Thursday, 30 January 2014

Make Do and Mend [Part 2]

[Ted and Elsie's story begins with a scarf and a question]
It was this scarf that started it all. If truth be told, I didn’t like Ted one little bit when I first saw him, standing in the centre of that group of lads outside the coffee bar. With his scruffy duffle coat and long hair — well it seemed long to me then, although it was probably only down to his collar — he didn’t look at all the sort of boy I wanted to get to know. And this was just as well, really, since he didn’t even notice me. He seemed to be telling jokes; at least all his mates were falling about laughing over something.  They were taking up so much room, I had to step off the pavement to get past.

After that first evening, I saw him all over the place: in the newsagents when I picked up Gran’s mints on the way home; outside the Youth Club where we all played table tennis once a week; coming out of the chippie when Mum and I went to fetch supper on Friday nights. We never spoke; although he would sometimes give me a stiff nod if he caught my eye in passing.

As the weather improved, his duffle coat disappeared, replaced by a leather jacket or a light raincoat. But he always wore his scarf. It was royal blue and maroon stripes, made of heavy cotton material. Some people might think it had military connections, others that it belonged to a university graduate; although neither image fitted this young man. But I knew better. I had its pair sitting in my drawer at home. And I really wanted to know why he always wore a scarf from St Teresa’s Grammar School for Girls.  [To be continued]

Monday, 27 January 2014

Independence Day

[For more than twenty years, I had the privilege of working in many countries around the world. These experiences influence my writing and my stories are often set outside the UK. I thought it was about time I introduced some travel writing to this blog. And it seemed appropriate to start with Ukraine.
The crowd surges towards the small gap between the buildings.  Bodies are forced together, air sucked out.  I am pulled along, as though caught in a river, swollen by the rain.  An old man calls for his wife, struggling to keep his feet.  Children look for parents.  Friends cling together.  A couple hold a pushchair at shoulder height, their baby screaming in panic. 

August 2001, Kiev.  Independence Day celebrations started early with the military march-past. From our vantage point high on a side street, we were too far away to recognise faces, but there was no mistaking the roar of the crowd when the President drove by with his buddy from Moscow.  But, the fly-past of Antonov aircraft was more impressive.  As the massive transport planes appeared over the buildings, the sun dimmed and speech was impossible above the throb of engines.  They seemed within touching distance.
Once the formalities were over, everyone spilled into the road to promenade.  Stages along Khreshchatik presented traditional dancing, mini-dramas, rock music.  Balloon sellers jostled for space with buskers.  A young violinist entranced us with Tchaikovsky and Borodin.  As she switched to a well-loved folk tune, old men clapped in time to the beat and youngsters twirled around her.  People dropped a few kopeks into her hat before moving on.  Every few yards, there were marquees where hot, tired spectators could quench their thirst. 

As darkness fell, I joined the people migrating towards Independence Square for the grand finale.  For exactly fifteen minutes, the sky was alive with rainbows of colour, starbursts of brilliance and gardens of fire.  The display was magnificent, even by the standards of a city that loves such spectacles and will mark the closing of a disco on a Sunday night with a short, but very noisy, burst of pyrotechnics.   Now it is over.  Everyone turns for home at the same time.

The Square is filled with monuments, fountains and glass domes of an underground shopping centre.  Small roads lead off to surrounding areas, but the main route is back into Khreshchatik.  Imposing, pre-Soviet buildings line the square.  Exquisite friezes, like stone lace, bridge the gap between nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.

The normally wide pavements are narrowed by drinks marquees and confectionary stalls.  It would be tight for three people walking abreast.  Now there are hundreds trying to occupy the same space. 

I am swept along by the momentum, pushed from behind by people who cannot see what is happening.  Strangers clutch at one another for support; there is no time for reticence or discretion.  The air smells of sweat, beer and unmistakable fear.

I struggle to stay upright in the crush.  The edge of the road is lined with benches, used to watch the morning’s parades. They look reassuringly safe, like rocks rising out of the swell.  They are already full of people but I spy a small gap.  As the flow takes me close, I fling out an arm and a woman hauls me onto the bench beside her.

But the impression of safety is an illusion.  Above the crowd, I am still held in its grip.  On the ground, it was easier to brace yourself if someone stumbles.  Up here, with just a couple of inches of wood to balance on, if one goes, we all go. 

Looking over my shoulder, I see the roadway, still full of people, but not dangerously so.  I twist around, using shoulders and backs to steady myself. Stepping across other benches and forcing my way between the last bodies, I reach relative tranquillity.  The raging torrent is a stream.  Groups of people part to avoid me and flow together when they pass. 
Kiev will always remain in my mind a city of laughter and celebration; where danger lurks below the surface, but passes as quickly as it comes. This week, as I watch pictures on TV of the violence in the city that was briefly my second home, I remember that day of celebrations and hope my friends will soon find good reasons for firework displays once more.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Make Do and Mend [Part 1]

[I started this story during last week's Write Invite competition, using the trigger 'The Present'. It didn't get short-listed, and the original ending (which I have deleted) was not strong enough. So I've posted the opening few paragraphs and I'm going to develop the story over the next few weeks. I currently have no idea where it will go - but that's the joy of writing fiction.]

"Trouble with you, Mum, you're too fond of living in the past!." Mark stood with his hands on his hips, looking in at the spare room. "We're going to have to throw all this junk out. There won't be room for it when you move in with us."

"In my day, we didn't just throw stuff out," I said, "we kept it for a rainy day; we always found a use for things in the end. Make do and mend, we called it."

"Yeah, yeah, I know. There was a war on; you didn't have money to waste... but like I said, you're living in the past." He dodged as I threw a cushion at him and then gave one last look at the room before following me into the kitchen for a cup of tea. "We'll tackle that next weekend, if you like."

I knew he was right, of course. There wasn't going to be room in the little annex for the contents of a fifty-year marriage. And maybe keeping all the children's old clothes, as well as our own, was a bit excessive. But I wanted to go through it on my own first, before our past - mine and Ted's - was given away to the charity shop or a jumble sale. [to be continued]

Monday, 20 January 2014

While I Was Waiting

I’ve mentioned more than once on this blog that I have a grasshopper approach to my writing and to everything else I do as well. And as a woman, I am proud of the fact that I am a natural multitasker. But standing back and taking a look at my behaviour last Saturday morning made me wonder if I’d gone a bit too far.

Sitting at the table tucked into the eaves, I switched on the desk-top to pay a bill. This computer, which is only used for admin purposes, is old and slow [who said ‘like its owner’?] and takes an age to fire up. I pushed the keyboard out of the way and switched on my laptop to check my emails while I was waiting. Outlook seemed to take an age to open; so I flipped over to Facebook while I was waiting. That seemed to be working quite slowly too; so I pulled the latest issue of Writing Magazine out of the rack and read the winning short story while I was waiting.

And then I realised what I was doing - and started jotting down notes for this blog post! That’s five different operations all in progress at the same time. It’s no wonder I sometimes have difficulty finishing things.

My husband assures me the speed of operation of a computer is inversely proportional to the number of operations you ask it to do at the same time. He is horrified to find me sometimes with Facebook, Twitter, this blog and a couple of other pages all open at the same time, not to mention at least two spreadsheets and a Word document of several hundred pages. 

Of course, slow is a relative term; we’ve become so used to computers reacting to our commands instantly, when something takes a second or two, we get impatient. And there is so much information to take in these days, we try to fill every spare second with ‘useful’ activity.

But I’ve come to the conclusion giving my brain too many operations to complete at one go is slowing me down. So I’m going to try and keep my multitasking down to two levels in future. That way, maybe I’ll get more done.

Readers, what about you? Do you find yourself trying to do lots of things at the same time? And does that increase your efficiency or decrease it?

Thursday, 16 January 2014

She Who Holds The Pen...

[Today's snippet of new prose was written in response to a Write Invite trigger last September: 'power'. While it is completely fictional, I'm sure many people would be able to identify with Suzy's insecurities I know I have at times.]
By the third week of term, I was ready to jack it all in! I'd got past the homesickness. I was used to having to fend for myself and worse still to pay for myself. But I really couldn't get to the point where I could make myself heard in the seminars.
All the other students had something to say, to contribute to the questions our oh-so-clever lecturers threw at us. They sat on the desks, or on the floor, around flip-charts in break-out rooms, throwing out words that went right over my head.  How could I ever hope to make an impact?
I really shouldn't have been there, you see. I'd applied for the course because my parents told everyone I was going to University and I didn't have the nerve to say I didn't want to go, didn't think I'd be able to keep up.
So I'd filled in the forms, gone to the interview, somehow made a good enough impression with the interview panel and they offered me a place. Don't worry, I thought, there's no way you're going to get the grades for this. You'll be able to quietly fade into the background when the results came out.
It was therefore a huge surprise, not to say, shock, to get straight A*s in all my subjects. My parents were delighted, threw a huge party for me and the next thing I knew, here I was at Imperial College studying engineering.
Only I wasn't studying, that is. I tried I really did, but none of the words made sense and so when we got to the seminars I was tongue-tied. And everyone ignored me. Until today. When I arrived in the seminar room, Abraham was the only one there. 
"Hi Suzy," he said, "I'm glad you've arrived early." He held up a bandaged hand. "It's my turn to write up the notes and present them back to the class, but as you can see, I've had a bit of an accident."
"Not me, I can't write it up," I shook my head and shrank back into my seat. "I won't know what to write."
"Of course you will," he said, "and if you get stuck, I'll help."
So while Abraham led the discussion, I wrote up the points made by everyone else and I didn't need any help, either.
When we went back into the lecture theatre, Abraham volunteered our group to go first with feedback. He stood up, began to give our conclusions, then stopped and look around at me.
"Sorry, Suzy, I can't read all your writing. Can you take it from here?" And without thinking about what I was doing, that's just what I did. I stood up, fed back everyone's comments, added in a couple original thoughts of my own and sat down, My legs were trembling, and I was short of breath, but I had a warm feeling of pride especially when the lecturer praised me for my succinct coverage of the points.
Right about then, I realised three things: Abraham had really great eyes; I was starting to enjoy my course at last; and my father had been right when he said "she who holds the pen wields the power."

Monday, 13 January 2014

Elizabeth Chats With... Tarja Moles

[My guest this month is an author, a publisher and the nicest Finn I know. I first met her in person at Swanwick Summer School a couple of years back, but felt I already knew her through reading her column in Writing Magazine. This month I am delighted to be chatting with Tarja Moles.] 
Hello Tarja, thanks for dropping by. Can you start by telling me about your earliest memory — and how old were you at the time?
Being in our steaming hot sauna (that’s what the Finns do every Saturday evening), being up to my neck in a huge blue bucket full of ice cold water (I hadn’t learned to tolerate the heat yet), playing with my favourite gorilla figurine. I must have been under three. Ah yes, the sauna in the forest; that brings back memories for me too, although mine are in Russia, not Finland.
What was your favourite subject at school — and which was the lesson you always wanted to avoid?
I loved the crafts/textiles classes and hated PE – except ice skating and gymnastics. I was bad at competitive sports and was always the second to last in cross-country skiing competitions.
If you had to escape from a fire, what three things would you take with you?
We actually had a fire on Christmas night when I was 17. Mum woke up at about 4am and wondered what the flashing orange lights in the living room were. Our neighbours had been careless with an outdoor candle and because of the wind direction it was our home that got most burnt. There was no time to grab three things. We just took our cat and fled.
Talking about yourself, how would you finish the sentence “not a lot of people know...”?
...that I have driven a 54-seater bus from Europe to India. Now that's something we must talk about next time we get together. I used to drive a fork-lift truck - but a bus sounds much more fun.
Where is your favourite place on earth — and why?
A summer cottage by a lake in Eastern Finland. What’s not to like: tranquillity, natural beauty, alternating between going to the sauna and swimming in the lake, frying sausages in an open fire, listening to cuckoos on a midsummer’s night when the sun hardly sets. (Admittedly, mosquitoes can be a bit of a nuisance...). I've seen the Gulf of Finland from the other shore; the scenery certainly is stunning.

Describe your ideal menu
A buffet of different kinds of ice creams followed by a variety of salt liquorice. The only problem is: I can’t eat sugar (or gluten)... I have a sweet tooth and because of this I started developing sweet treats without the naughty ingredients.  If anyone fancies having a go at this wonderful instant mango ice-cream or similar sweet treats, check out the No Naughties website.

If you could take part in one television programme, which one would it be?

Dancing on Ice. I love ice skating and I used to spend hours on the outdoor ice rink after school when I was a kid. I still have my skates but haven’t been skating for years.

Can you show us a picture or a photo that best represents you, and tell us why
I love animals and I love riding. I always have a big grin on my face whenever we go the stables. This photo’s been taken at Cholwell Riding Stables in Mary Tavy (Dartmoor) and the adorable dog is called Cherry (I’m always tempted to put her my pocket and take her home with me...)
What would you have printed on the front of your T-shirt?
Eat. Sleep. Write. Ride.
Thank you Tarja for sharing your thoughts and memories with us.

Tarja Moles is the creator of No Naughties® recipe books, the author of The Xenophobe’s® Guide to the Finns and she writes the ‘Research tips for writers’ column for Writing Magazine. Find out more on Tarja's website.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Filthy Writing

[Today's snippet of new prose grew out of a writing exercise: one of the triggers on last week's Write Invite competition was 'New Page'. With just 30 minutes to write and submit my entry, this was the first thing that came to mind.]

I write like I've never written before. The words pour out of me like grains of rice on the day Sally knocked over the jar. Then, we watched in horror as the contents spilled across the table, cascaded over the edge and spread across the slate tiles in a pool that grew without stopping. There seemed to be too much to get back into the container. We couldn't believe so much mess came out of such a small space.
Now, I watch, as though unconnected with the process, as words spill from my pen onto the smooth white page. Words I have never said out loud; words I didn't realise I knew.
This can't be me writing. I write nice stories. Stories where good people have sad things happen to them, but overcome their problems and get what they deserve in the end. Stories where bad people do terrible things, but to no avail; where the villain gets his come-uppance in the final paragraph. I tell people browsing through my books: "there's nothing in there you couldn't show to your maiden aunt." I write stories I wouldn't be ashamed to show my mother - and that she would be happy to read.
So where does this filth come from? This anger, this rage. It flows from me in torrents; like the torrents of water that rolled down from the moors, swelled our stream, broke the banks, engulfed our garden, and then burst through our doors and windows. It is red; red like the Devon mud; red like the lights I see behind my lids when I squeeze my eyes shut against the devastation.  Red, like the blood I imagine flowing from every orifice when I hit the insurance company operative who tells me there's no-one on duty at seven o'clock on a Sunday morning, and "can I call back tomorrow?"
Gradually, as the days pass, the flow slows down, the number of words diminishes, the language becomes cleaner. I look out of the window at the stream, chuckling in a 'butter-wouldn't-melt' way over the stony bed. It too is clean once more. 
I take a deep breath, turn to a clean page in my notebook and start to plot my next story. But just occasionally, I glance back at the earlier words and wonder if maybe, just maybe, some of them might be useful.

Monday, 6 January 2014

On Being Thankful

This time last year, we were facing a rather soggy short-term future. Months ago, I said I wouldn’t write about the flood again, and I’m not going to; there are far too many people, both in this country and overseas, who are suffering today through floods far worse than the one we had. My heart goes out to them — especially anyone who’s been injured or has lost friends or relatives as a result.

One of the ways I coped with the situation last January was to set up a ‘Thankfulness Book’. The idea was not an original one; but then, the best ones never are. The wonderful Jackie Juno, poet and Grand Bard of Exeter, talks about a happiness jar; recording good things that happen on slips of paper and keeping them in a jar to reread at the end of the year. Peter Jones in his no-nonsense book How to Do Everything and Be Happy suggests setting up a notice board on which to pin mementos of the good things that happen throughout the year. I didn’t fancy the idea of a jar, and I didn’t have a large cork board - but I did have a beautiful fabric-covered notebook, just begging to be written in (and what writer can resist a virgin notebook?)

I’ve never kept a diary, and didn’t want to do so now, but from 1st January, I started jotting down the things that made me smile or cheered me up each day. Sometimes, there was just one bullet point. Sometimes the list was quite long. Initially, I wrote every day; the first thing I did each morning was to record happy events from the previous day. Gradually, I started slipping — sometimes I would have a backlog of several days to record — and I had to think hard to remember what had gone well earlier in the week. Then suddenly, in the middle of June, I realised I’d stopped making entries altogether. When I looked back, I hadn’t written anything since 9th May. Co-incidentally, or maybe not, that was about the time our new furniture was delivered and ‘project dry-out’ was officially over.

I didn't go back to read any of the entries — until today. I’d like to share just a few of them with you:

Sun shining through the windows at breakfast time (1st January)

Receiving my first critique from Exeter Writers — and surviving (5th January)
Singing hymns to glorious tunes - Dam Busters and Bread of Heaven (13th January)
Finishing editing; the book is written! (4th February)

Wonderful mix of writerly activities including competition subbing and reviewing books (21st February)
Impressing the tattoo artist with the colour of my hair (2nd March)
Back in my writing room after 5 months; so much better for my creativity. Sun shining, birds singing — even the barking dog doesn’t distract (22nd April)

Late night supper in the kitchen with M; wine and chat (9th May)
Looking back over four months of notes, they are mostly trivial things: there’s a lot about writing, and quite a bit about the weather. There are also many mentions of food and drink plus some milestone events for family and friends. Not a bad start to the year and it got even better, with a wonderful summer; some great festival events in our local town; a couple of competition successes; and the publication of my third anthology. Who cares about a little flood? I had a great 2013 — and hope 2014 will be even better.

So, readers, what are you thankful for — and how do you record your memories?

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Sadie's Sensible Shopping

[A very Happy New Year to all of you. I haven't made any resolutions this year - that way, I avoid being disappointed in myself when I fail to keep them. But if I had, they might just have been a bit like Sadie's...]
“Oh God — never again!” Sadie surveyed her kitchen-diner with a grimace: empty champagne bottles on the table, the remains of a Chinese takeaway; Christmas cards on the dresser and a tired-looking tree at the window. A pair of stiletto shoes lay discarded in the corner, next to a bathroom scales. On the wall hung a new calendar.

Massaging her temples and groaning, she opened the fridge and began pulling out packs and cartons. She checked labels, sniffed contents and wrinkled her nose. Everything went in a black bin-bag on the floor.

“Time to shop,” she said, “but sensibly this year!”
Sadie selected a couple of glossy cookbooks from the shelf. She grabbed a pad and drew a table with seven columns, labelling each with a day of the week. She flicked though the cookbooks, jotting down ideas, crossing them out and chewing the end of her pen. Finally, she stuffed the pad in her bag and hurried out of the door.
At the supermarket, Sadie started in the vegetables section, beneath a picture of steaming baked potatoes, covered with grated cheese. She stared longingly at the picture and her hand stretched towards the King Edwards. She chose a large bag and put it in her trolley.

At the dairy counter, she saw adverts for farmhouse butter on crumpets, a golden melting rivulet. She took two packs. Returning to the vegetables, she replaced the potatoes with mixed salad, cooking apples and bananas.

Back at the dairy counter, she rummaged in the cheeses, handling packs of Gorgonzola, Cheshire and Cheddar, before picking white Stilton with apricots. She paused, shook her head, and exchanged the butter for a small tub of vegetable-oil spread.
At the meat counter, other customers were ordering slabs of sirloin steak, marbled with creamy fat, fat sausages or pork chops with rind perfect for crackling. When her turn came, Sadie chose a skinless chicken breast.

The bakery is decorated with pictures of golden toast, smothered in strawberry jam or honey. She picked a white, unsliced loaf. Returning to the diary counter, she swapped Stilton for low-fat cottage cheese. She stood in the centre of the aisle, ignoring the crowd flowing around her, muttering and shaking her head. Finally she returned to the bakery and replaced her loaf with a small sliced slimmer’s wholemeal and a packet of crispbreads.

Waiting her turn at the checkout, Sadie flicked through a magazine from the rack. Without looking, she stretched out her hand for one of the strategically-placed chocolate bars. Realising what she had done, she stared at it for a moment then shrugged and dropped it into the trolley.

“And that’s what I call sensible shopping,” she said with a smile.