Tag Archives: short stories

Swamp Gonna Get You

 

Swamp Gonna Get You

‘Her freaks aren’t real.’

(Jane Bowles on Carson McCullers)

In a small town in Georgia, the Spanish moss cascades from the live oaks, the red earth is soft and warm; the benches are white. At this time of year, though, the grass has begun to parch and, by midday, the frames of the branches are hot to the touch. So, in such, it was good to be in the park with your Kool-Aid, sheltering in what less scorching enclaves you could find and catching the occasional spray from the fountain when a breeze came in your direction. And you want to be there rather than at the strip, with its hot respiring tarmac and its huge Piggly-Wiggly and CVS stores; but even more, you would not want to be on the other side of the town, away from the pretty centre, where green gave way to swamp and the fetid smell caught your nostrils in the summer.

At least that’s what the best ladies who lived on the best street said.

Down by the swamp lived old John Fogle; he stank, said the best ladies; he had, children said, the gift of second sight and, along with his cold, hostile wife and his unfriendly brood of  female offspring, did not like people to stray their way. The children were at school but chose to play together, shunning the company or Missy or Mary Lee or Claudia. Did well in school, though. Top of the class, summa cum laude in the creatives, though the best ladies said these girls would never be scholars. Certainly, the other girls in the class tried to be friendly—the ones, that is, whose mothers had not warned them away from the Fogle girls. The ones with the kinder, more broad minded mothers but also those who wanted to rebel against their mothers—for this was also a town in which mean mindedness and snobbishness tended to run rife. And you heard about the best ladies already.

Today, one young girl was determined. Betty was kind, but also intent on one day getting down to the house and looking more closely at the swamp. And she persisted: “Can’t I come home and play with y’all? Ma says it’s o.k.”

“No. Pa wouldn’t allow it.”

“Why not? I’d be real good.”

“Don’t matter.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. Sump’n. Nothin. Can’t tell.”

This enigmatic last answer was all she needed. So she told her mother that she had

been invited home—and Mother allowed her because she, too, was kind and kind of curious to know about this family and, essentially, believed that they would treat right if treated right. She’d been spat out, too, by the best ladies. Didn’t fit, in gardening club and proper tea. So Betty followed, the girls trying to slough her off.

“Go away. Pa don’t like it!”

“Oh go on. You yella?”

“No. Well, if you’ll go away after.”

But, to the girls’ surprise, John Fogle, who had stood up poker-straight in a menacing way (Betty suddenly shuddering and regretting coming along), said that it would okay as long as she did not stay long. And in went Betty. Sure, the house and its moss-green plot were close to the swamp; you could smell the heavy air. But this place was somehow exotic and beautiful and a breath of fresh air after the tight little corner of town where Betty lived. And the house was tatty, but oddly welcoming and, well, fun. Yes, fun. Like anything could happen. Say…like a hand you couldn’t see, come to rub your back; a gator to rest your feet on; kind time slips where you don’t know when you are. And Betty liked it. Gradually, the girls began to play with their visitor to; chase and hide and go seek and, well, anything that took their fancy. And Betty met their mother who, in a startling and untidy way, was unexpectedly beautiful.

The girl stayed for the evening meal, too. Basic and old fashioned, but substantial, too. And, while no-one said much, Betty realised that she had been accepted. Maybe she would be able to go back. Other folks sucked, with their this and their that; table conversation and hoity toity.

Next day in school, the Fogle girls continued to play together only, but now they looked sideways at her with a hint of a smile. She felt happy. It was, in its way, all rather mysterious. She wondered, too, why John Fogle looked so old: more like a grandfather or even a great grandfather than a father. A tough life? But it seemed so happy there! The best ladies said dwellers in such environs drank bone broth and moonshine, so they looked like Methuselah. Well now. So I expect you, reader, would like to know a few answers, wouldn’t you? Well, the writer Carson McCullers, who came from Columbus, Georgia, wrote that she needed to return to the South from time to time to renew her sense of horror. It’s not that I generalise here, you know, but do you think she had a point? Because John Fogle was not the girl’s’ father and he did have the gift of second sight. The, seer and mystic, was the girls’ great grandfather and he had, for reasons and by folks we cannot name, been preserved for his gifts. And whether he drank bone broth and moonshine, or ate pippins and Chinese pear, he’s still be shining through, oh yes.

Father and grandfather? Gone. To the swamp one day. John Fogle saw what they would become.Told you that old brackish water was fetid. Not just that: it lived and breathed and did what it would do. And John Fogle was its custodian, being no murdering sort himself, exactly. Betty would be just fine because, as I told you, she was kind and looked without arrogance – only with spirit, love and curiosity at the world, in the way child and adult should. The Fogle house was a home of purity and spectral intelligence and out there, on the screened porch when the crickets sang? No finer. And those hoity toity mothers, the best ladies who lived on the best street on the other side of the park? Well, better not go the Fogle way. Swamp gonna get you. And Old John Fogle he gonna push you in and your Sunday glove come floating to the surface

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Feasting and Fasting at the Great House

 

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 postboy 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 lawns and pretty herbals to the rear of the house.

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. And even so it sends a shiver up the spine which is not so pleasant. A death song you’re frightened you might not resist. A tune to lead you up the tenebrous dark spiral staircase of the self.

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 thinks he might like to buy it: a retreat. It has great potential and he knows excellent architects and designers in Paris, where he lives now. He is bold, so he knocks 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—I am sure you know the quality of which I speak: striking and sensual women, with poise and grace; exquisite manners, too. They seem pleased to see him and—he is surprised to entertain this peculiar thought for a moment—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. His watched step brags.

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 (he thinks) 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.

The new wife sits and sulks; loathes her abode because he carved it. And her new husband. Sees herself deposited there, commodified. In time she rails aloud. After this, there is nowhere she can go. She is not of independent means. To return to her parents would be shame abominable, though she was never loved since cradle days. Her tears are insistent.

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. For the new wife, it will be kind. Never loved since cradle days, she now finds company and subtle delight. And the satisfaction of this: knowing that his, her husband’s, will not be a quiet taking, for the sin of presuming to buy what belonged for ever to somebody else. For seeing only his own conspicuous consumption. Buying 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, kiss the new wife and she them, and 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.

Cave Venus et Stellas

Cave Venus et Stellas

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 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, exotically, rather bohemian hours than ordinaries.

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. On the floor he thinks, counting quickly, that he sees hexagons, limned with a pretty language he does not know.

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. For my pharmacopeia. Ha! 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. He is too shy to say he cannot translate all her words. 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 anteroom 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. But she’s his customer, so he must not say it aloud, though to think he might thrills him. And look at her milk-white tapering fingers; ancient, young: long nails. “Yes, I had better. I had better sit.” He is not himself, while her beauty swirls and fizzes stars.

He sits, closes his eyes for a moment to rest. He feels worse. Looking up at the ceiling and so at the fine golden stars, he becomes dizzier and dizzier.  His extinction deeply pleasurable, before he sees and remembers no more. “Orris root and henbane, my darling” says she, stroking his cadaver and removing the cup and saucer from the still warm hand.

And now. The shadowy inhabitants of the rest of the houses in the street come through interconnecting doors -they are corporeal, after all—and 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 potions, even a dainty cosmetic for the ghostly pallor, and this they place in the shallow apothecaries’ drawers. Their pharmacopeia. Ha! 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 who will come to her, while she is floating, as she will be, across the fine encaustic tiles. And the tiles show not hexagons (oh poorly counting man!) but pentagons—no pentangles—and say, in the Latin inscription which our carpenter did not know how to read, “Cave Venus et Stellas.” And if you, too, cannot read this, then you must find out—just in case.

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

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)

Patrician Press Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers

‘We are all from an island or a foreign sun and every one of us uncertain; alone

the human condition isolates us; our experience, our very world

blunted by language of a raggedy drum, our faith sharp and clear

or not so, as we cry out our unbelief, our refugee song,

but together.’

Today, a beautiful and timely book will be published: Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers from Patrician Press. Donations from any profits go to http://www.helprefugees.org and I am proud and delighted to be in it. The publisher has given me permission to include my offering, below.

I feel so passionately about the texts in the book – particularly because of the events of the last few days with the Trump administration pursuing (chaotically, I might add) its aggressive path and watching the egregious sight of our own Prime Minister appeasing Trump.

What unites us is strong; what separates – or rather what we choose to allow to separate us  – can embitter us and will degrade us – if that is the path we choose. Get on twitter: look at the protests, marches and campaigns going on; see what you can do. You may have seen the crowds at Dulles, JFK; watched the people turn out in Boston. Maybe you are going to be outside Downing Street tonight or at the Bristol event. Our family is Welsh-American; we are doing what we can, both sides of the Atlantic: it makes me cry to see how heartbroken my American mother in law is by what she sees. And yet: out we go here and out I know she will go, too. Don’t lose hope and let’s keep the momentum going.

Who is ‘Emigre’ below? Is he or she a refugee? Well, yes. But he or she is also you. You, Trump,  May, Bannon…

                                                            Émigré

I was far from home. I stood on the grey street corner.

I was far from home and stood at the mouth of the sea, ivory curls around my feet.

I was far from home. I stood outside the stores and restaurants at night;

sat in the hotel room, the train compartment, the gimcrack coffee shop;

watched the dark frontiers fade out as the yellow jack of the gas station made midday;

I traced the sad cars on the motorway and my eyes hurt from the strip light.

Memory seared and I drank sour coffee and ate a chocolate bar.

I was far from home; an outsidertossed up as motes from some former life,

composed of Eros, intellect, memory and uncertain dust.

But I was you and I was me. Everyman; foreigner; flâneur; such longueur: étranger

And did you care? Did you stare? But did you know?

We are all from an island or a foreign sun and every one of us uncertain; alone

the human condition isolates us; our experience, our very world

blunted by language of a raggedy drum, our faith sharp and clear

or not so, as we cry out our unbelief, our refugee song,

but together. We beat our palms against the past, each a piece of the continent,

a part of the main: our love tremulous in our hands, like water that shall spill.

The book is a collection of poems and short stories from a wide range of writers. Robert McCrum described it as ‘A gripping, rare and brave collection of new work written in extremis, the classic source of truly original poetry and prose through the ages.’ It has a deeply moving afterword by the jazz musician, Ian Shaw, who volunteered for a year at the Jungle in Calais and two fine epigraphs; one by the poet George Szirtes, on seeing refugees camped in Keleti railway station in Budapest, and the other by The Bishop of Barking, on seeing the refugee children trapped in the Calais Jungle camp. (There is more on the plight of the children at this camp in Ian Shaw’s afterword; I struggled to read this but insisted I did: conscience dictates that we know.)

Do please comment and share. x

(So, you can order it here at Amazon, https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0993494560/ref=cm_sw_r_fa_api_2xRByb1ZJV3FV or go here, to the press site http://patricianpress.com/ or to bookshops where it is on sale; if it is not, you can, of course, order it from them, its ISBN is 978-099349-456-7.) The book is available in both paperback and kindle versions.

A Tale Of Tripe (for Elizabeth David)

(Contains a swear word. There might be more than one.)  This is something I wrote for a food something a while ago. I had rather forgotten about it. But I am taking a little time to clear up old pieces as I wait on my second novel (novella, really) and finish my third.

So.

Elizabeth David. My favourite food writer ever. That’s her in the picture and here is something for her. If you have read my first novel, Killing Hapless Ally, you will have met some pretty scary food at Paternal Grandmother’s House at The Hill. Tripe, slapping and boiling; pickles in a dark store cupboard that frightened me with its eyeball pickled eggs. This was a house of morbid fascinations; of desolate proportions: they talked about terrible deaths over tea, I felt I knew so much more that I should about ways to die, horribly and publicly; on the wall there was a picture of Jesus and underneath that one of kittens: in the damp hallway outside, a terrifying dead great aunt with nasty rat teeth glared from a picture on the wall. But ah yes: the food. It was hearty, but I have not revisited it. Not quite. I feel compelled to gussy up its ingredients so it isn’t so redolent of…well, of horrible deaths. In came Elizabeth David with a blast of sunshine and a tray of tomatoes and sweet peppers. Obviously, this story and partial account of my formative years is not just about the food and not purely literal.

My grandfather taught all his cats – who were called mostly after Old Testament folk – to wipe their feet on the way in. It is true. I have no idea why he did this. My grandmother seemed to loathe everyone beyond The Hill (oh whoops – the book says it’s a work of fiction; well, some of it is, then…) and was good with a gun and at arm wrestling. She had big knuckles and terrifying elbows. I imagined that she killed people she didn’t like. She was full of curses and liked to frighten small kids by telling them that Jesus was looking at them with his beady eye. And not just from the wall.

The days, I will eat tripe, but only in a hot spiced Chinese dish, or with chorizo as a friend from Buenos Aires showed me how to do. Or in ‘E.D.’s’ recipe, below. it is actually rather lovely.

Anyway, my paternal grandmother was the inspiration for this story. Tripe, yes: but a fresh start. New day; new life; new love; new recipe.

They were as strange as all fuck, weren’t they – at The Hill?

A TALE OF TRIPE

Waking in the violet early morning, bathed in sweat and troubled by a night both eerie and vivid, Catherine searched her thoughts: ‘What must I have been dreaming about?’

It didn’t take long, of course: it was the tripe – that and the matriarchs who washed it, handled it with such vigour and presented it with an expectant, nasty gleam in their eyes. Such sweet, creative fiends: mother and grandmother. In Mother’s case, just dressing the tripe would have exhausted her for the day; sent her desperate to the fainting couch. In grandmother’s case, such dressing was simply a prompt to her killing another cow with the large-knuckled hands that terrified the grandchild so much.

Catherine winced: ‘Grandmother and her man hands; downy arms – all wicked with a rolling pin and guarding the old stove with a vicious possessiveness’, thus,

Let no man come near my domain: I will slaughter them – smother them under the blanket of the beautiful tripe.’

That was it. That was the most disquieting image in the nightmare: Grandmother like Moloch waiting for a sacrifice over the fire; Mother’s eyes dancing approval.

Yes yes yes! Feed it to her! Now, now, now!’

I’m so ashamed. I want a normal family and not to feel like this – waking, tripe-terrified.’

Mother and Grandmother were dead, but they found that no excuse. So they visited Catherine regularly, sleeves rolled up, ready to cook.

To rid herself of the present dreamscape, there was nothing for it: go downstairs and find a better image. Tea in a favourite mug was a good start, but Catherine found that her thoughts were leaping from vivid hue – the reddest of pickled cabbage – to dull, cloudy jars in which might have been preserved the innards of an unwanted relative. In grandmother’s pantry there was a hecatomb of conserves; the fruits of the season, incongruously presented in a chamber of horrors. There were pots of umber sludge, eyeball pickled eggs in heavily sedimented jars: damp flagstones underfoot; a smell of sour, crawling mould. There were aprons hanging up, the prettiness of their floral decoration gone to hell in this place of condiments, good housekeeping and no hope. This was a room revisited on other troubled nights for Catherine; she could not let its scents and shapes leave her head and the argot of this poky grey room whispered, ‘Grandmother knows – just as we all know – and she and Mother will come for you.’

Here was a place of extinction – of annihilation, the meaning of such things terrifying in a dream but still only faintly, inchoately understood.

This must be the worst combination: to know that someone is coming for you, but not to understand why, when or how. Or really what that has to do with pickles. Or tripe!’

Ah: the tripe – huge winding sheets of it. It smelled like death. When Catherine’s nights were not punctuated by morbid pickles, siren-calling her to embrace their victim in death, she had nightmares of being cosseted in its velvet crushing embrace. The silky surface was puckered and hollowed. Somewhere else and in some other time, it might have been pretty; like a creamy-white mosaic you would want to touch. But in the nights, and when grandmother or mother served it up as punishment so triumphantly, the tripe blinked at her and writhed in its nasty pool of white sauce, encircled by effulgent lumps of onion. On its surface – its face or was it its back? – were sucker pads like those on the arms of an octopus or some kind of strange sea plant that would caress and then swallow you whole, whispering of a lifetime of sin to you – just to compound the unpleasantness of this particular way to go.

Matriarchs hovering, the tripe came billowing clouds of vapour; it was cooked in a milky broth, all one at first, before you realised the unpleasantness of the discrete parts and sucky stomach-feet turned your (own) stomach. Between the two women, the silent challenge between mother and grandmother, it was a point of honour to make sure that the flour was never properly cooked off; thus, it lurked congealed in tiny mounds – but you didn’t see it in the unmapped viscosity of the sauce. Didn’t see the horrid little tumescence until you began to ingest it. Powder scattered in your mouth when the lump dissected. In a way, this was the worst horror:

And the dust in my mouth as I sat between Scylla and Charibdys. Oh, a fine supper.’

Catherine had always blamed herself for the meals – for why they fed her so. For the spiteful sheets of tripe, served up like victory in chintz.

My childhood looked so tidy from the outside; mother and grandmother were pillars of the community: first for cake in the village show; outstanding for a lemon curd; doyennes of the church flower rota. They prayed hard at the altar, shark eyes squeezed shut. I always thought it was me – it had to be me.’

Send her out to the pantry, in the semi darkness. Those eggs will frighten her a treat – make her more obedient. The mould on her hands! Ha!’

Mother – that’s the way to do it.’

But say these homes must have been full of spite, hurt and venom to make mother and grandmother cook like that? Say it was THEM and I didn’t deserve the tripe? Say it was wrong to shut me in there when I gagged on the tripe and onions and spat out the floury lumps without meaning to and they put me in the pantry like Jane Eyre in the Red Room?’

Catherine was not usually so bold: what was happening now that was different?

Something was coming from the bookshelf.

A small, dry but nonetheless beguiling voice: ‘Come here and open me up, Catherine.’

Now, Catherine was used to having a litter of imaginary friends. When your strange landlocked, emptied-out family surrounds you; when your nearest and dearest seem to close in on you with, “Bad, bad, bad – everyone knows about you” then don’t you need to tell someone? You can’t tell real people because no-one else seems to have a family as peculiar as yours.

And how would I ever explain cooking as a way of throttling or suffocating an unwanted child?’

In the bad dreams, Catherine tended to see her relatives, mother and grandmother predominant, amassed, like the preserves, in a hecatomb. They tumbled out curses at her at home; aligned in neat rows and pretty as pie when out in the cold world which welcomed their jam making, their manners and determined smiles. Who would believe Catherine about Mother and Grandmother? And how would she explain the chamber of soused horrors or the tripe? But here came a friend now; you might know her. To Catherine, she was ED; to the outside world, Elizabeth David.

ED wasn’t the warmest sort, but her books smelled of spice and sunshine; of lemons and emerald parsley. Catherine took French Provincial Cooking from her shelf; it was from this that ED had been speaking to her. Catherine adored ED and all her books; could tell you about the “pale rose pinks of the langoustines” which their author enjoyed, with a fresh and sparkling appetite, alongside a bottle of Muscadet by the Seine. ED relished good butter, radishes with their leaves left on as God had made them; saw the poetry and potency of a flat plate of Arles sausage and black olives.

And the colour, ED: look at the colour of the things you ate and knew how to make! See the lovely creams and greys of shrimp; sunset-glow carrots. For you, even the dark things – the winkles and the cork stuck with pins; things that were muted or pebbly – those things became beautiful. Beautiful – flanking the colour; like a gentle relief. I want to eat like that and I’d like to live like that. Embracing the darkness, yet knowing of its loving, numinous companion.’

ED, not one for a hug, and not particularly fond of metaphor, said, Well, do you have a sharp knife, a hot grill and a will of your own? I’m assuming you have a mandoline, some good bowls – and I will not share my kitchen with a garlic press: I must be firm about that.’

Of course not; I know your feelings on garlic presses. I’m not sure I have a mandoline, I do have plenty of bowls, but some of them are chipped.’ Catherine began to cry.

ED prodded her firmly in the back, coughed demonstratively and said, ‘Chipped is fine, as long as we have at least a few white-lined brown dishes.’

Why do we need these dishes – why must they be as you describe?’

Silence. A sigh. Then:

Fresh contrast. Now, it’s time you stopped thinking about tripe. We are going shopping.’

ED: I am dog tired.’

That is no excuse. Not when we are going to compose hors-d’oeuvres.’

Hurrying to dress, Catherine sighed disappointedly at the drawn face and sad clothes; shuddered at the lingering dreams. Still, ED at least knew about the tripe, so they wouldn’t be cooking that. They would grace a table with red tomatoes, yellow mayonnaise, sea salt and olive oil; a beautiful salad of grated carrot. And could it be celeriac that ED meant for the mandoline – all cut into the thinnest strips and highly seasoned with mustard, plenty of vinegar and a voluptuous thick mayonnaise?

Out they went, Catherine chatting silently to ED and now lighter of foot on their way to the wonderful market. But two shadowy figures watched her, curses dribbling from their lips with the last lappings of morning tea and vulgar gulps of toast with ochre marmalade. And inside Catherine’s house, gently, timorously now, was a faint smell of the sea, a distant grating of nutmeg and a fresh twist of black pepper.

Sacrilege. I smell no wash day smell! I hear no slap of tripe against the pot!’ cursed grey Grandmother and Mother.

Afloat, through thought, in Catherine’s house now was the peaceful aroma of potage bonne femme: of cream, chervil, softly cooked potatoes and leeks, bathed in sweet butter. The shadowy figures cursed more, spitting unkind crumbs.

Pain grillé aux anchois? Salade au chapon? Get the little bitch. Boil up the tripe, Mother. And bring out the ammunition from the pantry.’

Catherine and ED, silently communing over their purchases, bought a mandoline and the requisite dishes, great bunches of green things for the salade de saison, dimpled lemons, celery, celeriac, lumpy tomatoes – things that promised succour. And life.

But on returning to the house, dull wafts of tripe waited for her, as the shadowy figures took their joyful and vindictive hold of the kitchen. Garish red cabbage with a sweet, cloying smell sat with the cruel eggs on the worktop. Amuse-bouches of the sort you serve if you hate your guests; starters gussied up a little with hard bread, sea-foam milky tea and a cucumber cut into behemoth chunks. And the boiling tripe hissed milky sap.

No matter’ said ED, walking briskly right through the shadowy figures, rolling up her sleeves and assembling a work station next to the eyeball eggs.

The eggs leered as ED tasked Catherine with slicing the celeriac on the mandoline, concocting a highly seasoned dressing for its matchstick strips; Arles sausage was laid out on a large flat white plate, its fat coin slices overlapping; in the centre, a carefully built mound of black olives. Both glistened and invited. The tripe spat on, onions twisting and squirming round it, as ED and Catherine cut tomatoes and sprinkled them with gently snipped chervil – the dressing to be added “absolutely” said ED “only when the diner wants to eat.” Catherine could feel on her pulse the metallic, penny-tasting lure of a proper, fine misshapen tomato. They grated carrots almost, “Almost I said!” to a purée, seasoning them carefully; made a wobbling heap of mayonnaise with fresh eggs and olive oil from the first pressing. There was bread with a shiny, crackling crust, butter and some best quality anchovies.

It is no shame to leave them in their tins if they are high class brands’, barked ED. Catherine hurried to place back those she had already decanted.

The table of hors d’oeuvres, for a twelve o’ clock lunch, was almost set. Almost. ED revealed a surprise. Out from a white plastic bag, secreted in the depths of ED’s basket, came a single slithering sheet of tripe. ‘For you.’

Tears pricked Catherine’s eyes. ‘No, not you too – please not you Elizabeth. Don’t make me cook it!’

From the room and the world all around came the laughter; the delighted grey shapes of mother and grandmother.

Boil up the tripe, there’s a good girl! Choke choke choke on the nuggets of flour!’

So ED was one with them, then.

It had to be me, didn’t it? I deserved what I got: a lock up in the pantry; a stifling sheet of tripe and the unlovely curlicues of onions; gallons of white sauce and curses.’

The spectres grinned; the jarred eggs hummed, if ever a jarred egg could.

Now do be quiet. Our lunch à deux first, then I shall teach you something new. You will have to boil the tripe briefly, but then you will grill it to a sizzling crispness, with a coating of egg and breadcrumbs and serve it with a sauce tartare. A revelation, I think, It is called tablier de sapeur – or fireman’s apron.’

I can’t.’

You will.’

Lunch. The fierce, seductive rasp of the anchovy, crunch of good bread and the delicacy of finely cut celeriac, There were draughts of wine; ED passed knife and salad servers through the spectres of matriarchs: it was a celebration. Then lost sleep came and took her pupil. On waking, ED had gone, but Catherine obligingly boiled the slice of tripe, cutting it with a certain passion into a neater rectangle. She basted it with egg, coated it with crumbs and grilled it until it was golden and the edges had caught on the flame. She ate the robust little apron with the sauce tartare that ED must have made for her, left with an uncommonly sweet note nearby:

See off the spectres; try something new – tablier de sapeur: adieu; adieu.’

Hmmm. She almost liked the fireman’s apron.

It’s not my favourite thing, but then neither is it the stuff of nightmares, thrust back to the sound of laughter into the dark pantry. Ha! “Grill to a sizzling crispness” ED had said. A dynamic phrase; a confident one.’

Catherine threw wide the curtains, welcomed in the vestiges of the day and scattered the grey tripe boilers and pickle hoarders into pieces.

Try something new. Mother; Grandmother. Keep being dead now. Adieu; adieu!’

That night, Catherine dreamed only of the next chapters in her life: ‘Soups and Eggs, cheese dishes and hot hors-d’oeuvre.

Food for a writing competition and a beautiful book to buy.

Now that Killing Hapless Ally has gone to press and awaits its first reviews, I am doing various media bits and pieces to promote the book. Well, not only to promote the book, because I do have a passionate and campaigning interest in mental health and in mental health provision and so, with the exception of (fingers crossed) a piece on my correspondence with Catherine Camus, daughter of Albert, that is a book link up I shall make the most of. I have been asked to make a short film about managing anxiety and will tell you more about that later. Soooo…I am working on The Next One, the working title of which is A Life of Almost and, for practice and for joy, I thought I would enter some short story prizes.

Here’s something that caught my eye last year; I thought it was a wonderful idea: a short story on the theme of food.

http://www.oxford-hotels-restaurants.co.uk/the-mogford-literary-prize/

This morning I am working on an entry for this competition. Wish me luck! Last year I wrote a piece called ‘A Tale of Tripe’ (didn’t win but up we get – competition is stiff indeed). Anyone, previously published or unpublished can enter and the winning entry will be featured in the Oxford Literary Festival.

Then…tonight I start on the next of two short stories, but still mulling over which one to think about first. Here’s the BBC/Booktrust competition, which has just opened. You do need to have a history of publication to enter this, but it need not be in fiction.

http://www.booktrust.org.uk/prizes/1

Then there’s this – which has a chosen theme: ‘Ageing’.

https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/competitions

This competition ends pretty soon (15th February; the other two are March) but I have already plotted it out…..

HAPPY WRITING

PS. The image I have set for this post is the gorgeous cover of Martin Johnson’s new title for Patrician Press, Robert Macfarlane’s Orphans which launches on the 24th of February at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, (where Robert Macfarlane is an English fellow). Martin’s book of poems draws on the beautiful, rich and important  prose of Robert Macfarlane, who has written so evocatively on landscape, place, travel and nature – just as Edward Thomas  in his prose works did with the poems of his friend, Robert Frost. I look forward to buying this book. Here’s an article about the friendship between Thomas (of whom I am a huge fan) and Frost while I’m at it…http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jul/29/robert-frost-edward-thomas-poetry