Sunday, 17 March 2019

A Lost Life - follow up to The Dog-Walker Stalker

Note: The previous part of this story was posted on Monday 3rd December

Lizzie has that glint in her eye after I’ve picked at my Christmas dinner, the disapproving one that thinks I’m just an old fool, she’s right, but not in the way she’s surmised. I know it’s hurting her, and for that I am sorry, I should have told her years ago of course but it’s too late now.
Her red-lipped smile had grasped my heart before I’d even dared to ask her out. She was a woman encapsulating joy, just what I’d needed, flirtatious, fun, bursting with energy.  She wore a yellow dress, a bouncy ray of sunshine, linking arms with her sister when I’d first seen her walking on Blackpool prom.
We exchanged a brief hello, but her smile over her shoulder told me she was interested as her sister pulled her away, laughing.
She stamped out my shame with her carefree antics, daring me to drive her to the seaside in my Dad’s car or help her scale the huge wall to watch the race-horses parade, she thought I was a bloody hero. But that was nearly 50 years ago, a lot has happened since then. Her mischievous smile no longer bright, replaced by tuts of annoyance and a furrowed brow, I can’t blame her.
We’d never discussed whether there’d been anyone else before, we were only 19 and didn’t want to spoil the infatuation, we needed to believe it had only ever been ‘us’ and it suited me to leave that well alone.
But the secret I’ve buried all these years slammed back into my consciousness the day I received the letter, the contact I’d feared yet also yearned for, was like a time bomb from the past.
She’d signed the letter Amelia and it took several readings to realise that it was my grand-daughter, not my daughter, that had finally found me. One page of writing that sucked me straight back like a vacuum, making me shake and feel queasy, thank god Lizzie was at one of her WI coffee mornings, oblivious.  
It came with her picture, a pale, ethereal girl with large wide eyes framed by a shock of copper hair that cloaked her shoulder.
Amelia was just 18, the same age I first became a father. I took her in, the image of her grandmother, and slumped to the chair, breathing hard in shock.  I read the letter over and over before the news finally sank in and I broke down and sobbed.
I cried for Marie, my first love I lost to child-birth, for the daughter I’d too-easily handed over to her foster parents when I was too young to understand the years of burden that would bring and now for my beautiful granddaughter who had just lost her mother, my daughter, to a dreadful freak accident.
Too much for her to bare at such a young age and too much for me to deal with now I no longer have the resolve of my younger years. That day I lost everything, my past and my future; I’d never meet my adult daughter, and I’d never meet my granddaughter, how could I?
How could I explain this to Lizzie and the boys and look them in the eye, knowing what I did?
But everything has changed since that letter, I’ve changed, and of course Lizzie has noticed. When I see young women walking down to the woods or in town shopping, I just see Marie or Christina and now Amelia, a trio of women that mean so much to me, yet I can never talk about, never explain that they are a part of who I am.
Lizzie thinks that it’s something else, even at my old age, laughable really, she always was a touch on the jealous side, and I know I need to stop. To her it’s odd behaviour, I understand, and I know it’s doing us no good.
I’m not here, not really, I live in a parallel universe. I’m back there, heartbroken that the love of my life is no longer by my side.
Days after she died, I kissed my tiny daughter goodbye whilst gently wrapping her in the blanket my mother knitted, her name embroidered on the corner in pink, ‘Christina’, Marie’s choice after she’d found out she was due on Christmas day.
I fled my home town, escaped the hurtful comments and disapproving glares and met Lizzie just two months later. It was meant to be a new start and was for a long time. Now I can’t move forward, I’m stuck in the past with no reprieve, no let up. Lizzie’s frustrated sighs are the least of my worries, the picture of Amelia hanging over me, a ghostly reminder of all I’ve lost.
Now it’s Christmas day, I’m here with my family, but not really, on what should have been Christina’s 50th birthday. The boys are fussing, what is wrong Dad? Even Evelyn, Lizzie’s sister keeps throwing side-ways glances and is unusually quiet. They seem genuinely concerned. Lizzie shakes her head and tuts as I take another slug of whisky.
‘Oh, I forgot!’ she says rummaging under the tree, ‘This came for you the other day, a present from your brother I think?’ My heart rate quickens, my ruse of an estranged brother who’s recently gotten back in touch, the one I write to each month, my only connection to Amelia.
Lizzie passes it to me with an anxious smile, hope in her eyes that this might cheer me up, a wave of guilt washes over me.  The writing now so familiar as I tear open the brown paper wrapping, wondering what on earth could be in the parcel? My fingers begin to shake as I feel soft fabric.
‘Well? What is it?’ asks lizzie, impatience in her tone. I clear my throat but cannot speak as I look down and lift the white bundle from the paper to my face, breathing in the smell of cotton and lavender, taking me back to the day I let her go, I unfold it and there it is, in baby pink thread….Christina.

Monday, 11 March 2019

ABOVE GROUND by Yvonne Witter

Last Wednesday via WhatsApp I asked my friend Rowena how she was, and she replied in a low tone “above ground”, we giggled. She runs a travel business in Kingston, Jamaica and travels the world extensively. She had been complaining of feeling tired and needing to offload some of her work to her staff. I think she is struggling with 'letting go', as she built her business from scratch. 

“Hhmm not heard that before" I said, "but it’s now mine too, so when someone asks how I am, I shall say ‘above ground and feeling grateful’”.

I found this quote, cut it out and stuck it in my journal last year.‘I write quicker now because of the panic of death’ Playwright David Hare told The Times that age is a great cure for writers’ block [January 2018]. Well considering that in June 2018 my over zealous GP gave me a prognosis of imminent death due to advanced cancer based on a lung X-ray, a diagnosis that wasn’t based on sufficient medical examination or tests. However, further tests with senior Consultants did reveal that all was not well, and my body was in dis-ease. So, demise is certain as it is for all of us who are ‘above ground’ but in my case not quite so imminent.

I mean after all who knows when we are going to pop off, push up daisies, be given last rites, or just shuffle off. Yes, there are predictors, but for some of us all we have are indicators that our bodies are malfunctioning. Dis-ease, uncurable but contained, dis-ease which wreaks havoc in more ways than the physical deterioration of healthy cells, and the symptoms of which sometimes there aren’t even that many. I know it sounds like hyperbole it must do. I fluctuate between feeling like I am on ‘death row’ to wanting to squeeze the last juice out of every day, if only I had the energy.  It has taken almost a year to stop feeling like its pointless starting anything as I might not be alive to complete it. Or going overseas for too long is a risk, just-in-case.

I was for a while simply waiting, expecting the physical deterioration and subsequent entry to the hospice to await my final hour. I have told my oncologist, on each visit that he is a miracle worker. He is simply the best, I wish I could sing that Tina Turner song to him, well the chorus anyway.

But wait a minute, my trip to the hospice no longer necessary, my energy levels are increasing, my appetite has certainly returned so no more compliments from our image obsessed society that equates weight loss with good health, oh the irony. I can’t lie though I liked the idea of throwing out frocks that were too big and buying a size smaller. You can’t be too thin these days, even if your body is wasting away, who cares? What really matters to the masses is that you are no longer a fatty.

So yes, alongside saying no to anything or anyone that does not bring me joy, or worse still stresses me out or does not make me feel empowered; I have also decided to seek out and prioritize that which brings me pleasure, keeps me calm, balanced and feeling good about myself. I suppose if I had always done that, I might not have grown a quite so dis-eased body.

However, I battle on in the knowledge that being ‘above ground’ is quite significant and whilst I can function on all cylinders I ought to be truly grateful and embrace every opportunity to celebrate each day.

Monday, 4 March 2019


(Read to the tune of “Reasons To Be Cheerful...” by Ian Dury & The Blockheads.)

Measles, Mumps, Rubella,
Split up with your fella,
Locked up in the cellar,
song sung blue.

Been taken for a ride,
We’ve got nowhere to hide,
Mother of the bride,
Can't be true.

Hannibal on the loose,
too few kangaroo’s,
Just run out of booze,
Balance Due.

Country is in deep debt,
Cat needs to see a vet,
Plug sockets are all wet,
A day to rue.

Car's got a flat tyre,
Billy's not a liar,
Daddy's not my sire,
Tea's gone cold

Russians in the Ukraine,
Lion without a mane,
Lex's kidnapped Lois Lane
Brass aint bold.

Gone to meet his maker,
Street without a baker,
Used up all my data,
Tale untold.

They've all gone and left me,
Beaten up by Bruce Lee,
Sad and melancholy,
My body's old.

Monday, 25 February 2019

Life in the Library by Owen Townend

Note: This is what I call a patchwork of anecdotes. 
All occurrences described did happen but certainly not all on the same day... 

A woman lays a copy of An Orphan's Courage by Cathy Sharp on the counter. She opens it.
            "I was halfway through when I noticed this."
            The left hand page is marked 186, the right 201. Fourteen pages are missing. No obvious tearing: a probable misprint. Still, very odd.
            The red-headed woman laughs. "I get the feeling that might have been the best bit."
            A reservation is made for a copy that is actually complete.
            There is commotion to the right, at the table where the newspapers are kept. A male septuagenarian stands over a female octogenarian.
            "I just want to read today's headlines!" the fidgety man says.
            The stiff woman glares up at him. "I was here first!"
            The fidgety man lands heavily on the seat opposite, trying to read page 5 of The Examiner upside down.
            An obese Asian woman with brown hair in an untidy bun, waves from PC8.
            "Can you help me print this webpage please?"
            It's a simple job: copy and paste onto a Word document so that the printer will recognise it.
            "I just want this bit," the woman says. She holds a manicured finger and thumb up to the screen, isolating a picture of a man with a black mask and a hairy chest. His name is Saf and apparently he services women and couples, light BDSM. The job is successfully sent.
            There is a brief respite after payment. A chance to pause and check emails.
            Moments later a young blonde woman with a younger blonde guide dog arrives at the counter.
            "I've come to pay for a book," says the woman, "I'm afraid Sam chewed it."
            The rambunctious pup is trying to shred her jeans as she speaks.
            She hands over her library card. There is currently only one item on loan: Clever Dog by Sarah Whitehead.
            It costs £7.99. Eventually Sam settles down enough for the woman to get out her purse.
            The debt paid, they head off, crossing paths with a teenage lad in a black puffer jacket. He calls out before he's even at the counter.
            "Hey, mate," he says, "When's the next 371 go?"
            Five minutes from now.
            "Ta." He shrugs out.
            A man stands at the Xerox machine, manila folder in hand. He pulls out an A4 sheet with multiple magazine clippings glued onto it.
            "I'd like fifty of this please," says the man, "Black and white. And could you leave about three millimetre's space at the bottom?"
            After several failed attempts, he finally scoops up the sheets he wants. A grin lights up his wrinkled face as he pulls out a handful of plastic pots and tips out £5 worth of greasy pennies.
            "Hey, mate," a familiar voice calls out, "That bus didn't go! When's the next one?"
            Another five minutes from now.
            "Ta." The lad is gone again.
            Behind him the man at PC3 swigs from a litre bottle of fizzy water. He tucks it back into his dirty red rucksack, glancing around him as he does so.
            This man is big and wide, his bum crack visible over tracksuit pants.
            He puts in earphones and plays a music video from Florence and the Machine. He starts to sway and click his fingers.
            3pm. Families flood in, heralded by childish screams of excitement. More colouring pages are printed: Paw Patrol, Princess Elsa and Peppa Pig. Crayons are slammed against the table.
            Teddy bears are found by toddler hands. The toys are hugged, brought to the counter.
            "No," says Mummy, "You have to leave Bear here."
            A wobbly bottom lip. A teary sheen to the eye. A primal scream.
            After a minute's shushing, Mummy turns back to the counter, ten picture books under her arm.
            "Sorry. Little Miles forgot his card."
            Little Miles is sniffling beside her until all the books are checked out manually.
            More emails.
            "Hey, mate." The teenager again. "Where does the 371 even go?"
            Via Google maps, he is shown the one minute route from here to the bus stop.
            "What time?"
            Five minutes.
            Come teatime, all is quiet. There are still books to be shelved.
            One draws the eye. It looks brand new, unfamiliar.
            A quick scan reveals that it's not part of this library's stock. A Town title among  Community books.
            It's by Fern Britton.
            A Good Catch.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Birthday Lunch by Andrew Shephard

Five years ago today the first Writers’ Lunch blog post appeared. 261 posts and over 125,000 words later, it is still going strong. The first post, by Emma Harding, was a simple manifesto which has served the lunchers and contributors well. I recommend reading the post, but the essence lies in this quote - ‘we have found that it helps to help each other.’

Over the five years the numbers for the weekly lunch, in a cafĂ© in Huddersfield, have expanded, contracted and expanded again. There is no quorum, no constitution, no membership, no fees and no requirement to post. Over 20 different writers have contributed with a range of stories, poems, and creative non-fiction. With regard to fiction, there must some genres we have not covered, but writers have used the blog opportunity to experiment with their style and try something different. All contributors are taking steps in the process that makes a writer – building up a body of work, distinctive to that individual.

A number of collaborations have been spawned. If anyone can suggest a home for a 12,000 word murder mystery with a child detective set in 1947 London, please let me know. A film noire script, an explosive Western, a set of stories based on one edition of the local paper, another set from the melodic ‘sea areas’ of the Shipping Forecast, have kept the lunchers from predictability. We taught ourselves about Print on Demand publishing and produced a paperback based on the blogs, Dining on Words (click the picture for details). Individual members have published novels and short stories with the prodding and help of the group.

I still get a Monday morning buzz of anticipation for what will appear, and it often surprises – and I mean that in a good way. The truth is writers improve as they gain experience. They come up with ideas which make me say ‘wow!’ A big part of that is confidence, and confidence is gained from working on a piece until it is ready to be shown and getting some feedback from readers. Genuine responses are gold dust for writers. Gentle criticism is food for thought.

It is said that writing is an isolating activity. Big projects require long hours of near solitude, and it can be years before an idea bears tangible fruit, if ever. Success, or the appearance of success, may visit temporarily with a competition prize, a book contract, or a payment of some kind, but disappointment is the usual lot of the writer and it is hard to keep at the keyboard without occasional validation. Writing entirely for its own sake is like talking to oneself, but chasing recognition is like planning to win a lottery. For me, the weekly chat over a light lunch with friendly fellow-scribblers is the most reliable form of validation.

Writers’ Lunch appears via a platform called Blogger, which is a Google product, free to use. Google gets something out this exercise – data. Quite what their algorithms make of the Writers’ Lunch menu I do not know. A recent change in their system means we have lost the bulk of the comments left by readers over the past five years. Please do your bit to confuse the algorithms further by wishing the blog a ‘happy birthday’ via the Comments below. At tomorrow’s lunch we may recognise our milestone with something stronger than tea.

Monday, 11 February 2019

You by Gemma Allen

You watched the wind blow in from the west. It was fierce and rapid. It meant business. Everyone was preparing – boarding up windows, reinforcing doors and taking shelter in basements.
Not you.
The fascination of watching a meteorological phenomenon was too much of a draw. No matter what scare stories were told, the refusal to believe any harm would come to you was steadfast. No one else would be watching this, so it had to be done.
Sounds echoed of frantic preparations being made. The sense of fear was palpable, enticing. Watching the panic was enjoyable, although you couldn’t say why. Maybe because the human race lost the tendency to politeness when they were rushing.
You, in stark contrast, were as chilled as could be.  Nothing fazed you, definitely not some demonstration by the natural world. That was just an example of power that proved nothing. You had the real power.
As more humans ran from the scene, apparently in the ridiculous belief that their homes were reasonably safe, you remained motionless, staring from the window at the impending storm. In the distance telegraph poles floated through the air as if they were feathers. Occasionally heavier items, such as a trampoline or shed, were carried along too, waiting to be unceremoniously dumped in someone else’s garden.
It drew ever closer. The days turned into hours, and then minutes. Shutters clattered, a dog barked. Had that poor canine really been left by his owners?
Trees began to flatten and a child’s playhouse soared by. The wind whipped up still further, and all the windows began to rattle. Despite yourself, there were some nerves. You stepped away from the pane of glass, reconsidered, and returned to the spectacle. The house would protect you.
A cry ran out, shrill, breaking through the other noises. A small girl, aged about 8, was outside. Outside! What was she doing there? As you observed, she fought against the gale and reached the porch of your house. You waited, breath held. A frantic set of knocks came at the door.
You wanted to help – of course you did. But you were frozen. Another person here, another to look after? That wasn’t in the plan. In no imagined scenario had that been in the plan.
Another round of knocking. You sighed, knowing she had no other change of survival. Out there, in hurricane-force winds? Not a chance in hell. Reluctantly you moved downstairs and across to the door. Then there was silence.
A brief moment of hope, and then more, now desperate, thumps the other side of the door. As it was opened the wind grasped hold and flung it back, clattering against the wall. The girl ran in and pushed it shut, strong despite everything. You marvelled at her strength. Who was she?
She was panting heavily and her hair was matted all over her face, disguising her features. The wind howled in fury at having lost a victim, and the door suddenly felt like an inadequate protection.
“Say, what you still doing here? Thought all folk had gone.”
Despite her youth she had a ripe accent, which bellowed from her petite mouth.
“I’m Mary, by the way.”
You couldn’t help but stare at her poise and composure, under the most extreme of circumstances. She gestured to the lounge.
“Can I?”
You nodded, still dumbstruck at how she managed to survive out there. Mary settled on the battered sofa and began to take off the wettest of her clothes first. They were discarded in a heap on the floor.
“Sorry, it’s all making a right puddle, isn’t it!”
Her giggle reminded you of her age, and how vulnerable she was.
“Want a hot drink, Mary?”
“Found your voice, eh? I’ll have an earl grey tea if you have it, thanks.”
Her attempt at airs and graces was amusing. Whilst musing at the sophisticated taste of such a young girl, you headed to the kitchen and began making the drink, putting water on the hob to boil. Popping back to the lounge door, you stopped and watched in surprise as she took her hat off. It revealed a long, black, wavy hairstyle that reached her waist, but had remained bone dry. You wondered what sort of hat could keep that amount of hair dry in a hurricane, let alone stay on her head so neatly.
Mary looked up and caught your eye. A gradual smile crept across her face and she patted the sofa.
“Come, sit.”
You remained where you were.
“Come on!”
Impatience had crept into her voice, but you were immovable.
You remembered a handy excuse and returned to the kitchen, in relative safety until the window over the sink shattered, and shards of glass flew at you. Mary came running in.
“Oh my god! Let’s get you out of here. Have you got a basement?”
You uttered a sound that she interpreted as a yes.
“Show me.”
She had taken command, and you did as you were told. The basement was sparse and badly-lit, but Mary ignored the surroundings as she began to examine your face for pieces of glass.
“Hold still, will ya!”
You obeyed whilst she carefully pulled out the glass she could see.
“What a mess. You should never have been by the window. That was my fault.”
Her face was close to yours, her breath warm. You stepped back.
“Stop, Mary.”
You couldn’t name the feeling that was swarming over you, but it was bad one.
“Get out. Leave. Go home!”
She sounded incredulous, and for good reason. You were trying to send her out to her probable death. You grasped her round the waist and carried her upstairs as she fought, kicking and screaming.
At the door she went silent, and with tear-stained eyes pleaded with you. But the fear of turfing her out to face the elements was nothing compared to the fear you had felt when she got close.
You wrestled the door open and shoved her. She cried out again for leniency but the door slammed behind her.
You were alone once again. As you should be.

Monday, 4 February 2019

The Writer and The Housemaid by Chris Lloyd

New York 1971.

Alex Cameron, a New York Times Best Selling author and top feature writer, was pacing the floor of her writing room in a state of agitation, her face looked stressed which spoilt her good looks. Another magazine assignment stared at her from under a large paperweight that sat on the desk, as if daring her to write it. She lit a cigarette and drew deeply, feeling the initial dizziness of the first nicotine hit of the day, poured a drink from the hot coffee jug and took a draught, straight down in one.  Outside it was getting lighter with every second; she took a look at her watch, twice, not believing what she saw the first time.
“My god, four hours?” Her 5’10” frame sagged, feeling the pressure.
She ran her hand through her long auburn hair, lips pursed.  She couldn’t afford not to deliver on this one; there was a new guy at the top and she got the impression he didn’t like her. Reluctantly she walked out of her room to the landing and shouted down the stair well to her housemaid, telling her to come up.
The housemaid was in the middle of her early morning cleaning duties when she heard the writer asking her to go upstairs. What now, she thought, assignment time?
She ran up the stairs two at a time and entered the writer’s room, slightly breathless, her long strides and noisy footfall, making the writer turn quickly.
“Ursula, I’m blocked again, need your input.” She was tetchy and straight to the point.
“Of course Ms Cameron, what is the subject?”
“I have to write a piece about women writers in today’s society, six hundred words and it has to be good. I have to get it to them in four hours max, can you do it?”
The housemaid was tempted to blow her off but she needed to work for now, at least until she’d finished her novel about a writer.
“Not sure I can do that ma’m, you should have given me more time.”
“Time is what I don’t have, Ursula, it needs to be done today, this morning. Do it or not?”
The housemaid considered her options, she needed three more days. Next week it would be done.
“I’ll do it ma’m, you have notes?”
“Sure, here they are.” She handed some pieces of paper to the housemaid.
“OK. Is this it?
“Yes that is it. Again do it or not?”
“I said I’d do it, ok?”
“I’ll let you get to it.” The writer poured some more coffee and walked out of the room, her room.
The housemaid sat down and read what notes there were; the banging of the old Remington’s keys could soon be heard. The writer relaxed a little, hearing the housemaid at work, hoping that she could come up with the goods - again.  Despite the help she was about to get, it irked her that her housemaid could simply sit down and start to write from her scant notes, which by the way, was becoming a habit, she told herself.  How many times was it, three, four? She has to go, she thought determinedly. The more she used the girl the less she could write. Yes she has to go.
The writer went back to the room and watched the housemaid; she was a picture of concentration.  She watched awestruck, amazed, but mostly jealous that this young woman could write to order, something she had never been capable of. What if it came out that she, Alex Cameron, had to use her damn house maid to do her writing, oh dear God that cannot happen, she poured a drink, another habit recently acquired. A second Marlboro came out of the pack and suddenly all became clear, crystal clear, as clear as the vodka she now had in her hand.
She walked out of the room and went downstairs intent on calling her agent but noticed the housemaid’s door was open. She went in and took a look; it was ultra-tidy and organised, shelves stacked with Alex Cameron novels, one on top of the other. A slip of paper stuck out of one them. The writer took it off the shelf. She remembered this novel, her third best seller, with affection, particularly the ending, an event which she had personally experienced. She took the slip of paper out – there were some notes written on it. She read the notes with interest, they seemed to have been made by an editor but that was impossible given it was already published. Wait a minute, they were rewriting notes and written in a hand she recognised - the housemaid’s. She started looking closer at the books; they all had similar notes. “What the…….?”
She started poking around in the housemaid’s desk; lots more notes about her books, all neatly filed and annotated. What she found next shocked her; it was a manuscript for a book, about her. She  read some of the draft, it was dynamite and would finish her as a writer if it was ever published.
“Hell, the bitch is gonna sell me out – I don’t think so.”
She checked the time again, an hour to deadline.   
The writer walked to the desk keeping her feelings in check, stood next to the housemaid and eyed the paperweight.
“Hey how’s it going?”
“I think it’s good, I’m nearly done,” banging the keys for the last few words, “There it’s done, see what you think.” She remained seated while the writer stood reading.
No way should it be as good as this, thought the writer; it was better than any assignment she had written. She was angry with herself for letting this happen and furious with the housemaid for thinking she could hang her out to dry and ruin her career. She took the aggressive route.
“Where in hell did you get this from – it can’t be yours. Who’s copy is it?”
“What, are you jealous that it’s mine, is it better than your last effort?” she said sarcastically.
“You are dreaming if you think you can be as good as me, you’re a fucking housemaid for god’s sake  with serious delusions of grandeur which will never happen.”
“Says who, you? Your writing days as the great Alex Cameron will be finished soon; I will take your place on the best sellers list. Alex Cameron is dead.”
“Fuck you,” said the writer as she grabbed the paperweight and smashed it down on the housemaid’s skull. She was dead before her head banged floppily on the desk.
“I don’t think so, bitch, who’s the one alive now?”

“Hey Joe, I got the piece for this month, sending it to you by cab right now, it’s awesome.”
“All your own work?” he asked, “Just kidding , Alex, see you.” The line went dead
She put the handset back in its cradle, hands shaking, not believing what Joe just said. She truly hoped he was kidding.
She lifted it again. “Marty, I got another one for you, yeah, sure, five grand is ok.”
A heavy weight seemed to lift off of her shoulders, she was back.
She called for a cab, sent the piece to Joe and wrote the title of her next novel, “The Housemaid’s Tale,” then a want ad for a housemaid / trainee writer, accommodation and writing tuition included.