Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Tent

No one knew how long the tent had been there. Must have been a while, I guess, its flashy red flysheet was filmed with green, but no one had noticed. And it might never have been found had Jack, the crotchety old bugger, not disrupted the monthly Parish Council meeting with his cussing and swearing.

“Never mind all this agenda bullshit, your poncy cups of tea and missus vicar’s dainty home-bakes.” He thumped the table making the cups startle in their saucers, his booze-reddened face set to pop with indignation. “What are you going to do about this bloody Knotweed what’s growing along the edge of your bloody millennium footpath? Told you it was a pest, didn’t I, but does anyone listen?”

“But it’ll cost too much to clear it,” I said, breaking into a cold sweat at the thought of the delicate state of our finances. “You need specialist contractors. There was a programme about it on the telly the other night.”

“Specialist contractors, my arse,” he spat, pinning me to my seat with an ugly glare. I gulped. It doesn’t do to cross Jack Henderson. He’ll have made an everlasting note that at eight-forty-five on the twenty-ninth of June, I dared to disagree with him.

“If that stuff spreads any more and starts growing in amongst my crops, I’ll sue the bloody lot of you. I told you your millennium nature walk was a bloody stupid idea right from the start.”

He has a point. We planted the Knotweed, mistaking it for something else, and in the eleven years that have followed, whole plantations of it are springing up everywhere. But we can’t afford to have it cleared.

After much deliberation, and to placate Jack, the vicar suggested we have a go at clearing the stuff ourselves. So the following Saturday, we were busy cutting and hacking. It was a beautiful summer’s day: bright and warm with little white clouds puffing across a perfect blue sky, the air alive with birdsong and bees from the village apiary. That’s when we found the tent.

“Look!” One of Celia’s twins was the first to spot it in the thicket. Our assortment of children, the Green’s two, the twins, the MacFarlane girl, and my own dear Robbie, surged forward.

“Wait a minute,” I shuddered as a sudden chill breeze slipped through the long, skeletal twigs of last years’ growth. “Come away. You don’t know what’s in there.”

“Aw, Mum,” my boy protested, but they paused, quivering like half-sprung springs.

“Nora’s right,” Dave Turnbull said. “One of us should check it out first. Come on Paul,” he said, turning to the builder, who was stood beside him.

No one spoke as the men crashed through the undergrowth. We were all tuned into the nervousness rippling through the air, making hairs on the backs of our necks stand up. Even the birds had stopped singing. We stretched deer-like necks, craning to see, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger.

Paul bent down. He tugged the zip. The tent yawned open. They peered in.

“It’s all right. There’s no one here.”

We pushed forward to see, each jabbering opinions as to how it came to be here. And in the tent lay a mishmash of belongings; a rumpled sleeping-bag covered in cobwebs, lying half-open as though waiting to receive its owner, a rusting kettle, and a khaki kitbag. There was a pair of tatty, weathered brown boots by the entrance, being swallowed back down into the earth as grass grew across their surface. Nothing here had been touched since being left; everything lay waiting for a return, a homecoming which never came. As we wondered what might have happened, I shuddered anew.

“Best not touch anything,” the vicar said, flapping his hands and shooing us like chickens. “We’d better leave everything until Shaun takes a look. Has anyone got a mobile phone? Can you give him a ring?”

Monica did, so she rang the police station. We started to move away, knowing the vicar was right. I was eager to leave the chill of the thicket and step back out into the sunlight. I pictured myself saying to Jack “stuff you and your bloody Knotweed. You’ll have to sort it out yourself.”

I smiled at the thought, and turned round to look for Robbie. But as my foot went down, it landed on something which gave way with a crack. I looked down, and leapt backwards, screaming.

I had trod on, and smashed, a human skull.

Monday, 27 June 2011

The Curse of The Guidebook...

Regular visitors popping down to these pages will know that I do, on occasion, indulge in a little rant about life with my youngest son, who has autism. Indeed, he provides so much material, I could easily fill a blog with autism anecdotes. But like the new mother droning on about nappies, (yep, done that) to those ghastly parents who’ll bore anyone daft enough to listen to how wonderful their child is, I know it’s probably not that interesting to anyone other than a parent in a similar position, whereupon such stories impart a certain amount of both comfort and one-upmanship; you’re either left thinking phew, mine does that too, or phew, thank goodness mine doesn’t. I also think it’s wrong to write about one’s offspring without asking if they mind, but this weekend the boy has exasperated me beyond all normal realms of exasperation, and so here we go…

He isn’t profoundly autistic, but neither is he mildly-so. Somewhere along the line he swallowed the textbook of autistic behavioural traits, because if you can think of something you connect with autism, he either does it, or has done at some point.

This weekend was different from usual with elder son away on scout camp. So to make amends for the brother shaped hole in his universe, I decided we should do something interesting, something I knew the boy would enjoy. So far, so good.

We took a trip to Knowsley safari park, not far from where we live. I know, I know; I don’t like zoos either, but I bet you did when you were ten, and he loves looking at animals. Crossing my fingers the car wouldn’t breakdown in the lion enclosure, I rolled up at the entrance, paid our fee, and took charge of my nemesis: the safari park’s glossy guide. And yes, you’re way ahead of me there… I did hand it to the boy thinking he’d like to read it. He did.

He read it all the way past the assorted antelopes. He was studying it closely when I stopped to show him the tigers sleeping in the grass. He’d started reading it all over again when we paused to let the lioness and her cubs gambol past the car. But he’d finished with it by the time we got to the baboons swinging from people’s cars, and was then asking loudly and repeatedly “can we go now?” Meanwhile, yours truly had plummeted into the depths of major sense-of-humour failure, tired of enthusing “Look at that, darling. Look at the baby lions. Look at the funny monkey. Darling? Darling, please look.”

He didn’t care if I had sold a kidney to get in. Actually, it’s not that expensive, but it would have been all the same if I had. He had his guidebook, and he was happy with that. Of course, when his Papa dropped round to see him the next day and asked which was his favourite animal, he wouldn’t answer. That’s because you didn’t actually look at the animals, I wanted to say. But then , in the cutest voice he can muster, he said “the lions.” He must have based that upon just how much I was trying to get his attention as the lions strolled by.

I managed not to say “but you didn’t look at the lions,” and I guess he enjoyed it in his own way. But there is one thing for sure, he is on a mission to propel me into stark, raving insanity. I’m not sure it qualifies as ordinary madness, but life with my smaller boy is madness nonetheless.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

On Being Slapped Back Down to Size....

There are tons of blogs and websites offering advice to wannabe writers. I follow a few bloggers who dispense wisdom for those of us who have none, and I’ve always wondered how one gets to a point whereupon one feels qualified to advise. But I wonder no longer, today is the day!

I’m going to call it ‘The Numpty’s Guide to being a Writer’ and yes, it has been brewed in the pot of my own bitter experience. So here we go…

Cardinal rule number one - Never, never, ever talk to anyone about your writing because, trust me, you will live to regret it.

Mmm, good advice, I hear you say, but hardly revolutionary. Yes, but ‘Tales’ still struggles with this one. Never do it, dear readers, unless you are about to be feted as the next JK Rowling, and I can honestly say, that ain’t ever gonna happen to me!

As a part-time and single mother, I regularly make this mistake. I’ll be standing at the school gate waiting for my darlings, when another parent will ask that dreaded question, “Do you have anything planned for the weekend?”

My heart will sink as I remember that a. the children are spending this weekend with their father, which means b. I will be spending the time dossing around either walking the dog, or bashing away at the keyboard, while bemoaning my lack of a more colourful life.

Now, a sensible woman would lie and say “this weekend? Actually, I’m going skydiving with Juan Carlos, my twenty-five year old toy-boy. He’s a flamenco dancer and whoa, can he move those hips.” But I am not sensible. So I’ll mutter something vague about ‘working’ and if pressed, will mention those terrible words, ‘writing’ and ‘novel’. This is a horrible mistake. Okay, no one will believe the Juan Carlos story, but at least in the months to come, while you're nursing the wounds that come from facing up to the fact the novel you've spent years writing is, basically, pants, no one is going to ask breezily “How is the book going?” Gah! How many times do I have to do this? (thumps head) How Many Times????

But I can’t help myself, particularly if I’m on a creative roll. I sat down yesterday, chuffed with the story-ette I wrote for Tic Tocc on Sunday, and decided to write a bit more. Two thousand words later (oh yeah) I had to stop for Scouts parents’ evening. The boys were ‘chez papa’ and, in the interests of putting on a united front, we were all going together. I popped over to pick them up in my car, buoyant after such a productive day.

But Mr X-husband was not a happy man. Firstly I was late, having been too absorbed in what I was doing to mind the time, and then he noticed the car is full of dog hairs, which he finds upsetting. “Never mind,” I trilled, thinking ‘peace and calm, peace and calm, don’t be provoked, peace and calm. “You could always walk.”
“I can’t walk because you’re so late,” he snapped, but I wasn’t in the slightest bit ruffled, I was so pleased with my new story. So I decide to tell him about it, even though I know this is a bad idea. And in the grand scheme of my dealings with him, it was another own-goal.

“I’m late because I’ve been working on a brilliant new story,” I jabbered excitedly.
“Oh really?” He didn’t miss a beat. “So it’s something you’re actually going to get paid for this time, is it?”

Ouch. Ouch, ouch, ouch. And yes, you’re quite right, I did ask for that, didn’t I? And as my Dad would say, “I totally walked into that one.” I was left scrabbling for a suitably cutting retort, but in all honesty, it would have taken me about three weeks and a lot of paper to come up with anything as remotely cutting as his put-down. I muttered something along the lines of “that was your cue to say something supportive,” but he was back into grumbling about how acquainting myself and the car with the vacuum cleaner would be a better use of my time.

So there you have it: never talk about your writing with anyone other than writing friends, and save boasting about how much you’ve done today for #amwriting on Twitter. Otherwise you’re just asking to be slapped down to size, and in my experience, there are plenty of people willing to oblige!

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Tic Tocc no10...The Dragon Guardian

No, I haven't disappeared from the face of the earth, although with output from down here in 'Tales' somewhat limited to say the least, you could be forgiven for drawing that conclusion! I'm not going to bore you with my latest bout of angst, but I have dusted myself down to have a bash at this week's Ticc Tocc challenge from Kat Wright.

This week she posted this photograph

and asked the question 'what is behind the wall?' So here we are...

Now this is as far as I got in twenty minutes - ie not as far as the wall, but never mind! And, as usual, yes it took longer than twenty minutes to whip it into the shape you're about to read. It's also inspired by a card I bought recently, entitled 'Soul Mates'. I hope I'm safely navigating around copyright by pointing out it's a print of a painting by Anne Stokes, the card produced by Eastgate Resource Ltd. If, like me, you like this kind of art, do click on the link and visit Anne Stoke's website, it's really worth a visit.

The Dragon Guardian

The streets are deserted. It’s too early for any daylight creature to be up and about, and, mercifully, too late for the night-prowlers. I shudder: imagine if any one of them were to witness us leave? Above me, the morning sun’s rays fumble down between the buildings, as yet too weak to banish the swirling mist lingering over the rooftops.

Firefly’s hooves echo, and herald our passing, although I can sense not a single watcher. I had pondered using a spell to cloak our departure, poring over some of my father’s ancient tomes, but in the end, I decided I ought to stick to the rules, and embrace this trial in the spirit it had been created, namely, without using magic. My main fear had been that someone, or something, might see me leaving, and follow to wreck some mischief, but now my shoulders relax as I realise I worried for nothing. Dressed in these coarse robes, Dracone concealed beneath a brown cloak, I look as far removed from a princess of the realm as I’d imagine it is possible to be. Sensing my thought, he squeezes my shoulders with his claws, and gives a chuckle.

I hadn’t expected him to stay behind, although I had wondered if his presence might too be against the rules. But we have been together since birth, he and I. He hatched in the palace as my mother pushed me out; we were destined for each other. My mother cried. She still does. None of my sisters were born as dragon guardians; she’d prayed for the same for me.

Firefly tenses as the dragon laughs. He usually refuses to carry him, afraid, I suppose of being eaten. But I couldn’t risk drawing attention by having my unpredictable, adolescent dragon crashing through the air above me, so I persuaded the horse to carry us both. With no idea what lies before us, I’d rather have Dracone close. He hums at the thought of being needed, and curls his tail tighter around my waist.

The old castle wall looms, its stonework crumbling, ravaged by time, weather, and plants, the likes of which aren’t found anywhere else in the kingdom, growing in its cracks. But as the boundary between our world and the next, it is protected by a very ancient magic, and no one, not even my father, dares climb it. I’ve never set foot beyond it in my life, and yet today, and for three nights, I am expected to spent time beyond it, the latest step in my initiation as a dragon guardian. It’s times like these when I envy my sisters. A life without magic and power is temptingly simpler.
“How dull,” Dracone growls. “I don’t know why how you can even think the thought.”
“Hush,” I say, and reach forward to pat the skittish horse. “Now isn’t the time for an argument. Here’s the portal.”

I take a deep breath, gather my cloak tighter around me, and urge Firefly on with a promise everything will be all right. I wish I felt sure.

No one visiting these pages before will have realised I am a closet fantasy reader. I'd love to write in the genre, but I've always been too afraid all I'd do would be to reproduced some hackneyed version of someone else's stories. ...And I think that's exactly what I've done here! But Kat's picture fired my imagination in this direction, so off I went. Fantasy writing is something I'd love to do, but I'm not brave enough...

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

'Poor Kids' - Child Poverty in the UK

I don't know if you watched it, but there was a programme on BBC1 last night called 'Poor Kids', in which children from three different families in the UK were filmed talking about their lives. Each family lives in dire poverty, and in one case, in a flat so riddled with damp, mould and mildew, it surely cannot be considered fit for human habitation. Two out of three of the children reported going without food on the days they weren't in school to receive free school dinners. The parents appeared to have no hope for a better way of life, and the children themselves were world-weary and resigned.

There are threads on the Internet today lambasting everyone from the parents, to politicians, and to woolly-minded, middle-class lightweights like myself. I don't care what anyone wants to call me for saying this, but I am appalled to find there are people, families, children living in such squalor in Britain, one of the richest countries in the world, in this day and age. I don't have any answers or suggestions, I am just staggered at the sheer insanity behind the chasm that exists in the standards of living for ordinary people in this country. It is disgusting, and an utter disgrace. I don't understand how we, the people who make up our society, allow it to be so.

BBC1 'Poor Kids: A child's view of growing up in poverty'

Monday, 6 June 2011

If you have a spare minute... I do at the moment, youngest son dispatched back to school, and elder son out having had a 'sleepover' at his chum's house last night, why don't you pop over to visit the poet Helen Pletts?

I first met her during an online course with the Open University. Although we've never met in real life, [which makes some of my less computer-inclined friends look at me as though I'm completely insane] Helen is a huge source of inspiration and advice to me, not to mention a fantastic poet, with a new collection coming out soon. And, I might add, she can write a pretty nifty short story too.

Pop over and visit her blog, Stem of Quietly Disarrayed Fertility, where you can find links to material she has published online. Or, you could take a wander round to her 'Soundcloud' page, and listen as she reads some of her more recent work aloud. I've only ever been to a few poetry readings, so I found it thrilling to listen to a poem being read exactly as the poet intended.

Go on, pop over... she's well worth a visit!

Friday, 3 June 2011

'Normal' Service...

...will be resumed as soon as the gruesome-twosome's half-term school holidays end!!!
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