Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

I come from a family of collectors. When we were children my mother went through phases of collecting different things – piggy banks, china cottages, pill boxes. At the moment I have my suspicions that her assortment of teddy bears is getting larger – she can’t pass a forlorn little furry face without rescuing it from a shop shelf and bringing it home to join the others for a bit of tender loving care. Dad amassed tools. He had a workshop built onto the back of the kitchen which he filled with screwdrivers, chisels, tins of nails and tacks, hammers, saws for any eventuality, bits of wood (my sister and I were always accompanying him to the wood yard), planes, drills, attachments, cans of oil, string and goodness knows what else. Glue. He had a lot of glue.

Dad's workshop looked a little like this

Dad’s workshop looked a little like this model from Brooklands Museum in Surrey

So, as a child, I began collecting things. Shells from days at the beach; bus tickets, theatre tickets and programmes; pencils (I was always buying pencils with pocket money); Enid Blyton books; note pads and drawing paper. I hoarded them all. Imagine my excitement, at around the age of nine or ten, when someone sent me a chain letter with promises of postcards from every corner of the world. All I had to do was send a postcard from my village to the unknown person at the top of the attached list and forward the letter to six friends. Which I dutifully did and then waited with delicious anticipation for my exponential pile of postcards to arrive, once my name had moved to the top of the list. I waited and watched the doormat under the front door every day for the post to arrive. For weeks. After an eternity, three cards dropped through the letter box. Two were from England, one from Wales. And that was it. Forever. No four corners of the earth for me. It was probably this one event that triggered my long-term cynical outlook on life.

My sister and I moved onto other things. We began collecting badges: the cloth ones that could be sewn onto an anorak – rather like those earned in the Brownies or Guides but since neither of us lasted very long in that particular institution we decided to create our own sleeves of honour. These were very popular decades ago, there being no such thing as designer logo back then. We’d buy them on our holidays – woven badges depicting a county, or a particular town or historical place. This was a craze that only lasted as long as the anorak fitted. My sister went on to accumulating  wrapped sugar lumps which she stored in an old cigar box. I think that’s when I gave up and became a minimalist. My brother, in the meantime, was collecting football cards.

I did, however, accumulate a variety of pigs at one point. I made the mistake of admitting I liked them, found them misunderstood and quite cute which was like opening the floodgates for every Christmas and birthday thereafter. They ended up stuffed in a box and then farmed out to charity shops.

So I don’t think I’m really a collector of things. A collector has to be dogged; determined and should enjoy displaying (and dusting) whatever it is that’s being sought. When Son was learning the clarinet at around the age of eleven, we had to visit the home of the piano accompanist who would take him through his music exam rehearsal. Her home was full of frogs. Everywhere. Wooden, knitted, metal, fabric, macramé. On cushions, tea towels, on teacups and saucers. There were pictures on the walls of frogs and she had stone ornaments of them in various poses in her garden. This was extreme collecting. To be honest, it was creepy. She even looked a little amphibian herself. I was glad when the half hour session was over.

Is storing one’s own stories collecting, do you think? If it is, then I am still a collector of sorts. Trawling through my computer files this week, I came across this 300 flash, written some time ago in response to “Theft” – a creative writing prompt.

Mavis opened the battered leather case and stroked the faded purple velvet into which the six silver apostle spoons were nestled. They were perfect; just in need of a shine. Holding her polishing cloth in one hand, she took one of the spoons in the other and twirled it around on the cloth until the little figure shone with a soft glow as she rubbed the tarnish away. She would check the hallmark later in the little reference book Mr Hennessy had given her, after she had expressed an interest one morning, whilst wiping his mantelpiece.

Of course when Mr Hennessy died suddenly, a couple of years ago, it had come as a shock. Mavis had worked for the Hennessy’s for years but she was even more shocked when, continuing her employment, she discovered that Mrs Hennessy had no taste, preferring to display garish china dogs rather than the beautiful pieces of silver Mr Hennessy had collected over the years. She found his collection one morning, stuffed into the back of the sideboard, unloved and forgotten. She took the pieces out, polished them and arranged them on a table but the following week they were back in their cupboard and she was left to dust the loathsome Staffordshire spaniels.

The eighteenth century cow creamer came home first – it looked lovely under Mavis’ lamp in her front room. Next came the owls cruet set and the Mappin and Webb porringer; a tiny snuff box with an enamel lid (in which Mavis kept her sweeteners); an ivory handled paper knife, a pair of Victorian berry spoons and the Paul Storr coffee pot, in use every day since.  What Mavis was doing with Mr Hennessy’s collection couldn’t be classed as stealing, she told herself: it was appreciating.

What do you collect?

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Hello 2016! Over half way through January and already I‘m writing the sixteen part of the date with consummate confidence – no slipping back into last year for me. Yet what have I done so far? Nothing but feel lackadaisical, that’s what. Everything is an effort. Maybe it’s the unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having that assists my sluggishness – particularly in the writing department. However, thankfully I don’t think I’m alone. Several blog posts I have read lately seem to be complaining of similar afflictions. So I’ll heave myself out of my malaise and share my recently read titles and my new book pile, purchased delightedly with Christmas money gifted specifically for that purpose.

I started the Christmas break (it seems so long ago now), by reading the book club choice – “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?by Jeanette Winterson. This sorry autobiographical tale details her early life with a monster of an adoptive mother and how, against all odds and between bouts of being locked in the coal cellar she collected a forbidden library of books, taught herself literature and wound up at Oxford University before embarking on a career as a writer and journalist while seeking her biological mother. The title refers to a comment the adoptive mother made to Jeanette when she discovered her having a relationship with a woman.

This was an interesting read if only for the fact that she and I are of similar age and my own childhood was in complete contrast to hers. While I was riding my Raleigh bike with its Sturmey-Archer gears carefree through the leafy lanes of Surrey she had run away from home ‘up north’ and was living in the back of an abandoned mini car, wondering from where her next meal was coming. I won’t reveal the outcome of her search in case anyone chooses to take this on. To sum up – it’s a quick read but not an easy one.

Next up was “A Spool Of Blue Thread” by Ann Tyler, recommended by Lisa. I had only read Ann Tyler once before and hadn’t particularly enjoyed her so this was started with some apprehension. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this family saga spanning three generations. We start and end with Denny, the black sheep of the family and Tyler’s writing is pacy, winding us through various time frames and familial relationships using mainly dialogue. Her characterisations and her descriptions of place create a vivid visual picture. It’s a very clever story and well deserving of its place on the Booker Prize shortlist.

After seeing the film “The Lady in the Van” I just had to read Alan Bennett’s book to find out if the film was completely true. Both the film and the book are enchantingly British, very funny and well worth a watch or a read – preferably both. I’m not saying any more than that lest I spoil it for you!

Having enjoyed the above title so much I decided to revisit and indulge in Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads.” This is a compilation of the series of monologues he wrote to be performed both at the theatre and on BBC television. They hark back to the early eighties but lose none of their wit and poignancy over thirty years later. I‘ve read these more times than I probably care to remember but each time I find a new gem of an observation or turn of phrase that has me laughing out loud. The book I have lists the name of the actor who originally performed each one and the cast list reads like a night at the BAFTA’s. I find these monologues highly inspiring and am hoping that by reading them again now will send a jolt of creativity across my stagnant bows.

So…that’s what I have been reading and this is what my new book pile looks like:

image

Having looked at Pauline’s new year list recently, I’ve pre-ordered two titles from hers – “The Forgetting Time” by Sharon Guskin and “The Reader on the 6.27” by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent. Neither title is available in the UK till later in the year so I’ll have a lovely surprise when either turns up on the doormat.

So many books…so little time. I keep the ones I might conceivably read again – the others I pass on, not minding if they are lost to me forever. Rather that than lend a precious title to a friend who returns it in appalling condition. This happened once, which inspired this 300 flash fiction. I haven’t lent anything to her since…

LENDING

As she adjusted the vertical blinds at the far end to stop sunlight streaming through the window and discolouring the books Margaret noticed with distaste that Ms Elizabeth Rivers was in again.  Only last week she had said to young David (work placement, not permanent staff); she had said to him, she said, that she would rather never lend Ms Rivers a book again.

While she tidied her pristine work area and wiped her computer screen with a vanilla scented wet-wipe, Margaret kept a disdainful eye on Ms Rivers rummaging through the shelves, opening a book, reading a page, turning it over, reading the back cover synopsis, ramming it back on the shelf, repeating the process with another title. The state her last selection had come back in had been a disgrace – corners bent over, unidentifiable smears on covers and, worse still, remnants of what looked like blueberry muffin squashed between the pages of “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.”

David arrived from the kitchenette with yet another mug of coffee which he placed with exaggerated care onto a cork mat next to his keyboard. He looked at Margaret somewhat defiantly she thought, and nodded in the direction of Ms Rivers, who by now had chosen two titles and was looking for her third. Margaret turned her attention to Mr Dawkins, another regular who had an insatiable interest in Military History, and who treated the books he borrowed as if they were precious relics. Swiping his card with a flourish, Margaret heard David dealing with Ms Rivers who was remonstrating loudly.

“I’m sorry, Ms Rivers” she heard David say, “Your card appears to have been withdrawn.”

Margaret, head down, busied herself by straightening a pile of leaflets.

oooooooOOO~OOOooooooo

 

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I’m feeling festive. Term ended in a rush of noisy classroom games, chocolate prizes and hyper children. My modest little tree is outside the back door in its little red pot waiting to come in and be decorated with a string of lights and bits and bobs collected over the years.  Many of the houses locally are bedecked with lights, competing with each other as to who can be first to shut down the national grid.

This apparent competitiveness was the inspiration for a piece of creative writing I did while at my writing group. We were given a one word title  and allowed up to 2000 words instead of the 300 flash we were usually tasked with.

So to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and at the suggestion of one of my lovely critical readers, here’s a little fiction for you.  See you on the other side …

RIVALS

“Look at this, Mo!” Len exclaimed.  He was surfing the internet for new additions to his Christmas lights display.  Len’s lights had become something of a talking point in The Close over the years.

“Looks like you’ve got a bit of competition,” said Maureen, watching from the front room window as their new neighbour opposite strung fairy lights across two conifers.

“Over my dead body,” said Len, as he clicked two angels and a Star of Bethlehem into his basket.

***

Maureen was exhausted. She had spent the day taking her mother Christmas shopping, helping her buy presents for everybody and buying something for herself for her mother to wrap up. She was looking forward to putting her feet up with a cup of tea. The house was in darkness as she parked the car.

     “Silly sod,” she thought, “He’s fused the lights again.”

Letting herself in, she automatically tried the light switch.  It worked.  Where the hell was Len, she wondered, annoyed now. Her hallway was strewn with Star of Bethlehem packaging, Len’s toolbox on the bottom stair.

As she began to feel alarmed, the doorbell rang.

“Oh, hi-ya,” said the woman, standing there “I’m Cheryl Parks – just moved in over the road. My Steve has taken your hubby to A and E – he fell off his ladder.”

Maureen looked at Cheryl, slowly taking in the information.  She peered past her in the gloom and saw Len’s ladder leaning against the side of the house.

     “Oh God,” she said, “What’s he done?”

“Think he’s broken his leg,” said Cheryl, “Steve offered to help – he’s an electrician, see. Steve Parks -S Parks – SPARKS – couldn’t be anything else, could he?” and she laughed raucously, as if she’d just thought of the joke, which of course she hadn’t. Maureen had seen the name on the side of his van.

“I’ll take you to the hospital,” said Cheryl, stepping inside Maureen’s hallway, pushing the door to and making a performance of wiping her open-toed sandals on the mat, revealing bright red nails and an ankle bracelet. Maureen began feeling shaky, whether from shock or tiredness she wasn’t sure, but she was grateful to her new neighbour for assuming control.

“What about your children?” she said, aware there were several smaller versions of Steve and Cheryl across the road.

“Oh don’t you worry about them,” grinned Cheryl, “our Stacey’ll get their tea on; she’s very capable.”

Maureen had witnessed Stacey being very capable with a young man in a Ford Escort outside the house a few evenings back but she didn’t say anything.  Instead she gathered together a few things Len might need and followed Cheryl to her car.

They found Len sitting on a trolley having had an x ray and waiting for a bed.  He looked dishevelled, his hair awry, trouser leg cut up to the knee, a temporary bandage covering up his swollen ankle. He and Steve were in deep discussion.

“Hey Shezz,” Steve looked up briefly at them as Maureen dumped the bag containing Len’s things on to the trolley.

“Thank you so much,” Maureen said to Steve, while looking at Len, who winced and smiled at her sheepishly.

“No worries, love,” replied Steve with a wink.  “Good job I was there!” He stood up and shook her hand.

“Looks like I’ll be out of action over Christmas,” said Len, “it’s broken in two places.” He pointed unnecessarily to his lower leg.

Cheryl suggested that she and Steve go and find cups of tea for them all.  Maureen sat up on the trolley next to Len and patted his good leg. He looked as if he’d been through it a bit. Maureen hoped that Cheryl wouldn’t be long with the tea, she was gasping.

     “Does it hurt much?” she asked, suddenly feeling sorry for him.

Len turned to Maureen, his face happier than it should have been for someone who had recently double fractured a major bone.

“A bit,” he said, “but don’t worry, love, Steve’s going to do our lights for us. We’re getting a banner to string across the road between our houses, Mo, just like up the high street!”

     Len’s wretched lights were the least of Maureen’s priorities right now but she could see that talking about them would distract him from the pain. She wondered doubtfully what the rest of The Close would think.  She knew that some of them felt Len was already going a bit far with his luminous flashing nativity scene on the front lawn.

     “Where will you get a banner from, then?”  She said, suspicious that Len had been doing some clandestine on-line purchasing.

“Had one left over,” Steve arrived back, making Maureen jump. He handed her tea in a cardboard cup. “Did a job down in Kent. Small village. Ran out of fixing spots.” He winked again.  Steve did a lot of winking, Maureen thought. That, and talking in abbreviated sentences.

They all stayed with Len until a bed was found and he was settled. He’d be plastered tomorrow, when the swelling went down.  Cheryl made the observation that she usually swelled up after she’d been plastered which made Steve laugh uproariously and call her a daft cow.

They laughed a lot, Steve and Cheryl.

***

     “I love Christmas,” sighed Len, contentedly, from the back seat as Maureen drove him home from hospital two days later, via the town centre so he could see the decorations and the town tree festooned with fairy lights.  Steve had been busy while Len had been laid up with his swollen leg.  As Maureen swung the car into The Close, Len saw the banner, strung professionally across the road, uniting them with their new neighbours.

“Looks like a decent job,” he said, generously, craning his neck to see his angels and Bethlehem star adorning their roof. “Good bloke, that Steve,” he added, struggling with his seat belt in his haste to get out and have a better look.

 Maureen held the door open for him thinking that her husband was beginning to sound like Steve and half expected him to wink at her, but he didn’t.

     “Steve’s waiting till tonight to switch on,” she said, “he thought you’d like that.”

“Great stuff,” replied Len, hobbling to the front door on his crutches.  Maureen followed him in and went to finish off her mince pies for the festive gathering later that evening.

     Maureen’s mince pies were as much a tradition in The Close as Len’s lights, so she felt a little disgruntled as she and Len joined the gathering crowd to see Cheryl with a crate of Cava, dispensing to all and sundry in plastic cups. Cheryl, wearing flashing antlers on a plastic hair band, greeted them expansively, plonking red lips onto Len’s cheek and handing them both some bubbly.

     “There you go, Lennie!” she said, adding, “Look, the boys have found you a deck chair!”

     “Lennie?” thought Maureen, aghast, at the same time feeling grateful for Cheryl’s kindness. While Len lowered himself into the chair, she offered Jack and Darren, Cheryl’s twins, one of her pies. They turned their noses up, shook their heads in unison and ran off, grinning.

     “We ready, then?” Steve arrived on the scene in a Santa hat. “Shall I nip in to yours and switch on, Mo?”

 Without waiting for an answer, he jumped over their low wall and let himself in to their house as Paige, Cheryl’s youngest, sat herself on Len’s lap and handed him a remote control. Maureen could see that Len was loving this so she tried to muster up some Christmas spirit by handing round her pies. Just then a cheer went up: Len’s nativity scene was ablaze, the new star of Bethlehem twinkling against the night sky. It did look lovely, everyone agreed.

     “Now for ours,” Steve was back, winking again, “go on Len, press the remote!”

With Paige clapping, Jack and Darren counting down excitedly, Len pressed and Steve’s side of The Close lit up, the Merry Christmas banner sparkling above them. As the crowd watched, an enormous white inflatable took shape on Steve and Cheryl’s front lawn accompanied by an ear shattering version of ‘Frosty the Snowman.’

     “I can turn the music off it if gets too annoying,” Steve said, anxious for a moment, seeing Maureen’s face, but everyone clapped and cheered, filled with seasonal bonhomie and a second cup of Cava.  Cheryl encouraged everyone to conga back to her conservatory for more alcohol and sausage rolls.  Maureen pulled urgently on Len’s sleeve, thinking he’d had enough excitement for one night but he was having a wonderful time and despite not being able to dance with the others, hobbled behind Mrs Norris from number fifteen towards Steve’s back garden.  With a sigh, Maureen picked up the deckchair and followed.

***

     Christmas passed by in a flurry of neighbourly exchange, culminating on New Year’s Day in a ten pin bowling challenge on the Parks’ family Wii and their new forty-two inch plasma screen which Len accessed from the comfort of Steve’s multi positional armchair. Even Maureen’s mother had been invited and she sat happily chatting to Mrs Norris while Cheryl provided more party food from a never ending supply.

     “Such a shame Christmas is nearly all over,” Len said, taking a vol au vent from the plate Cheryl offered him.

“We’re off to the in-law’s villa in Spain next week,” grinned Cheryl, “to do it all over again!”

“Lucky you,” Len replied, dropping mayonnaise down the jumper Maureen’s mother had given him.

     “We’ll need to get the decorations down before twelfth night,” Maureen said, aware that with Len incapacitated, she was in danger of having an unseasonal nativity scene in her garden and bad luck for the coming year.

     “We’re back mid Jan,” said Steve, shovelling a handful of peanuts into his mouth, “No rush, is there?”

     “Here you go, Mo,” Darren said, handing her the Wii controller before Maureen had a chance to protest, “Your turn!”

Maureen was surprised to find computerised bowling quite easy and felt strangely satisfied that her name appeared on top of the leader board when Len finally called it a day and decided they should head for home.

***

     The electricity bill arrived a week later.  Maureen picked it off the mat with the junk mail and went to have her breakfast. Len was still upstairs, awkwardly showering, his plaster cast encased in a plastic sleeve. Maureen flicked through the sale catalogues that had just arrived and then opened the bill.  She couldn’t believe her eyes; there must be a mistake. She went to her home file and pulled out the last few bills. She was right; this one was more than double any of the others. At that moment, Len limped in to the kitchen.

     “Look at this!” Maureen greeted him, “your blooming lights are going to have to go!”

Len looked at the bill, a puzzled look on his face.  He shook his head.

     “This can’t be right,” he said, “all my bulbs are low energy.”

Nevertheless, he rummaged in the drawer for the torch and hobbled out to the garage.

“I’ll just check the meter, Mo.”

Maureen followed him, feeling angry. Len opened the meter cupboard and continued to look puzzled.

      “I’ll just try something,” he said, and went to the master fuse box.  He turned all its switches off, cutting all power to their house. Returning to the meter, Maureen could see in the torch light the dials still whirring merrily around at a speed much faster than any of the cogs cranking around in her husband’s brain.

“Well?” she said, arms folded, waiting for Len’s appraisal of the situation.

Slowly, he turned to her, his lights now well and truly on and with a look of complete disbelief, hissed uncharacteristically between clenched teeth: “The thieving bastard!”

LOOKING FORWARD TO A NEW BLOGGING YEAR!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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