky if we got a couple of minutes. As agreed, Marta moved to the far end of the underground room – the end with the wonderful sunlit rays emerging through the skylights – and speedily arranged herself on the straw-covered stone slabs. She placed the chains next to her arms and legs.  With just a little Photoshopping, I could make it look just as it should.  I took photograph after photograph, as I walked over to Marta and gently pushed up her skirt.

‘Tasteful, Tarim,’ she said, posing as I clicked.

Suddenly, the dungeon’s door creaked open and a Scottish couple giggled about finding us alone in there.

Marta raised herself from the straw bed, brushed down her skirt, and in a calm, unflustered voice announced to the couple ‘Sex pics. For an art magazine. We pose somewhere different every day. You should try it’. She winked, and the bearded, anoraked man watched with clear admiration as she left the dungeon. ‘Lucky sod’ he said to me as I followed Marta out. For that he earned a slap on the head from his lady.

But I was not lucky. Things weren’t as Marta had said.

In 1998, precisely twenty years earlier, the body of Marta’s mother had been discovered in the dungeon, bloodied and beaten. Marta had been five then, and a little girl, but now, as a young woman, she was the spitting image of her lost parent. We’d met on a cold crime web forum and it didn’t take long before we got talking properly. Eventually I persuaded her to meet me, and she agreed to come to the castle on this special day. She’d wear her mother’s clothes, and style her hair just as her mother had. I’d dress myself in a black hoody because, on the murder day, there had been a man creeping about in one just the same.

The murder had quickly sunk to the realms of forgotten and unsolved, and not even into infamy – as not once had any of the tour guides mentioned the fate of Marta’s mother or responded to questions asked by the tour parties. A woman’s death had been forgotten and a little girl was forced to live her life without her mother. No cold case team had ever been assigned to discovering more. So it was down to us. The pair of us would make things right.

For the first time in years, I was putting my journalistic skills to good use. My article was written and scheduled for publishing the following day, and the reconstruction photos would be a perfect accompaniment to the headline: ‘Who Can Solve This Twenty Year Old Mystery?’

Marta and I walked together towards the exit, flushed with excitement at our recent activity and with anticipation of tomorrow’s headline . ‘Fancy joining me for tea and a scone?’ I asked. ‘A tribute to your mum?’ She nodded with enthusiasm. ‘I’ll pay,’ she said.

The China Kitchen: Chapter One

In front of my face a hand hovered. Wrinkled and lined with cracked and split fingernails, it was also dirty with the kind of filth that can only be described as ‘caked-on’.

How long I’d been crumpled behind the ‘China Kitchen’ bins, in a mess of boxes and overflowing black bin bags, was hard to tell, especially as I didn’t even know who I was anymore.

The hand brought its own problems with it. It brought the danger of others. People like this man. People who might have known me, and who might have wanted to cause me harm. Though, of course, the person may have also wanted to help me. He may have been reaching out to me with love in his heart and nothing but empathy in his reach. Still, my heart hammered in my chest. This was real fear, because I knew that when that hand neared my hair it wasn’t for reasons of empathy that his fingers were approaching me. Perhaps I knew it because of the pincer movement of those grasping digits, but I think it was more the expression on the man’s face which emerged out of the darkness, unattached from its accompanying limbs. The expression plus the noise that emerged from that weasel-like toothless visage. It was the noise of grunting, choking swine, emerging from a stinking, pointy-nosed specimen of feeble masculinity. I was sweating with fear and could barely see straight.

‘Give us your ring,’ he croaked, between wheezes.

‘And give us your necklace.’

My hand immediately rose to my neck. I couldn’t lose the gold sovereign, though I wasn’t sure precisely why. There was no reason in the whole of the world that I would just hand it over to that repulsive man.

‘No,’ I croaked, my voice low and deep.

‘Yes,’ he insisted, and his blackened finger reached down to stroke my stubbled chin. I cringed and pulled back as much as I was able. The man cackled breathily, and his gasps brought about a long, deep coughing spell. The force of his body’s spasms pushed the revolting man backwards towards the other side of the alleyway. I took my chance and stumbled to my feet, while he was still wiping his eyes of moisture and calming his overactive lungs.

I seemed to be physically unharmed, and fully dressed. I wasn’t in pain, and didn’t feel as if I’d been attacked, but I just didn’t know why I was there, what was my name, and how to get home. Judging by my clothing which was smart and brightly coloured, though somewhat stained and creased from my time behind the bins, I wasn’t a person of the streets. Unlike that wizened old man who glared at my newly upright form, who took in my clothing and scanned my height and build, and who clearly realised his own attack was pointless. I was twice his height, almost, and more than twice his breadth.

He growled a mouthful of obscenities in my direction and trudged towards the warm spot I’d just vacated, and as he mouthed his final ‘Arrogant ponce’ at me, a sliver of a memory began to return. Yes, that was it. I knew how I’d ended up in the alley behind the ‘China Kitchen’ bins, but I almost wished I’d forgotten forever.

It was the word ‘ponce’ that did it for me. Yes, I was a man who benefitted from the on-the-back work of street girls, and gradually the gaudily made-up faces of Crystal, Ellie and Jools wafted into my consciousness. My girls. Crystal, blonde and cute, with a drug habit that hasn’t yet spoiled her looks, and the tiniest feet I’ve ever seen on a grown adult. I’ve seen a fair few too, being in my line of business. I remembered Ellie and Jools, twin sisters who’d gone on the game owing to both parents abdicating all responsibility for their upkeep as soon as they turned 13. I did enjoy the company of those two. Such sweet girls, and Jools had pretty much the best sense of humour of any person in my employ. God, she should have been a stand-up comic. And Ellie, darling Ellie, could drink like a fish and hold it. She was a laugh and a half too.

With pounding head, I walked to the restaurant’s kitchen door. I didn’t knock as I knew I didn’t need to. It was my place. They were my girls, and here – the cook with the machete knife, he was mine too. Sam, the head chef, noticed my arrival and stared at me with an expression I couldn’t quite evaluate.

‘Mr Filey. Don. What’s happened?’ He began to walk towards me then realised he was still holding his knife. He replaced it on the counter top and grabbed my hand. As the knife clattered and glinted on the counter top, the other kitchen staff froze and stared in my direction, vacant-faced, like sheep on a windy night.

‘Good God, Don, you look terrible,’ said Sam.

‘I don’t know where I am.’

Sam dug around in the pocket of my overcoat and drew out an empty bottle. Vodka. I knew I’d bought it earlier that day, and suddenly I realised that the stinky man in the alley behind MY restaurant who wanted to steal MY jewellery, was nothing but a figment of MY soused imagination.

‘You’ve gotta stop drinking, Don. You’ve gotta stop drinking. Now, mate, now.’

I nodded with effort and patted Sam on the upper arm. The noise within the kitchen seemed to return, and the previously staring staff reanimated themselves. A path was cleared for me, as I trudged to the stairwell, then up towards my office. Never again, I thought. Never again.

I virtually fell onto my chair and rested my head on my mahogany desk. I looked towards my hands, and knew. Just knew that the hands I’d seen reaching for me in the alley had been my own.

Sam was right. I needed to stop drinking. I also needed to liberate my girls. Let them have their own lives. Manage my proper business again. Get organised. Take back control.

I fished in my zippered jacket pocket, found my secret key, and unlocked my largest desk drawer. The contents were as I expected. As they always were. A bottle of White Star vodka; a densely filled note book, a canvas bag that I knew contained £85,000 in £50 notes, my new passport purchased from Sly Larry only last month… And, of course, my untraceable revolver. It was down to me, and me alone, what happened next.

I unscrewed the vodka cap.

Rainhill Nursing Hospital Student Magazine from Spring 1968!!

This is amazing, and a true blast from the past. Take a look at magazine number 1 of a Rainhill Hospital nursing students’ magazine dated from spring 1968. Our featured author, Peter McGeehan was heavily involved in putting together this little piece of history. Click on the front cover to be taken to Peter’s featured page, and you’ll find a gallery of the entire magazine at the bottom of the page!

Click on the link to open on the Scott Martin Productions website – in a new tab. Scroll to the bottom of Peter’s page for the whole magazine. I LOVE IT!

Review of ‘The Last Runaway’ by Tracy Chevalier

‘The Last Runaway’ was written in 2013 and was selected for me to read by my teenage daughter. She was hovering around the historical fiction shelf, which is usually the least likely location for my own hoverings, and she emerged with this book through an entirely random choice. Our guinea pig was also rather taken by it, as he ate a few inches of its cover when I put it down on the sofa to make a trip to the kitchen.

Anyway, the story’s a good and powerful one. In the year 1850, Honor agrees to accompany her sister on a one-way trip from England to America. Grace dies before she meets up with her betrothed – the marriage being their reason for travel. But she feels as if she can’t return to England, and instead continues her journey and moves in with her sister’s intended. Her own intended, back in England had broken off their relationship to marry outside their shared Quaker faith.

Though life in American isn’t easy for Honor, she meets new people, lives a good life and eventually meets the man she will marry, farmer Jack Haymaker. An article on the Publishers Weekly website summarises as follows: ‘They marry and Honor, drawn by her sympathies into helping the Underground Railroad, is forced to choose between living her beliefs and merely speaking them. The birth of her own child raises the stakes, and she takes a unique stand in her untenable situation. Honor’s aching loneliness, overwhelming kindness, and stubborn convictions are beautifully rendered, as are the complexities of all the supporting characters and the vastness of the harsh landscape. Honor’s quiet determination provides a stark contrast to the roiling emotions of the slave issue, the abolitionist fight, and the often personal consequences. Chevalier’s thought-provoking, lyrical novel doesn’t allow any of her characters an easy way out’. I’ve quoted that in its entirety as it basically covers the entire plot of the book without giving too much away.

What I will say is that ‘The Last Runaway’ won the Ohioana Book Award and was in the Richard and Judy Book Club, autumn 2013. Though it isn’t Chevalier’s most well-known novel (that honour goes to ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’ which was made into a film with Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson) it is certainly popular and well-respected, even amongst other writers. For instance, on Amazon, Rose Tremain says ‘I have always admired Tracy Chevalier’s un-showy brilliance, and this moving story of a young English Quaker girl trapped between duty and conscience in 1850s Ohio is the best thing she’s written since Girl with a Pearl Earring’.

I don’t want to give any spoilers, which can be quite difficult in a book review. So, I had a look on Tracy Chevalier’s website instead and found some really interesting points of reference for reading groups – about the constant sense of movement (from the Underground Slave Railroad), and the feeling that home is not a permanent place, about survival and the importance of silence,  about relationships outside the Quaker community, about the horrors of Honor’s journey and her history, about the differences between the UK and the US and how they are reflected within their patchwork styles, and about dealing with  both loss and hope.

Chevalier’s website also shows us how deeply she was emerged in the world she’d extracted for Honor. She learned to make a quilt in the traditional Quaker style that Honor would have used, and she also undertook masses of research about the town, Oberlin, which was an important stop on the runaway slave escape network – the Underground Railroad, which enabled slaves to move from the south to the safer north.

The story is sensitively written and descriptive, but not boring and self-congratulatory as is often the case with historical novels.  Honor is an interesting and complex character who is living in an equally interesting and complex time of US history. I don’t like historical fiction, but I did like this book very much.

I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, but also to those who don’t. The story is of social expectations, rebellion, love and frustration, and these are universal themes, no matter what your religion or your time of living.

#book #bookreview #chevalier #oberlin #ohioanabookaward #quaker #review #richardandjudybookclub #rosetremain #slave #thelastrunaway #tracychevalier #undergroundrailroad

Mother Gracie

‘You have to eat your chucky egg everyday, don’t you, Raq?’ said Mother Gracie, affectionately gesturing with her one good eye towards her aged schnauzer. With opaque and rheumy eyes, Raq cocked his ears in the direction of the woman who had been an old crone even thirteen years ago when she first took him in. She was virtually blind herself nowadays, so they made a fine, though barely functional couple.

Mother Gracie shuffled over to her stove. Raq remained where he was. Long gone were the days when he followed at her skirt hems if she moved more than a few footsteps from her craggy watchdog.

On the stove were placed an eclectic mix of pots large and small. The biggest, Mother Gracie’s cauldron, was exuding a stench that even she herself disliked. But there was rhyme and reason behind the cauldron’s rancid contents. Frozen tripe, boiled with barley and vegetable peelings was to be Raq’s evening meal.

‘Chucky egg, then, little chicken?’ said Mother Gracie, and Raq the dog reluctantly rose from his ragged bed. Every morning for the last thirteen years, this old lady would use her precious firewood to fuel the stove and make Raq a poached egg, then rest it for a little, allowing it to harden as it cooled. She’d then present it to him on an ancient, cracked saucer, and Raq would devour it in one mouthful. This morning was different in only one respect. The new location.

As Raq chewed on his egg, the old crone refreshed the water dish he always sought straight after his breakfast. Mother Gracie replaced the lump of rock sulphur in his water and laid the bowl on the floor in front of him. She wet her fingers in the cool water and, encouraging him to lick the drops she led his bearded face to the bowl and the scraggy, grey dog lapped up the cool, grey liquid.

Mother Gracie turned off the heat to the back burner. Even though she had all mod cons in her brand new flat and all the bills were prepaid, she intended to make no real changes to her habits, and to live as if she was in her old house where every stick of wood had to be collected, brought home, dried and stored for fuel.

The front right burner of her new electric stove fired up and heated the contents of the pans above. The brown Pyrex pan burbled and bubbled with its watery contents and the sticks, leaves and dried seeds that would be stewed then infused for another 24 hours. Mother Gracie had made this particular concoction every two days for the last fifty-seven years, and moving to her new sheltered accommodation certainly wasn’t going to stop her from continuing her tradition.

Raq shuddered as he stumbled back to bed and almost collapsed into his ragpile, then let out a long and deep sigh. ‘You’re not sure of it here, are you boy?’ Mother Gracie said. ‘We’ll get used to it.’ Mother Gracie echoed her dog’s sigh and began the laborious process of removing some of the twigs and leaves from the Pyrex pan with a slotted spoon, while ensuring that those ingredients which required a longer steeping time remained in the pan. That way Mother Gracie could get her money, time and effort’s worth from them.

Dried turmeric root, acrid and yellow would heal her pain and reduce her swollen joints as well as keeping both memory and heart strong. There was no sign of the dreaded dementia as yet, but it didn’t do any harm to do a little bit of preventative therapy. Sage, both the leaves and the woody twigs, were included to assist in the expulsion of phlegm and to ease her regular coughing fits.

And cinnamon went in too, along with ginseng, lemon, garlic, gingko biloba. All would be strained and the resultant liquid would be mixed with equal parts of apple cider vinegar. The potent mixture had kept Mother Gracie alive to this wonderful old age, and the fumes from that same potent mixture had seeped into the steam-filled air of the tiny flat.

Mother Gracie sat on her easy chair with a sigh, and prepared for her morning snooze. Had she forgotten to turn off the heat under the hobs? She had not. Had she forgotten to eat her own breakfast? She had not. Had she said her final goodbye to Raq the dog? She had not. She had not realised it would be necessary. But it was. The old dog passed away, happy, content, warm and dry in a small flat with all modern conveniences, and with a tummy full of chucky egg and sulphur-water. His tripe and barley mix would not be eaten.

When she woke, Mother Gracie cried and wished for the thousandth time that she’d been able to get him to drink her own eternal life formula. Just the once.  

Review of Books from ‘Never Such Innocence’ and ‘Forgotten Heroes Foundation’

@NeverSuch

I came across the organisation ‘Never Such Innocence’ when my 13 year old daughter, Morrigan, decided to enter their 2018 art competition with her large drawing, ‘Behind Each Man’. The competition’s remit was to get children involved in the First World War centenary commemorations.

Amazingly, Morrigan’s art won first prize in her age group category, and this earned her and her school a substantial cash prize. In addition, we were invited to attend a prizegiving event at the Guards Chapel next to Buckingham Palace, then later in 2018, attended Buckingham Palace, where Morrigan spoke about her art in front of a large and distinguished audience. We were also honoured to be invited to attend Westminster Abbey for the Armistice Centenary Service in November 2018. Wow, what a year!

As part of the attendance to these three events, my daughter was presented with three books: two published by ‘Never Such Innocence’ and one from the Forgotten Heroes Foundation: ‘The Unknown Fallen’.

This book, the full title ‘Volume 1: The Unknown Fallen: The Global Allied Muslim Contribution in the First World War’ is gorgeous and lush with thick paper, stunning artwork, touching photographs and absolutely superb production values.  ‘The Unknown Fallen’ makes a beautiful display book, and is crammed full of inspiration, the best of human nature and integrity.

The second book I’d like to mention is ‘Stories of the First World War: The Men, Women, Children and Animals that Played their Part’ published by Never Such Innocence. This is a charming book which is aimed at children aged 9 and above. It gives an ‘objective and insightful account’ of the events of the war, and is presented in an easily accessible style that children will not find intimidating. At the same time, adults can learn a lot from this book. I know I certainly did.

The third book is ‘Never Such Innocence: The Centenary of the First World War: Children’s Responses through Poetry, Art and Song’. This is a glorious book, not only because I’m a proud parent of one of the contributors (Morrigan’s drawing appears on page 142) but because the other artworks are also stunning and poignant, as is the poetry.

For anyone who believes this generation of children are interested only in selfies and social media, please take a look at these volumes, especially the ‘Children’s Responses’ volume. Your faith in humanity will be restored, and your pride in so many of the younger generation will be likewise.

More details of the latter two books can be found at https://www.neversuchinnocence.com/centenary-legacy-books

The Forgotten Heroes Foundation can be found at https://unknownfallen.com

Beautiful creations from two fantastic organisations. Totally recommended.

@NeverSuch