This is another of my "alphabet" stories. The first one is still here. I'll be posting a series of stories here regularly in the coming weeks and months. This one has been recorded for broadcast on local radio and is in my first collection of stories - "A Short Collection of Small Stories". Enjoy.
Absently, George stirred two spoonfuls of sugar into his solitary mug of coffee on the draining board below the kitchen window. Breadcrumbs lay in a random scatter across the stained grey work surface around the bread bin and the air had a faint tinge of burnt toast mixed with bacon fat. Coming towards the house along the narrow lane, beyond the low beech hedge at the bottom of the garden, he spied a familiar blue car. Damn Lydia for coming to visit just now; why couldn’t she call before she turned up? Everyone else seemed to understand that he needed to be on his own at the moment; why couldn’t she take the hint and stay away, leave him alone?
“Frosty morning, isn’t it, George?”
Greetings with Lydia were always of the stating-the-bleeding-obvious kind. Huffing on the back doorstep as he took in the sharp, clean January air, George attempted to be civil.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you till later, at the meeting in the village hall, Lydia.”
“Just as well I popped round then, isn’t it; the meeting’s been cancelled, so I thought I’d bring you some courgette soup and see if you needed anything.”
“Kind of you, but I’m fine, really.”
“Look, I know it’s none of my business, but -”
“My sentiments exactly, it is none of your business. Now, if you don’t mind, thank you for the soup, but I’m really rather busy.”
“Oh, I see, well if that’s what you want; but George, are you really alright?”
“Peace and quiet, that’s all I want; peace and quiet and to be left alone by busybodies who think they know what’s best for me.”
Quite unexpectedly, Lydia began to weep; copiously and messily, still poised on the doorstep. Reluctantly, George took her gently by the elbow and led her in to sit at the worn old kitchen table. Still sobbing, but quietly now, Lydia tried to explain. That everyone in the village had known and loved Penny; obviously not in the same way as George had, but that they had all missed her terribly these past six months and wanted him to know that. Useless, that’s what they all felt, and many of them had stopped coming to visit because he had made it clear that they were not welcome. Visibly shaken, George stood again to put the kettle on, find some digestive biscuits and gather his thoughts.
“Widower, that’s what I am now; such a horrible word, such a horrible thing to be,” he though, his gaze fixed on the crows gathering in the treetops at the end of the lane.
“Xylophone lessons, that’s what I’m going to take up; there’s a new class starting at the hall next Tuesday evening,” Lydia blew her nose noisily on a square of kitchen towel from the roll that George had thrust in front of her.
“You should come along, it might be fun.”
“Zither, that’s what I used to play, you know; got an old one in the attic, maybe I’ll get it down and see if I can still get a tune out of it” he said as he poured two mugs of tea, the long-lost shadow of a smile nudging at the edge of his mouth.
I have been very fortunate to find a writers' group to join in my new location. They have been very welcoming and I already feel very at home with them all. It's such a pleasure to share writings with others who write, and to hear everyone's contributions at our monthly meetings. It is often only when you read a piece out loud that you find the stumbling blocks - literally tripping over words and so finding out that they are probably not in the best order after all. There is always something to learn, things that can be done better.
As a result of joining the writers' group, I've recently had the great pleasure of being invited to record some of my short stories for the wonderful local radio station - Two Lochs Radio. A couple of these have been broadcast in the half hour programme, Westwords, which is broadcast on the first Wednesday of the month (at 9pm), and then repeated on the first Sunday (at 8pm). There are short stories, poems and longer pieces, all by local writers, delightfully interspersed by little snippets of appropriate music. One of my longer short stories is to be included in the next programme, on Wednesday 4th March (and then again on Sunday 8th March). If you are not in the local area, you can listen online, via the Two Lochs Radio website.
In the meantime, I thought I would share one of the stories which was broadcast for the first time at the start of this month, "Beyond the Begonias". It is also available in print in my first self-published volume of short stories, "A Short Collection of Small Stories". For anyone who is interested, it is one of my "alphabet" stories, where each sentence starts with the consecutive letter of the alphabet (and the story thus consists of 26 sentences). A little leeway is allowed when it comes to the letter "X"!
Beyond the Begonias - short story
After the rain stopped, she started planting again. Blood red begonias in big terracotta pots. Celia’s favourite flowers; she scooped handfuls of compost from the bag beside her, pressed the plants in firmly, watered them carefully. Digging her hands into the warm brown peatiness, she felt something akin to relief. Even breathing had been hard, recently. Forever looking over her shoulder, watching her back, thinking carefully before she spoke.
Gordon had become impossible. Hard to believe that the inert form sitting benignly beyond the French doors had once been a loving husband. Inch by inch, he had tortured them both into a living hell. Just when she had got to the point when she knew she must leave, a different plan emerged in her head. Kneeling on her cushioned weeding mat, a voice within had spoken quite clearly. Laughable though the thought was, Celia turned it over in her mind for several days. Moving through time in a stupor of misery, she nurtured the idea from tiny seed to little seedling. Now it was firmly planted; had taken roots, put out grasping tendrils. Only the timing had to be completely right. Piggishness on Gordon’s behalf had become the norm; she simply could not tolerate it one minute longer. Quelling her doubts, which were numerous, irrational and invalid, she acted quickly.
Right after supper one evening, she summoned him to the rooftop terrace to examine a fictitious missing slate. Shoving him over the tiny balcony had been easier than she had imagined. The body landed close to the new flowerbed, dug that morning by the young gardener she had recently employed. Under the dim sulphur glow of the streetlamps that night, she dragged the corpse into the hole. Violent waves of nausea overcame her and she gave her stomach contents as a parting gift. Where he had gone, no-one would ever know. Exiled to another country, run off with that brassy woman from down the road? Yes, maybe.
Zinnia, that was the name she had been trying to recall; that would be perfect for the new bed, Celia thought with a smile.
Photo credit : Ailsa Watson
For National Poetry Day
I wrote this free-form poem (with minor alterations) at the start of this year. It was a contribution to the Sustaining Life as a Creative Programme, run by the wonderful Creative Learning team in Aberdeen, which I was very fortunate to take part in.
The brief was to describe our creative journey.
I am the small pigtailed girl
Perched on the window seat, with
sugar paper and poster paints,
brush and water pot,
the wooden trolley
I am that girl in shorts and tee-shirt
on the west coast shore
searching for crabs every summer
before rockpooling was a thing
collecting shells and pebbles,
sticks and stones
I am the girl playing in the
corrugated iron shed behind
my granny’s house
wildflowers in a jam jar on the rickety table -
the hedgehog visiting -
imagination my best friend
I’m the schoolgirl sailing on the loch
with my first love
I'm the teenager climbing hills with friends
gazing over Scotland -
hills and heather
burns and boulders,
I am the student, drawing in my lab book,
Learning the nature of science
I am the scientist, fishing for facts about
Trout and mackerel and herring,
I am the translator, editor, creator,
putter-together of research volumes,
organiser of conferences and treasurer of troves
I am the mum with no clue -
doing, not making,
(except soup and cakes and occasionally marmalade)
with a head crammed full, jammed full
a scarcity of time to call mine
I am the thirty-something friend,
persuaded to trade
My violin for a fiddle,
To play tunes with people
Who would become pals
To add another dimension
I am the mandolin-playing ceilidh band member,
calling out dance steps
- Oh, the feeling of power!
I am the teacher of students,
The organiser of labs and lectures,
Marker of essays,
Developer of screen-based things
With no song to sing
Or dance to bring
I am the escapee,
Fleeing to evening classes -
Some shaky pots, a few pale paintings,
My sketchbook brought along
On family holidays
For rare moments of
I am the e-learning adviser,
Brain addled by screens,
Quitting the squeaky lino floors
Before it was too late
I am the pupil once more, online
And for real,
(because I respond well to being
I am the walker,
Walking with purpose -
In three years.
And Ben Nevis
No hesitation –
I am the delivery driver,
Dropping off veg
I am the spinner of stories
Weaver of yarns
I am the open studios partaker
Opening the door to my shed,
Pretending it is a studio,
letting people in to my life
To ask me questions
Which I find hard to answer –
When, What, Why, How?
It seems that some
Wish they had my life, whatever they
May think that is – living the dream –
An endless stream of ideas, most of which
Get washed away in the shower -
Down the drain, never to be
I am the artist, maker,
Creator of things
Which bring joy
I am the West coast
Still walking the tideline
In search of shells and pebbles,
Bleached bones of wood
Filling my pockets
Again and again
Still looking out to sea
I started writing this poem seven years ago. Today I finished it. This was prompted by a conversation last night about "mental load" and being directed to a cartoon illustrating this concept. It is an interesting concept and I realised its close connection with my thoughts while writing this poem. The pie chart above was constructed in 1999; that was not just about "mental load", but "physical load" as well. I am half-hoping that the legend is illegible!
NB: The poem was written at a time when we had a dog, a guinea pig and probably a budgie as well.
This is the path
That leads to the shed
That Jennifer wants to write in.
This is the poo
That lies on the lawn
That blocks the path
That leads to the shed
That Jennifer wants to write in
This is the guinea pig
Nice and warm
Out in his hutch,
ignoring the storm
that needed fed
and straw for his bed
on the path to the shed
that Jennifer wants to write in
these are the garments
washed and wet
that need some drying
and ironing yet
here is the post
on the mat
There is the telephone
Waiting to ring
Daring to call
To see if she’s in
Here are the dishes
In the sink
Here is the dog
Who needs a drink
Here is the clock
As it slips away
There is the rain
Falling out of the sky
Rescue the washing
-It’s nearly dry!
These were the obstacles
All in her head
Things to be done
And some to be said
Now she sees clearly
What she must do
-leave all the small stuff
And find a way through
To go on the path
That leads to the shed
That Jennifer's going to write in.
Do you recognise this painting? Yes. it's one of mine! The Green Boat, gracing the cover of The Leopard magazine.
A wee while ago, a lovely lady called Annie Woolridge contacted me, asking if I would be happy to be interviewed for an article she was writing on artists based in northeast Scotland. There was to be a series of articles. I happily said yes. Annie came to The Cabin one morning a couple of months ago. We drank coffee and chatted; she admired my paintings hung around the walls. I had tidied the studio a bit. At some point she turned on a very unobtrusive recording machine. It was all very relaxed and pleasant; I felt as if we had known each other a while.
I partly forgot about the process. then realised last week that the article might be in the current edition of the magazine. I popped into our local Co-op (I knew they stocked it) and lo and behold, there was my painting on the front cover! Above it on the magazine stand was the Scottish Field, with Alexander McCall Smith's name writ large upon it. I was thrilled to be in such excellent company, even in print! In fact I was so excited (not a very accustomed state for me, as those who know me well will confirm), I mentioned to the poor young lad at the checkout that it was my painting on the cover of the magazine, when I purchased a copy. He smiled politely.
In the run up to receiving copies of my new book of short stories, I thought you might like to read the first one free! Here it is; hope you are sitting comfortably. It is one of my "alphabet stories".
Arthur hated going on holiday. Beautiful sandy beaches and cloudless skies did nothing for him. Christine, on the other hand, spent all year looking forward to their fortnight’s break on the coast. Dutifully, Arthur looked out his khaki, knee length shorts and camel-dung coloured sandals. Every year, some mystery ailment would attack Arthur, usually on about day three of the holiday. Fretting over him as he lay under the floral eiderdown on the twin bed nearest the window, Christine would ask if he minded if she popped out for a little stroll on the promenade.
“Go on, you enjoy yourself. Have some fun, my dear, you deserve it. I’ll be fine here; I’ll just have a little snooze and then I’ll be as right as rain. Just give me a little tinkle on my mobile phone when you’re on your way back, so I know to expect you.”
Kenneth was waiting on the corner, a bunch of yellow chrysanthemums only partly hidden behind his back.
“Lovely to see you again, my dear!” he boomed so loudly she feared the whole street would hear.
“Must we carry on like this forever?” she asked, much later, as they drank tea at the little café on the prom.
“Not if you don’t want to, of course not,” Kenneth replied, holding both her hands in his.
“Only the lonely” was playing on the car radio, as Arthur pulled up outside Zena’s little house at the far end of the town. Parking in front of her tiny, neat garden, he sighed with relief at the sight of her smiling face at the open door.
“Quite the man about town, aren’t you?” she laughed, taking in his smart blazer and regimental tie, his neatly pressed trousers and shining shoes.
“Right, this old soldier is ready for some action,” replied Arthur, bounding up the front steps and into her arms.
“Steady on, you’ll end up having a heart attack, Arthur!”
“That would never do, imagine the scandal.”
Under the esplanade, Christine sat alone, staring out to sea. Valerie had given Kenneth an ultimatum; stay or go. Wise woman, Valerie, she had waited until she was dying of cancer to let him know that she had always known. Exactly at the moment when Christine was about to phone Arthur to say she was on her way back to the B&B, she saw a couple, happy and smiling, walk down the sandy shore and into the sea. Yesterday, holidays had seemed wonderful. Zena, her arm in Arthur’s thought she heard a splash at the end of the pier, as they turned back towards the town.
I'm in the process of editing a new book of short stories. After sifting through the pieces I've written over the past couple of years, I realised that I had enough to put a new collection together. It also seemed a wee bit overdue, the first one having been published in 2013. The format will be similar to the first volume - ten short and very short stories, half of which are "alphabet stories". The tales are told by a range of characters and include a walk in the park which turns sinister, a misunderstanding about money and affairs which end badly. I'm looking forward to finishing the editing and making this new volume available to you. If you would like to pre-order a copy, this will be possible very soon.
Last week I enjoyed an evening out for a festive meal with the lovely folk who make up Deeside Writers Group. Of course we set ourselves a little writing task for the evening and that was to write a short piece (no more than 50 words) using the prompt "restaurant" (kindly provided by Val of Buchanan's Bistro, where we were dining). I didn't think too hard about the task, and found that a piece came to me in the form of a song. Written to fit the tune of "Oh my darling Clementine", these are the words that appeared. It seemed apt for this time of year, with the lovely orange fruits in abundance, that this tune came into my head. It was a song that my dad used to sing, mainly if not only, on long car journeys. I meandered off for a reminder of the words - "In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mine, lived a miner, forty-niner, and his daughter, Clementine". It is of course a tragic story, which I had forgotten in the intervening years. So, I enjoyed my wander down memory lane; funny the paths some things lead us down. Here is my offering - I had the foresight to print out several copies, and the group was generous in their joining in. Happily the tune was familiar to everyone. Oh I do like a good singalong!
(to be sung to the tune of “Clementine”)
In a bistro
In the country
Near the Deeside
was a pair of
very fine chefs
and their cooking
Served they dishes
Of local produce
and some platters
And the diners
were not whiners
in that bistro
And now for something slightly different. I don't always manage to find instant inspiration for my blog, so sometimes I go for a trawl through things I have written earlier. There is plenty of it around, I can assure you. This is not strictly-speaking a poem, it's more a "real-time" stream of observations from a train. That's how it was written. It's almost a series or collection of haiku, which could stand on their own. As you can see from the date, it was written seven years ago.
(Aberdeen to Inverness, by train, 14/3/08)
three sheep, side by side
bask in spring sunshine
on a sloping field
tops of trees
cluttered with crows
and their half-made nests
already wearing ear-tags
lie beside their mothers
to burst into life
train track runs
beside the burn
we go up as it goes down
than the sky
smoothness hides its urgent flow
with a bucket by
the open door
ancient crumbled walls
of ruined house
two old trees – who lived there once?
alongside the track
frog spawn possibilities
last year’s heather
the colours of tweed
horses with their coats on
etched on the hillside
ridged with sheep tracks
along its length
in the perfect lawn
around the whisky store
fluffy white sheep
still wearing their
brown winter coats
in lichen beards
no pollution here
take off in unison
startled by the train
the gorse blooming
by the track –
does it ever not?
piglets scamper in the mud
round their little nissen huts
scars the landscape
- distracts me from the kestrel
we can see
where the mole has been
- does he have any idea?
the edges of the town
spreading into a
with smart fences
- sore thumbs
I should have known better. All the signs were there. The lashing rain and howling wind which had beaten at my bedroom window all night. The fact that I had to wait for a semi-dry five minutes in which to load my luggage into the car. A small rucksack was blown across the ground and into a puddle. And then there were the fire crews pumping water out of the burn next to the butcher's shop, which is opposite the newsagents, in an attempt to stop the burn bursting its banks. The newsagent and the butcher were standing watch over some sandbags at the door to the latter's shop. Another fire crew (all volunteers) was pumping water off a the car park between the Chinese takeaway, the community centre and the local supermarket.
The burn in the left hand picture above had been just a little trickle the day before. Now it was a swollen, raging brown torrent. I was glad that the new bridge was still intact. Luckily it has been built quite high above the stream bed. The sea was frothing and churning; the first half-mile or so of it brown with peat and silt and detritus carried into it by streams and rivers. Such a contrast to the blue seas and skies of the previous days.
I discovered that the road north was blocked by a landslide, so decided to take the road south. Glad that I had checked the road conditions before setting off, I was only a couple of miles on the road when I encountered a pickup reversing along the road ahead of me (in the same direction as I was going). I followed it; not the most sensible move, as it turned out. It reversed to a point beyond the pickup in the right hand photograph above. In the middle of the road was a black minibus. Stuck. In floodwater. Attempts were made to tow it out. It seemed that there was difficulty attaching a tow rope. I waited patiently, in what appeared to be shallow water, neatly in at the side of the road. I put on my hazard warning lights and watched with slight concern as vehicles started to pull up behind me. A police car appeared. Attempts to tow the minibus were aborted. Four men pushed it along the road past my car and out of the water. I was probably about a hundred yards from where the water on the road started.
I took a mental note of where the water level was under the pickup parked in front of me. When I first drew up behind it, the water was about half way across, under the chassis. It was rising. Not that fast, but it was rising. Inexorably. And the water I could see out of my driver's window was flowing. Flowing and quite deep. Six inches, perhaps. It did not seem sensible to try to turn. The other side of the road had effectively become part of the river, which had burst its banks. I asked the policeman, as he passed in his luminous yellow/green suit, if he intended to close the road. "As a last resort" was his reply. And he told me to stay put. He started letting lorries and four wheel drive vehicles pass along the road, in the opposite direction from the way I was facing. By now the cheery chap in the pickup in the photo had headed safely through to the other side. From where I was, I couldn't see round the corner, to where a queue of traffic was building up. The Westerbus came through, a couple of Landrovers, a big lorry which went too fast and caused a great wake to slosh alarmingly at the underbelly of my wee car. It was when that happened that I realised I needed to get out of the situation as soon as I could. I could see how easily a car could end up in water that was too deep for it, and get washed away, or at least become impossible to control.
A fire crew arrived and guided me, reversing, to a place where the water was not too deep and I could turn.
I headed back to the village and waited to hear if the road reopened. It did not; not that day or the next. I took the road north, later on. It was passable with great care, after the landslide had been cleared.
But the whole episode made me think. Quite hard. We make choices all the time, every day. And those choices affect what happens. If I had set out an hour earlier, the minibus might not have been stuck, the water level would almost certainly have been lower, and I might have got through. If I had set out half an hour later, I would have seen the tailback and not been the first car in the line. If I had not followed the pickup into the water, I wouldn't have had a rather worrying hour's wait. If I had taken a stranger's advice and turned my engine off while waiting, would my engine have re-started or would I have had to be rescued? If I had listened to friend's advice, I would not have set out at all, and would not have had this tale to tell.