Category Archives: mental health

Saving Lucia. Why this book?

I have been compiling my notes, bibliography and acknowledgements for the back of Saving Lucia. Writing this book is not a therapeutic exercise, though I know someone will say that! So what follows is (partly) an account of its stimulus and of my interest in this area.

‘Part of the stimulus for writing about mental illness comes from my own jagged experience and from my own shifting notion of what constitutes sanity and who it is defined by. Society? The DSM? Is it culture bound? Sometimes, even an excuse to rid civilisation of its undesirables, whether it be from eugenics, being round the bend, up a curved drive, or having your records burned and your letters unsent so that you can be contained?

My own first novel, Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press 2016) draws on many experiences of mental health problems in my own life. I have had many different and multiple tags, from GAD (generalised anxiety disorder) to postnatal depression, to low mood, OCD, clinical depression, mood disorder, and a bipolar II query to other less specific things, such as confusion, a response to complex trauma (this from from a psychotherapist in a talking cure—thank you Bertha Pappenheim!), and a description of poor coping skills in the face of stress. I have experienced symptoms of sustained low mood, auditory hallucinations, frequent nightmares, protracted insomnia and anxiety since childhood. I know what it is to self harm and what might lead you to try and take your own life; I also know what it is to be shamed for problems you did not choose and tried your level best to control. Families have a vital role to play here; were you to be categorised, put away or, through disgust or misunderstanding, denied what is your pressing reality, the outcome could be tragic. The last thing in that list happened to me, but had I been born earlier, I might well have been somewhere different and never got out. And even now, where this choice and admission to hospital may be (it is not always, of course) voluntary, then as the great psychologist Dorothy Rowe puts it in Depression. The Way Out Of Your Prison (Routledge, 2013), the decision to go into hospital is (still) a difficult one because once you start going down this route, it can be hard to get off it. But go elsewhere for my story, or do, please, feel that you can ask me about it @bookwormvaught or at http://www.annavaughtwrites.com if I’ve written a post you might care to comment on.

I will always be drawn to the case of Lucia Joyce. And to the cases of Violet Gibson, Bertha Pappenheim (otherwise known as Freud and Breuer’s Anna O) and Blanche Wittmann.’

 

Anna xxx

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

On Failure. For J.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

That’s Samuel Beckett. From his 1983 prose work, Worstward Ho. It’s funny. Recently, I’m wondering if it’s the new ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, in which case we could have a ‘Fail Better’ gallery – mugs, doormats, handcuffs, you name it. What would Beckett have thought? Probably that it was tomfoolery, but hopefully he would have laughed.

I digress. Why do I begin with this quotation? My late grandmother once said something along the lines of how you had to fail with style and in an interesting way before you could call yourself a grown up. I remembered that. She also said that you have to get quickly off your arse when the devil vomits into your kettle, which was a terrifying jumble of stuff, right there. Could have been Beckett, with a bit of polishing, and less scary Welsh grandma. Anyway, I think that she didn’t take the bit about failure far enough: I think you keep doing it. I’m not saying you actually aim for it, but that you accept it, more, as the natural state of things, just with economies of scale.

Now, I have failed aplenty. I like to recast it so that I failed majestically, heroically, as if I were looking at me from the wings, going, “See what you did there?” (actually, I sort of did that: read my autobiographical novel, Killing Hapless Ally for a load of that) and clapping, like a pissed cheerleader. True, there have been some comical moments of failure: falling off a desk in front of a GCSE class and tearing down an entire wall display of their work, trying to steady myself, in the process; attending meetings with my dress in my knickers; in one accidentally saying ‘sex’ when I meant ‘notes’; talking a bit too excitedly to mums on the school run and seeing them begin to sidle away; very recently saying to a class teacher, ‘Has my son been a bit of a twat?’ when I meant ‘twit’; falling asleep on my first date with my husband and falling over in a perfectly flat field on my second. That sort of thing. I relate these sorts of things to others sometimes, should we be discussing delicious things like, I don’t know, embarrassment, and it might happen that they go, “Noooo…how awful” – and I think, “Do you not do that sort of thing regularly too?” Then I think maybe it’s just me; like a dervish at a particularly stifled funeral. But I’m not so sure. It’s not that others will have done the same things, but, truly, everyday embarrassments and failures: aren’t they normal? Human.

These were not important failures. Just untidy life.

There are bigger things too. Hearts I broke, people I disappointed. The fact that my mother thought I sucked. Some of these things I thought to be my fault, but time and reflection may tell a different story.  Ah what else? Career blips; no career; the PhD I didn’t complete (I won’t tell you the whole story here), the fact that people weren’t very nice to me on my wedding day (again reflection might not point to me here) – oooh loads of stuff. Parenting mistakes; financial ones; soured relationships. Oh get out of here. This isn’t very interesting. It’s more that I want to tell you you’re not alone. But, most of the time, I, you, we did our best, yes? Then there you go.

You can get big bold places, high on failure and not seem to know it. Donald Trump is, in my opinion, a colossal failure as a president. His world view is egregiously limited, his ego needs to be regularly stroked because it must be upheld, like gossamer. Do you think he goes to bed worrying about his failure or reflecting on it? Well, I’ve not been with Donald at bedtime, praise the Lord, but I rather doubt it. And therein lies the crux of the matter. To acknowledge that you misjudge, misprise and misrule; to be compassionate and self-aware enough to know that you failed and to attempt, where you can, to make amends – that is the key thing. When it’s missing, what might that make you? Appetitive; governed by your own wants and a desire to be, err, stroked and told that you are right. Ugh. That makes me want to barf on my shoes. And oh, it makes me cross. I realise I am simplifying about Trump, and that he probably has some latent virtues, but he seemed a decent enough exemplar.

To be human is to err. To err splendiferously. In teaching – and I don’t know why anyone would pretend otherwise – you will misunderstand some of those you are teaching and fail to see their ability, their wants, even, sometimes, the terrible pain they might be in. You will get a lot right, but a lot wrong. In your life, you will accidentally upset friends; say things that reverberate in others’ ears for a very long time. But you did your best and that’s all that can be asked of you. If it’s a failure where you know you have hurt someone and done what you can to fix it and make amends; if you’ve felt guilt and reflected and looked at yourself sternly – painful but necessary – then take that and move forward and not just for yourself. Learn. If it’s a comical failure – like, say, trying (I actually had a conversation about this recently which reduced me to helpless, snorty laughter and tears – and no I am not naming its provenance) a new sexual position, striking the bedside lamp in flagrante and singeing the side of the duvet, please LAUGH. You know what’s not hot? Being joyless and mirthless. You know what’s not sexy? Perfection. Also, it’s bollocks and doesn’t exist.

I had a friend once (note past tense) who said, with passionate confidence, “I don’t know what failure is. I have never failed at anything.” I was in awe of her; I had chronically low self-esteem, was battling depression: I thought she was someone to look up to. How wrong was I? It’s humility and humour; kindness. That’s where it’s at. That’s success. Arrogance is not a success. That is definitely a failure, in my book. Anyway, I don’t see this person anymore. Don’t wish ill, there. This person may be deliriously happy, for all I know. Sharp suited and driven, but maybe not having messy sex in the back of a pick up…or feeding a sad-looking pony an apple…or maybe even comforting another person whose life has unravelled at the seams. What do you think? Am I over-simplifying?

Parenting’s an eye opener for this success/failure malarkey. I have seen other parents chortle at how their child is top of the pecking order or say, without apology, that their child will go a long way and, in the meantime, tends only to be friends with other high achievers. It is bang on to be proud of your child (I have three myself), but a) your child is not an extension through which (she says cattily) you get to swat drippy under-achieving fellow parents (like me) and b) can you HEAR YOURSELF? Pipe down.

Now, I do think that failure is normal. A lot of dreams and career aspirations tank. Of course they do. Marriages or your final sense of acquiring a sense of identity may feel incomplete. In some work – the creative industries – I’d argue that failure is hardwired into your job. Having your work rejected or not even acknowledged. But hey there, frownie, suck it up. It’s normal: fail again, fail better. Carry on.

I do think – and I speak as someone who has had many years of battling mental health problems – that we place too much emphasis on achievement. And not, I might say, always that achievement which is in line with our core values; with what we truly believe and value. If you are driven, then go drive, but maybe know that when you get to the place called THERE, you might well discover that there’s no THERE, THERE (if you follow my meaning). I am not suggesting that we don’t aim for things we would like to do or be, just that it might be healthier and make us happier if we were honest about those things. And – I speak from hard-won experience here – I don’t think it helps to be led by comparison with others. In fact I’d say, “compare and despair”. I know when I do that, the comparison thing, I incline to come off worse and likely to feel awful, physically and mentally. I did kind of tell you at the beginning there that I was an epic failure!

There has been a great deal of study of this of late, but the role of social media and what we absorb and ingest therein can be a problem. I talk to the teenagers I teach about it. Some of them struggle, but find they can’t stay away, frightened to miss out. But that feeling is not unique to those in this demographic and, in fact, I’d argue that younger people are often way more sensible than older people and not just because they are digital natives. Yet I think we all need to be mindful of the fact that what we see is a version of reality; a curated narrative. I love social media for the friends I’ve made and things I’ve been able to learn; the writing project I am currently pursuing came to me through twitter. A picture, a conversation: serendipitous, exciting and joyful. But the braggy, showy stuff can go hang.

Is all this depressing? I’d say no. Stuff up. Let go. Go and rehearse the facts of life in a sober manner and I wonder if you might actually start to giggle. Because the failure provides a much better anecdote and releases you from much stress. Achieve, according to your own lights, but when I go, I just want to be remembered (if you do remember me) as the funny lady who tried every day to be kind. Fell on her arse constantly. Loved Jesus but enjoyed cursing. Embraced paradox and irreverence. And pie. And kittens. And gave a sad-looking pony an apple. You know.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

On you go, then.

Love, Anna x

 

 

 

 

For writers starting out. Do comment, discuss and contribute your thoughts!

I know there are a lot of people out there writing books and a lot of people submitting said books at the moment. I know or have met people who now have stunning commercial success, writers who are agented but yet to have their first book sold, those who work with the small presses and who are not agented, those who are what we might call a hybrid (I am thinking this is likely to be me) – by which I mean agented but also finding publication routes on their own, perhaps with a small press, those who are disconsolate because everything is a flat rejection or they have received no answer at all and those – including recent MA in Creative Writing students – who are, for various reasons, too scared to submit at all. That’s just for starters.

It might come quickly; it could take years. I do think the key thing is not to take rejection personally (while accepting that, maybe, you need to write a different book if nobody at all is biting); also, if you are floored by rejection and delay and disappointment, then this might not be for you. And that, OF COURSE, is fine. Because there is a life beyond writing.

Here’s where I am. I started writing a book, Killing Hapless Ally, a novel, which originally began life as a memoir, in July of 2014; by the 1st of May, 2015 it had a publisher and it was published in March 2016 by the small press, Patrician. I only sent this manuscript to five agents; two rejected it, three didn’t reply at all. I read an article about the press in ‘Mslexia’ magazine and I liked the sound of it, corresponded with its charismatic founder and there we go. I was, I should add, realistic about how visible the book would be, but I have relished the experience and, ever since, the bonds I have made with its readers. Is it a bestseller? Good God no, but it has been important to its readers and the engagement I have had with them has been life changing. With Patrician, to whom I now feel rather bonded, I also published a poem in Anthology of Refugees and Peacemakers (just back from an event at Essex Book Festival on that) and will be co-editor of next year’s anthology, My Europe and editor of its Tempest, which is a book, by various authors, on (Trump) America. And my poetry has been published by the brilliant indie Emma Press, too.

Way leads on to way.

Meanwhile, I spread my wings and wrote another book, a novella, The Life of Almost. I began sending this out before Christmas 2016. I’m a quick worker, apparently. Two agent rejections (one the day I sent it!), three small press rejections (but read on for that and for more on agents), waiting on two further presses and an agent so still out on submissions. BUT during this process, another agent had read a section from Killing Hapless Ally and admired my writing; said agent asked me to send what I was currently working on (as in, The Life of Almost) in partial then in full; told me they thought I was a brilliant writer but that this book was not, though they admired much about it, for them. To their taste, for example, it needed more pace. But I had also told them about my plans for the next book (I actually have four more books sketched out: is that crazy sounding?) and the agent asked me to send them the full manuscript for that as soon as it was ready because they absolutely loved its concept. This was my third text, Passerines.

Meanwhile, one of the other agents told me (having read three chapters of Almost) about how they loved my writing style. That there was much to like; it was innovative and compelling but in the end the book was not right for them. Keep sending! And of the three small presses who rejected me, one said that though they would not be taking this one, they were confident it would be placed and would I send them future work? The other told me there was some lovely writing and they were impressed, but that this text was simply too innovative for them and, on that basis, they would simply not be able to shift enough copies to make it financially viable. I do know that the small presses – whom I adore and champion, by the way – are often those who DO champion the innovative book, but clearly that is not always the case.

So you see, there’s a lot of encouragement in that pile, just as there is a lot of rejection. The rejection is part of the experience and of the learning.

I have almost finished my third novel. So that’s three books – from the first word, I mean – in three years and this is not my day job. I run a a company, teach, have three young boys and I’m a volunteer and mental health advocate, too.  I don’t have a great deal of time so I’ve got to want to do this.

Do you? Take your time and don’t give up.

I may not have hit a super stellar advance just yet and obviously I may never, but I am playing a long game. May those who find later books go back and read my first, for example. We are three years in and I have met so many fascinating people, read hundreds of books – I read a great deal anyway, but I am so much more alive to different presses and sources of reading; it has been such an adventure. I’ve made a film about mental health, presented at a literary festival, had a packed book launch at a wonderful bookshop, spoken to, had dinner with, corresponded with, interviewed and had my work read by – it is happening now – writers whom I admire. I’ve also published poetry and articles and guest blogged. To boot, I think I am a better teacher because I am a better reader and writer and what is more I am able to share my work with students. Right now, I am commissioning those in years 10-13 to write for the two anthologies I have mentioned and, through my company, I felt inspired to set up a year-long bursary so that I could help someone who had had – this is the icing on the cake for me – long term mental health problems (as I have had myself) to evolve and complete a creative writing project.

So that’s where I am now. In the peculiar position of having one book out on subs and another being waited for and…without giving too much away…being discussed. At the weekend I had an offer of publication for my second book, but I am taking my time.

And now I have to make the tea because the kids keep coming in and rooting through the cupboards. Not having the time forces me to write when and as I can and I mull at other times, which I also regard as working. If you wait for your perfect writing environment or space or time, it may never happen. So why not write something tonight and get started – even if it’s just a paragraph?

Do tell me about your experience and about how you are getting on.

Anna.

Killing Hapless Ally: Patrician Press (2016)

The Life of Almost (TBA!) and Passerines (ditto)

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.

Mentoring

https://womentoringproject.co.uk/

This is the link to a mentoring project about which I have heard many wonderful things. Its idea is to link women at the beginning of their writing with more established writers and also agents – and a good number of women give their time to it. It is a free programme.

And I was thinking about it earlier as I suppose I feel like I need the company and the guidance. The fire is there, alright. But I see I need to talk about my writing!

I started writing my first novel (by which I mean, the first word of the first draft) in July of 2014 and it was published in March this year; by any standards, I understand that to be a quick turnaround. Between December 2015 and very recently, I was also writing a second novel; that novel is currently out on submission. It has only been seen by a few people (in addition to some beta readers), but it has been requested in full – and I cannot, I think, write about that in detail, but I will say that it is somewhat nailbiting and yet…I continue to think about it: what might be wrong, what right. I am sure this is a funny period for anyone. Do you start a new book? Take a break?

I started a new book and have begun a third novel. I am actually about a third of the way through the first draft because I really, really want to do this. I’ve met a lot of setbacks and disappointments already, but I won’t go into those because, of course, the key is to keep writing. And if, after such things, you want to carry on, well now – doesn’t that show that it is important; this this is you: what you want?

I avoided writing for so long; or rather, I avoided submitting fiction for so long and then, one day, I took myself by surprise and just started. So, since July 2014, I have written two and a half novels (with the first published), been included in two poetry anthologies and had three national features on me; I’ve written articles for national publications on literature and mental health and I made a  (very frank) film for AXA about managing anxiety that has a huge reach. I started a collection of short stories, two of which I submitted to big competitions (don’t know how I got on yet!) and I am still raring to go.

I read all the time; that’s my greatest teacher. I run a business, tutor and mentor young people, I’m a secondary English teacher from time to time and I have three young sons, with no support from any extended family (I am saying this from a purely factual point of view – keep reading) and I struggle every day – yep; every day – with the legacy of complex trauma and mental health problems. Don’t always win, of course. I also hold down three volunteer posts, two of which I can’t write about here, and one of which is as a volunteer creative writing teacher for adults who have had long term mental health problems. So, these things on board, you see that I have proved to myself that I am able to write in pockets; to think even if there is a small chap tugging at my arm because he wants a snack or the other two chaps are punching each other. I am not going to have peace and quiet to write, but I’ve discovered that I can have a pop anyway.

I have found such rewards in corresponding with writers on social media – twitter in particular. It may not seem so from the outside, when, frankly, most of the time you are going to get rejected and, on sad days, you may have to avoid social media altogether because (well I know I do this and it is truly a bit pathetic!) you get to thinking, “They can do it!” as someone gets a splendid publishing deal or something like that…and then you think, “Oh – but not me. No – I am an outsider. I will never manage that!” But, you know, you have to get over that sort of thing. Do you want to do this, or not? Get in training, then. And what I was saying about writers: I have found great encouragement. I’ve asked questions; written to people when I have particularly enjoyed their books; had some great support and feedback and advice. I mean from both new and thoroughly established writers. And so today I was thinking.

Thinking this.

I see, through the work I do, in schools, through my company and my volunteer work, that mentoring can be extraordinary for young people. When I look back to my younger years, I know I only survived- in my health, or my floundering school work – which floundered because of the distress I was in, unspoken and scared – because there were some possibilities suggested by kind people around me who could nudge me towards the insight to carry on. A good class teacher may be a mentor, but I know from twenty years in and around teaching that the best mentor may also be a class tutor, or an older pupil and that you need to look around; eyes open. For do you know who I turned to, as a kid? A dinner lady called Evelyn who, today, is still one of the people I love most in the world. She’s 87; I met her when I was 4.

And so I am quietly looking around: mentoring for me. I don’t mean for my mental health (it is only that my extensive experience in this area shows me the power of an insightful person) but for my writing: for this career which is inextricably bound up with my deepest sentiment, values and fears. No way round that, I think! Still, I am not sure I can do this alone, as I am. Okay – moreorless alone. I feel a need a period with a guide, a teacher, a mentor. It isn’t, with a large family, a job and multiple commitments, plausible that I could do an MA in creative writing or one of the exciting-sounding courses run by, say, Curtis Brown, but I do want to see what I can do to find that mentor as I go forward with this. Eyes open, then.

Perhaps this will surprise me. Perhaps, with this second book, I will naturally meet this person as part of the process. We shall see.

Love to anyone reading this and…keep reading; keep writing. Bon courage.

People’s Book Prize

LIKED MY DEBUT, KILLING HAPLESS ALLY? YOU CAN VOTE FOR IT THROUGH THE LINK BELOW X

 

http://www.peoplesbookprize.com/section.php?id=6

Killing Hapless Ally

By Anna Vaught
Published by Patrician Press
ISBN 978-0-9932388-6-4
Category Humour
Autumn 2016 (Sept – Nov)

Synopsis

This is a black comedy in which young Alison conceived an alter ego ‘Hapless Ally’ to present a more palatable version of herself to her family and others. Ominously, the alter ego began to develop autonomy. Alison deals with this helped by a varied catalogue of imaginary friends.

Author’s Biography

Anna is an English teacher, mentor and tutor for young people, copywriter and freelance journalist; she has self-published two previous books, been a volunteer nationally and internationally and now writes poetry (to be published by The Emma Press this autumn and Patrician Press in the spring), as well as working on a new novel and some short stories. Anna is also a mental health campaigner and advocate and the mum of three young boys.

Reviews

Amazon (link as above) 7 Reviews
Price £10.00

 

Liked my debut novel, Killing Hapless Ally and want to offer a vote for it? Here’s a link.

 

Anna xxxx

Lost Child to Loved Momma.

 

Anna Vaught

Lost child to loved momma. Parenting for the sick at heart

‘My childhood was not the terrible of which we read in the papers. It was not an imprisonment or a brutal and terrifying thing, so why I am here?’ This is what I said, apologetically, to a skilled, kind psychologist as she helped to put me back together after I had conspicuously failed to function. I stopped apologising, in the end, at her prompting. What I saidit could have been so much worsewas true. But there was no getting away from it: where I had come from had scuppered me and sent me fearfully scurrying from place to place in search of shelter. So to get better, I had to ‘lie down’, as W. B. Yeats had it in ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, ‘where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’. And when I did, wounds began to healbut only after I had confronted things that were frightening and that happened as a commonplace in childhood: the scoff and thump of my brilliant mother; the soft acquiescence then rage of my father; the curses and scorn of a sibling. And I had to do thishad tobecause I was mother of three young ones. And they needed me to be well.

I came from a middle class and well connected family, with both parents paragons of the community, and I had a substantially older brother who was, by turns, angel and devil. When he was devil, I thought it must be me. Within this socially lauded family, there was risible dysfunction, for if you, as a child, are repeatedly told that you were lucky to have been kept at allthat you are an aberration, dreadful, responsible for terrible things and that this is a view held by your entire family and that everyone out there in the chilly old world can see who or what you arethen I am not sure it is easy to rebound and feel at ease. It HAS to be you you you. It cannot be her or them, can it? You are not blameless, but are you that bad?

So, as a young kid, I did this.

I packed it down tightly.

I invented an alter ego (partly to have someone else to confess to; partly to provide a more palatable version of my horrid child-self to provide in company) and gradually began elaborate conversations with imaginary friends from books (and their writers) and songs (and their singers). I had to tell someone, otherwise the anxiety and sadness were so bad that I knew I was going to explode. It sort of worked, but it wasn’t a strategy for a lifetime, or as a mother. And, always, up came the voices from behind the chintz:

Look at you. You should never have been born!’

When I became a mum, the sorrow did not abate and when I look back at all those years of parenting, I well up: I was looking at my babies through a glass darkly and thought I was blight not blessing to these kids. I didn’t feel at ease or safe. It was that horrid internal narrative, you see.

You you you.

If I told you that, at my lowest points, I could barely hear my babies cry without feeling waves of anxiety; if I said I was frightened that I would somehowjust because I was meharm them by dint of being their mother, would that make sense? Self-loathing like this is corrosive and hard to tolerate. I had internalised the notion that I was the bringer of terrible events and no matter how hard I set logic to work, I couldn’t get over it.

But there came a different day.

I remember sitting, paralysed, in the front room. My youngest, then six months old, was there with me; the other two were at primary school. I was frightened, that horrid morning, of everything and thought that I had broken irretrievably. But this is also where life shifted; the paradox of the thing. Now, for the first time, I began to let people in. Friends rallied and advocated for me and I want you to know, if you are looking for help or at sea as I was, that eventually I got the help I needed: partly because of CATcognitive analytic therapydelivered by a hugely skilled psychologist and long-term support, and partly because I let others in. It was life-changing to see what friends did, entrusted with my care and thus that of my three boys, and then to be with this clever, kind lady and God Bless the NHS. We unpicked patterns of thought and found new pathways; gradually, I got rid of the nagging voices (and, in fact, those other voices of which I told you!) in my head and became more dependent on my own voice and judgement. I began to look at my world more clearly and understand that there were some people (especially dead ones!) I could say goodbye to and that I could disentangle myself from past situations by freeing myself from blame for terrible occurrences that had happened to others.

Appropriate therapeutic support meant I could heal and re-build. It meant I could be with my children with less anxiety and shame. And I remember that near the end of my support, I came out of MHRS (Mental Health Rescue Services, but I prefer ‘squad’it’s cooler) and cried a massive cry, up from my toes, like a quake. I was seeing the world from a happy child’s eye: colours were brighter; life was simpler. An epiphany. A breakthrough.

These days, post CAT, are different. It’s imperfect, but I have, in my head, the resources I need. And I know that ultimately, it boils down to this. My kids have seen me sick and well; they know a bit about my own past, but not too much. And when I was really poorly and friends swept in, I knew, despite my distress, and as I wrote above, that this was a turning point. Both in the way my friends were family and in how my kids coped in the midst of crisis and kindness. I wrote about it in my semi-autobiographical book, Killing Hapless Ally. And it went like this:

‘There was no choice but to let the exigencies of motherhood force her to cope. But today, everything was back to front and in the incorrect place; there were two packed lunches in one bag and she was crying and her knees were buckling as she came apart. It is a testament to these children that they went off and out, knowing that they were loved. And knowing you are loved is all, perhaps. Not feeling guilty; dirty; too responsible too soon or with a head full of macabre images and angels howling.

Bye Mum.”

The boys’ eyes were like saucers.’

Knowing you are loved is all. That, I think, cuts to the heart of it. For you and for your children.

Anna Vaught’s debut novel, Killing Hapless Ally, was published by Patrician Press this March. She is currently working on two further novels and a collection of poems. Anna is also a freelance author and blogger, secondary English teacher and tutor, mental health campaigner and advocate and a mother of three boys. www.annavaughtwrites.com or follow her on twitter where she’s @bookwormvaught