The Writing Process Blog Tour – woo hoo!

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Yes folks I’m really on tour – okay, I’m virtually on tour!  And from the comfort of my very own computer!

The lovely Judith Cranswick, crime writer extraordinaire, generously invited me to take part in my first ever blog hop – thank you Judith!  I urge you all to check out Judith’s books, too, I can tell you from personal experience they are a fab read, especially if you love mystery or crime.  Here is her blog so you can find out more: http://www.judithcranswick.co.uk/

This blog hop/tour/extravaganza thingy focuses on The Writing Process, and each week two writers share their insights and experiences about their own writing process.  So welcome to mine!  Further down this page, I will be introducing the two brilliant people I have invited (bullied and cajoled) into taking part next week! And as if that isn’t enough, you can hop over to:

http://jaynemariebarker.blogspot.co.uk/ and see what a fellow sufferer has to say about how it all works for her!

And so on with the show.

Q: What are you working on?

A: I’m working on two main projects at the moment. The first is the third book in my Posh Hits trilogy, working title is “Check Mate”, due for release in 2015. The trilogy is about a well-to-do young woman, Cressida Barker Powell, who decides to kill her mother-in-law, basically just because she hates her and her interference. Unfortunately, things don’t go according to plan and pretty soon the body count begins to rack up. The other book I’m working on is a different series, and hopefully this will also be a trilogy, although I must admit at the moment it’s giving me quite a bit of trouble so about twenty times a day I’m tempted to just throw it away. The working title for this one is Miss Burkett Changes Her Mind.  It’s a cozy mystery, set in the 1960s, and Miss Burkett is the detective in question.  She is very young, only 20, and following the death of her beloved great aunt, Miss Burkett decides to emulate the old lady and become a ‘private inquiry agent’. This book features her first case, and will hopefully be out next year. I also write short stories and life pieces.

Q: How does your work differ from others in its genre?

A: That’s a tricky one as I’ve found it quite tough to categorize the Posh Hits trilogy.  I’ve gone for murder mystery, but because they are told in an epistolary style, sometimes there’s not too much ‘mystery’ about whodunit in the traditional sense. They are a bit like a chick-lit novel too, in that they are chatty and we are given all Cressida’s thoughts and feelings.  I hope that they are darkly humorous, and that although she is a monster, Cressida is also very likeable and caring. But she really is a monster!  Miss Burkett is a traditionally styled murder mystery, but she is much younger than most detectives, and is very much learning as she goes. Unlike many old-school mysteries, she’s very open to people from a different background – I have tried to draw on my own experiences as a child growing in up in a rapidly-changing Britain in the 1960s for this.

Q: Why do you write what you do?

A: I love to read. I suppose we all do. So a lot of what I write is inspired by or because of the things I have read that have influenced me. Miss Burkett came out of my enjoyment of the books by the now largely forgotten mystery writer, Patricia Wentworth, whose books I absolutely love. In fact Josephine Burkett is the great-niece of Miss Silver, Wentworth’s detective, and the story largely grew from me wondering about how the little girl mentioned in the books would grow up and what she would do with her life. The Posh Hits stories were simply a bit of fun with turning on its head the idea of the protagonist as a hero. I wanted to write about someone who wasn’t very nice. And I wanted her to literally get away with murder. No one ever seems to figure out what’s going on in the Posh Hits stories!

Q: How does your writing process work?

A: I write well in a café, away from the temptations of home. I also write well under pressure, because if I’ve got oodles of time and no deadline, I waste a lot of time day dreaming and procrastinating. I find it hard to organize myself. But basically I mull over an idea for weeks, sometimes months or even years before I begin to write.  And then I usually just plunge straight in.  After ten or twenty thousand words I realize I’m writing ‘Mr XXX said’ because I’ve forgotten all the names of the minor characters, so that’s when I stop and do a bit of mild planning and a list of characters. I write long hand and then type up, doing a little editing as I go, then I go back and edit and rewrite another two or three times.  It takes ages! Unlike many writers, I hate writing the first draft and love the subsequent drafts.

Phew – that was a bit nerve-wracking!  I’m a little bit glad it’s over, and a little bit excited to do another one – like a kid at the funfair! Once again, my thanks to Judith Cranswick:  http://www.judithcranswick.co.uk/

Now next Monday – 7th of July, these two lovely people will be continuing the fun and mayhem on their own blogs: Maria Constantine and Kev Heritage.

First up, Maria Constantine:

Maria’s debut novel, ‘My Big Greek Family’, was published in October 2013. She writes commercial women’s fiction and draws much inspiration from her dual cultural background. Maria lives in London and is working on the next book in the series. She can be found on Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter.
Maria will be posting her writing process blog at:  http://mariaconstantine.wordpress.com   on Monday 7th July
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Next up the almost-as-lovely Kev Heritage:
Kev Heritage is a writer of Sci-Fi, Epic Fantasy & Paranormal Mysteries, including the brilliant The Cowl (Ironscythe Sagas) and Blue Into the Rip. Don’t forget to take a look at his website, Kev will be posting his writing process blog on Monday 7th July and you can see it here:
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Blue Sky Thinking?

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“October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.”
― J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

We often are told in writing to draw on our senses to bring reality and immediacy into our writing, to create texture and believability, creating a world for our reader to step into in their mind. The same is true of the weather. Painting the weather into your story works every bit as well as using sensory information: capture a background, a stage, a canvas, on which your characters can live out their lives.  Weather often overlaps with sensory description – you make your reader feel the warmth of the sun on their skin, or the raindrops on their face, let them hear the thunder or feel the rising humidity or the biting of a north wind every time the cabin door opens and someone struggles to push it shut again.

“The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house. All that cold, cold, wet day.”
― Dr. SeussThe Cat in the Hat

Where you are writing about a specific time of year, remember that extremes of weather can be used to move a plot forward – an unseasonably warm spring day, a summer downpour leading to flooding.  In Judith Allnatt’s book “A Mile Of River” the events of the story unfold in Britain’s long drought of 1976, to devastating effect.  I can remember snow falling in July once in the 1980s when we lived in Aldershot, and five years of living in Queensland – even with its reputation for being damp – has made me love grey skies and rain. One of the first people we met was a cab driver from Hull who had been in Aussie for 35 years.  He told us he hated the sun and longed for drizzle. so weather can also be part and parcel of who we are and affect our outlook on life.

“It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life.”
― P.D. JamesA Taste for Death

I’ve always wanted to use that phrase so often featured in the Peanuts cartoons: ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ Originally used by a British writer, Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830, it was ridiculed from the off for its melodrama.  So I haven’t used it.  But it’s tempting! I love storms and it always feels as if anything could happen during a storm.  Likewise we think of spring as bright, happy, a time or hope and rebirth…

“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.”
― T.S. EliotThe Waste Land

I have adorned a funeral with pouring rain in my WIP, Miss Burkett Changes Her Mind (no, I still haven’t finished it .) I always think a large black umbrella is full of possibilities for crime or romance. But sometimes, regardless of your misery and grief, the heavens refuse to open, and the sun shines, the birds sing, almost in mockery of your emotions. And this too, can produce a mood that works nicely on paper, inducing your character to take some form of action.

But don’t overdo it.  You don’t need to update your readers on every other page unless it’s a book about climate change, or you’re engaged in rewriting Wuthering Heights. (I’m sure they would all have lived happily ever after if they hadn’t lived in such a bleak and lowering spot.)

“But who wants to be foretold the weather? It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand.”
― Jerome K. JeromeThree Men in a Boat

The Silent Woman – some background

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When I first began to think about and make notes for my paranormal novel The Silent Woman (still in progress), I began to think about speech and silence.

The title came to me – I don’t know how, just out of the blue – and because this has happened before, I decided to do some research.  There is the famous case where I named a character Ben Sherman, thinking the name just sounded so ‘right’, not realising that was the name of a famous fashion designer … So now I do a quick check on the Interweb for names, titles etc.  No point in publishing a paranormal mystery called The Silent Woman if there are already three paranormal mysteries with that name. (And with that in mind, I always try to be flexible about names and titles, ‘just in case’.)

So I turned up some interesting stuff.  I came across an old pub sign, The Silent Woman.  As I still had no idea what my book was about, I found this full of possibilities.  There were other pub signs with parallel concepts – The Quiet Wife, The Honest Lawyer etc.  They all depict a decapitated person.  The Silent Woman carries her head under her arm or sometimes on a tray in front of her.  This is the only way you can keep a woman quiet, or a lawyer honest, is the implication.

There is a kind of mythology about silence and the deliberate withholding or enforced withholding of speech.

The Silent Woman may appear to be consensual, as silence is often construed as agreement, but in this case, it has been ensured that she cannot speak up for herself.  Nags and gossips were ducked like witches, or a scold’s bridle was employed to prevent speech, particularly nagging.  (without which we’d have no Minette Walters – ooh folks, The Ice House is showing again – Daniel Craig from way back.  Though my favourite bit is right at the beginning where the Labrador has rolled in or eaten some of the freshly discovered corpse 😉  eww!  )

So in some quarters it seems silence is not only welcomed but preferred.  Hence we ‘suffer in silence’.  Children are ‘seen but not heard’.   We women give the men in our lives ‘the silent treatment’ when they have done something wrong. And we mustn’t forget too, that even the fool, when he is silent, may be deemed wise, according to the Bible.  There are loads of bits in the Bible about speech.  Like how the tongue of a nagging woman is like the constant dripping of water wearing away a roof.  Notice nagging is something only women do.

In my book, the beheaded woman becomes a vengeful spirit.  She may have been silent, but actions, we are told, speak louder than words.

Silence can be non-disclosure, the enigma of Mona Lisa.  Silence, as I have said, can imply complicity and agreement.  But silence is alienating, and can mean an inability to engage in social activity, leading to isolation and solitude.   This is something us only-children have to learn to deal with, the lack of socialisation.

In Susan Glaspell’s play ‘Trifles’ (also known in prose form as A Jury Of Her Peers) a woman’s only companion is her pet bird, and when the bird is killed by her husband in a fit of temper – well (spoiler alert)  let’s just say it didn’t bode well for his future existence.  Men are sent to investigate, and end up having to take their wives along.  The women quickly unravel the truth and conceal it by their complicit silence.

So silence – is it ‘Golden’?

As Ronan Keating says “you say it best, when you say nothing at all.”

Resistance – a short story

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I’ve had this on here before, a while ago.  I came across it again recently and ‘tweaked’ it.  It’s rather bitter-sweet.

Resistance

The pockets of Gran’s bathrobe were empty. She found an old tissue, that was all, nothing useful. No matches. There wouldn’t be anything in Lottie’s school backpack apart from homework and her sports kit, so no point in even looking.

Lottie’s giggles were gone now, the fun was over, the outing spoilt. Their transport, the ambulance, was parked crookedly behind them, the doors open, the driver’s seat empty. Gran didn’t know where the ambulance-driver had gone. She remembered arriving in the vehicle but the details eluded her. She knew she had sat in the front, with Lottie beside her, giggling and asking where they were going. Gran remembered telling her it was a surprise. But there must have been a driver, surely? So where was he?

This wasn’t how Gran imagined it would be. And now she was puzzled. Why had she thought this would work? Outings needed to be planned, not carried out on the spur of the moment. It was growing colder now, and soon night would crowd in around them. Lottie was hunched on a tree stump, kicking her feet, bored, miserable. They needed a fire. Rubbing some sticks together hadn’t helped, had not produced the required spark. Everything was damp from the rain earlier.

“What are we going to do, Gran? Are we going to live in the forest forever?” Lottie asked her. Gran knew her granddaughter was trying hard not to cry. Then as half-expected, Lottie said, “I think we should to go home now, Gran. It’s cold. Mum will be worried. Can we please go home?”

Gran shuddered. Home meant different things to different people. To Lottie, home was a big, bright kitchen, a cat on the window-sill, a plate of chicken nuggets with a blob of ketchup.

To Gran, her childhood home was a dark, cold place where bombs fell from the blacked-out sky. Where all around you was ruin and destruction. Or more recently, home was a converted old manor house, down on its luck and smelling of boiled cabbage, a place filled to the brim with old, crazy people like Gran herself, and harried nurses who had no time to spare for a chat or a cup of tea.

She felt a surge of resistance rush through her. She was not going back. She renewed her attempts to kindle a fire, girl-guide style, in the little pile of damp twigs and leaves. Nothing happened. After another half-dozen attempts she gave up. She had lost the knack, along with so many other things.

In spite of her original expectation, there was no fire, no food, no fun. She slumped down next to Lottie and the nine year-old leaned against her and they sat together for a while.

Gran was wondering about the driver of the ambulance parked behind them, but Lottie spoke and her voice chased the other thoughts away.

“Gran, what does it mean when you say resistance is futile?”

Gran looked at Lottie. “Where did you hear that?”

“Dad says it sometimes. He got it off the telly.  What’s it mean?”

“It means there’s no point in trying to fight,” Gran whispered, and a tear crept down her cheek. She looked down at her slippers as if seeing them for the first time. Why was she wearing her bathrobe and bedroom slippers? And where was the ambulance driver? She had a mental image of herself at the wheel. But surely not? She hadn’t driven for years, and she had never been a paramedic or driven an ambulance, she had been a teacher. That’s right, mathematics, that had been her subject. She had even written articles and books on teaching maths in junior schools. But another mental picture showed her coming out of the day-room and seeing it parked there, the paramedics had been summoned for Mrs Watson who had died in the night. Yes, Gran remembered, she had seen the ambulance and wondered what it would be like to drive a big vehicle like that. It had seemed exciting, she had thought of the places she could go, the things she could do. Yes, now she remembered. She looked about her and saw it was growing dark, and she trembled. She was aware of Lottie, warm, valiant, sweet as ever.

“I never fight,” Lottie said, “you get kept in at playtime for fighting. And then you can’t go on the climbing frame.”

“I know, Darling, I know.” Gran placed a kiss on Lottie’s hair. Then, “shall we get back in the ambulance?”

Lottie nodded. “Yes, Gran.” Brightly, she added, “we could do this again next week. If they let you borrow the ambulance again. It was fun going along fast with the siren on.”

Gran nodded, but she still didn’t move. Lottie grabbed her backpack.

“I did you a picture at school today.” She hauled it out, slightly bent at the corners. Gran took it and carefully smoothed out the creases and looked at the bright yellows and blues.

“It’s lovely, Lottie. Thank you, Sweetheart, thank you.”

“You can put it on your wall. It’s you and me at the seaside.”

“It’s lovely, Sweetheart. Thank you.” Gran said again and she carefully folded it as she got up. She and Lottie gathered up their things. They got into the ambulance and Gran started the engine. “Let’s go then, buckle up!”

Gran knew by the time they got back, the police would be waiting, and her daughter Jo, Lottie’s mother would be there, frantic with worry. Gran had a feeling this might have happened before but she wasn’t sure, perhaps she was remembering what was about to happen. But in any case, she was too tired to resist any more. There was nowhere to go. And it was getting darker and colder.

“Gran, did you have electric when you were a little girl?”

“No, love. When I was a little girl, your age, we were very poor, and we lived out in the country. Then there was a war. A lot of houses got destroyed. And people. Lots of people died.”

“So how did you see to watch telly with no lights?”

Gran hid a smile. “We had candles.”

***

 

The Errant Queen Cornered

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Sometimes little snatches of narrative come to me and I have to write them down “just in case”.  Evernote on my Kindle and on my PC is great for this as you can be out and about with your Kindle (or any tablet or phone …) then sync the ideas or notes when you get home.  I have set up a number of ‘notebooks’ – ‘various ideas’ then also WIP-specific notebooks in case of a sudden flash of inspiration – or desperation – when I’m away from home, or just can’t be bothered to go to the PC, so I can make notes and save them all in one folder, so linked ideas are together.  I’m still very new to Evernote, so you no doubt have better ways of working, but at the moment, I’m feeling pretty smug about this!

Below is one of my flashes, it’s a bit florid, I don’t know if it’s going anywhere but I enjoyed the moment of high drama, seeing in my mind a noblewoman on the deck of a ‘Tudorbethan’ wooden ship.

The Errant Queen Cornered

  I would sooner risk ending my days in the cold grey waters of our English channel than turn to safe shore and meet His Majesty’s hot rage and spited vengeance in the Tower.  or so thought I when I fled.

  But now the moment has arrived, and I find I must pause.  My courage hides itself behind these woman’s skirts and I cling the rail with white hands, hesitating.  I do not wish to hasten death.  And yet – what other choice have I?  Tell me, is there some other way I have o’erlook’d?  No, no, so thought I.   His Majesty’s clipper approaches from the South, the Royal Pennant can be seen even from this reach, and they will be upon us all too soon.
  How good of you to come so far at my blighted side, faithful friends.  So I leap.  And yet – yet – truly say me, is’t other course still to be found?  No, no, I reckoned it stood thus.  Well then, adieu or as God allow, fare thee well.  I leap.  Sure the sea appears full deep and chill.  God grant my skirts shall weigh me down and end it quickly. Take my arm then, good knight, help me over, and I pray thee, I may yet see thee anon.  The lack of me shall free thee all, His Majesty shall not vent his wrath upon any of my friends, it will suffice that I am gone.  Farewell.

Fear – the creative tool

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When I talk about writing, and my own version of it, I talk about beginning with ‘what if’ and going on from there.  But sometimes I ask myself other questions.  Questions such as, what would I kill to protect?  What is the one thing we all need? How would I feel if … ?  I have to get inside my main character to be able to write my story.

Another useful question to ask yourself when embarking on a new project – or I should say – when looking for a new project – is ‘what am I afraid of?’

Fear can be a terrible, paralysing emotion.  But conversely it can galvanise you into action like nothing else on earth.  It can be a useful, creative tool.  Sit down in a quiet corner and ask yourself in all honesty, ‘what am I afraid of?’  Getting too ill to care for myself?  Losing a loved one? Losing my mind?  Not being able to pay the bills?  Being paralysed?  Home invasion? I think most of us fear these big things.  But what about small, more intimate fears?  Fear of losing your hair?  Fear of being stuck in a job you hate for twenty years or more?  Fear of not being able to turn the cheek one more time? Other fears?  Spiders?  Worms?

What about childhood fears?  Fear of the dark?  Fear of statues and scarecrows?  Loved one replaced by a very convincing robotic double that only you can detect? Dr Who has so much to answer for!  Murderous clowns – thank you Stephen King!  What about getting lost?   I can remember losing my mother in a supermarket many years ago and I sobbed as the nice store manager asked me what she looked like – and with a child’s real terror I wailed ‘I can’t remember!’  I remember this with absolute clarity 48 years after it happened.  (For Spock’s Beard fans – the chilling, relatable vulnerability of the child who says ‘Mummy comes back/She always comes back to get me.’  Because if Mummy doesn’t, that is something too terrible to contemplate.  For me to write a book around that would have me in therapy within an hour.)

What about fantastical things that frighten us as adults and as children: Ghosts? Goblins? Witches? Aliens? Bats? Spiders? Sharks? Snakes? Crocodiles? Scorpions? Cockroaches? (See my post from a couple of weeks ago about cockroaches!) Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of fear, basically. We are told fear itself is the worst kind of fear.  But there is something else.  If I were to base a short story on an old fear, a primitive fear, a childhood horror, it would be the fear of being alone.

 

At The WIP Crossroads

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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?

Still thinking about it – writing in – not on – the brain! A kind of mental patchwork.

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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 Love protest 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.”

Autumn spookiness

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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.

And now, so am I.

Extract – Thirty Days on the Fourth Floor

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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.

‘Come back.’

‘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.