Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Appearances, appearances..…

On the way to do a spot of much-dreaded shopping this morning, I spotted a young man walking down the pavement in white socks, carrying his trainers. My brain promptly unearthed this story from somewhere down in the depths of a very dim and very distant past...

It’s too hot for shoes, she declared, clipping her long, glossy mane up into a twist to air her sweating neck. The others agreed, but shape-shifted into disbelief as she kicked off one shoe, and then the next, bending down to scoop them up without missing a beat of her graceful, swaying gait. Strappy hemp shoes dangling from her fingers, tie-dyed skirt sweeping around her ankles, she glided through the dry summer dust, her toes splayed against the hot, unrelenting pavement with every step. Her friends exchanged glances, but there was no point in saying anything. She was high on this, the second week of her conversion to vegetarianism. Barefoot, she was at one with Mother Earth; non-vegetarians couldn’t be expected to understand. So she ignored their tentative suggestions that perhaps she ought to put her shoes back on seeing as she was an English girl, and not someone for whom growing up without shoes was part of life. She squared her shoulders, held her head up high, and walked all the way across town, her teeth gritted against the growing pain.

It took two weeks and a lot of plasters before she could walk again without wincing. She confided in no one the state of her torn feet. And that weekend she went back to eating bacon sandwiches, without even so much as a splodge of guilt.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Witnessing at the Zoo...

The big old Orang-utan with his crazy dreadlock coat clings to the bars with his fingertips, his back turned to the gawping crowds.

If I could paint a more adequate picture of the misery of this poor Orang-utan for you, all zoos would close tomorrow, and their animals released back into the wild. And yes, I do know from the number of times my children have made me join them in watching 'Madagascar', that wouldn't work either. Okay, okay, I know zoos do important work conserving endangered species, it's good for children to be able to see the animals, and, of course, people like me, just one of the hundreds of paying visitors trudging round the zoo-park yesterday, keep places like it open, but if you'd seen this creature....

The zoo, [I'm not going to name names here, because I'm talking about the issue of captivity, not any individual zoo's approach] have spent a lot of money on the enclosure for these creatures - from a human point of view. There are interactive displays, colourful maps and pictures to tell you about the animals, an attempt to re-create rain forest conditions with tropical plants positioned throughout, and tanks of snakes and other creatures native to the area, including one monitor lizard, whose accommodation, it must be said, was too small for it to completely stretch out. How nice.

The apes, on the other hand, are incarcerated in large concrete rooms with wood chips on the floor, a sizable tree trunk and various swinging ropes dangling from the glass covered roof. I must point out they do have access to larger outdoor areas, which do look nice, but it was a grey, cold day; I was glad to be inside. Compared to the 'human' side of the ape's enclosure, the only concession to aesthetics appeared to be the walls having been painted pale green. And in the corner, hanging from the bars to the next enclosure was this poor, sad being.

"He's always like that," I was told by a youngster stood next to me. "He's always just hanging from the bars. I don't think he likes being looked at."
"Neither would I," I said, shaking my head. The girl agreed.

So what of the orang-utan? Has he been driven mad by staring humans with their flashing cameras, while the concrete closes in around him? Has he ever known any other life, or has he always lived there in the zoo? We stood and stared, waiting for him to move. He looked round once, but it was as though he was just checking to see if we were all still there. And people will be, day after day, after day, after year. Maybe he wasn't really miserable; maybe orang-utans don't get depressed, but he looked like the most wretchedly unhappy creature I could ever imagine. His sadness was palpable.

I've had a story brewing in the deepest recesses of my imagination for some time about how we'd feel about being zoo creatures. It could finally be time to release it. But I am aware of my own hypocrisy. I decided to take my younger child to the zoo. And yes, since you ask, he did enjoy the day...

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Bone Yard

I've not posted any pictures for a while, so I thought I'd share these.



They're from the corner of a field dog-of-small-brain and I cross on our favourite weekday walk. I think they're the remains of oak trees.



It looks to me like a graveyard for some mighty animal's bones.



The wood has been bleached and blasted smooth by the weather, and rotted into weird shapes. This one reminds me of a pterodactyl.



I felt so inspired, I thought a story might follow. But I couldn't get the words 'the bone yard' out of my head, and that's not terribly original. In another month or so, the wood bones will have been swallowed by the undergrowth, but at the moment, I find them so spectacular, I have to stop to have another look, every time we pass. The dog finds this more than a little odd...

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Paint Your Soles, Sisters!

Here's a little moment of what I hope is 'extraordinary madness' rather than ordinary madness, since I can't honestly believe anyone in their right minds would honestly go along with this. I stumbled across this little gem in a popular woman's magazine last night. I was going to print a link to said magazine so you could read it for yourselves, but perhaps it's better to avoid naming names...

I was in a jolly mood last night having received some wonderful news ending the ongoing saga of finding a special school for my son. Everything is finally sorted, which, now that we have got exactly what we wanted, makes me suddenly reluctant to write again about how badly the system works. For now, I'm just relieved the struggle is over. In this mind, and with the children 'chez papa', I toddled off to the supermarket, 'treated' myself to a (ghastly) (oh when will I learn?) ready-meal, a couple of bottles of ale, and a magazine. Yes, that is as exciting as it gets these days!

I forced down the meal, got a little merry on the beer, and settled down with my magazine. It wasn't one I'd normally buy, and was a copy of what I would charitably describe as an 'easy-reading', 'lightweight' publication. Snobbery aside, I read it from cover to cover.

It contained an article about a single mother, who, tired of being permanently skint, re-mortgaged her soul to turn herself into a glamour-puss, with the sole aim of snaring herself a millionaire. Now, while Tales's former spouse is committed and supportive of his children, I know far more single mothers for whom this is not the case. So, ethics and morality aside, setting out to bag oneself a millionaire may, on certain bad days, seem like a wise move. The woman in question, a gorgeous manicured blonde, did indeed score herself a man with money, and lives very happily, or so she says. So far, so dull...

The article went on to feature tips on how to primp oneself up from the haggard-and-harassed single mother, a look carried off to perfection by yours truly, into a gold-digging beauty. Scour ebay for cheap designer clothes - yes, good point. Go on a wine appreciation course so you can look knowledgeable in nice restaurants - again, good point. Then, paint the underneath of your cheap shoes with red nail polish to make them look like a certain brand of designer footwear.... What???

I've looked at this article again and again today, wondering if that little 'top tip' was a product of the beer, but no, it's still there. How mad and desperate do you have to be to sit there with a little pot of nail varnish, painting the soles of your shoes, and thinking this is the key to happiness? And, assuming the varnish actually set, would anyone seriously notice your efforts? How insane does this sound? And if you didn't 'pull' your millionaire, (or 'millionairess' of course) would you go home thinking, "darn, maybe a different shade of red"?

Or maybe it's just me, (I guffawed myself into an asthmatic moment last night) and you're thinking, wow, good idea? Surely not... This has to be madness, and I don't think it qualifies as ordinary madness in any way...

Do you reckon it has the same effect if, like me, your footwear of choice is a pair of Doc Martens boots? Look dah-ling, they're designer, of course, made exclusively for me, actually. Ah, watch this space, and pass me the varnish; rich men will be dropping like flies, sisters, and we'll all live happily ever after... Wait a minute, (mutters) nail varnish; what is that again? Doh...

Monday, 21 March 2011

Total! Mite! Kill!

Uh-oh, it's that time of year again. No matter how low temperatures plunged this winter, the balmy spring air has tempted from the woodwork, unwelcome bedfellows for my hens. I wrote about this last year in a post I called 'The twilight saga, backyard version' which received more hits than anything I have ever written. As I imagine all of those visitors were expecting some original take on winsome undead lovers, I expect they were disappointed to discover I had in fact written about poultry parasites! But these nasty little red mites are a big deal here in 'Tales', a constant source of consternation.

Not any more though!!! I'm sure you're all going to be relieved to know I have found a weapon, something which appears to work...although, admittedly, it is only March and there's a long way to go until next winter. I bought a bottle of pink spray called 'Total Mite Kill', made by a company called Nettex, (I've included the link just on the off-chance anyone reading actually does have the same problem) It cost me around seven quid, and it really seems to work. Tipped a few of the mites onto the roof of the hen house, squirt squirt, they stopped moving. A-ha, thought I to myself, but they're canny little devils: they play dead. But five minutes later, ten minutes later, an hour... still not moving. Result! And I've used far nastier stuff before now. I will point out that I don't like killing things, but neither do I like my girls snuggling up with these voracious little monsters every night. And there aren't just one or two of them...

I sprayed the whole henhouse. The stuff has a nice lavender smell, unlike other solutions I've tried which can strip the linings from your nasal passages from ten paces. And, crucially, the hens were all alive this morning, post-spray. Yes, there is a story behind that statement which wells the voice of bitter experience, and you don't want to hear it!

Friday, 18 March 2011

Slurry

[This is inspired by the tractors rumbling past my window today. As I look down, I can see straight into their open, swilling, soupy trailers. Lovely!]

It was warm in the tractor. Marcus mopped his brow with his sleeve. He couldn’t open the window while muck-spreading. His fingers reached for the air conditioning, then paused. Everyone was forbidden to use it.

“Uses extra fuel, costs us money, that does,” their father had declared. “We can’t afford it.”
“Silly old fool,” Marcus's older brother, Jasper, muttered. “Wait till he retires. Then we’ll do it our way.”
Jasper’s way, Marcus thought, frowning. But he had learned to keep quiet, and said nothing.

He turned on the radio. The afternoon show’s presenter’s voice filled the cab.
“And here’s a request for Tracy and Brian, married forty-three years today. Brian, Tracy says she loves you more than ever.”
A strange thing, Marcus mused, to need a stranger to announce your love on national radio. Couldn’t Tracy, whoever she was, manage it herself in a more tasteful manner? But some people were odd, no two ways about it. Take Jasper and Glenda. Now there was a peculiar couple.

“And lastly,” the presenter drawled. “Here’s a message for Fredrick Littleton.”

Marcus was so astonished he let the tractor lurch towards the hawthorn hedge, wrestling it back just in time. But before he had time to wonder if the message was for the Fredrick Littleton he knew, the presenter continued.

“Dad, don’t forget it’s only seventy-three days until you retire.”

Marcus gasped. This time he hit the hedge, and he didn’t even notice.

Back at the farm, Jasper was strutting. He waved as Marcus pulled into the yard, his ruddy face alive with mischief.

“You got the radio on, Bruv?” He shouted. Marcus nodded. “Did you hear it? Classic!” He broke off into snouty guffaws, helpless with laughter.
“I don’t think you should have done it,” Marcus said. “You know how touchy Dad is.”
“Bollocks,” Jasper said, planting his beefy arms on his hips. “Nothing like reminding the old bugger time is almost up. With any luck he’ll go sooner.”
“Did he hear it?”
“Do I give a shit?” His eyes narrowed, and he nodded at the trailer, his dark brows furrowing. “Haven’t you finished yet?”
“Ran out of muck.”
“Bloody hell Marc, how long does it have to take you?”
“It’s a big field.”
“I’m not keeping you on after he retires if you can’t pull your weight. Come on,” he sighed. “Let’s get you filled up.”

But the second load still wasn’t enough, and Marcus had to make another trip back. Pulling into the yard, he looked round, but there was no one about. Bloody Jasper, he thought. He was probably messing around in the office pretending to look busy. Marcus honked the horn. He wasn’t refilling the trailer himself.

He honked again. This time his father appeared. He seemed in no particular hurry, his hands sunk deep inside the pockets of his dirty green overalls. Marcus turned off the engine, and jumped down from the cab.

“Haven’t you finished yet?” Fredrick studied his younger son, and spat on the ground.
“Nearly,” Marcus sighed. “Where’s Jas?”
“I dunno,” Fredrick shrugged. “Lazing around, I expect. Think he said he was going to phone and order the seed potatoes. Apparently, I’ll only buy the wrong ones. Been doing it all my life, but would I know?”
Marcus bowed his head, ashamed of his brother’s impatience. It was true; the old man had been farming all his life. He held out an olive branch.
“Jas doesn’t mean it, Dad. He thinks he’s funny.”
“We’ll see who has the last laugh,” the old man harrumphed. “Need another refill, do you?”
“Yeah,” Marcus said. “But I’m going to grab a drink first. Pretty hot in there today.”
“I’ll fill it up then,” Fredrick huffed. “But get a move on. Bone idle you are, Marcus. You and your brother.”

Marcus stuck his head into the office to moan about being the only one working, but Jasper wasn’t there. Smarting at how he could never please his father, Marcus drove off with his teeth gritted, and his hands gripping the steering wheel. The muck spreader sloshed its smelly soup over the side with every jolt. He turned up the radio. With any luck he’d be done in time for a nice, cold Friday pint. His mouth watered.

He was nearly finished when lights illuminated, and alarms bleeped. The spreader was blocked. He swore. Clearing it was the worst job on the farm.
He pondered driving back for help, but imagined the reception he would get. Both his father and brother would berate him for not sorting it out himself. It was probably straw built up in the propulsion paddles. He clambered up onto the trailer to take a look.

There was something blocking the paddles, but it wasn’t what he’d expected. Instead of straw, there was a Woodstock figure caked not in mud, but in slurry. His stomach lurched. He clambered down, bent over, and was sick into the soil. He didn’t need to look twice to know it was Jasper.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Guessing The Mermaid's Mind...

She’d pinned her fuchsia hair above one ear with a pale pink, silk flower. Her damp, mermaid’s curls tumbled over one shoulder, highlighting the paleness of white skin which surely must never have seen the sun. And, as far as the eye could see, tattooed across the milky white, was a universe of navy stars, a celestial contagion reaching across her right breast, over her shoulder, and all the way down her arm. It’s rude to stare, but I was intrigued. Excuse me, I wanted to ask, but I’d never have the nerve: your tattoos, did they hurt? I winced, imagining. And then she turned. A hissing cobra leapt, spitting from between her swimsuit straps. It had such detail, such colour, and such artistry. But I wonder: was it love which led her to needle stars over her breasts and a snake across her back, or self-loathing? I wish I’d been brave enough to ask. I wonder if she would have been brave enough to answer.

Monday, 14 March 2011

To Do, or Not To Do...

....that is the question!

Dearie me, I’m having such a struggle with my work-in-progress...

It really is a dirge, a joyless, hard slog, and if it’s this tedious to me, how on earth am I ever going to get anyone to read it? I’ve tried taking a break from it, and that didn‘t work… The million dollar question is this: do I give up, or is this just thinly-disguised procrastination, whereupon the trick is to apply bum to seat and get on with writing it? Hmmm, I keep asking myself this over and over and over.

The problem is, I’m just not having fun. Now, ‘Tales’ is ashamed to admit this, but we’re not talking first novel territory here. Or second…. Or third… Or, okay, I’m not going any further! The problem stems from some very negative feedback I received last year, and boy, was it damning! A sensible person would have given up, but some of us struggle to learn.

It all started after I attended a talk at our local library featuring the novelist Sophie Hannah. I will be super-brave here and confess at that point I’d never read any of Sophie’s work. I went along to hear her speak with the intentions of getting some writing tips, and some advice on what to do with the novel-in-hand, which was only attracting the photocopied ‘dear moron’ notes from literary agencies. (I have read some of her books since, very scary crime fiction for those who don’t have trouble sleeping at night.) Anyway, I hung around after her talk, looking, I must admit, a bit stalkery, and asked her advice. She was very kind, ignored my star-struck stammering, and recommended a literary consultant. I went home exceedingly chuffed, contacted said consultant, sent off my manuscript, and awaited the verdict.

It was brutal. Let me summarise… The book was rubbish.

There, I’ve said it, but ouch, it still hurts. But I dusted myself down, thought ‘I’ll show her’, fired off a radical rewrite, and sat back waiting for the phone to ring, to hear her say ‘gosh this is Booker-prize material, I’ll put you in touch with someone I know in publishing’. But as you can guess, this didn’t happen. Instead I got “didn’t you pay any attention to what I told you last time? This is rubbish too.” Double-ouch. I decided my future must lie elsewhere, and started planning a bonfire.

Except I didn’t. I started again. And this time I studied every detail of what the consultant had told me. I read everything I could find about how to improve characterisation. I spent weeks writing the most in-depth character profiles I could ever imagine. (and no, I can’t remember the details while I’m actually writing) I even wrote out tons of little post-it notes detailing my plot, and pinned them to a board. Has it helped? No! Because I can’t write a single sentence without panicking ‘is this any good? Am I just making the same mistakes? Should I just give up?’ Whereas my earlier novels flowed straight out of my fevered imagination, this one splutters and stutters, word by painful word.

I don’t know what to do. Maybe I should give up. Right now I’d like to give up, but then I think about how much I love writing, how I’m always lost in some daydream or other, and think well why not? But if I ever get to the end of this particular story, it will be a small miracle. And that’s before I get anywhere near trying to conquer anyone’s slush pile. Groan….

Why am I doing this to myself?

Sunday, 13 March 2011

On being the bad guy…

I’ve been missing-in-action all week. And what a week! Thank you to everyone who left a message in response to my last post, in which I was wibbling about just how arduous the week promised to be. Let’s just say it didn’t disappoint!

A few weeks ago, Lis over at Half-assed Mama posted about the joys of having a perfect subject to blog about, only being unable to do so because it would contradict her principles about what, and indeed who, she will write about. Let’s just say ‘Tales’ finds herself in similar circumstances. I have a well, nae, a wealth of fresh material, but I won’t use it, not yet anyway. It will out itself, of that I’m quite sure, but at the moment it is too raw and bloody to appear as anything other than an ugly rant. Having said that, I’m now going to dip one toe in the water. It’s no easy being the bad guy, unable to put your point across. Sometimes things just need to be said.

Why is it that no matter how good one’s intentions might be, and no matter how hard one might try to keep the peace, everything, and I mean ’everything’, can be misconstrued, re-fashioned into proof as to just how deep one’s villainy goes? I am the baddie, the black-sheep and now the outcast - perhaps I wouldn’t mind so much had I set out with this intention. I keep reminding myself that I can only control my own reactions to what happens around me. How other people behave is entirely up to them. And age, it appears, is no temperance. Childishness is not confined to the young.

I know all this, but it doesn’t make it any easier. I came home some days ago, intending to forget what happened by throwing myself back into my writing. Yes, I have sat with my beloved work-in-progress, but there has been considerably more glazed staring at the wall. There has been endless dissecting of every last detail about who-said-what, and a vast amount of gazing at the phone, waiting for it not-to-ring, which is after all what happens to telephones when people stop speaking to one another. They become eerie, quiet monsters, filling rooms with their brooding silence, and turning every second into another reminder that yes, you have offended people and they will sulk and sulk and sulk.

Hey-ho. Every drama needs a villain. I think it quite suits me, actually. And please, do feel free to boo!

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Trying Times...

Breathe in, and breathe out. The only thing in the universe which truly matters is the next 'in' breath.

I've written this down to remind myself to keep breathing, to drop those tense shoulders and take a long, calm deep breath in, and out. I've got to take a few days away from my desk, and go wading off into stormy seas. I meant to write a little 'flash' story to post here to last the next few days, or at the very least, an insightful stone. But I'm so jittery about the magnitude of the storm's swell, I can't write a word. I can't sit still for flitting round from one must-do task to another. I'm snappy and jumpy, and yet who know what the next days will bring? All anyone truly has is this moment in time, this breath. So to borrow a lyric from Shirley Manson and Garbage, 'The trick is to keep breathing'.

I will be back....

Friday, 4 March 2011

Scarf

Everyone said it was a beautiful scarf. But then, as they all knew, she had such taste, such style. Tied around her neck, it suited her coloured honey hair and flawless, creamy skin. She would give a faraway smile, and touch it with her manicured fingers whenever anyone expressed admiration. It was so soft: handwoven Chinese silk, printed with drawings of butterflies, and accompanying notes, from an eighteenth century journal of lepidopterology found in the attic of the designer’s grandmother’s house.

Yes, it was a beautiful scarf, and she adored it. It was a RemelĂ©e creation; there were only twenty made, and no two were the same. Even though the couture house’s staff knew her well, she’d still had to put her name down on a list and wait until they rang to say she’d been chosen. She drove straight down to collect it in her gleaming black Range Rover, flaunting the ‘no-parking’ zone outside the boutique. The scarf cost more than she paid her maid each month.

Such a beautiful scarf. And it has to be said it still looked pretty, knotted around her slender white neck and pulled tighter and tighter by her maid’s murderous hands until her eyes bulged and her body went limp. It suited her colouring, you see. Even once she’d turned purple.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Birdsong

Chittering chattering pipping goldfinches squabble over choosing a mate.

I clambered off my hamster wheel this lunchtime, and took time out over a cup of tea in the garden. It is a beautiful day here, and the air is filled with birdsong. I often listen to the birds, imagine I'm talking to someone who has always been deaf, and try to describe what I can hear. But I find it impossible, a real struggle, to find words which capture the sheer diversity of sound. Birds don't just 'sing'. Listening to the babbling sound all around is a bit like hearing the distant echoes of schoolchildren out playing at break time. There are turf wars, kindling romances, snacks to be fought over, and, by the sound of it, a great deal of bird high-jinx and merry-making!

I love this time of year...

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Yellow

Bright, vivid forsythia blooms burst out of the cold, grey morning.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Swans

Three young swans power their way up over the dunes, their white wings still tinged with brown.

It's the last day of the half-term holiday today, and it dawned clear, cold and sunny. A perfect morning for boys, who will have to spend the rest of the week at their desks, to be out of doors. And so the conversation went like this...

Me: Come on kids, it's a glorious day. Let's take the dog-of-small-brain for a romp on the beach.
Boys (chorus): Oh no, we want to stay here and play ipad/wii/computer. We don't want to go out. You're so unreasonable, worst mother in the world. We hate you.
Me(teeth gritted): Sigh....

Then, approximately three hours later, dosb is exhausted from chasing a sandy ball, I'm about to drop from hunger, and boys 1 and 2 are busy with an enormous sandcastle complex, which includs a cunning man-trap to break the ankles of the unwary, the conversation goes like this...

Me: Uh, kids, I've nothing with me for lunch, it's time to go home.
Boys (chorus): AWWWWWWWWWWWW!
Me: You can play on the ipad/wii/computer when we get home.
Boys: Oh no, we want to stay here and play with our sandcastles. We don't want to go home. You're so unreasonable, worst mother in the world. We hate you.

Sigh.
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