Monday, 17 February 2014

One Picture, Three Stories - Childhood

Thanks to Jane Heinrichs ( for inspiring me to think about this and for having the idea for a 'one picture, three stories' link up on her blog (see her blogpost about it here and take a look around the rest of her site, I guarantee you that you'll find something to encourage/dazzle/motivate/inspire you).

Here is my picture, and the three stories that it sparks off:

1) Childhood - that time of long hot summers, wonder, exploration and adventure, when everything is new and exciting. This is my niece. I don't see her as much as I would like as we live in Dorset and she lives in Oxfordshire so every moment I have with her is magic. This was taken last year when she and her dad (my brother) came to stay for a few days. She is standing on the walls of our town surveying the world below her and engaging in some impromptu ballet! If any child captures the sense of joy and excitement of being a child throwing herself at the world in joyful and trusting abandonment, it is my niece. She fills my heart with joy and also a wistful longing to remember the experiences and feelings of being that young, that small and that sure of yourself.

2) Hope - The pure joy and hope of being alive is, for me, captured here. The sunny day, the warm breeze, the beauty of life and the promise of a future yet to unfold. A grown up shadow falls across her, every so slightly touching her - the reassurance of security, the suggestion of the life she will lead and the woman she will grow into.

3)The Circle of Life - my niece looks extraordinarily like I did when I was her age. She brings back vivid memories of when I was her age exploring the countryside around our home. She reminds me what it is to explore as a child - something so necessary for someone who writes for children. Sweet, vulnerable, stubborn, strong, excited and overwhelmed, I can see the influences of my brother, of me, of my mother, of our family shining out of her, even (maybe mostly) when she's sulking, having a tantrum and trying to make sense of this sometimes unfathomable world she's learning to navigate. She seems to be a part of me, and I a part of her.

I highly recommend that you browse through your pictures and see which ones prompt three stories from you, and then link it back to Jane's blog and explore what other people have posted. Candy Gourlay's post is fascinating!

happy story making!


Monday, 10 February 2014

River Girl

I wrote this beginning years and years ago and have never taken it any further than what is here. I re-read it every now and then, hoping that the rest of the story will emerge. So far, no luck. But one day, I'm sure. Michael and the River Girl will come back and tell me what happens next...

River Girl

Late. It was too late. The air was thick with starlight.  The wind, blowing up from the river, carried the scent of silt and sleeping creatures.
What was it doing? A human boy sitting alone on the shore. Chin resting on his knees. Lips turned downwards. Eyes glazed.
The river girl shifted position, bending the bulrushes away gently, creeping catlike over the marshy ground. Her bare feet slurped in the weed-tangled water.
It was a young boy too. Younger than those that came out on warm summer evenings drinking from cans and yelling and throwing darts of smoking red into the river where they died with a hiss.
Late. Too late for a human boy to be sitting on the bank.
The river girl hunched down, squatting amongst the long grass and rushes. Night would grow colder, prowlers would come. Dark prowlers.
The river girl twisted as she heard a noise on the opposite bank. Her long ears twitched, swivelling slightly to catch the sound. An otter maybe, night fishing, or a fish trying to reach the stars. They longed to fly. They jumped for the stars at night.
Turning her attention back to the human boy, the river girl made her decision. Tonight was not a good night to be on the bank alone. She crept forward softly, she was the whispering of the wind through the grass, the sound of breezes snagging against the bristled heads of the bulrushes. The human boy was an arm span away. Sitting on the bank. His shoes shone in the moonlight. Wind ruffled his hair and tugged the collar of his shirt. Yes, he would be cold and the prowlers would find him straight away.
‘Boy,’ she hissed.
The boy’s head jerked up, his eyes widening with fear. She could see the river dancing in them. It was a good sign. The river liked him.
            ‘Boy,’ she repeated.
            Now he was scrambling up, his shining shoes churning up the mud. He was older than she had first thought, but still young. Besides, once she had decided something there was no retracing her thoughts.  She moved out of the tall grasses. A thin shadow in the night.
            ‘Come,’ she said, she held out her hand, ‘come, boy.’
            He turned towards her, she saw his surprise: his mouth dropping open, his eyes wide. He stumbled back. He slipped on the mud-slicked bank. His cry flew out of his mouth like a bird as he fell, and was cut off by the splash he made into the river. The river girl started forward, her hand still held out, and then she dove, slipping beneath the surface of the water, sliding into it like a slither of moonlight. She left no footprints on the bank, no ripples on the water, only the sound of the wind through the reeds.

            Michael didn’t know where he was going as he left the wedding party. He didn’t particularly care. He just wanted out. He climbed the fence at the back of the hotel and landed on the springy wild grass of the field with relief. Behind him he could hear the music pounding from the sweating disco room, but out here it was cold. The moaning of the night air suited him better. Earlier, he and dad had walked this way, kicking at the skeleton dandelion heads and watching the seeds swirling away. He could see the cows huddled together in the far corner. The sky above was clear, the stars bright. It was a night for things to happen.
            Michael stomped across the field, deliberately ignoring the meandering path they’d made earlier and instead heading towards the sound of water. In the moonlight he could see the tall shapes of the bulrushes that bowed and shook by the river. The earth here was dank and damp. It stank of cow dung and slid beneath his feet. He sat on the bank and stared down at the glassy river. He did not care if his suit got covered in foul oozing mud. It was a fitting end to the day. A day when everything had seemed wrong.
            He sat for long moments watching the river. It was hypnotic. It drained his thoughts and carried them away with its current. Goodbye Amanda, goodbye Ben, goodbye dad.
            Slowly, as his head emptied of the buzzing angriness that he had been carrying around all day, he came to hear other things. The rustle of the bulrushes, the light popping of the mud beneath him as air bubbles let out gasps of surprise, movement of nightime creatures on the opposite bank plopping into the river. He felt his heartbeat steadying, the dampness from the ground seeping in through his thin trousers, the air tickling his neck.
And then he heard it, a strange whispery voice, fragmented, like droplets of water:
            He looked up, startled. Someone had followed him. Ben. But no, Ben would never whisper at him from the shadows he would hurl himself onto Michael shouting ‘I got you Mikey! Now swing me round! Swing me round!’
            It came again, louder, closer. Michael jumped up, slipping on the muddy bank. He must be hearing things, the wind through the grass. He should be heading back now, they would miss him. He turned from the river and a shadow caught his eye.
            ‘Come, boy,’ the shadow extended a hand, dark green eyes glinted at him in the starlight, enveloped in darkness.
            Michael heard himself cry out as he stumbled backwards. His heart was in his throat, his feet gave out beneath him, he tried to grab something, but there was nothing but air, and then there was nothing but water. Icy, mud filled water in his mouth, up his nose, cloying at his eyes. He thrashed, weeds twisted about him, held him down, the current caught him and pulled him on. He could see nothing, could hear only his heart and the roaring of his fear.
            And then, something beneath his arms, holding him, steadying him and slowing everything down. He relaxed, his limbs drifted around him. The mud cleared from the water like gravy granules dissolving.  His lungs were burning, his head dizzy, but the water was letting him go, he was rising. His head broke the surface and he gasped for air.
            ‘Come, boy’ said the same distorted voice, but whoever it was remained behind him, hands gripping him firmly beneath his arms. ‘We not stay here. They come. Take deep breath.’
            Before he could argue, before he could really breathe again, he was under once more, into the world of murky water and shadows.

            The river girl pulled him along easily. She was strong when she wanted to be. Strong as a river current. She rose often to let him grope for air, waiting as he spluttered and coughed at the moon and then she dove again. He struggled a little at first, but she had held him fast. He did not understand the danger he had been in.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Here and Gone

If I hadn’t seen the tree. If I hadn’t seen the tree and the plastic-coated wire fence clinging to it, I’d never have known. I’d never have known that this was where the house had stood. How our memories lie.

                        My granny takes my hand while my brother chases dreams a mile in front. The field is a prairie, the grass waves tall as my head, the sun beats down on my t-shirt and makes me squirm. I am a hunter, hunting the rare Dominic-beast leaping like an antelope before me. I squint through the heat. His hair flashes in the sun as he forages amongst the tall grass. My hunting hat is hot; I take it off and wipe off sweat with a dust streaked hand. I’ve been hunting all day in this sticky weather, I’m exhausted and hungry, will this Dominic-beast never tire? I must make it to the castle where they are expecting the beast’s head on a silver platter. If only I had a horse to chase him down. I can’t make it…I swoon.
            ‘Walk properly,’ my granny snaps as her arm tugs with my weight. She frowns down at me.
I am a princess stolen by a wicked witch. She is marching me across the wilderness to her castle where she will lock me in the dungeon leaving her devil boy to taunt me. The devil boy is turning; he’s running at me, look out!
‘Race you to the drawbridge!’ he cries and turns again the other way.
I am a horse galloping down the grass, my brother-horse races ahead, we are wild and free on the mountains… the playground looms ahead. My breath is in my head, my brother wins.

If I hadn’t spotted the plastic-coated chicken wire protruding from the tree trunk, I would have been sure I had stopped at the wrong layby. The evening had turned damp and cold, the light milky, and at first I blamed that for not recognising where I was. Then I realised -  this wasn’t the place. That place was ten years ago. This place was now.

My granny lives in a Lego-brick. A beige one. There are lots of them scattered around the Ministry of Defence. I crouch in the earth of the flowerbed and peek through the wire fence, I know I shouldn’t, I could be arrested - they might think I’m spy.  
‘Rosie, get out of the dust, come here.’ My mother calls me over; we are taking photos underneath the apple tree. We stand in a row next to Zakkie’s grave. (Zakkie was granny’s grey poodle. There’s a picture of him on top of the telly). Click, click, one more for luck. Someone approaches us from the other side of the fence.
‘That’s enough, no more please, this is a secure area’. I can’t see his face because a branch is in my way, but he wears a dark suit and has a walkie-talkie in his hand.
‘It’s a family photo!’ My dad protests, his grip on my hand is tight.
‘Please no more.’ The man stands watching us until the camera is put away. Next time I visit the apple tree is gone.
‘They didn’t want people climbing it,’ my granny explains as we crumble bread for the birds. She must mean they didn’t like me and my brother climbing it, we were the only ones.

I stared at the empty space. How could there have been houses here once? Jean and Bill with the Siamese cats, Lucy who had fingernails so long and clean they were like claws, the family with the slide in the back garden. Now there are only my memories that don’t match what I can see. How did all those lives fit in?

I stand in the doorway to Grandad’s shed. It’s dark and cobwebs pattern the window. I like to run my fingers in the dust of the workbench and play with the vice that bites into the edge. Outside the sun dazzles me; I scuttle into the shade and open the coal bin. It’s black and glittering and I know it’s an entrance to the Cave of Wonders that leads to the sea. Later it takes a long time to get the coal dust off my fingers.
My granny’s house is a world full of multicoloured carpets and green flowered wall paper. There’s a glass cabinet at the end of the hall where treasure is locked in with a grey twirly key. A silk-lined, musty shell purse is the greatest prize. I handle it softly; Mermaids gave it to my granny when she was younger. I lock it up, the key gives a satisfying click.
There’s a case of records in the freezer room. I flip through them, savouring the slap on slap of vinyl and cardboard. The record-player is in the living room and it’s the size of a cupboard. I dance around singing:
‘Brown girl in the ring sha-la-la-la
There’s a brown girl in the ring, sha-la-la-la-la-la’
            My granny dances with me, her velvet slippers scuffing up the orange rug. I’m fascinated with her feet. She has extra toes. They grow out the side of her feet by her big toe. Her slippers bulge with them.
‘They’re called bunions,’ she tells me when I dare ask. I stare hard at my own feet. I want bunion-toes. They must be useful when it comes to climbing trees. After my granny tucks me in I check my feet. Big toe, little toe…no bunion-toe, not today.

The ministry seemed bigger than ever. I’d forgotten how close it was. I don’t linger once I’ve found the wire. The ministry was always touchy.

            Me and Dominic are in the tree in the front garden, there are no trees left out the back. You have to climb onto the green wire fence and then into the fork of the tree, pinging out woodlice and spiders. We watch the sun go down and stay out until the light makes our eyes feel funny.
            ‘Look,’ Dominic says as he helps me down. His muddy finger is pointing at the fence. ‘It’s eating it.’
I look.  It’s true, the tree is slowly swallowing the fence into its greedy bark, we pull at it but it won’t budge.
            ‘That’ll be there forever,’ Dominic decides and he races me to the front door.

            They pulled her house down a few months after she moved into the home. One by one the houses were all pulled down. What was once a street of beige bungalows is now just a lay-by and an empty bit of lawn in front of the ministry.
 In years to come a passer-by may pause, finger that snatch of fence and wonder how it came there. Or when they dig the ground up for some new building people will puzzle over how a poodle got buried outside the MOD.

Saturday, 1 February 2014


He loiters in the corner of the reference section, long white splotched fingers worrying the edge of his wax scented anorak. The sound of the material rubbing makes the assistant grit her teeth. She raises her eyes to glare at him over the register. He blinks at her and clutches his pocket tightly. Swallowing, he turns his back to her and stares at the rows of thesauri towering above him.

Dark and shady. The best habitat for me. If you want to see me in my natural state head to your local library (R.A.R.Y, there’s no E.R in the middle), or bookshop or, hell, even supermarkets these days. You’ll find me loitering in the forgotten corners of the reference (now there’s an E.R) section: those endless rows on rows of thick dominating books…

He wonders: How long has it been? He half forms the question and so emits a low moan. His fingers scrabble in his pocket, not relaxing until he feels the ridged cap of the bottle. Sweat is brewing in his hairline; he wipes it off with the back of his hand. A pen is clutched in his white-knuckled grip.  He shuffles along the row to his favourite: Concise Oxford.

You can smell the staleness of words in those books, which is strange because if words should live anywhere it should be in there, arranged as they are in their high rise columns (that’s a U after the L not an O) surrounded by gardens of explanations and definitions…

Moistening damp lips he reaches out; his movements are swift, sudden. He pulls a book from the shelf, it falls to the floor belly up. He is on his knees, scrabbling to the front. The smell of chemicals lingers over the pages. He counts thirty-five measured seconds, no more, no less. Perfect timing. The book is in his hands and back on the shelf and he is bobbing his apologies to the assistant heading over to him. And he is out again, blinking in the afternoon glow of the city.

Maybe that is why they grow stagnant, why people avoid them - too intent on finding the predictable thrill of suburban literature. Not me. I thrive in everyone’s disinterest. Ignorant fools, they have no idea of the value of the books they buy but never read. Just think, every other book is read completely. Every single word savoured and devoured. Not these. These books lead a half life. Condemned (it’s an N not another M) to have a word read every few months or even years. What else is a book good for, if not reading? Gathering dust. That’s good for nothing…

He was troubled by it even as a boy. Pudgy fingers tracing the large Eiffel tower shape and then hesitating. Always hesitating over the little one, the baby. It looks wrong. It feels wrong. How did it get there?

Call me obsessive if you like (two S’s, one B). Many do. I’m not obsessive. I just like things to be right. I like things to make sense. I don’t understand why no one will take me seriously. I deserve to be taken seriously. If I see a mistake I have to correct it. That makes me a good person, a decent person. Just think what this world would be like if everyone corrected the mistakes they see. What a beautiful world (don’t forget the A).

He wrote his first letter at the age of fourteen. It was polite, courteous and was (in his view) completely on the side of reason. He received a reply a month later. They thanked him for the letter, sent him a book voucher and wished him well in his future career as (they had no doubt) an editor. Encouraged, he wrote to every publisher and eagerly bought new editions. The amendment wasn’t made.

Dear Sir

My name is Daniel Harvey. I am a great fan of the books you do. However I have to point out a serious error. You have misspelled Ardvark and assigned it an extra A. This is a common mistake, but I am sure if you look closely at the word then it will become obvious that such a spelling is preposterous.

Yours, in anticipation of future good spelling,


And so he continues. Armed with tip-ex and a pen, roaming the reference section of all book retailers: a one man crusade to right the word that was once spelt wrong, and never, ever corrected.