Raising Sparks: an interview with Ariel Kahn about his debut novel

 Here is an interview with Dr Ariel Kahn. His book, Raising Sparks, published with Bluemoose yesterday. I read a proof copy some time and loved it. I’ve asked quite a range of questions here – not too many spoilers – and you’ll see that I’ve also asked him a little about the publisher and about indie presses. Both are close to my heart because over the past few years I’ve taken so much delight in making much of my own reading from small presses and writing for them. Also, my third novel, Saving Lucia, will be published by Bluemoose in 2020.  And my goodness they are doing well: amongst other things, author Ben Myers just won the Sir Walter Scott prize for The Gallows Pole. (Read now; the press bookshop is on the website listed at bottom!)

But back to you, Ariel. Congratulations and on with the questions.

Malka Sabbatto is a young woman who flees the confines of her traditional family in Jerusalem, followed by Moshe, a Russian immigrant and her father’s top student. After falling in with a sinister cult in Safed she escapes to Jaffa, where she starts to build a new life under the wing of an Arab chef. When she feels she has finally found contentment, a family tragedy forces her to return to Jerusalem.

RAISING SPARKS reveals the hidden worlds, shared histories and unknown stories of the modern Middle East. (From the publisher.)

raising sparks

For those who are about to read your book, tell me about its title and the beautiful illustration on the cover. It’s a tree which looks to be reflected and also part blooming, part aflame.

Hi Anna! Thanks for these very leading questions. So Raising Sparks is a concept in the Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, which really resonated with me. It comes from an alternative creation myth expounded by Isaac Luria, the 13th century “Lion of Safed” from who I’m descended. The sections of my novel correspond to the stages that Luria describes, and articulate the journey of my protagonist. He argued that when the world was created, God held back to allow it to form – contraction, withdrawal – “Tzimtzum” in Hebrew. Divine light then poured into creation, but the vessels that were meant to hold that light shattered, scattering fragments of light throughout creation. This stage is known as “Shevirat Hakelim”, or the breaking of the vessels. Rather than a pessimistic portrayal of a flawed creation, Luria’s myth suggests that humanity are co-creators with the Divine – we are responsible for the Raising of the Sparks, and for healing of the shattered world, known as “Tikkun”. How? As one of my characters puts it:

“There is a spark hidden inside everything and everyone in the world – every encounter, every experience, and every sensation. If you can be really present in the moment, you can set a spark free and return it to its source.”

The Tree on the gorgeous cover (designed by Stuart Brill) is the Tree of Life, a key symbol in Kabbalistic texts of the connection between the human and Divine. This always made sense to me, as trees are extraordinary beings, making food out of light, with their roots in the earth and their branches reaching up to heaven. The tree is sometimes portrayed upside down, with its roots in heaven, reaching down to earth – suggesting that the trees we see are mirror or reflections of the Divine reaching down to us, or through us. So on the back cover of Raising Sparks, the tree is inverted.

Malka, my protagonist, is a young female kabbalist in contemporary Israel. She experiences this tree at several points in the novel, and it is bound up with her identity. As she changes, so does her perspective on the tree. Her own abilities initially terrify her, and the flame suggests the power of the repressed rage and sense of entrapment she has felt. Working through that, she reaches a more whole place, effecting “Tikkun” in herself and others. She flowers.

Malka; Moshe. Is there any significance to those names? And what about the black cat that leads one to the other and to the room and to the tree?

Indeed there is! Malka means queen in Hebrew – her full name is Malka Sabbatto, or the Sabbath Queen. An aspect of Kabbalistic writing that really resonated with me was the notion that the reason the world is in such a state is because the Shekhina, the female aspect of the Divine is in hiding, in exile – when we raise the sparks, we help return her to her Beloved.  Another One of Luria’s followers, Solomon Alkabetz, penned a deeply erotic poem to the Sabbath Queen which is still sung on Friday nights in synagogues around the world to welcome the Sabbath. Malka channels this feminist Divine energy, and challenges and disrupts the patriarchal structures she encounters.

Moshe, Malka’s would-be lover, is the Hebrew name for the biblical Moses – though it is fact an Egyptian name, given to him by the princess who pulls him out of the Nile. Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s house, and then must flee when he kills a slave driver after identifying with the Hebrew slaves on whom their wealth was based.  So the name is bound up with saving, being saved, and the challenges of displacement and loss. My character is a Russian immigrant to Israel, who has come with his mother after the breakdown of their family, the effect of a tragic loss which Moshe believes he is implicated in. Like his namesake, water plays an important part in his story.

I can tell you’ve read the proof version of my novel, as the cat changes colour and becomes a smoky grey in the final version. Thereby hangs a tale. When my wife was pregnant with our second child, we went to a cottage in Suffolk for a few days to write. A black cat walked along the wall, and suddenly I had the image of a young girl pursuing this cat through the crowded food market in the Christian Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. My wonderful editor at Bluemoose, Lin Webb, is a cat lover, and realised that there wouldn’t be a black cat in Jerusalem. So something was gained in transplantation.

What can you tell me about how this book came to publication? I have to say a few things first. One (and I haven’t told Ariel this yet) I was already aware of the book through a piece drawn from its manuscript which appeared in ‘The Arab Israeli Book Review blog’ and two that my own third book will be published by Bluemoose in 2020 and so we will be in the same stable.

The journey of Raising Sparks to publication had some surprising twists. I wrote it as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Roehampton, where I teach, supervised by the wonderful writer Leone Ross. Then I had lots of rejections by agents. I was just ready to give up and put it away in a drawer, when Leone posted on Facebook that there was a competition for debut novelists based on Pop Idol. Called Pulp Idol, it was run by Wowfest, based in Liverpool, and had heats in cities all over the country. The heats were all on Saturdays, which as an Observant Jew, meant I couldn’t attend one. Then I saw on their website that if you were not able to make the heats, you could record a short YouTube video instead, reading a few minutes of the opening chapter and answering a series of questions. My kids were not yet up, so I sat down, recorded the video, sent it, and forgot about it. A few weeks later, Wowfest got in touch to say that I’d been put through the heats and was one of the national finalists for the final in Liverpool. A was more than delighted. All ten finalists would have our first chapters edited and collected in a hard copy which would be sent around agents and publisher, so I already felt like a winner. The local Jewish community hosted me for meals, and the the Wowfest team led by Mike Morris made me feel at home. The final was in the Black-E, a converted church now a theatre space on the edge of Chinatown. We were each meant to read from our first chapters, before a panel of judges and a live audience. I read first, and Kevin Duffy, now my publisher, was one of the judges. I came runner-up out of the ten (writers, publishers, agents do check out the other finalists in Pulp Idol 2018, available as an ebook and in hard copy – they were all amazing). He liked what he heard, and asked me to send a hard copy to Lin, his editor. She liked it too, and on my birthday last year, Kevin wrote to say they were publishing me. I danced.

I love the rich evocative detail of the book. The pizza, water, tea, the cooking of fish, the doughnuts for the street boys and the layered sensual elements of the way in which you describe the bakery. Not just the smells, but the textures, processes, the pantry…Tell me about food in the book. Why there is so much emphasis on it? I was very taken with the glass of water which Moshe offers Malka so early on because it seemed so much more than the sum of its parts. With the bowl of peas remembered by Mahmoud that carries such resonance and recalls, for him, both beauty and intense pain. I’d quite like a recipe, too. How about something mentioned in the book?

Delighted that this sensory element speaks to you. One of the few written teachings of Isaac Luria is to do with raising sparks through cooking and eating, that this too can be a spiritual experience, which led to mystic pizza in my novel! I think cooking is an everyday kind of creativity, which we can do either mindfully or mindlessly. It feels very akin to writing in the way we combine ingredients which can become something more than the sum of their parts. Food encodes personal and cultural histories, and their mingling and development. Helen Goldrein, a friend of mine is a food blogger, and interviewed me about this element of the novel. At the risk of quoting myself, here is what I said:

“Food creates community. It’s a brilliant bridge builder. You can connect to other people through food because it resonates with everyone. In the book, the characters use food to communicate and open up to one another and forge relationships. A lot of that comes from my own experiences, here in the UK and also living in Israel.”

For more on food in the novel, see the full interview at: https://family-friends-food.com/raising-sparks-ariel-kahn/

I’m so glad you connected to the glass of water, and the “Middle Eastern Peas” in Mahmoud’s coming-out story. I think our relationship to food is symbolic of how we see ourselves, and is full of personal symbolism. Both of these very simple foods have layers of meaning, both for the characters, and hopefully, in the novel. Much of the first draft was written in notebooks while sitting in a garden hammock, overlooking the hills of Jerusalem, right next to the herb garden belonging to Yotam Ottolenghi’s parents.  I love his food and approach to cultural connection in his restaurants, set up with his Palestinian Business partner, Sami Tamimi. I’m hoping the reader of Raising Sparks will experience the way words and foods combine in my novel to similarly transformative effect.

You asked for a recipe, something mentioned in the book. How about this? A brief extract from Raising Sparks about Jerusalem Kugel, then my translation of a recipe for it from Sherry Ansky’s brilliant cookbook, Food, which we often use at home (my wife Noga is Israeli and a brilliant cook – how people feel about food is an indicator for me about how they are about people too, and she’s the biggest-hearted person I know).

‘What was your favourite food as a kid?’

‘Jerusalem Kugel,’ Malka said without hesitation. ‘I loved the contrast between sweet caramelised noodles and fiery black pepper. Everyone else bought theirs, but my mother made ours, every week. What’s that got to do with it?’

‘Well, kugel is the taste of home for you, isn’t it? I bet no-one here has ever eaten it.’

From Raising Sparks p.247 Copyright Bluemoose Books

Jerusalem Kugel from Sherry Ansky’s Food, Keter, Jerusalem 2003, p. 144

Translated by Ariel Kahn

Ansky always tells a personal story about each of her recipes. Here she writes:

One of my sweet childhood memories is the kugel which I would eat on Shabbat morning at synagogue. Close to the end of prayers, an Ultra-orthodox woman would appear at the corner of the road, pushing an old baby buggy at great speed, almost running. It contained aluminium pots full of giant kugel, covered in wool blankets, which she would distribute in the synagogues of the city. I would push through the congregants and watch in amazement how her giant pots were upended over trays, and with the help of string, cut into slices. The caramelised kugel was sweet and oily, but crucially, spicy.   In one hand I would hold Kugel, in the other a pickled cucumber, chewing, sweating from the pain of the spiciness, and from the pleasure of the taste. From the silence that prevailed in those sweet moments in the synagogue there arose only the cries of pleasure from the kugel devourers.

Recipe:

Serves 8-12

Ingredients:

½ Kg of straight egg noodles, 2mm thick

One cup of corn or sunflower oil

One cup sugar

6 eggs

Three teaspoons of ground black pepper

Salt

Baking parchment

Method:

  1. Cook the noodles in boiling salted water until they are soft, but not too soft, around 3-4 minutes.
  2. Heat the oil and sugar in a deep pot. Cook over a low heat, tipping the pot gently from side to side without stirring it, until the sugar melts and caramelises (around 10 minutes). Immediately, but with great care, add the cooked noodles and stir. Don’t worry if some of the caramelised sugar hardens into granules.
  3. Crack the eggs and add them, together with the black pepper, and stir until you see that the pepper has been fully mixed in. Taste, and add a little salt if necessary.
  4. Heat the oven to 90-100 C. Heat a little oil in a medium lidded pot which can go in the oven, pour the noodle mixture into it, flatten with the aid of a spoon, and cover with baking parchment cut into a circle at the mouth of the pot (without the parchment the kugel will dry out and burn). Pour a little oil onto the parchment, then cover the pot with its lid. It I advisable to wrap the pot in a large sheet of foil. Put in the preheated oven. Cook for 7-10 hours. If you think the kugel is too dry and getting burnt, add a little water to the pot. If you cover the pot properly, it won’t happen.  Eat with pickled cucumbers.

Tell me about the significance of the sea and of water more broadly in the book? Even the title of the restaurant where Malka comes to work is of the sea – ‘The Leviathan’ (which you can also comment on if you like!)

When I was studying to be a Rabbi I was in an all-male bubble six days a week, studying from early morning to late evening. So on Fridays, which is the day off in Israel, I would head for the Tel Aviv beach whenever I could. Only an hour away by bus from Jerusalem, but a different world. The contrast was eye-watering. Then I started to notice little rituals in this supposedly secular space, and thought that maybe Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv were not so far apart. I loved the sea, and found its rhythm, colour and scent magical. Malka longs for water – she’s grown up in arid Jerusalem – while Moshe, with his traumatic history involving the sea, fears it. Water is also a bridge between them – he offers her a glass of water when they first meet, and she uses an ice cube in a key scene in the novel too. The Leviathan is my adaptation of a real restaurant in Tel Aviv called Lilith (after the mythic story of Adam’s first wife – there are two creation stories in the Bible – in the first man and woman are created equal, in the second Eve is subservient. The first woman becomes Lilith in Jewish folklore, challenges Adam, and becomes a kind of femme fatale for the rabbinic tradition – the dangerous, empowered woman  –  this fed into Malka’s identity too)  which trains street kids of all faiths and ethnicities to work in the restaurant trade, a lot like Jamie Oliver’s place in Devon. I decided to combine this with my love of Ottolenghi – only flip it so I had a Palestinian chef and an Israeli backer. The Leviathan is of course the great sea beast mentioned in the Bible, and Malka has some striking experiences in and around the sea. It is also the medium through which Moshe confronts his fears. Water is an agent of “Tikkun” or healing in the novel.

Now, do you have anything you could share on specific stimuli for events in the text or inspiration for any of the characters? If you would like, do explain for readers the significance of the book’s inscription?

Well, I’ve spoken about the black cat that inspired the opening sequence in the novel. After I had this image, I wanted to find out more about who this girl was. I was wrestling with the nature of Malka’s character and gifts. Growing up in a patriarchal family with four sisters, I was fascinated by the thought-experiment in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, in which she wonders what would have happened if Shakespeare had had a sister as talented as he was. While staying in my sister in law’s home in Nataf near Jerusalem, I had a dream in which I was Malka, in which she goes down to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site in Judaism, now a bit of a political football. In the dream, all of the prayers which people write and press into the cracks between the stones started to pulse like hearts, or sea anemones, and cry aloud the words written on them.  Malka could hear them. She could hear the music behind speech, the longing that underpins it. She would understand the language of silence. I realised Malka would be a mystic, a kabbalist, someone who could release these charged presences to powerful effect.

As well as a space to question and explore a feminist spirituality, Raising Sparks is also an act of remembrance. When I trained to be a rabbi in Israel, I discovered a love of mystical texts such as the Zohar. I up a writing group in yeshiva (theological seminary) with Matt Eisenfeld, my chavruta (study partner – texts are learned together, through discussion, to tease out their multiplicity of voices). Matt and his Fiancé Sara Duker were tragically killed in a bus bombing during the first intifada. This tragedy had a traumatic effect on me, and made me realise I didn’t want to be a rabbi. I came back to the UK and looked for answers in literature instead, gradually growing towards a different kind of engagement with my faith, one which stressed the more universal, mystical elements, while seeing ritual as a kind of embodied poetry, waiting to be filled with personal meaning, a way of expanding my experience of the other. If each person or situation I encountered contained a spark of light, how might I liberate that? The ultimate other is the Divine, which means so many different things to each of us through our lives. I wanted to write a novel that explored the nature and meaning of faith in the modern world, from a range of perspectives, something I had often discussed with Matt. I was determined that the love and vision Matt and Sara shared would not perish with them. Their relationship is the seed of the love story in my novel. It was also behind the formation of the Arab Israeli Book Club, which I set up in London, on the basis thatthat fiction is an empathy machine, enabling us to experience all kinds of “Other” without fear or prejudice, and wanting readers to have the opportunity to go deeper than the headlines. The Guardian called it “a roaring success”. Brief plug: This book club is relaunching as The Middle Eastern Book Review at Daunt Books Hampstead on September 28th, when I will be interviewed about Raising Sparks by Ian Black, the Guardian Middle East Editor. All are welcome!

The epigraph, taken from Job, is all about the way these sparks sometimes seem like trouble and distress, but are often the inciting incident to a different, deeper life. Job is also a great questioner of God, like Abraham and Moses –which is why God calls him his true servant. Faith is never about certainty. It is about asking the right questions, challenging authority.

While the book does not shy away from pain, unpleasant events, intolerance, brutality and violence, please will you talk a little about the ways in which it is a resolutely hopeful book? I do believe it is. I’ve told you that at a difficult time in my life, I have personally found it consoling and inspiring.

That’s moving to hear. Books have always been a consolation and a tool for engaging more deeply with myself and others, for feeling the things which connect rather than divide us. Faith is all about doubt for me, not in a debilitating way, but in a way that constantly enlarges our frame of reference and understanding, something which good fiction and art in general do too. Malka is a deeply optimistic person, despite everything she goes through. She believes in a shared humanity, in the ways in which all of us are connected. She tries to use her gifts as a tool for positive change, standing up to the forces of oppression and domination which seek to limit and define her. She questions received truths, and suggests that it is precisely by listening to the silenced other within and around us that we become most fully ourselves. She is a wise person but at the same time extremely naïve due to her sheltered upbringing – the modern world crashes in on her full force, so she uses religious myth to critique and engage with it, and create a new, personal kind of fusion/integration between them in the process.

Hard one. Define magical realism. You’ve used it about your book so go on then…

I’ve always loved the kinds of book crammed in under this label, from Rushdie and Marquez to Borges and Bashevis Singer. For me, it means books that enclose multiple ways of seeing, from the mythic to the modern, side by side, and often show how congruent they are. We live by myths – the challenge is to make them the best ones we can, open, fluid and welcoming.

Do you – and I appreciate this might be hard because you made it – have a favourite part of the book?

That is a tough one. I like the hard-earned moment of rest Malka has on the beach in Jaffa-Tel Aviv. That quiet moment was one in which she reached a new self-understanding and accommodation. It feels like a turning point in the story, and the challenge for me, as for Malka, is to make these quieter moments speak as powerfully as the more dramatic ones. I hope I’ve succeeded.

Beyond the book: where next for Dr Ariel Kahn?

Well, I love teaching, cooking, and writing, so hoping to do more of all of those. I’ve got the seed of a new novel with a historical strand calling to me – looking forward to having the headspace to heed that call.

Independent presses have had a stunning few days, haven’t they? Three prizes for three brilliant authors. Might you comment on this in any way? 

With significant recognition like the Walter Scott Prize for Ben Myers outstanding The Gallows Pole, Bluemoose and the Indie scene are having a renaissance. They publish edgy and interesting things mainstream presses are wary of. They work together, in constructive groups like the Northern Alliance of publishers. Bluemoose have a close, nurturing relationship with their authors – Kevin talks about the Bluemoose family, (note from Anna: as you know, Ariel, my own third book, Saving Lucia, is going to be with Bluemoose and Kevin sent me a note when I signed my contract: it said, ‘Welcome to the Bluemoose family’: loved that) and it is more than a phrase, it is something I’ve experienced, with the way other authors within the imprint support one another. As a debut author, the care and attention to detail Bluemoose have lavished on my book, and my inclusion in every aspect of the process including choosing the cover have made this an empowering and pleasurable experience.

And finally…tell me about your reading. Any recently published books you’d particularly like to recommend, say? Or could you name a few favourite authors or books?

I love David Grossman. He’s been a huge inspiration, as a novelist and a deeply ethical person engaging with his own trauma, the loss of his son, while remaining present and powerful in his use of writing as an empathy machine. Given my love of trees and their significance, I’m thoroughly enjoying The Overstory by Richard Powers (Heinemann), which looks at humanity from the perspective of nature on a compelling and moving way. I love comics and graphic novels – the way they blend the visual and the verbal fees deeply true to my experience of the world, and stimulates my own prose, which often starts with a visual image. Recently, I’ve enjoyed two amazing graphic novels. Tumult by John Dunning and Michael Kennedy (Selfmade Hero) is a deeply unsettling noir about a woman with multiple personalities, beautifully rendered, subtle and teasing. My Favourite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics) is a tour de force – ostensibly a journal by a young girl who sees herself as a monster and investigate the strange death of an upstairs neighbour, it expands into a mediation on the saving power of art, human resilience in the face of tragedy, and the long shadow of World War Two. Finally, as I mentioned my wife writes YA. She introduced me to the amazing writer Philip Reeve, who writes Steampunk SF and is an incredible world-builder.  He writes strong feisty heroines which you root for, and a fascinating engagement with the meaning of technology and culture for our individual and collective identity. I’ve just finished his Railhead trilogy, a future where people travel between galaxies on sentient trains. It is also a moving love story and a meditation on difference and choice. The first novel in his Mortal Engines series is being released a film shortly and that should bring him tons of well-deserved new fans.

MOOSEKETEERS! Thank you Ariel, and I hope you take a good deal of pleasure in interacting with readers of your book over the coming weeks and months and good luck with Raising Sparks events.

Here are some first reviews. .

https://www.thejc.com/culture/books/book-review-raising-sparks-1.466439

http://www.skylightrain.com/book-review-raising-sparks-ariel-kahn/

And an event you might like to go to in August (launch was in Waterstones Islington)

https://www.waterstones.com/events/raising-sparks-book-launch-with-ariel-kahn/liverpool

This is the Daunt Books event Ariel mentioned above: https://www.dauntbooks.co.uk/product/ariel-kahn/

And you might like to read this, too. Ariel’s book is part of this survey.

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/sneak-preview-independent-publishers-top-reads-for-2018-1.3357461

https://bluemoosebooks.com/

Follow Ariel Kahn on twitter http.//www.twitter.com/ArielKahn2 and the press http://www.twitter.com/ofmooseandmen

 

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Six months of 2017 in books

Last year, I published a list of what I had read during the year. I thought that, this year, I’d get it down in two instalments. As before, I should love to know what others are reading. So do comment or talk to me! I don’t have time to review all these, but when I am done with the current fit of writing, I will try to post a few reviews, with a focus, I hope, on the independent presses. Also, I will update this list as I’ll likely forget something!

I read as much as I can and I read quickly. In snatched hours, in the bath, on the train, little bits of time carved out. But mainly, I go to bed earlier than I would naturally do purely so that I can read. I want to be frank about this. It’s how, as a child and growing up, I coped with anxiety and trauma. I went to bed and built a world. I do believe that with books, you can rebuild your mind and, to this day, it’s what I do.

Why?

Because every day is a conscious attempt to stay well and to manage, as best I can, my mental health: it has broken several times. Okay, many times. But I am back. Then there’s the pleasure of it all and the way my imagination is hotly stimulated. The way that reading, for me, leads on to discussion and friendship. As, I’ve discovered, does writing. Why did I ever think otherwise? And by the way, if you are feeling low or really, properly battling, I am not an expert, but I can tell you which books have soothed me, including the very few non-fiction texts I have read about mental health – though I have to preface that with, proceed with caution because, as I said, I’m no expert, but I CAN share. x

In no particular order, my reading over the past six months…

Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Finally got round to it. Also, the second book of his Bleak House (a re-read). I also re-read A Christmas Carol because I was teaching it for GCSE. To support my older children I read Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner and  Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree. Now, this I found this an excellent read and was delighted to find a friend had been reading it, too. Cue – memorable and moving discussion en route to the hustings in Swindon, two days before the general election. WHICH REMINDS ME: the same person has left Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (still haven’t read) and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. Summer reads, then. 

At top speed, for GCSE teaching I re-read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Woman in Black. Which led on to my re-reading of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw in one bit, sitting on the floor, because it was next to The Woman in Black on my sitting room bookshelf. I discovered, through the new OCR English Language and Literature spec, the first poetry collection from Jacob Sam La Rose Breaking Silence (Bloodaxe), which led to some wonderful things. Some of his poems prompted me to revisit one of my favourite modern poets, Tony Harrison. There will have been assorted other reading in here too – going over GCSE (and IGCSE) literature and poetry anthologies and the like; reading for A levels in English Literature and English Language and Literature and the EPQ…but it was Jacob Sam La Rose who was my new discovery.

Edith Sitwell: Fanfare for Elizabeth

Ben Myers: The Gallows Pole and Beastings. Shout out for the independent presses – here, Bluemoose. These are wonderful books. Enormously atmospheric. He’s brilliant, I think, on landscape.

On the subject of indies, from And Other Stories (we have a couple of subscriptions at Bookworm Towers), I am currently reading The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar), which is stunning, and Joanna Walsh’s Worlds from the Word’s End, a series of sharp and funny stories which make me very jealous too: never have I managed to craft one as she does! I’ve just ordered Hold Tight by Jeffrey Boakye – that’s an Influx Press title. Oh, there are so many indpendent presses – but my favourites – that is, of the ones I’ve explored – The Linen Press, Patrician Press, Galley Beggar, And Other Stories, Influx, Comma Press and Bluemoose. I read from all over, but get some of my greatest pleasure from texts published by risk-taking independent presses. That’s not to say risks aren’t taken by bigger concerns. Why not read both?

Dipped into a favourite book on writing (and close reading), Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. This precipitated both editing and reading (I hope she knows how useful she is!) – in this case, going back to Chekhov’s short stories.

I am about to read Jess Butterworth’s Running on the Roof of the World, Jo Barnard’s Hush Little Baby and Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of my Youth. I love Chauduri’s books. Such restraint, so moving and unmistakeably his. I thought his last book, Odysseus Abroad gently broke a few rules (the rules you read about…) including ‘show don’t tell’ (bit bored with this): oh, he tells beautifully, and I felt the book was wonderfully episodic and that some of these epiosdes would have stood as short stories. More on which when I’ve got round to reading the latest one. Jo Barnard is a lovely lady. Very encouraging to others (including me) and a lean, spare writer at the literary end (what do I know? So kill me now if I have this market appraisal wrong!) of commercial fiction and cool in a hot and crowded market. That is a considerable achievement, in my view. I’d recommend her debut, Precocious. Unsettling and very well judged in tone. Jess is an old friend and I am very excited for her and cannot wait to see what she does in this, her debut, a MG set in India and Tibet, subjects close to her heart, as they are to mine.

For book groups I re-read A Tale of Two Cities, read PD James’s Innocent Blood – do you know, I had never read a P.D. James book – and Gilly McMillian’s What She Knew (which, by the way, is the same book as Burnt Paper Sky – hence the odd furious review by folks who bought the same book twice). Regarding the latter, generally speaking, I seem to fail with psychological thrillers. I read the Amazon reviews and those on Goodreads and generally feel like I haven’t read the same book, in that the ‘twists’ seem obvious to me – you know like in Of Mice and Men, when the foreshadowing smacks you round the face so hard – girl with the red dress/mouse/puppy/Candy’s old mutt/Curley’s wife…Lennie gets shot? Never saw that coming! It’s that kind of experience – and I don’t find them nail biting at all. I’ve been told that this sounds sneering, but it’s only my opinion and a statement of what works for me. Apologies if I’ve denigrated Of Mice and Men (quite like Cannery Row and The Grapes of Wrath, though…) but to me Steinbeck is a pygmy compared with giants like…Faulkner and Wolfe. Oh yes: I have an idea. Why not read – although you won’t sleep afterwards – Ali Land’s striking debut novel, Good Me Bad Me before or after Innocent Blood? Some of the same themes rise up. Criminality. The choices that children and young people make in extremis. (Ali was previously a children’s psychiatric nurse and that gave the book a certain heft for me.) What it might mean…not to feel, or to feel unusual things. I don’t want to give more away. Yes. Do that for a book group.

But back to Southern US literature and…

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, which I will re-read in a little while (I want to write something about her), well, that is brilliant. Is all this meandering discussion awful, do you think?

Which brings to me to…

Of Time and the River and (currently reading) The Web and the Rock. Thomas Wolfe. In my view, a genius and we lost him so young.

Patrician Press launched its Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers and we had a lovely event at the Essex Book Festival; I read everything in it and that led me on to (two indies here) Refugee Tales from Comma Press.

Now, for my own current book, Saving Lucia (or even Passerines – depending on who nabs it…), I’ve been re-reading Joyce, so I’ve had Finnegans Wake and Ulysses to hand. Also lesser known Joyce works – Pomes Penyeach. I’ve been reading up on Joyce, Beckett, Mussolini, the history of psychiatric care (I listed some of this stuff in last year’s post and also it’s in my bibliography at the end of Saving Lucia – one for the future, if you be interested); I read Annabel Abbs’s The Joyce Girl and continued to dip into Frances Stonnor Saunders’s exemplary account of Violet Gibson: The Woman Who Shot Mussolini and Carol Loeb Shloss’s Lucia Joyce. To Dance in the Wake. I’ve been reading articles in The Lancet, articles on Queen of the Hysterics, Blanche Wittmann and accounts of Bertha Pappenheim (there’s a need for a bigger study and, I would say, what exists needs to be translated from the German because she is fascinating!); I also looked (in German) at Bertha’s book of prayers – Gebete and found an English translation of her short stories, The Junk Shop and Other Stories and finally read Florence Nightingale’s posthumously published Cassandra – which Virginia Woolf said was more like screaming than writing. I concur. Also, religious texts, archive work (letters and documents) and miscellaneous articles.

And I think we are there!

Two other things on reading and writing. How good it was to see the Authors for Grenfell auction raise so much and I was pleased to be a tiny part of it. I’ve a tea party coming up – and also a tour of Pembrokeshire, visiting all the settings in my second book, The Life of Almost, which comes out in autumn, 2018 with Patrician Press. Also, in September, for the first time, I have a work experience student and I am so excited. I am still a newbie fiction writer (I put pen to paper in mid July 2014, although I’d been a freelance author before and writing is not my day job) and this kind of thing makes it feel…real. We are going to get a writing project off the ground; she’s going to submit work for publication. She may also help me with editing of and suggestions on two anthologies of which I am co-editor and editor, respectively. Said student (she’s in the upper sixth) is reading the manuscript of my third book – which led to her mum reading it too…which led into a date to discuss it. and, I hope, a super-clever new beta reader. Yay.

I’m sorted on my reading for the next few weeks, the manuscript of Saving Lucia goes out again on the 20th of July  – and in the meantime I wait to hear if others are biting…it is a long process and probably a good education for me, seeing as I rush at everything like it’s my last day. (In my defence, it could be: I’ve had a lot of people die on me, some of them very suddenly: another story – some of which is in my first book Killing Hapless Ally, if you are not freaked out by very dark humour. If you are, don’t read the bits of The Life of Almost concerning a love story in a funeral parlour…)

Other booky things: my two Grenfell offers to fulfil in summer and autumn and archive work in St Andrew’s psychiatric hospital, Northampton.

And reading Horrible Histories in bed when stressed or sad. Oh forgot: I had norovirus so badly I was hospitalised. During that period I read Gren Jenner’s (he’s part of the Horrible Histories telly team) A Million Years in a Day. A jolly diverting read.

AND FINALLY

Quibbles and possible spelling errors spotted in some of the books, above (English teacher forevaaa):

prophesise (prophesy) as verb

disinterested (to mean uninterested) – feel free to argue

past (for passed)

Thursday’s…Friday’s…for simple plurals, not possession

it’s when you mean its (ugh!)

passer bys

me/I/myself I won’t blather on about that because I sound like a twat. BUT in a top selling book for which I’ve shelled out, say, £12, it niggles to see a chapter starting (names changed) “Me and Andrew left France…”

I have been spelling fuchsia wrong my whole life. And cardamom. So I’m a fine one to talk. In my Killing Hapless Ally, Myfanwy twice appeared without the first y. My fault. And I swear as if my life depended on it.

Love,

Anna xxxxx

SHORT STORIES FOR YOU. CURIOUS LITTLE THINGS

I write some strange things. Here are a few short stories; the first adapted from the draft of my second book, The Life of Almost

Note to text: the poems at beginning and end are original and by this author; other texts quoted are not copyright restricted. There are layout anomalies throughout where I have cut and pasted from file; go gentle on me as I couldn’t manage to correct them on wordpress!

DRESSING THE DEAD DEARS

‘Girl, get the grave bag from by the back door!’

‘I’m doing it now, in a minute!’

‘But have you got there the water in the milk bottle,

the scrubber and the cloth and the scissors,

they’re rusty but will do to trim?’

‘Yes, yes, I see them now.’

‘But have you got them, have you? We mustn’t forget

and mustn’t leave the bag at home and mustn’t take it

to the graves half-full: is it done now, is it all and are you sure?

The westerlies and the tongues of salt are cruel to our dead and all their stones.’

‘Yes, I am sure.’

The bag was bundled and the car was roared and the dead were glad

of a well-kept stone and the brambles trimmed and no-one cursed,

like they did, all did, in life, and the door was keyed and the grave bag full

and sat just as it should, and the life was endless not altered,

even in this loud new world.

Evans the Bodies loved his Dead Dears. He had established a thriving business in the low white farm buildings out the back of a farm on the coast road. In the past, this had been owned by a rather careless and drunken farmer with an insecure barn so that, from time, those who arrived for Evans’s attentionsilently, so silentlymight have met with a stray heifer crossing the yard or traversed cow pats, so hardly the most respectful of endings, or beginnings, as Evans saw it, since he was fonder of the dead than the living and saw things backwards through his better eye. Nowadays, though, the yard was gravelled, the whitewash immaculate, the cows tidily restrained and a new farmer in residence. This man was laughed at by the locals as a hobby farmer. A man with an antique shop in Tenby who got people in to do the hard work and exhibited his cheese to great applause, although he had not really made it himself and even his dairy herd looked askance, it was said on the coast road, because your dairy cow knew an amateur when it saw one and mocked in its cow-grunt while you flaunted your wares in front of the Aga.

So there, in his low white buildings, worked Evans. And I went to work with him when I was almost grown; I was a poor schoolboy, or I suppose that was what I inhabited in that time, so they jostled me out on an apprenticeship as soon as they could. Technically, I should have been eighteen to be allowed to handle the dead, but we hid from the rules, I looked big and talked confidently (of course!) and bluffed expertly and then Evansat least to begin with—kept me away from the worst, most gruesome cases. He needn’t have done, for I saw no fear in temporal things and the sad features of a face rearranged; I saw them as the anagram of thereafter and the very interest of now. But as I was saying, I worked with him, learned from the master and saw how he attended carefully to his craft. He had it all planned meticulously and liked to recite the rules of his job to himself and declaim thus to the world, should it be listening. Now, I tell you, the best of the words were not really for me, but for the woman he had loved his whole life and whose own life and voice had been taken by the abruptly dead of her own.

Thus with him worked Muffled Mfanwy.

She went muffled after Philip Llewhellin, her husband, hanged himself in the shed and then her son, Lewis the Younger, remember? With gun over shuffle-board, not tidy-like. You must have heard! Always, Evans was in love with this soundless sad lady and together they worked with the corpses, a delicate ballet, with tubes and brushes and buckets and pipes and the love of the dead that is known best to those sad with the living, or those born, or otherwise, with their feet half in the next world. He had dressed and buried her husband and son and allowed himself only to breathe, ‘You should not have’. And he had placed, under the hands of her brother in law, the schoolmaster, found in a mound of violets though not dead of his own hand, a tiny bunch of the blooms with a sprig of rosemary: love, faithfulness and remembrance. And I watched, apprentice, Evans and Mfanwy in the twilight shadows. Always I was there.

Learning, ah learning. And seeing. And I felt, I think, new things and they had poetry.

Because he was a lonely dragon, he, even with his Dead Dears and she was sad and her voice was stilled and I wanted to give her flight and for her to sing and cast off her own dead. And then there was the very intimacy of it: he had washed and nursed her lost son and sent him lovingly to his resting place; he had done the same for her lost husband and even though the woman he loved was married to that man and that man had made her suffer and his son had made her suffer, he nursed them and prepared them in death and felt their deep sadness, though he did allow himself to whisper, ‘You should not have’ again to both men. And when Llewhellin the schoolmaster was found in his mound of violets, he took care to place his poetry book under the hands and, within it, though no-one knew, yes he had also pressed some violets from the mound because of how much their musky sweetness had been adored. Evans was a man who noticed such things.

Now, because Evans the Bodies so loved his muffled company, he would narrate what he was doing, like, perhaps, a child before it learns that it does not have to describe itself in the third or fourth person. Thus,

‘Now Mfanwy, as you know the first step in the embalming process of our Dead Dears is a surgical one, in which bodily fluids are removed with our special pipes and tubes and are then replaced with formaldehyde-based chemical solutions. The second step, mind Mfanwy and as you know, Mfanwy, is cosmetic, in which the body is prepared for viewing by styling the Dead Dears’ hair, applying some make-up, and setting the facial features so they don’t frighten their loved ones, all ghastly like. Whatever end they had, Mfanwy, we must make them look well and tidy. Mrs Morgan of the tractor accident will take a bit of work, mind, so you’ll have to be cunning with the make up and the brush, a bit of padding and a dress that they bought in the posh shop in Newcastle Emlyn.’

Between them, Evans and Mfanwy, they lifted the dead man onto the table and Evans began gently sloshing from his vat of disinfectant and washed the body of Jones from Begelly. Such hadn’t been a good man; he was a mean old man, but he was unwanted solitary and hurt by the world and Evans knew this and when he washed it was like a baptism. As he went, he signed the cross when he remembered and felt he should, but sometimes he went round and round like doodling spiralsor sometimes shooting stars; sometimes a maze.

‘There we are now, Myfanwy. Rub Mr Jones’s feet. Ah now, look at the skill you do that with. I will massage and manipulatehe’s a stiff one, this Dead Dear and his muscles are hard with the rigor, so we’ll have to loosen him or he’ll look like a board and won’t be well for the funeral and he’ll startle the congregation. I had one once that sat up and there was a time, man! Now, the neighbours say we should shave him but I think he suits a bit of beard, don’t you think, Myfanwy? A new look for the old boy. There we are, isn’t it? He’s more relaxed already. I do think it’s the way you do their feet, Myfanwy. It is your rare gift, Myfanwy.’

It was a strange courtship. Over the corpses and the bottles of formaldehyde and the tubes and pipes and the no-smell and the lowing of the dairy herd somewhere not so far away. And Evans loved the dead and he loved poor sad Muffled Myfanwy and he thought she might feel the same way, but it had not been so long since the hanging in the shed and the shuffle-board shooting in the back of the pub.

‘And next we set the facial features. He does look like a grumpy bastard Myfanwy but we must think well of the Dead Dears. Now, we have closed the eyes; what a marvel that skin glue is and he was a stubborn one, Jones of Begelly, so we used the flesh-coloured eye caps, all oval, see? They sit on the eye and secure the eyelid in place and then a body can’t argue with us. See how tidy that is? I closed his mouth and now you begin sewing his jaw shut. He’ll be quieter, then. That’s it. Come closer. Be firm with Jones. Take the suture string through the lower jaw below the gums, don’t be timid as you go up and through the gums of the top front teeth. There you are Myfanwy, press hard with the needle; you can’t hurt Jones now, although maybe some would say he deserved it, so poke it in hard and keep going. That’s it. Lovely work. You learn so well, Myfanwy. A model student. Now there you are see, up into the right or left nostril and….no not down—across, like this.’

As Evans the Bodies took the needle to show her, they brushed arms and both felt a shiver and the warm smell of hope and happiness beyond the disinfectant, and then it was gone. Myfanwy looked away. He passed the needle into her hand.

Rapture. Oh, I saw it.

‘That’s it, across through the septum and into the other nostril and then back down into the mouth. Don’t by shy. Push the needle like you mean it Myfanwy. There is such strength in your hands.’

Had he gone too far? He thought (I saw his heart) that perhaps the compliment was too heavy for circumstance. Did the dead man mind? It was at this point that Evans the Bodies realised that he had, on this instance, failed to perform the death-checks. Jones seemed to have been stiff and then to have loosened up nicely at Myfanwy’s loving touch, but maybe that was because he was stiff with hatred in life and was never touched so gently. No, he must be good. He’d submitted to the needle, so no need to palpate in the carotid artery. Evans knew that, in these modern times, people awakening on the preparation table was thought to be the province of the horror film, but he also knew that once Grim Peter from the old lighthouse had sat up to prevent his relieved relatives from celebrating that he was dead, how strong was his desire to catch them at it, hurl curses and deprive them of the fortune they knew he kept under the gargantuan pots of whitewash. There had barely been time for them to take the bunting down at the wake. But no, it was well. He didn’t need to palpate or double check for cloudy corneas. And besides, Jones was always cloudy, always livid, barely alive in some ways. Thus calmed, Evans looked at Myfanwy and considered her unspeaking beauty:

‘Then the two ends of suture string must be tied together. Do you have them there, girl? Tie it neatly now and once you are sure you are secure with the jaw and he won’t be dribbling, mould the mouth as you want it, now.’

Myfanwy nodded and tried to squeeze Jones’s mouth into an enigmatic smile and Evans the Bodies shifted the giant silver tank for the embalming and began, visualising the draining arteries as he went, sliucing blood from the body through the veins and replacing it with his embalming solution via the arteries.

‘That is a thing of strange beauty. Formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, ethanol, phenol, and water, and I like it to contain a few dyes because we don’t want our Dead Dears looking like alabaster. We want them to look like they’ve been on holiday, Myfanwy, even if I do sometimes have to pad them out a bit, like Dewi after he was hit with the spade that time or I’ll later be showing you how to do with Mrs Morgan of the tractor accident.’

Myfanwy nodded. Drip, drip, drip, gurgle. Magenta, to clear and clean.

‘Now begin your magic, Myfanwy.’

Myfanwy was now holding a bag in front of her. Very now, she applied moisturising lotion to the face, lips, and hands, then powdered Jones on his face, neck, and hands in order to make him look less dead than dead and cover up his scorn-blown blemishes, discolourations and the seer marks of illness that he had hidden, even from himself. She gently applied powder to his body: ‘For secreted oils, Myfanwy, but we won’t go so far as to polish up his nails like we did for the Widow Williams, what with her liking the glitz and the men. And just brush his hair. Oh look Myfanwy. He makes a much better dead man that a live.’

Myfanwy gesticulated. What did she mean. Ahhe saw. Jones was wearing a toupée.

‘Just stick it back on, my apprentice. I have some blu-tack for such events. There we are. Press it down on his head. And now, Myfanwy, is there is anything else of which we should take note, is it? Sometimes I don’t know who is the student here and who is the apprentice. I mean to say’—again, had he gone too far?—’that you have a gift for the Dead Dears; it is lovely to see. But, as I was saying, has he come with a list? Does he want a cross or a special book? Is there any jewellery for the deceased?’

Again, Myfanwy gesticulated. A bag in the corner of the room, by the silver vats of blood and lymph and life force and the plastic containers of phenol and formaldehyde. ‘Ah you thought of that, too. His belt with a tarnished silver buckle and the legend of his grandfather, Timothy the Nasty of Little Havenoh the stories there are to telland photos of his cattle and his birdshe went to all the shows—and a picture of his chainsaws and a book. The Bible, of course? People like their Dead Dears to have The Bible even if they’ve been whores or accountants, Myfanwy.’ Evans the Bodies looked again. ‘That I wasn’t expecting: The Compleat Angler by Izaac Walton. It says “1653”. How little we know. Did he want to be a gentleman fisherman? I didn’t even know if he could read. Look you. “THE COMPLETE ANGLER OR, THE CONTEMPLATIVE MAN’S RECREATION.” ‘

Now, Evans the Bodies knew that the Dead Dears released surprises. In life, we could not always tell if a man read; if he recited poetry every night or chapters from The Mabinogion to his nasty cat. An examined, deep and cultured life was not always revealed to the outside world, perhaps if the owner of those things felt they were more brilliant kept separate and apart; or he was ashamed because his family laughed at literature and effete, delicate things—thought them unmanly or unworthy; something for a stumbling, decadent Englishman, when here, now, should only be the simple words of command and desire; of shopping and betting: of curse and television. But Evans had seen more: old texts about the Dead Dears’ hobbies: once, from a budgie fancier and potboy, Jim the Fish, he found a burgundy leather copy of The Natural History of Cage Birds. THEIR MANAGEMENT, HABITS, FOODS, DISEASES, TREATMENT, BREEDING, AND
THE METHODS OF CATCHING THEM
by J.M. Bechstein, M.D. Of Walterhausen in Saxony. 1812 was given as the first printing and, below an exquisite plate of a golden oriole, he was lost in time as he learned about ornamental cages and diseases called The Pip, The Rheum, costiveness and The Bloody Flux; for the consumptive cage bird, the suggested remedy was the juice of a turnip. Evans had wanted to read to the end of the book and understand its beauty and barbarism, but the Dead Dears should not wait and no-one wanted to see Jim the Fish, because he had been bought from and dealt withhad the best crabs this side of the Neyland Bridgebut he had been unloved, so burial would not be halted and he would be laid to rest, this secret bird scholar, the intimacy of which was only known to Evans. And to me, apprentice, of course, who saw everything and thought I might visit the man who wrote the book to see how he cradled the oriole before he wrest it from his world. I said I was an apprentice, but this is not my first apprenticeship, time or place. Why, no. Do you guess?

Now, Evans the Bodies flicked gently through the new old book and stopped, arrested at a single page containing a poem; he thought it must be a poem because it was smaller and narrower than the continuous writing. Things that were truncated were not description or stories, were they? He read it aloud, stumbling, to Myfanwy, all the while held in time, like Jones on the slab under the turning pages, for reasons he did not yet comprehend:

‘But I will lay aside my discourse of rivers, and tell you some things of the monsters, or fish, call them what you will, that they breed and feed in them. Pliny the philosopher says, in the third chapter of his ninth book, that in the Indian Sea, the fish called Balaena or Whirlpool, is so long and broad, as to take up more in length and breadth than two acres of ground; and, of other fish, of two hundred cubits long; and that in the river Ganges, there be Eels of thirty feet long. He says there, that these monsters appear in that sea, only when the tempestuous winds oppose the torrents of water falling from the rocks into it, and so turning what lay at the bottom to be seen on the water’s top. And he says, that the people of Cadara, an island near this place, make the timber for their houses of those fish bones. He there tells us, that there are sometimes a thousand of these great Eels found wrapt or interwoven together He tells us there, that it appears that dolphins love musick, and will come when called for, by some men or boys that know, and use to feed them; and that they can swim as swift as an arrow can be shot out of a bow; and much of this is spoken concerning the dolphin, and other fish, as may be found also in the learned Dr. Casaubon’s Discourse of Credulity and Incredulity, printed by him about the year 1670.

I know, we Islanders are averse to the belief of these wonders; but there be so many strange creatures to be now seen, many collected by John Tradescant, and others added by my friend Elias Ashmole, Esq., who now keeps them carefully and methodically at his house near to Lambeth, near London, as may get some belief of some of the other wonders I mentioned. I will tell you some of the wonders that you may now see, and not till then believe, unless you think fit.

You may there see the Hog-fish, the Dog-fish, the Dolphin, the Cony-fish, the Parrot-fish, the Shark, the Poison-fish, Sword-fish, and not only other incredible fish, but you may there see the Salamander, several sorts of Barnacles, of Solan-Geese, the Bird of Paradise, such sorts of Snakes, and such Birds’-nests, and of so various forms, and so wonderfully made, as may beget wonder and amusement in any beholder; and so many hundred of other rarities in that collection, as will make the other wonders I spake of, the less incredible; for, you may note, that the waters are Nature’s store-house, in which she locks up her wonders.

But, Sir, lest this discourse may seem tedious, I shall give it a sweet conclusion out of that holy poet, Mr. George Herbert his divine “Contemplation on God’s Providence”.

‘Lord! who hath praise enough, nay, who hath any?
None can express thy works, but he that knows them;
And none can know thy works, they are so many,
And so complete, but only he that owes them.

We all acknowledge both thy power and love
To be exact, transcendant, and divine;
Who cost so strangely and so sweetly move,
Whilst all things have their end, yet none but thine.

Wherefore, most sacred Spirit! I here present,
For me, and all my fellows, praise to thee;
And just it is, that I should pay the rent,
Because the benefit accrues to me.”’

‘Oh Myfanwy, who would have thought it? Oh Myfanwy, what else is there to learn? Jones. Nasty, cruel-tempered Jones as an artful angler with his old book, a secret gentleman and this poet. And did he know the Lordexact, transcendent and divine? The discourse of rivers! How beautiful that is! The dolphins so loving musick and swimming fast as an arrow! Tempests, islands and wonders! And what is there to teach you? What book should I or could I write for you, Myfanwy. What of Jones’s life-end, now in the coffin, the casket as some call it, which contains the body if it’s going to be buried or entombed or as a means of burying cremated bits and it’s a respectful and attractive way to transport the body before the burial or cremation but don’t you know that, my beautiful silent woman, because you know everything? Do I tell you now that we learn how coffin materials are a matter of style for how can there be a material that can preserve a body forever and no material that will give you a better journey to the life hereafter? Oh Myfanwy, my love, coffins are also available in alternative materials, such as bamboo, willow, woven banana leaf, and pressed cardboard, among other materials and things they call alternative materials and green things. Green, my love, my only! But there is not much call for them in these parts. Oh but we can provide a half or full, which refers to whether the lid comes in two pieces or one piece and that in the case of a viewing, like with Jones, because his family want to know he’s truly gone. So that they can drink and celebrate and go out on the boats and cheer, there will be a visitation and there must be full because all of him will be on display for his beloveds to gloat on the Dead Dear.’

Evans the Bodies and Muffled Myfanwy hefted Jones from the embalming table to the coffin, now waiting on the trolley next to it.

‘Shift him with me, Myfanwy. I know you are strong. Do not be shy that you have the strength of ten men and ten of your husband and son who left you so alone! And him in his shed like that, above all those fine garden tools. And him in the back room of the pub on the shuffle-board like this and being found by Llinois as he was and she only just a woman and what did she know of heartbreak or gunshot? I’m sorry Myfanwy’she was crying now‘but I can keep it in no longer. I want to sing of what I feel and the Dead Dears I know. And I will teach you, like the only poem I know, about the pretty liners Myfanwy, the fabric lining the inside of the coffin which is all in my cataloguelook see; I have it herewhich is sold to us puncture-resistant and leak-proof, and is made from satin, or velvet and ohhow I favour the natural materials and start from the prick and static of the polyester and the electricity, Myfanwy, ohelectricity indeed.’

Evans the Bodies moved a step closer to Myfanwy.

‘And there are commemorative panels, which are embroidered on the interiors of the coffin lid because some like it, and a special thing called internal lift hardware, which tilts the inside of the coffin up so that in a full or open, the body may be viewed at an angle. I am the only man in this part of Pembrokeshire to have such a thing. Myfanwy, oh Myfanwy, there is a thing in my catalogue called a memory tube, not because the dead remember, and not as if the atoms of the dirt and clay need to remember, but if we, silly living world, forget and if something should happen to the Dead Dears—should the coffin be dislodged from its space in a mausoleum or crypt, or unearthed from the ground, in apocalypse or great strife or a new housing development for people from away like that one on the Milford Road, then the identity of the Dead Dears can be easily known and we do not have to exhume them. Exhume. Ex-hume. Ex-haleExquisiteoh you smell of the sweetest summer meadow my beautiful Myfanwy!’

And Evans the bodies fell at her feet and worshipped at her knees and Jones lay silent and sewn up in his best suit. And then I, apprentice and yet not so came forward from the twilight shadows at the edge of the room and I said,

‘Speak again, Myfanwy. Philip and Lewis the Younger Llewhellin want you to be free now. Speak Myfanwy! Cry and let go, for here is love in this strange death-barren place.’

And the stop was loosed from Myfanwy’s throat and she said, “Yes, Evans the Bodies and thank you and can you take me to chapel afterwards?’ And she kissed him and was altered.

Ynghanol ein bywyd, yr ydym yn angau,’ she said, as she wept.

‘Yes, Myfanwy: in the midst of life we are in death and here with the Dead Dears it is fair to say that we are in love.’

And there was another book that had only been seen by its owner, or nearly so. Because I saw all. In this place; in this time. But oh, for all time and you and I will meet again, but I can make you no promises it will be a sweet meeting. I was saying: Evans the Bodies wrote poems in this book. Often for the Dead Dears who had no-one and whose lives must, he thought, be recorded for posterity. So the timid lady from the post office, who had customers and bread but no friends and a mother who would have tossed her out with the peelings for the pigs, became a cowslip in a warm meadow and drank deep of the sun and was happy; so a coarse and crooked man, who lived in the last house before St Brides Bay and whose children hated him but sang like larks for his money, was limned as a quiet man, skimming stones on the beach and smiling into the auroras of a coastal morning when no-one knew. But Evans the Bodies was a watcher for the sad and lonely. He was a dresser of bodies, to be sure, but he also had a talent for the sad soul and the lonely.

And he had always loved Myfanwy; when she was someone else’s, as she laboured for and lost her child, when both times he bought her milk-white lilies and she said, ‘Evans, there’s a soft man you are’ and he cried with his back to her, as he did when she lost her husband. He put poems in the book for her. Imagined he was taking eternal pictures of her, watching her written into the world all around and, as he watched the frosty lines on the windows in his cold parlour and saw the feathers and curlicues of winter, he scratched her monogram and, again, he cried, and imagined himself at a window as the beautiful ship Myfanwy his Love sailed away and thus he wrote what I have below. I had seen it of course, but he did not know. I had learned it by heart and whispered it into the Pembrokeshire night, whose kind tendrils carried it to her and caressed her, then softly laid waste to her sadness and silence and made her think clearly about Evans the Bodies, who loved her and always had, just so. And he would not ever leave her, for when their very mass of atoms dissembled and went off to abide in rock pools and grains of sand, he was sure that theirs would still mingle, up there in the headland graves.

Myfanwy, as you were: bay window, a side light and a black background.

Then as you were again: middle roomdirect front light. I was specific.

MyfanwyI was precise; exacting with the fall of dark and bright: I wrote it down.

Myfanwy, as I hoped you were. But you smiled and sailed away, sassy girl.

I sat for hours as the shadows fell, knowing what night must still portend: my craft.

I drew a nail across a pane and scratched your name, invisible to others as

the evening settled in. I knew that morning brought a monogram in window frost

for you to see and I to know: I showed you how its feathered lines and confidence

spoke truth to usthat you could stay. The frost had crept along the span

to show you how this foolish clot had mouthed the most that could be said.

And then I spokeand ruined all. A foolish joke: my love; my word

Myfanwy, stay. Myfanwy, do not sail away.

I tried to draw another length to keep you here: pellucid worlds for us to share,

yet how I knew what I had done. You did not care for crystal casts,

the shapes recorded day by day. The metaphor for heavenly plan

was lost for you in my chapped handsand so I scratched and tried to show

some better words to keep you here—to stall you with this simple moss-grown fool,

Why, no. Don’t go, Myfanwy—stay. Myfanwy, do not sail away.

Myfanwy, yours, Evans, who loved you so since I first clapped eyes on you, girl, that cold night when they set off the fireworks from the castle for the Christmas lights. But I will wait a lifetime and set out fireworks when you are mine and then only.’

And thus, my work, apprentice and quiet master, was done and the Dead Dears were at rest and all was well. For death is not always cruel, don’t you see?

THE FAMISHED HOUSES

ONE

(Few layout problems when shifting from Word here; apologies.)

The old house, in the sleepy French village, is tall and dusty looking. Once, it must have been vibrant, but now, bindweed curls around it and ivy reclaims the windows and the stone of the house. It must be hard for the quiet inhabitants to see out. Sometimes, there is post for the house and the post boy makes a swift passage towards the door because the house alarms him. There is a housekeeper, an old crone who will not give you the time of day and, curiously, a gardener—though he never tends to the front gardens, so fallen into disrepair they must be. The villagers wonder whether there are beautiful and well tended gardens to the rear of the house. For what else could lie there?
It is said that a lady lives at the house, some say two sisters, and that they never need company. But that this is a house of shadowy presences; a place where melancholy hangs thick in the air. And at night, sometimes, in summer when the top windows of the house are opened,one hears music, from a curious assortment of instruments: flute, cello, but also mandolin and dulcimer. And an inhabitant of the village making his way home could be stopped in his tracks because the music is so extraordinarily beautiful. But even so it sends a shiver up the spine which is not so pleasant.
But today is different. People do not come and go readily in this village, but a new person has come, from the city, and he wants to enquire about the tall, great house. He knows the finest, oh the very best architects and decorators in Paris and see this is a house to benefit from his good taste and gilded fingers. He raps confidently at the door and it is answered. The rumour held true. Two women come to the door, so similar facially it is immediately clear that they are sisters. They are not beautiful, but they are arresting: striking and sensual women, with poise and grace and exquisite manners. They seem pleased to see him and he is surprised to entertain this peculiar thought for a moment: it is as if they knew he were coming.
Over tea and dainty little cakes, he explains to them what it is he is looking for. They are clearly amused by something but do not elaborate. And to his delight, they indicate quite clearly that, indeed, they were thinking of it, of perhaps finding somewhere smaller because the great house is too much to manage and they realise parts of it are in a poor state of repair. They tell him that they will be in touch, that they have a solicitor in Paris who attends to matters of estate and finance for them—and so the visitor takes his leave.
So he waits and, sure enough, within weeks he hears from them again. A sum is agreed and the solicitors are instructed. Within two months, he is in the house, removing dust and grime and revealing the lovely house under the crumbling plaster and neglect. He has a lady in Paris and she becomes his wife. So taken with the house is he that he decides to move from Paris; it is a fair trip but he thinks he can make the journey once or twice a week to conduct his business. And during these times, his new wife is left lonely at home. The dream becomes more to his liking than to hers and, eventually, resentment begins to settle in the house.
And so they come to her. The two sisters who are still there for, of course, they did not move out—just retreated into the deeper recesses of darkness until they saw a purpose. The housekeeper and gardener are there, too. They will never leave because the house is alive: it is a living breathing organism and they, hungry for blood and for dim, mysterious life, are part of its darkness. The house may be trimmed and tidied and made pretty but, underneath, it will not change. And so the young wife is taken to be with them. And when her husband, upstart from Paris, comes back, he will not find her. Eventually the house and its inhabitants will claim him too. Except that his will not be a quiet taking— or the sin of presuming to buy what forever belonged for ever to somebody else. Something that was never for sale. And all those who live in the wings of the house and in the fine rear garden will play their music, jangle the gold of our upstart, do what cruel things they must to survive and laugh. You could hear them if you went to this village on a summer night when the music is played. But keep your pride in check.

TWO

It is a strange place; a cold street, in which the temperature seems to drop as you round the corner. You feel the breeze cut into you; sometimes you think you must have imagined it, but no: there it is again. A street that looks the same as the last but inescapably, dangerously and, unfortunately, irresistibly different.
The young man, lean and callow, has been called upon to work for the shadowy residents of this street. There, every day, post is delivered, collected from doormats, papers from drives and houses and gardens maintained in apparently pristine condition. And yet, we see no-one, telling ourselves only that the street’s inhabitants must keep shifts or, more exotically, rather bohemian hours. 
So, the young man is called to the fifth house on the street, a tall house, as all the others, with imposing gables and a tall, tall chimney stack. He rings the bell and a lady answers, ivory and willowy, with intense blue eyes. She sees him start just a little, as one does when confronted by such intense beauty. ‘Won’t you come in? So much to do.’
Inside, it is a world away from the modern suburban street, all billowing drapes, vast cabinets of dainty phials and bottles, Venetian mirrors and candelabra. And little cups; so many little cups on narrow shelves. With fluted saucers, Japanese and Chinese designs, lacquer-work. His eye is drawn everywhere all at once and she senses this. ‘Yes: I am quite a collector, as you see.’
Well, I’m wondering, Miss; is it Miss? (it is)—which jobs you need doing.’
Ah, yes, But first, won’t you have some tea? Come through.’
The kitchen is through the long narrow hallway with its unusual intricate pattern of hexagonal tiles. The room has a surprisingly vast azure ceiling, upon which are painted many tiny gold stars. He would have thought it exquisite, had it not already begun to make him dizzy just looking at it for a short while.
She boils water in an old fashioned urn (strange, he thought: why no kettle?); rather too much for tea for two. She makes tea in a lovely, highly polished silver tea pot -again it seems disproportionately large of scale.
‘I
need more shelves, Long thin shelves for my display. I am such a magpie, as you saw. And shallow cabinets for the walls. Like you could see in an old fashioned apothecary. But not so deep and, you know, with drawers. Can you picture what I mean?’
Yes, for the first. That shouldn’t be hard but her second request  would be more difficult. But, as he drinks his tea, he feels he wants to please her, so he agrees to start the job the next day. Although really, his other commitments tell him he should wait. It is something about this lady—and she amuses him too, he thinks as he drinks the tea from more of her little cups.
Next day, he begins and, in a day, the narrow shelves are cut and fitted for the rather bare little ante room off the kitchen. ‘This will be my dining room,’ she says, “You are decorating it for me.’
He drinks more of her tea, even eats some dainty little sandwiches she makes him, and begins work on the cabinets. The work seems to flow from him; oddly, some of his best work to date. Invisible joints and beautifully conceived design. He has surprised himself. But then, standing back from the room, as it begins to come to life with its first fittings, he feels suddenly tired and this she sees.
Come and sit down. In the kitchen.’
She looks more beautiful than ever today,’ he thinks.’Yes, I had better.’
He sits, closes his eyes for a moment to rest. He feels worse. Looking up at the ceiling — at the fine golden stars — he becomes dizzier and dizzier.  And then he sees and remembers no more.
The shadowy inhabitants of the rest of the houses in the street come through interconnecting doorsthey are corporeal, after alland they feast and they drink him dry from the little fluted cups as they sit under the stars. And what they cannot digest, they grind for their medicines and make up and potions and this they place in the shallow apothecaries’ drawers. And thus they retreat to their own homes and the lady with the lovely blue eyes is alone. Until, that is, she crosses her hall to the next visitor, floating across the fine encaustic tiles, which show not hexagons, but pentagons—no pentangles-and say, in the Latin inscription which our carpenter did not know how to read, ‘Caveat venus et stella.’ And if you, too, cannot read this, then you must find out. Just in case.

This last one is about losing a parent as a kid. I don’t think you ever get over it. I had no relationship as an adult, then, with either of my parents. In a way, I have invented who they were. I’m kind of…Asa in  this story. It is ragged and in draft form; the beginning is particularly trite, but see what you think. This is not a piece I will revisit, but it has meaning for me. The text is shot through with lines from Keats, from The Tempest and from Andrew Marvells’s ‘Bermudas’ and ‘The Garden’.

Asa and the Margins of the Known World

Asa: an earnest child, worried about many things; he adored and was ever watchful of his mother; in later and calmer times, he would recall feeling paralysed by anxiety about her during the day. But he never told of this, dissipating it instead by gathering small gifts for her when others were not looking: a fir cone or a curious small piece of ribbon which someone had dropped. It is amazing what a child can find amongst the roots of a holly bush or a monkey puzzle tree: what treasure. The gleam in his eye when he found something for her was his and his alone. The gleam was there, too as he dreamed his special dreams – of chasing tigers through the Sundarbans; of a lady with green almond eyes who cast spells as she rubbed your feet with mustard oil. Closer to home, he knew of the magic song called by a farmer to his cows so that, at night, they could fly. Of the school lollipop lady whose lollipop, when turned this way, showed you the parallel world to yours – the one you see out of the corner of your eye. Don’t you know it is there, even as the tired, myopic adult that you are?

Just on a short walk home from school, Asa could feel the shifting sand and mud as he tracked the dense, halophytic coast: he loved the name – Sundarbans – with its satisfying polysyllabic heft – and he felt all at once the mysterious substance, mutability and danger of its landscape; its tidal swell and tangle of mangrove. But then, the boy could hear the whispers of the giant banyan in the botanical gardens in Calcutta or reflect that Fern Hill lived both in an imagined seam of Wales and in our real world as a halt on a narrow and lazily meandering railway line in Southern India: it was a train stop in Pondicherry. You can look it up, of course. Neither is more true than the other. The boy found fantasy no less satisfying or believable than our tidy quotidian life. For him, fact and fiction merged with a satisfying gorgeousness that, to the unobservant adult, was perplexing indeed.

Asa was handsome and athletic, but appeared otherwise disengaged from school; the sort of boy who appears tired, with glazed eyes. Sometimes his mother wept for him because in her heart she heard and felt his difference. His eye did not gleam like a cat in class. His teachers, in striving to mould him this way and that, expressed much concern about the boy. To one he was “worryingly tired”: to another “A strange boy; a quirky boy.” Did he rest well? Did he test for anaemia? Wasn’t she worried? And why didn’t he read what they gave him to read? She was an intelligent parent; she must understand how a child cannot thrive without his varied diet of books.

But at home, Asa did not merely read, he fed on books and followed lines on maps to places whose names sated his tongue. Descriptions of trees, extraordinary things, feasts, islands, magicians, love at first sight, noble savages, cloven pines, the censer old, a beaded rosary, frosted breath and lustrous salvers. Of course, Asa did not always fully understand what he read, but sensed its importance and atmosphere inchoately, if not completely. And afterwards, he held the words in his hands and in his pockets – sometimes with the treasures of which I spoke at the beginning of this story. And he also kept a small notebook in which he would write down lines he had found particularly transporting; the notebook had wide margins which he peopled with faces and musical notes and trees with swaying arms. The book was often accompanied by a miniature book or two: tiny leafed texts he made which were filled with ideas, rules and structures for his real and imaginary worlds. He found that time and time again he returned to two elderly texts which sat side by side on his parents’ bookshelves: one was a copy of ‘The Tempest’ and the other ‘The Poetical Works of John Keats’.

In the wood near his garden, he would go to his wishing tree. A beech tree with a trunk that felt kind. “I wish” he would say “that I could fly. That people did not argue. That my mother never got tired.” And his mother thought she would like a tree too – so she could shout to it “The boy does read – but he does not read your books. He is, sweetly, stubbornly, an extraordinary child. He is a storyteller and weaver of dreams. May I say you could stuff that in your pipe and smoke it? Ha!”

Asa’s grandfather silently understood him. On Sundays afternoons, they would tend the walled garden by his house, look after the chickens and sometimes, when they made a bonfire, grandfather would make fire toast on the flames. It was, the boy thought, the most delicious thing ever – all blackened at the edges and disapproved of by his grandmother. And he knew that, later, when his grandparents dozed, he could take his notebook and write in it, inscribing little worlds in the margins around a poem or a short story. One of his own or something copied from his grandparents’ fusty old books. At home, too, he would lose himself in the endless afternoons, letting the jellies and fruits on the table laden by Porphyro arrest his senses and come dripping from his tongue; feeling, with Caliban, that he cried to dream again as he etched the dimensions of his fine island in the margins of his book. Marvellous sweet music. I have it. Check. Noises. Check. And then, as he read of Antonio’s wonderment at the isle, the boy added the mythical one tree of Arabia, where was set the throne of the phoenix. He had read somewhere that its nest was redolent of spices and made of burnished wood. There, now, came the strange shapes bringing in a banquet. And a unicorn: all check. And while he was not so good at drawing a unicorn, and was unsure what the one tree which held the phoenix throne might look like, yet when he had finished, he fancied the former had a glint in his eye and the latter a supine trunk, bedecked with a velvet bark. And that the phoenix smiled, if a phoenix could.

At home, Asa went on with creating his world. In hidden corners of his room,
were the miniature books. One was of rules for the room – “No smoking; no stealing: you have to share your sweets in this room” – and another, more complex, of the myriad rules for an imaginary world. Or maybe for two or three worlds. “In this world, there are kind unicorns and lots of bright colours everywhere. There are soft things to sit on and, if you know the words to write and read, everything is edible and delicious. Mothers are not tired and everyone is pleased and happy. There are always music, soft lights and a way through the maze. There are angels who are very kind. And also there are feasts of “syrups tinct with cinnamon” and “jellies soother than the creamy curd.” Asa imagined that a feast which glowed like that must be magnificent to eat indeed. And you ate it as the amethyst and rose bloom fell, by what must be the grace of moonshine through the casement, upon your hand and arm. The room behind you was dark, treacherously so. But for the feast, the darkness would be kind.

No-one but Asa saw the rules; he suspected the other boys would not understand. Nine year old boys do not, after all, generally climb a tree, raise a bonfire and then sit down to an afternoon reading Keats’s ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ or listen hungrily to Caliban’s “riches ready to drop upon me.” At night, sometimes, the boy dug his nails into his hands with the thought of his difference and of the way in which his strange little books, the busy margins and the fusty volumes were his best friends. But he did not cry out or even think he should ask why this made him feel so sad. Instead, he tried to think of the unicorn or his grandfather’s hens, lines of vegetables, the old warm red brick of the walled garden, the lilting voice of the farmer down the lane calling to his cows (did that call hide magic?) or maybe the taste of fire toast and the prayer which pierces so. And the possibility of hope and friendship in a book or the curious and deeply furrowed face of an ancient man. A face which you had drawn, within a fine bower of leaves, in the margin of your notebook. Then, you felt comforted and less alone. The old face lived alongside the vertical line around which you had drawn ivy – and it smiled up at you. Or so you thought as you suddenly came across it.

Mum was tired. Asa thought she was beautiful but he could also see the purpling under her eyes. It was Advent – to Asa the season of lights and candles and darkness flickering with small flames. He added to the rules of the imaginary world: “There, they will look after my mother” and the rules of the room “You cannot come in if you are happy because it will make you unhappy” and then, “Candles are banned in this room and near this room because candles make us think of God and God did not stop my mother being ill.” He hoped for charms like Prospero’s and wings like Ariel; for Caliban’s rebellion and sometimes, when angry, even to drown his book. For how did

it ever help? Surely it provided little solace now, however pretty its words or how pleasing the details of the faces in its margins? For knowledge of illness and of an ending coming – maybe coming; how could he know? – made the boy separate. His eyes had never been bluer. He was tall and fast and lithe. Still didn’t really care that much about what they taught him in school, so caught up was he in the things that interested him most, worried him most and terrified him most. And so, at the end of the day, he determined that he should apply his wits to the task. He must take to his room and his pen to keep building a world, with its rules and special constructs; he must keep company with a notebook in which the margins helped to give shape to such a world and transcribe what, without ink and graphite, could pass us by.

Downstairs, at night, he could hear his mother’s breathing coming more heavily. And while his blue eyes shone at their best for her the next morning, he thought she had never looked prettier and wondered if other boys thought their mothers so lovely. As he straightened a pillow for her, she began to tell him a story: it came in breathless snatches sometimes, but it held him firm. It was a traveller’s tale – of her own invention, he thought. She began with the delivery from peril at sea of our hero and his friends, as they bested a watery maze and rounded the shore of a new world, where they saw azure on white and the rich, bountiful fruits hanging like golden lamps in a green night. For now, the story was left unfinished – but her son tasted the orient fruit all day and on that winter’s night, peripheral vision tempted him with fleeting glances of that most numinous citrus grove, glowing in his darkness.

It was a Wednesday when it happened. She’d been sleeping when he left for school, although maybe she had murmured to him in his sleep. Perhaps another shred of story? In later years he liked to think so. She didn’t wake. His teacher took him out to the Headmaster’s office and there was his grandfather to stand by his side. Asa couldn’t cry but just kept thinking of the rules of his room and whether, if you thought really hard, you could will things to happen or not to happen. If you thought magically, the magic could begin. If you could, through some enchantment, make events converge upon you and steer them somehow upon a different path. If you could call up golden lamps in a green night and steer your way through a maze.

So Asa steeled himself. How could it hurt? He felt entirely alone without the scratch of the pen and the sure, soft touch of the turning page. He began to write; to doodle, hatch and scrawl. On the silent walk home from school that day he planned it all. That really hard thought would bring a world he created to life. And from this world, a creation of his could extend a cordial hand to his mother (cordial was not his word of course; it is mine, as I favour its fine, old fashioned temper), wake her and bring her back safe and rested and with her breathing even and the dark circles gone from under her eyes. And the worlds in the margins: if he filled them with extraordinary words and lands and the finest lines a boy could muster; if he could write that “she is immortal, but by immortal providence she is mine” and somehow elicit a response to set his darkness echoing, over and over – how would that be?

The silence continued in the house. He felt her but knew she was not there; he could still smell the lily of the valley cologne with which she used to dab her pulse points when she was tired or distracted or wanted to feel (he thought) more beautiful. Yet there was, he felt, an unsettling but fascinating blending of his sleeping and his waking hours. Like subtleties of the isle, he told himself. In his room he found a notebook he had yet to write in and he began. First, the margin. He tried once more to draw a unicorn; a kindly looking sea monster; a tree with strong arms: he made Caliban with a happy face and saw the joy of the sprite released to the elements, all clad in silver filigree and with gossamer wings like a dragonfly. Today his fingers worked quickly; there was an ease he did not think he had felt before. Resting for a moment, Asa screwed up his eyes and imagined that the creatures swayed and smiled and leaned towards him. Did they? No: it could never be. So he began to write – thought of his rules again. And he wrote this:

“I have changed the rules of my room a bit because now they are the rules of the world outside my room too. If you are here (or there) and you are speaking to me, you need to be happy and to believe in magic. Or maybe you need to believe in God. I don’t believe in him yet, but I am trying to. You also have to draw things with content eyes and strong hands because then you can help me to lift up my mother and make her strong and well wherever she is. And I need to hear the end of the story she only began.”And his pen dropped from his hand and the boy slept. He slept until the next day, when his grandfather came to wake him. “Never seen a boy sleep so long, old son” said his grandfather, winking at him. Asa was still in a half sleep, feeling the warm sand of the isle between his toes and the thousand twangling sounds in his ears.

And so, by day, it went on; be as expected at school, cope with the gentle concern of a teacher, climb a tree and kick a ball. But tell no-one of the notebook just yet. Then home to scribble and draw and doodle in the book, less so the page than its now intricately filled margin. This time, wise old owls who knew the secrets of all men, a kindly old lady who knew the truth in your heart and would wrap it up and never tell but, knowing it, would help you on your way wherever or whatever that way might be. And an imposing face – something like the face of God as the boy imagined it, blowing the clouds here and there and casting shafts of sunlight on to the Earth. Again – was there a little movement in the margin? Again, the boy screwed up his eyes hard and unscrewed them; he looked out of the very corner of his eye to see if he could see that parallel world to our own of which I told you at the beginning of this story.

“Put down the book now, old son” said his grandfather on the day of the church service. So many little candles flickering and sometimes guttering: out of darkness and waiting we will come to the light. Outside, he screwed up his eyes again and thought hard. Hard enough to make things happen, if a person ever could. Thought through funeral tea and tears and a bedtime in which his grandfather choked back sobs as they went about their evening routine. And then later, when he was alone, Asa continued to draw. The ivory pages were empty apart from a neatly underlined date and his name on each page but the margins were a thing to celebrate: that were becoming ever more detailed; fluent; confident. Before he fell asleep that night, with the book across his chest, the boy had drawn another unicorn, whose expression was definitely quizzical; knowing and laughing. And there was a mountain whose sides and shades showed the measure of their memories and a stream whose clear voice rang out with no sound. And the softness and the kindness of these things held Asa through a night of dreams which might have haunted, but instead of which cared for him and carried him through to another day. One in which he would be stronger and ever finer at drawing and a little more aware of the magic that does, indeed, lie within. Within the scope of our ink as we write and draw and within our minds, as we read.

Thus it was that, a few days later, Asa looked through his old rules, housed in the miniature books. He banished those which spoke of sadness – and any tiny page which seemed hopeful he placed inside the notebook whose margins became fuller and finer with each day. The tree with long arms and a wise face; the lady, the ancient man in his fine bower of leaves, a wise owl or two, the unicorns, sea monsters, streams and mountains all woven into one never-ending story. It is a story which you only break for a taste of delicious fire toast or to read so that the words fill your mouth while they usher forth a sense of something extraordinary glimpsed, but not yet understood.

I know this curious tale to be true because Asa is an extraordinary child. And also because I am his mother. So I hold his hand while he writes and fills those beautiful margins and together, telling stories, we walk through the green night, lit safely by golden lamps.

The Life of Almost,a breathless Killing Hapless Ally and choosing your ending.

I have written a strange little second book. I suspect I will always write strange books. Big ones and little ones. The first, Killing Hapless Ally, was placed with a small press. As such, it is not, naturally, going to fall into so many hands. And yet and yet…I cannot tell you how rewarding it has been to discuss the book with its readers.

I know it is a challenging book; it is busy and breathless and constantly allusive. It is a work of fiction, but this rush through a history, through a mind, was deliberate. Its publisher understood and supported this; loved its density and fragmenting quality: its form was part of the effect, you might say. But to other readers it will be too busy, appear too dense and poorly edited. I took a risk – and my hope with Killing Hapless Ally was always that this was a long game. What I wanted was to write at least a book a year; to establish a catalogue and, gradually, for more and more people to find it.

But back to the discussion with readers. It has been read by people suffering from mental health problems and those who seek to understand what they might look like – as such, I have had many raw and challenging conversations about the book. It has been read by psychologists and academics – very recently, one who feels it will be instructive in their work, in addition to finding it entertaining. It is, after all, a black comedy! But at the moment the thing I really like is that some of my older students are reading it, which has meant that I felt I should mention to parents the book’s graphic content. It does not flinch in its illustration of depression, anxiety, self harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. I am laying myself bare here, aren’t I? But you see, there is a foreword to the book which reads rather like a mission statement. The book is based on episodes in my own life; to my mind it reads like a memoir, rather than a novel (again, this hybrid will irritate some readers because they do not recognise the novel form in it – more on which another day) and, in telling a/my story, I said that if I were not upfront about the mental health problems I have suffered from repeatedly since childhood, then that would be “to do a disservice to those who are yet to recover or find appropriate help.”

Now, back to that second book. The Life of Almost. Who is he and what is he? Is he alive or dead? What is his purpose? Well I like ambiguity and grey areas. If a book promises a twist at the end, you can bet I’ll have guessed it on page three; I’m that sucky person who shouts out the answers not long after it starts, which is why I am bound to silence when watching films  or telly with my husband. Like a kid at panto. “It’s binary and he’s the ghost!” (Interstellar.) “It’s his sister and I bet Moriarty’s helping her!” (Sherlock Holmes). I’m happy to know the ending or not to have things promised to me. Anyway, The Life of Almost has, at present, two different endings. Casuistry. Pick one. “What do you want? What do you expect?”, to quote Owl Eyes in the library in The Great Gatsby. And also, because the book is also a reworking of Dickens’s Great Expectations, the two ending recall what happened with that book, a note of explanation being underneath. I think I can get away with setting text out here. If the book gets commissioned, this bit of the blog post might have to go!

But you know – this is relevant, I promise! –  I am struggling at the moment: depression, sadness, they have the better of me; I wake, frightened, at night; I start at noise: my mind races, thoughts collide and crash and back come the hauntings of early experience. I cannot bear bright light or loud sound; sometimes, I hear sounds when they are not there, a constant auditory disturbance; sometimes music, often quotation. This has always been a feature. No-one’s experience of depression or mental health problems is quite the same. Mine is jangling and mult-coloured; fast fast slow. But I can do this. I CAN. There is no miracle. I rebuild my mind with books and thought and friends.

I have to say that I can choose an ending here because an ending is also a beginning, isn’t it? As Dorothy Rowe would tell you, “Even the worst day does not last forever.”

Casuistry. Which ending, for Seren and Almost, would you rather? The other person in the text is Catherine, who begins the book. And it is Catherine who begins summer 2016 in a state of welling despair. That is why Almost appears, from the sea-coast, off-world, whatever you like (as I said, I like ambiguity) to begin a bitter magic.

Here.

Pick.

‘The two endings, Catherine. Listen and choose. I begin with a poem. For her. Everything is for her.

If I should fall, then say to me the reason clouds form as they are,

Why ice should seed along a scratch, why I should love my six point star.

I do not know or care to see the smiles that fall in brazen line,

But innocence and clearest eye embolden me to make her mine.

I speak of love and quiet worlds, the county town on winter nights:

The sweets of honey bees, a view of ruby sky and amber lights—

A mermaid Terpsichore, sand-snow, auroras made of rosy glow,

My Borealis blood-red sheenif I should fall, then make me know.

When I am not and you are here, beholden to this dusty room,

Be gentle with the tenuous forms of memory; do not grieve too soon.

Consider thiswhy should we be, ephemeral and urgent? How?

And speak to me with confidence, declaim for me on cliff or prow.

In nature’s fragile frame I see a world that lives beyond the hill,

Beyond the log pile, salt and shed; behind our eyes when we lie still.

And when I fall, then say to me you read its language, pure and keen—

And set my records on my desk and light my lamp: make them be seen.

I met her out there. I felt her, thoughts carry: I always knew where she was. I walked beyond St David’s to look at the Blue Lagoon, turned back and walked and walked to Abereidy, then through the bluebell wood, by the mud and stream to the fierce mouth, Abermawr. Skimming stones into the sea, she was. Oh God, aflame. I could hardly stand her beauty. She saw me and walked slowly my way as I cupped a pebble and steadied my thoughts and tried to control my tears.

Seren. Star. Always her. A mermaid I trapped on land and who never forgave me.

She said this: ‘Boy. Always boy.’

I said, “Age does not wither her” though I knew I was lying and I saw I was fresher and new, still.

“Roland is dead. I am…I am different, Almost.”

Oh she wept and howled into and out of a fierce mouth and hurled the rocks across the breakers and I went to her and held her while she told me of her life with him; of the spite that held, the jokes that cracked and broke; resentments, brutal, scorning others just because they had a better boat; a finer cast of house or leg or anything. He hated the world and everyone in it, handsome damned man who had fooled her. I said, ‘I will find him dead and flay him for you, Seren, for you, my love’ and I meant it, brute like daddy, down under the sand in another sea and time. My howl was elemental; perverse. We clung to each other.

He, Roland, touched her wrong; he did not cradle her at night, not understand that her own beautiful scorn was from her pain, sea girl trapped, and if he had, what would it have mattered? He had her to set on his arm and place where he should and that was enough. He used her roughly; cursed her barren; not a mother, nor a soft gentle thing. He cast her out, within her home. I could not stand to hear it all and howled again and she clung and my God I cannot tell you how beautiful she was because it would be like…it would be like trying to beat the heart of a star with a warped broom; like lifting up prayers with dirty hands and biting mouths. That is something like it was.

We walked out through the woods and I gathered bluebells, pressed them upon her in a fever.

“Forgive me, Almost.”

“I already have” I said; I fell on my knees in the stream and mud and the bluebells were crushed with I and her and us together, tremendous.

Her heart was opened then. I saw it.

Afterwards, I took her hand and I knew that there would be no shadow of another parting from her. I thought, also, that one day we might find her garb, as for Derian out at Oystermouth; as for Miss Davies, somewhere in her wild garden, under the fingers of creeping moss and the care of the kind willow. There might, yet, be a way back to the sea. For her and, in growing magic or the charms of the englynion, because poems carry, for me.’

Chapter 17. Or a star dies

‘But then again, is this how it was? Catherine, do you prefer this ending?

I begin, as I often do, with a poem. This one is about endings, when we come to recognise they have arrived, that is.

So,

We climbed the downward spiral of the trail

To best the shedding fingers of the cliff;

I’d promised you, oh love, I could not fail—

I’d prove to you against our childish tiff

That there was treasure to be found that day—

Albescent moons to cradle in your hand—

Sea urchins fine, a little world to say:

Echinocardium, wanting to be grand.

But my world was not yours, you did not care

To hold the little lanterns in your palm—

The hollow globe within the greatest fair,

You did not care if such should come to harm.

So cracked the sea potato on the tide:

I knew, although I smiled, my love had died.

I knew where she was. I felt her. I walked there, out beyond St David’s, the lovely harbour at Abereiddy, turquoise of the Blue Lagoon, then through the bluebell woods to Abermawr. She knew I would find her, of course. Out there, hurling stones across the breakers and howling her pain. She did not stop me taking her in my arms, drawing time-stopping kisses from her. Too late, too late, though, Catherine.

For this is what happened.

Everything I said of Roland was true, but when he died, consumed by his own acid and pride, Seren married a quiet local man. Not rich, but comfortable, like, and they lived in a house looking out across Ramsey Sound. This is the road she had taken, my beautiful mermaid girl. And she had a child, too: how could I claim her now? Oh Catherine, do not laugh: she called the boy ‘Nearly’ and he was her joy. I could see that. How could I claim her now? She seemed old, though she was not, and greatly changed and sad.

What could I do? My heart was broken.

I reached down and picked up an auger shell, she cupped it in her hand with tears in her eyes and then she turned, picking her way across the pebble beach to the bluebell wood and she was gone.

And that is the ending, almost. Which ending did you prefer? Which shall we have? And really, all I want to ask you, Catherine is this: did any of this happen? Was any of it true? And am I really here, June two thousand and sixteen, in your kitchen. Now, what do you think?’

Then I wept, cried until I was dry, not comprehending the world. I felt his fingers brush my arm: electric. Then he was gone, too, and had ended his story.

An explanation of the two endings.

‘Because of the mystery and ambiguity of the book, the uncertainty of its endings, or rather that Catherine should have some choice in how it ends (including, I would say, in what she does about her own sorrow after Almost has passed on elsewhere), seemed fitting to me. But there is another reason. Great Expectations is very important to this book for The Life of Almost is at least a partial reworking of it and that book had its ending changed at the last moment. Edward Bulwer Foster, Dickens’s friend and a fellow novelist, had been keen that Pip and Estella were united at the end of the story. The account goes that Dickens felt his friend argued such a good case that he subsequently agreed to make a change. “I resolved…to make the change…I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.” George Bernard Shaw published an edition of Great Expectations in a limited edition run with his preferred ending: the one Dickens had written first and which he argued was, in fact, “the truly happy ending.” Some have argued that this was a perverse argument, but I prefer the sobriety of the original and find it more fitting for the brooding, disillusioned narrative tone through the book. So,

“I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”

OR, the former, when Pip, walking along Picadilly, is told a lady in a carriage wishes to speak to him: it is Estella:

“…I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.”

But now, if you wouldn’t mind making tea and trimming up some Welshcakes but without a recipe and with one hand only, I shall offer you my last. Do you know that, sometimes, stories have two endings? Of course you do. In old books, sometimes the author wrote an ending that was too sad and his publisher demanded it more palatable; a triumph. Triumph is sometimes untrue, of course, but what would you like? What do you expect and how may I help?

Almost Derian Llewhellin, all time a room in which to roam.’

Anna Vaught, Wiltshire, two thousand and sixteen.

Passerines: some epigraphs for a new book

I find I vary how I write. With this book – Passerines, a series of interlinked stories about Violet Gibson, Lucia Joyce, Marie (‘Blanche’) Wittmann and Bertha (‘Anna O’) Pappenheim  and of psychiatry – I have tinkered with the beginning because it began life as a short story – and have now lunged into what is sometimes known as the ‘Frankendraft’! So I have 50,000 words to write and I will not read the book back now until it is all done. Then I will attack it with some vehemence.

BUT I have allowed myself two things to help me think. (In addition to the ongoing reading for research).

Although I have a rough plan sketched out, I have decided to write a proper synopsis, even if this is chucked out later – inspiration invariably striking not before but while one is writing. And also, it helps me to look at other books. That is, dipping into things, beyond what I might read for pleasure or research. I read all the time…but it is like magic.

There are lots of books in our house; the house is heaving with them; only yesterday, a cat was almost squished by a tumbling tower of books yet to shelve (or rather as we are waiting for Pete The Shelves to come and shelve for us). But as I was saying, I have been reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. It is magnificent; its beauty makes me cry – and this rarely happens – that I will find a book so affecting. And there it was: the description of boy Eugene, who is Wolfe himself, bounded in by his imagination, knowingly so, and living lonely in its country. And projecting what is required onto the world. I copied it. This is a key theme in Passerines. When you are someone else’s subject or subject to someone else, what might happen to your interior life?

Then…my hand brushed against William Empson’s Collected Poems. I’m sorry if this makes me sound like an utter tosser (‘Ooooh – my hand brushed against a book and it was the very book I needed…’), but this is exactly what happened. I was getting Some Varieties of Pastoral down because I need it for an A Level class on genre. And I suddenly thought of ‘Reflections on Anita Loos’ and its startling pairing of the girl who ‘can’t go on laughing all the time’ with the image of the tortured Christ after this mischievous villanelle. And you see, Passerines has both spirited girls and women and those same people encaged by madness and circumstance – in two cases incarcerated for life and in one almost erased from records  – and a study of both faith and imagination. It begins with Violet Gibson, the Irish aristocrat who shot Mussolini, was almost lynched, then pardoned by Mussolini (who himself drew his life as if it were the Passion of Christ and spoke of the prefuguration of his death) and then sent to St Andrew’s Asylum (as it would have been known) until the end of her life. The one picture we have there of Violet is unbearably touching: in her greatcoat in the grounds, feeding the birds, her stance reminding us of Giotto’s St Francis.

So, I realise this will not make total sense. Bear with me. I am fleshing things out. I know this is a rather a WTF sort of post. (Very literary, along with ‘tosser’: apologies.)

As I write, I’m still doing bits and pieces on mental health connected with my first novel, Killing Hapless Ally, and that has only been out eight months. I have sent my second book, a novella, The Life of Almost, out on subs to a small selection of presses and agents. Has it had rejections? Well, of course. Interest? Oh yeah. So I am a bit tense. And while this is happening, I am writing a third book, a novel, using the ‘Prolifiko’ app and setting my target to 3,000 words a day. I am told this is a lot, but if I don’t make it, the app is at least a prompt and very encouraging: a little cheerleader for me. In other news, I am thinking about applying to pitch at the London Book Fair (dependent on what happens in the next week or so, I think – as deadline’s approaching), I’ve applied for Womentoring  ( a fine free mentoring service, where an established author guides one at an earlier stage) and asked for Antonia Honeywell (am I allowed to say that?) because I feel passionately that I will find nurturing in such a project and she seems utterly delightful, a wonderful writer and frankly, I thought she might ‘get’ me, also managing a large family! Does that sound odd? And up ahead, Essex Book Festival in March to read my work in Refugees and Peacekeepers (a Patrician Press Anthology) and there’s a Birkbeck day I’d like to go to in May…

Back to the epigraphs. Synopsis follows soon: did you know there’s good money in Mills and Boon? More on which another day…I write well on hospitals, sex, Horlicks from the trolley and death. You’d be amazed at the categories extant in M&B!

‘The prison walls of self had closed entirely round him; he was walled completely by the esymplastic power of his imagination – he had learned by now to project mechanically, before the world, an acceptable counterfeit of himself which would protect him from intrusion.’

Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel, 1929, chapter fifteen.

‘Love rules the world but is it rude, or slime?

All nasty things are sure to be disgraced.

A girl can’t go on laughing all the time.

Christ stinks of torture, who was slaked in lime.

No star he aimed at is entirely waste.

No man is sure he does not need to climb.’

From William Empson, ‘Reflections on Anita Loos’, 1937.

‘The bird could also be seen as a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ. A non-Biblical legend popular in the Middle Ages related how the child Jesus, when playing with some clay birds that his friends had given to him, bought them to life. Medieval theologians saw this as an allegory of his own coming back from the dead. In another legend, when Christ was carrying the cross to Calvary a small bird – sometimes a goldfinch, sometimes a robin – flew down and plucked one of the thorns from the crown around his head. Some of Christ’s blood splashed onto the bird as it drew the thorn out, and to this day goldfinches and robins have spots of red on their plumage. Like the cross that Christ wears around his neck, therefore, the goldfinch might be read as a prefiguration of his Passion.’

From ‘The Goldfinch.Signs and Symbols’, notes in web text from the Ftizwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

A New Writers’ Group (Bath area) NOTE NEW DATE!

A NEW WRITERS’ GROUP!

Okay then. New Writers’ group – meeting at Vaught Towers initially. Bath area and DM me for details!

Friday the 17th of February,
7.30.

Do you write or want to write fiction? It may be that you have already had a book or books published; it may be that you are just starting out and aiming to work towards publication. And by publication, I mean with a publisher, agented with a publisher or working as a self publisher. The aim of this group is that, in a supportive environment, we share ideas on one anothers’ work, offer constructive criticism and help each other along.You’d need, I think, to be happy to read your work aloud and to circulate it and to have the confidence (or fake it; I do) to offer comment and to receive it. And you’d need a ms in its initial stages or a slew of ideas for the best use of everyone’s time. I’m not thinking that there is any particular genre for us, but that this group might be best suited to writers of fiction for adults, as opposed to early readers, MG and YA.

Would you like to come along? Might be just the prompt you need to carry on carrying on and I am sure it would help me. Although I have been doing the odd bit of freelance journalism for some years, I didn’t start writing full length fiction until 2014 and then my first novel was published by a small press in March of last year. My second novel is currently under consideration with an agent (I think I may be a hybrid author) and I have begun my third (and fourth: I do know this sounds a bit mad) in addition to a poetry pamphlet and a non fiction book; I’ve also published various articles and poems over the past ten months. I am just starting out and gradually getting over feeling like an imposter. Writing is not my day job! Here’s what I read over 2016, too.

https://annavaughtwrites.com/…/…/01/my-2016-in-books-so-far/

Tea; cake; cosy chairs: writing, sharing information and opinion and encouraging each other in what can be a lonely pursuit sometimes.

Like to come? We could aim for once a month or so.
Anna.
@bookwormvaught on twitter
annavaughttuition@gmail.com

(PS – the pink and purple picture: insprired by Flickr and Instagram I once colour-coordinated my books – and there are thousands of them. Don’t do it. Led to a very ugly mutiny in our household and I couldn’t find a thing.)

Epigraph of The Life of Almost

For Ned. Because Almost is also a love story: Seren, Mfanwy, Perfection, Mammy, the sacred headland and the mermaids. And you are my story and my song. x

This is what it says at the beginning of my next book, The Life of Almost: wish me luck, as it has gone, by kind request, out to an agent who liked the writing in Killing Hapless Ally; the ms has also gone to a press; later in October, it is going out elsewhere and, to my utter surprise, a really lovely person at one of, you know, the big five, said they would look at it just to be helpful. I said it wasn’t really, as far as I could see, a commercial proposition, but then it is the next story I had in me. I know it’s ambitious and I do know about Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs. Ah, but bear with now. This one now is comical, I hope; indebted to Dickens and to Dylan Thomas; to generations in Pembrokeshire and beyond; to the coffin hatch in my own house; to the dead, who are legion and all around; to mermaid lore; The Mabinogion; Celtic Magic, Gwyn Williams, Danny Abse, the earliest Welsh poems, the Southern Gothic I married, books on sex, embalming and death practice, John Donne and Dickens again. And don’t you want to know who or what Almost is? How mermaids love? Why a child was found sleeping on a headland gravestone? Why moss creeps and sucks at your feet as you dare to tread? How a love story happens over the embalming table and how Almost feels, when he meets Derian Llewhellin, both fear and happiness and a blurring of his edges and how it is he begins to understand what he is capable of. The story begins this squalid summer, June 2016, but oh…it is old, old, old.

 

THE LIFE OF ALMOST OR,

A LIFE OF VERY LITTLE EXPECTATION

Anna Vaught

Disclaimer: this is a work of fiction, I swear on The Mabinogion and the sacred headland. Characters in this book are fictional, although I have drawn upon the history of my own Welsh family and diaspora and many things which to me seem normal and maybe which, to you, do not. I make no apology for references to the political situation in the summer of 2016 while a cunning clown and cohorts and a tide of rage pushed through the always unexpected rain. Real places named in the book are at least partly fictionalised and the dead and undead are somewhat mixed up. But enough: don’t you want to know about Almost? He was mine; now I am giving him to you.

All poems (unless otherwise attributed, but out of copyright) are by the author.

Lewis, the Younger, who went away

When I was a kid, Lewis took his own life.

I heard them say he took it, but where it went,

I couldn’t say or wasn’t told. Perhaps it had

been drained, in The Sloop, with all his pints,

or thrown gladly off Stack Rocks with a shout

that he married well and was a man they liked,

but I don’t know. For once, though I was very young,

I saw a look from out the corner of his eye as he shipped

off, went laughing with the pot boys and his girl:

that look it said, I think, that Lewis wanted rescuing,

but no-one came, as the sea foam danced in Cardigan Bay.

“Look’ee here, Pip. I’m your second father. You’re my son—more to me nor any son.”

Abel Magwitch, Great Expectations, chapter thirty nine.