At the end of last year, I made a little foray into the world of Golden Age mystery writers, looking briefly at the work of several well-known exponents of the genre, and in more depth at Agatha Christie, her life and her work.
This week I want to tell you a little bit about my favourite detective story writer, Patricia Wentworth, known mainly for her mysteries, but who also wrote romances.
Patricia Wentworth was her pen name. She was born as Dora Amy Elles in 1878 in India, and was educated at Blackheath School for Girls, now Blackheath High School, London.
She married quite young and had her first daughter. Her husband had two sons from a former relationship, one (or possibly both) of whom died in WWI. Her husband died in 1906, when she was still only in her late twenties. Wentworth moved to Camberley, Surrey, England, where she would live until her death in 1961. Wentworth met her second husband and married in 1920, and had another daughter. It was in Camberley Wentworth wrote most of her novels, with her second husband George writing down what she dictated.
Today she is mostly remembered for her 32 murder mysteries featuring private inquiry agent Miss Maud Silver, a former governess, keen observer of human nature and quoter of Tennyson and the Bible. But there are more than 40 other books which don’t feature detective Miss Silver, mostly mysteries, but there are some historical romances, and some poetry and stories for children.
For many years, I found it very difficult to obtain Wentworth’s books. But with the recent rise of small print runs and small presses, and the resurgence in interest in Golden Age and traditional mysteries, her work is enjoying a new popularity and reaching new audiences. Hodder have reissued the majority of the Miss Silver books over the last ten years, with Open Road Media and Dean Street Press publishing virtually all of the other books between them. Readers are often frustrated to find that the books have different titles in the UK and the USA, so please check carefully that you’re not buying the same book twice under different titles. There is an excellent bibliography on the Patricia Wentworth page in Wikipedia, along with publication dates.
Her work has often dismissed as being ‘old-fashioned’, ‘middle-class’, ‘tame’ and dated, but nevertheless I would say these books should not be so easily set aside.
To begin with, some of these books first appeared more than a hundred years ago, and are still popular. A Marriage Under The Terror won the Andrew Melrose prize in 1910, which earned her the handsome reward of two hundred and fifty guineas, quite a sum in those days. There was much speculation about her use of a pseudonym, claiming that it was impossible to keep her real identity a secret.
So we need to see them within their own era. I would agree with critics that some of the novels are not as strong, or as innovative, as others, that several plot devices reoccur (notably the indoor, uncovered well), and that from time to time, ‘the butler did it’. They are strongly romantic, which for me is a good thing, so they don’t fit comfortably into traditional generic categories, but again that is something that current trends are more flexible about. I know some readers find them too sweet, too and that there is not enough guts and gore—but hey, they’re cosies, get used to it.
The strengths of the books lies in the portrayal of the era, and in the way many of the characters are forced to find their way through unfamiliar and difficult circumstances. They are not all wealthy, they are not all high-born, artistic, celebrities or otherwise fortunate. The mysteries are pleasing, often very clever, and the reader can detect along with the protagonist. The writing is intelligent, clear, and lacking in long flowery descriptions, which I personally detest.
I recommend them for students of creative writing who want to improve their dialogue and character writing skills, their plotting skills or anyone who wants to write novels set in the recent past, or for readers who love a traditional mystery without body parts being lopped off, or strong language, or who prefers romance without sex scenes, or who likes something with a strong sense of morality and a satisfying mystery.
If you want to give them a go, below are a couple of my favourite titles:
WIP stands for Work In Progress. What we really should call works in progress is WIFITDSE. But I know that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. It stands for Work I Frequently Interrupt To Do Something Else. I know I’m not the only guilty one here …
And what I’m talking about here is not wandering off and doing something totally different. I’m not talking about displacement activity or your basic everyday procrastination. I’m talking about Legitimate stuff that still somehow gets in the way. Research. Plotting. Even proofreading and editing.
And with my current WIP – oh it’s been so hard to just sit down and get on with it. There are a couple of reasons for this.
One is I’m a bit of an anti-planner. If I plan my book, then something in me just puts its pen and paper away and folds its arms and says, ‘well, I don’t wanna …’
I do plan – a bit – I know roughly who is going to get snuffed out, and I know roughly who will make that happen. But some writers I know – quite a few actually – have a chart or a big page or something, all spread out and every chapter laid out, who does what, who says what, what happened when they were all having breakfast, that kind of thing. I don’t have that. I have a few snatches of conversation in my head, as if overheard from another room, and possibly a couple of facial expressions, and this is all often scrawled on the back of an old envelope then stapled into a notebook. During the course of the first draft I scribble a list of characters, their names, ages, occupations, and I only do that because I get confused by the ‘Mrs X said to Mr X “I wonder if Mr X has seen Ms X?” ‘
So I’m not really a planner.
The second thing is, I sometimes have so much fun thinking about the possibilities, I don’t actually write the story. I think, if Mr X hit Ms X with the blunt instrument, this would happen. Ah, but what if it was Mrs X who hit her, but Mr X confessed to it …ooh that might work … and so it goes on. So many permutations, so many exciting, unplumbed depths. Once I even gave up on a story because I couldn’t decide what to do when I reached a crossroads in the story and I allowed myself to become overwhelmed by the possibilities.
And that’s where I am at the moment with the WIP and that’s why it’s taken me a fortnight to write five short chapters. I can’t make up my mind who is going to be the baddie. I think I need a map … or – maybe I DO need to plan, after all?
So I’m still thinking over what I want to say in my new story. Still clueless about a title, although I have a couple of alternatives to ponder. I’m drawn to old stuff, I’m drawn to the past. I’m thinking of all the Summer of Loveprotest songs, but no, too recent, go further back.
I’m thinking rural, villagey, fields, water, trees. I’m thinking of sorrow and haunting, of deeds never talked of. I’m thinking of shame and sacrifice, I’m humming old pastoral songs and rhymes, of Scarborough Fair, of the occasional duplicitous nature of the minstrel, wandering, legitimately planting one foot in each camp.
I’m thinking of myths and legends, hills cloaked in mist, an unseen bird calling in the gloom, of the soft insinuating sound of the wind. I’m thinking of that moment when you come home and you know someone else has been there, the house is guilty, complicit, hushed as if someone had been speaking and stopped when the door opened.
I’m thinking of The Waste Land (all-time No. 1 for me) by T S Eliot, Snatches of it: “Speak to me. Why do you never speak?” “What are you thinking?” “What is that noise? The wind under the door.” “Do you know nothing? Do you see nothing?” “I remember/Those are pearls that were his eyes.”
I am thinking, staring at the falling leaves, driven across the grass by a pushing wind, and I am thinking of long ago, of people who may not have existed, but who may come into being in my imagination. I am thinking of a man at a window staring out, his mind working on things he cannot speak.
I’m thinking of a boy coming over the hill. Of grass, green, long, dewy. Of the sun, soft, golden, gentle as a mother’s hand, just touching his hair, his shoulder.
I remember. It was all long ago and afar away. I’ve said that a lot lately.
Gray’s Elegy “Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.”
What is it about the Autumn that always bends my thoughts to things that go bump in the night? Is it the pumpkin-suit wearing tots that pound on the door demanding ‘trick or treat’? Is it the proliferation of black felt bats or witches costumes? Or maybe the prospect of fireworks and an effigy burnt on a pyre?
Whatever it is, when the evenings crowd in and I huddle indoors with books and comfort food, this is the way my thoughts turn. I gaze into space and hear the long-ago-and-far-away sound of a creaking stair or see a candle gutter and revive, and my mind is away, fashioning old gloomy houses with uneven floors and unreliable electricity.
Last November’s NaNoWriMo saw me writing not quite 60, 000 words under the title of The Silent Woman, a ghost story set in haunted converted buildings. I fully intended to revise and publish that story this year, but everything else got in the way, so maybe next year. It’ll do it good to ‘lie fallow’ for a year.
This year it looks as though I might do something similar. I have the germ of an idea floating just out of reach, just beyond my field of vision, i can almost glimpse it sometimes, but it is not yet ready to come into view. It began in the middle of my two-week temping job in mid-September. It was a job which required me to perform vast numbers of scans of old documents and maps. This was a job of the hands and the eyes. My brain was busy elsewhere …
I pictured a hospital room, an old man lay dying, a young woman sat with him, holding his hand in those last moments, his daughter/niece/granddaughter, I don’t know yet. He thinks she is his wife, when young, he forgets where he is. He says, “Whatever happened to the boy? I never told anyone, like you asked.” He sleeps for a few minutes then stirs again, still holding her hand and says, “remember when we were young? There was a photo – all of us – that spring. I still have it somewhere.” He points in the direction of the chest of drawers in his bedroom, he forgets he is in hospital. Later he dies, and she is left wondering.
This is an extract, the opening one and a half chapters of a novella I began last year then didn’t get round to finishing, I think because I did so much planning I lost the impetus of the story, but it’s still sort of nagging at me so I am puzzling over it again. It is called Thirty Days on the Fourth Floor
‘You have displayed a callous disregard for the well-being of others. This is your third appearance in my court within a single year and I therefore have no hesitation in sentencing you to thirty days incarceration in the hope that this time you will learn that there will be no tolerance of persistent law-breaking in this City.’
The gavel was tapped lightly down on the bench in front of Judge Givens and by the time the bailiff had led Jeremiah ‘Roxx’ Weston from the court, the Judge’s robes were billowing behind him as he went through the door marked ‘Private’ at the back of the court. Roxx didn’t care. Thirty lousy days playing pool and cards was nothing, it would go by like a flash, the perfect spring break.
Moments later he was entering a room where a number of others were waiting. There appeared to be a dispute between a clerk of the court and someone who was presumably in Roxx’s situation. This woman wanted to phone her kids, let them know she’d got thirty days this time and they should go and stay with her sister till she could figure out the best thing to do. The clerk of the court wasn’t allowing any calls. A police officer came over to encourage the outraged detainee to step back. Another, male, detainee came forward, angry and upset. The clerk was saying,
‘Ma’am, as I already told you, you will be allowed one phone call once you reach the detainment center, but not until then. I’m sorry, but I don’t make the rules. Sir, step back please, the same goes for you. You can call your secretary later.’
And having said her piece, the clerk turned and left the room. The detainee continued to rant and swear, but more quietly and in a corner. It was now almost five o’clock, the court was closed for the day.
The bailiff cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we will now be leaving the court complex. Please stay in line and follow me.’
He nodded to a nearby police officer who opened the door for them all to pass out and into the hall, hesitantly following after the bailiff. In case anyone got any ideas, there were a number of officers lining the corridor.
The woman with the children wasn’t giving up. She tried to catch the fast-walking bailiff up, calling out
‘Where are we going? We have a right to know? I’ve got children…’
‘Just keep moving, ma’am,’ advised a police officer, but she shook him off.
‘I want to know where …’
But now they were at the exit, surrounded by police officers, and the outer door was opening on a parking bay at the back of the court complex. A police van was waiting, engine purring. The rear doors stood open and the group was chivvied inside, and as they were put into their seats and safety belts were locked into place across them, a roll-call began and their names were ticked off by an officer as the bailiff disappeared round to the front of the vehicle.
Immediately the rear doors were locked and the vehicle swung out of the parking bay and onto the road. The woman with the children began a heated debate with the man with the secretary and a voice spoke next to Roxx. He turned to look at the scrawny white woman sitting next to him.
‘You get thirty days too?’ She asked. He nodded.
‘We all did.’ She said, ‘we were talking about it before you came. Every one of us – look, nine of us – we all got thirty days. Don’t you think that’s weird? What are they going to do to us? Where are they taking us?’
‘It’ll be fine,’ Roxx told her, ‘don’t sweat it. What so we all got thirty days? We all do the same thing or something?’
‘You do drugs?’ She asked.
‘No. Drugs is a fool’s game. What even Mrs Mum over there, she got thirty days? What did she do?’
‘Speeding, I think she said. Not just once, just all the time, never paid her fines. I was the drugs. Selling. Third time. I just really needed the money. Why d’you get thirty days?
‘Red lights. I just like running through them. It’s nothing, it’s not like I hurt anyone, it’s just a laugh, a buzz. But they got this software catches your license-plate, so they caught me. Again. Thirty ain’t nothing, be out in fifteen on good behavior.’
‘That’s disgusting, that is, you should be ashamed of yourself. You could kill someone doing that.’ The Mum told him. He glared at her.
‘How’s it any worse than what you do? Speeding? That’s dangerous. You’re more likely to kill someone than I am. And you got kids, that’s irresponsible, Missus.’
‘I was always in control of the car,’ she began, but someone else disagreed with her.
And then it happened, they all started shouting at each other, and the row went on until the van pulled over and stopped, and the rear doors were unlocked.
A couple of officers started unlocking them and sending them out onto the pavement where they stood in a shifty-looking bunch surrounded by police and twitching curtains. They were outside an apartment block.
‘Where’s the prison?’ The Druggie asked no one in particular. They were herded into the front door of the building and corralled into the lift in twos.
Fifteen minutes later, Roxx was walking in the front door of an apartment on the fourth floor. He looked around him, puzzled.
‘I’m beginning to think this is a bit odd.’ He told the Druggie. ‘Maybe we been selected for special ops or something.’
‘Why are we here?’ The Druggie asked the bailiff, who ignored her.
‘Where are we? What the fuck is going on?’ The man with the secretary wanted to know. Everyone was edgy and tense. Where was the nice conventional prison?
‘Keep walking through to the sitting room. Sit down, shut up and listen, then we can get on with things a little quicker.’ The bailiff urged, and reluctantly, and with the encouragement of a couple of police officers, they complied. Roxx counted nine detainees, six men, three women, and besides the bailiff there were twelve officers. It was a squeeze.
‘Now,’ said the bailiff in a big loud voice, ‘I want everyone to take a seat at the table, and then I can explain the procedure.’
A couple of people half-heartedly protested, but everyone sat quickly enough.
‘That’s better.’ Said the bailiff, and Roxx felt like he was in nursery school again. ‘You will each get one phone call, you will get a hot meal, a shower, and a change of clothes. You will be wearing prison uniform for the next thirty days. You will remain in this apartment for the next thirty days. You will not leave until you have served your sentence as laid down by the ruling of the court. The front door is the only safe exit from the apartment and this will be kept locked. While you are here you will be rehabilitated and, hopefully while justice is done, you will learn to make wiser choices in the future.’
He paused and a slew of questions had to be dealt with before he could continue.
‘In case of emergency we will evacuate the apartment. There will be no – I repeat no – wardens, guards, police officers or any other official presence within the apartment for the entirety of the thirty days. However, the apartment will be under constant surveillance night and day, but any intervention will be in an emergency only. Just so you know, this is day one. I will return on day thirty if – I repeat if – all conditions are fulfilled and it is deemed by the court that rehabilitation has taken place and you are all fit to return to society. I will now hand out mobile phones and you may call whomever you wish, you have one call and five minutes only.’
There was a rush to snatch the phones form him and silence as people feverishly tapped in the numbers they wanted. And then a babble of voices as connections were made and information relayed. Mrs Mum was weeping at the end of her five minutes and claiming it wasn’t fair, and two other people claimed their human rights were being violated.
All this was ignored and a large cardboard packing case was dragged into the room. The bailiff ripped off the top and started handing out blue boiler suits and white cotton underwear to everyone. Then, one at a time, a police officer escorted one detainee into the bathroom for a shower and a change of clothes. Personal belongings and clothing was confiscated, placed into the plastic bags the boiler-suits came in, and stashed away in the same packing case. Airline-style hot food trays were handed around the table, and the nine, now already showing signs of resignation, ate in near silence.
At the end of the meal, they were shown into the dormitory which was where they would all sleep on narrow lumpy mattresses, the bailiff took his leave, and the police officers, the outer door slammed behind them and locked and the prisoners were there, and it was the end of day one.
Day two dawned brighter and earlier than most of them would have liked.
Roxx was the second one out of bed, the Druggie being the first – she’d been up most of the night in fact and was hunched by the window scratching agitatedly at herself when he came into the sitting room.
One by one they drifted out of their beds and came to sit around the table. One of the men, heavily tattooed and pierced, sat across the table from Mrs Mum who had already been weeping because she wanted to get out, wanted to be with her children, no one knew how she felt, a mother separated from her own flesh and blood and corralled here with a bunch of crazy people and lawless criminals. She started to weep again. The tattooed/pierced guy laughed. He looked around the room, but everyone avoided catching his eye. He rapped on the table and laughed loudly, frightening Mrs Mum into a fresh outburst of sobbing, and having achieved this, he linked his hands behind his head and leaned back in the seat to enjoy the spectacle of her misery.
The Druggie was shivering next to Roxx. Roxx, not able to do anything else for her, patted her on the knee. The two of them perched on the window sill and Roxx surveyed the room.
In the doorway, Secretary Man was jogging on the spot and flapping his arms up and down. Roxx shook his head impatiently. It hadn’t been more than 15 hours and the guy already was worrying he was getting flabby.
A bleary-eyed young man wandered in from the dormitory, squeezing past the panting Secretary Man.
‘What do we do about food?’ He asked. Everyone looked at him blankly. He looked round at them. ‘well, hello, there’s no kitchen, in case no one had noticed, so I’m assuming there’s no maid service, no chef, no restaurant, so how are we getting our meals for the next four weeks?’
There was an immediate rise in the tension, and they were all looking at each other. The kid was right.
There was the dormitory. And this room they were in now. And then there was the bathroom.
There were three other doors on one wall. Roxx strolled across and tried the first door. It was locked. He tried the next. Also locked.
‘Hmm.’ He said to himself. Over his shoulder he could see everyone – seated and standing – was watching him. Unaccountably he felt a trickle of fear at the back of his boiler-suit collar. Reminding himself for future reference that red means stop, the thrill is just not worth the sentence, he tried a cocky grin at his audience.
‘Well, one of these had got to open. Hughie, I choose door number three.’ He quipped, going into a kind of exaggerated mime of someone preparing to open a door. It was odd they were all so tense, just watching him. he felt the handle of the door beneath his fingers. It was cold and the cold seemed to travel along his spine. He felt a pang of nausea. If no one had been watching him, he would have turned and gone back to his perch on the window sill. His heart beat fast, and he turned the handle, turning again to smile at the audience with his trade-mark grin, and saying, ‘here goes noth…’
But the phrase died on his lips.
At the threshold of the door was a little pile of rubble and ash. He tried to focus, tried to piece together the scene before him, through the door. It was something – else.
It was a street. Half of the buildings were gone, blackened ruins in heaps and piles and sagging roof timbers hanging down. It was like a movie set for a war film. There was a house nearby, just a few yards from the doorway. If Roxx took a step, or maybe two, if he put out a hand, he would be able to touch the brickwork.
He shook his head. His vision, never blurred, still showed him the same scene. He was aware that the people behind him were exclaiming, moving, rushing over, there were cries of disbelief and even fear, but Roxx couldn’t find anything to say. He looked into the room. He looked through the doorway and saw a whole new world, a world of destruction and chaos.
He took a step, and Mrs Mum screeched at him, clutching his arm.
‘Don’t! Don’t go in there!’
Confused he gaped at her. There were a couple of others, equally fearful, reaching out for him.
‘Shut the door. Shut it. Now. Quick. Shut the door.’
And the tattooed and pierced man was getting up from his chair, noisily chewing gum and nodding, delight all over his face.
‘Yeah! Man, I mean, wow! Yeah! Wow! People, like, I mean, wow!’
And he stepped right up to the doorway, elbowing a bewildered Roxx to one side, and then, glancing back over his shoulder, tattoo man laughed again.
‘This is a fucking amazing movie set! It’s wicked. Wicked or what? I’m asking you, people, like wow! Truly fucking, un-fucking-believable!’
And he stepped through the doorway and went into the rubble-strewn street, looking around, turning round as he went, looking at the scene around him.
‘Man! It’s fucking unbelievable! How the fuck did they do it? This is just like a real …’
And a chimney toppled from a roof and crushed him on the ground. His foot twitched and was still, no more of his body visible beneath the blackened brickwork.
Is it possible to gauge the influence our reading has on us over time? Think back to the first books you ever read as a child – can you still remember them? Have you read those same books as an adult and still found those same ideas and images grabbing you as they did that first time?
I can remember my mother reading The Wind in the Willows and The House at Pooh Corner to me when I was a very young child. I can remember that sometimes I was bored, sometimes I couldn’t find my way through the complex language to the story inside. But I always wanted to hear more, I always longed for the next chapter, begged her not to stop reading. I can remember thinking, when I’m older I can read and read and read and never stop. I can remember reading fairy stories from a huge colourful book, to the poor guy who came to mend the boiler, when I was no more than 5 or 6. I suppose I also loved having a captive audience!
I can remember being so inspired by the stories I read that I started writing my own stories – not usually more than a page long to begin with – and not usually very interesting.
The books that have shaped my life? I loved Treasure Island, Jane Eyre, the Famous Five, the Lone Pine Five, all the usual books that kids in the 1960s read. The Ann of Green Gables books by L M Montgomery are very special to me – because that was when I learned falling in love is not only about heart-pounding attraction, desperate emotional rollercoastering, but it can also be realising that your friend is the person you most want to keep in your life forever, without whom your life would be bleak and colourless. The Wind in the Willows taught me that children’s stories don’t have to be facile. Shakespeare’s plays taught me that I have a brain and I’m not afraid to use it. Enid Blyton‘s books showed me that being nosy is a sure way to get into trouble and end up tied up in a cellar (but oh the adventure!). Many, many books taught me to believe I could write, Agatha Christie, Tom Holt, Jasper Fforde and Patricia Wentworth taught me what I wanted to write and that you don’t have to be highbrow or obscure to be a good writer. Books made me take that leap of faith, try, experiment, and when things didn’t work out, I had somewhere to go to recover. If all else fails, they make a bloody big pile you can hide behind.
But over all of this, the books themselves, crowding about me like friends, took over my life to the detriment of all else – apart from my family of course 🙂 and I can honestly say that nine times out of ten, I’d sooner spend my money on a book than a bar of chocolate – and those who know me know that is reallysaying something.
On Sunday I wrote in my journal, “it’s a rainy, cool and windy day. Looking out at the garden, with the trees and the tall shrubs being tossed by the wind and the rain slashing the windows, I see a few first leaves falling and I know it is now Autumn.”
Like Spring, Autumn is a time of transition, not from dormancy into life, but into rest from the long busy-ness of summer. It is a time of reflection, of falling back to regroup, and to continue the military metaphor, it is a time for laying plans and forming strategies for the coming year.
And I, too, reflect and consider the future. I lay my plans and think ahead to the coming writing year. I plot. I scheme.
These last two weeks of working at a temping job have been a break for me from the messy, exhausting disarray of the last eight months that I have been out of work and able to concentrate more on my writing. So for me it has been a kind of holiday-in-reverse: usually one works then takes a couple of weeks’ holiday. And to the outsider, it appears that I have holidayed for eight months and now finally I am working.
In the last year, I have: had a full-time job from September to December, and at the same time I also wrote a complete first draft of a novel. Since then I have written another first draft and about a quarter of a third. I have written at least 10 short stories varying between 500 and 8,000 words, I have revised and self-published (yes, I’m an Indie!) a full-length novel and also a ‘long’ short story (the 8,000 word one) as eBooks. At the moment I am rewriting one of my first drafts ready to publish it ‘shortly’. I’ve learned how to create my own eBook covers, I’ve set up a Facebook page and a blog, I’ve tweeted and google+’d and I’ve made many, many friends, most of whom are also writers, I have joined online book groups and read along with their ‘book of the month’.
So yes, two weeks working from 8.00 to 4.30 has been a holiday for me.
And around all this, I have done laundry, served meals, cleaned the house, paid bills, baked, shopped etc. I’ve read at least twenty books. I’ve top-spotted my cats. I’ve grown a few tomatoes and courgettes. It’s been a hectic and demanding schedule.
I’m making a list. Asking myself, what do I want to achieve in the coming quiet season? And, already I’m looking ahead. What do I want to achieve next year? Obviously I want to lose wight, get fitter, make that craft project that is gathering dust in a corner. But none of that is important to me.
My real goals centre around writing – I want to write the next story in both my series – so I will be thinking about the third and final book in the Posh Hits trilogy. And I want to write the next in my Miss Burkett detective series, set in the mid to late 1960s. Haven’t even finished the first draft of the first book yet!) I think I’d like to publish a volume of short stories. And there are so many possibilities for other projects – shall I dust off an old novel, mouldering in a drawer? Is the world ready yet for my take on reincarnation or vampires? Or shall I work on one of those extended and partially developed ideas, gone well beyond the notes stage. And – obviously – I will do a bit more life-writing. To be honest, there really aren’t enough hours in the day for all that I would like to do. And I want to go to a writer’s conference – haven’t been to one for years – not since Brisbane, to the Queensland Writer’s Festival, so that would be around 2000 or 2001?
So now I am ready to sit back for a while, to ponder and enjoy, the long, creative sleep of winter, and formulate my plans for the next twelve months. Mwah ha ha ha!
It was his eyes that charmed her, she told me. He was older, educated, experienced. A devil with an irresistible smile and those Irish eyes. He stole her heart, she told me. They were married by license in the Church of the Holy Ghost in Nightingale Square, a Roman Catholic church in London on 1st September 1928. She was 20, he was 35.
Years later, he stole off to Soho to live with a young Chinese boy, proving that not everything is as it seems. She told me he worked for the government (yes, I discovered he was a Crown Agent, working for the Revenue Service overseas) and he took her to China, Hong Kong, Australia, and finally to Singapore. She said they were still there when the Japanese arrived in – was it 1939 or 1940? She said they lost everything, including their children. But were there really any children? I remember as a youngster I asked her their names. She told me it was too painful to talk about them, and maybe it was, but when I cajoled she said her daughter’s name was Melody. I thought that was a wonderful name, decided I would call my own daughter that (I didn’t). I believed her then, not sure I do now. As a child you don’t realise how complicated people are. Or life. You definitely don’t realise as a child how complicated life is.
She was fluent in Cantonese and she loved to cook Chinese food, loved all things oriental and her tiny bedsit was hung with painted and embroidered silks and carved wood and lacquered trays.
Everything she had was fascinating to me as a small child, but nothing was so valuable or so important I couldn’t touch it.
She had bamboo and jade and silver, wind-chimes and trays and pictures and jars, jewellery and scarves and shawls – precious and intricate and incredible things. She had a huge heavy seal ring, she had cushions and pillows and tea boxes, all crammed into her bedsit in an old house in 1960s Tunbridge Wells.
But for all that, she was alone, no Patrick, no smiling eyes.
Let me just say before we start, I am not now and never expect to be a poet. But there was something about the phrases I chose for the original prose version of this that made me want to try to write it in poem form, maybe it’s the rhythm or something. Anyway, In the 1920s, young women were not ‘fans’ as they are today. A girl who was a keen follower of Jazz bands and Jazz music was called a Jazz Baby. Auntie Zonya was one!
Jazz Baby sneaks out at night when the lights are out
The window is open, the house is quiet.
She’s supposed to be sleeping in modest chastity
But she yearns to go out and dance and be free.
She blackens her lashes with boot-polish smudges
Jewellery and perfume and low-cut blouses
Wet crimson tissue stains lips and cheek
She wears flimsy skirts that only come to her knees
She and the other girls dance half the night
Dancing too close with boys Mother dislikes.
She drinks and smokes and dances till three
She comes home through the window before anyone sees.
Listless and irritable, got no energy,
She seems so tired, mother tells the doctor
He prescribes a tonic to build and restore her
He recommends rest and taking it easy
Jazz Baby sniggers as he takes his leaves
She’s a bad girl, a rebel, dancing through life
The devil-may-care painted all over her face
In the Roaring 1920s, setting a new pace
She wants to live like a film-star
Away from the world of the shop and factory
Away from the drudge of everyday toil
She just wants to be free, have fun
She’ll henna her hair and wear skirts on the knee,
She‘ll smoke and drink and live a life that’s gay.
The open-plan office gaped, empty, the cubicles like crooked teeth in a vast mouth from where she stood by the lift. Although it was only five minutes past five o’clock, on a winter Friday that meant the place was as deserted and dark as at midnight on Hallowe’en.
Jo had been in the archives longer than she’d realised and now she was alone in the building, it seemed. Every hallway was gloomy with only the security lights on. Half an hour ago, there had been a hundred people here. But now …
Two rows down a computer screen glowed. As the lift doors closed behind her, she could see the blue sky and yellow sand of the beach-scene screensaver. She was halfway down the aisle when the music started.
Say ‘Night-ie night’ and kiss me
Just hold me tight and tell me you’ll miss me
While I’m alone and blue as can be
Dream a little dream of me
The sudden sound brought her up sharp, and the tiny hairs on her forearms prickled upright. She shivered. The tinny, hollow sound continued, the song bouncing off the cubicle walls and seeming extra loud in the emptiness. She had a feeling she wasn’t alone but a hasty look over her shoulder, then another showed her emptiness by the water-cooler, and deep shadows by the photocopier. Nothing moved.
Swallowing a sob and forcing herself to walk with measured steps to the computer, she reached out her hand to jiggle the mouse to bring up the desktop. Confused, and not taking in what she was seeing, it took her a moment to realise the music was still playing, but not on this computer.
There was someone here, she knew it. Someone watching her. She turned to look behind her again, but could see nothing but shadows. It was ridiculous, she told herself, it was only just after five o’clock, still early evening. Everyone had only just gone. Then, as she flicked the switch under the monitor to turn off the screen, she felt angry. Someone, a colleague, was playing a joke on her. And not a nice one. Let them be in the office in the dark when everyone had gone home, see how they liked it!
She paused where she was for a moment, considering. Should she go back to the lift doors to the master switch and turn on all the lights, or should she just figure out which computer the music was coming from, turn it off quickly, then run all the way back to the lift and down to the main doors and freedom. As this last word echoed in her mind, she lost patience with herself.
“Oh for God’s sake.” Her words braced her. She turned to face into the office, trying to track the direction the music was coming from. It sounded like it was coming from the far right corner, either from Gina’s computer, or Sophie’s. She moved down the rows until she reached that corner, going slowly because it really was dark here at this spot furthest from the window and the security lights. She went first to Gina’s desk, it was closest and on this side. Just when she got to within ten feet of the desk, the music stopped, the song had come to the end.
Relief flooded through her, but the silence that filled the void was too heavy, too brooding. She started violently when the song began again, the gently measured female voice eerie in the darkness. The music wasn’t coming from Gina’s machine but from Sophie’s. Jo made a detour round to the last line of computer cubicles, jumping when the leaves of the huge potted palm brushed her cheek.
When she saw how dark it was round this side she thought about just going home and leaving it for the security guys to find at some point during the night. But she knew they wouldn’t be likely to notice. She doubted they’d even leave the ground floor where they had their office. She didn’t want to leave that music to play on a loop the whole weekend. She glanced back to the lift doors, waiting at the far end of the office. No one would know. She could just leave. Why should she be concerned if someone else hadn’t bothered? But then the next verse began, and seemed so much louder, it started her into action. She hurried round to the desk, relieved to discover this was indeed the right computer. She jiggled the mouse to get rid of the screensaver and clicked to open the media player.
And then it was all too late. The hand came from behind her to cover her mouth, and by the time that she realised what was happening, it was over. The music started again.