INSPIRATION: The Walls Have Ears (and Eyes)

(From a work in progress – ‘Appleheart’)

There is a saying: “The walls have ears.” It means that you should be careful of discussing secrets too loudly because you never know who is listening. I used to think it started in World War Two because of all the secret spies in dark, belted raincoats. But no… as early as 400BC in Ancient Greece they had listening posts installed in their palaces to eavesdrop on gossiping visitors.

But, sayings aside, walls really do have ears. And they have eyes too. The first time I learnt this I was five years old and at my grandma’s house. I was in trouble for stealing a biscuit from the cupboard without asking, and my punishment was to stand in the corner of the hallway facing the wall. That sounds strange, but Grandma was a retired Geography teacher and missed her job with all her heart. She would talk to my brother and I as if she was taking a class, and liked to test us on capital cities and river names.

Standing in the corner of my grandma’s hallway in my disgrace, the stolen shortbread still melting on my tongue, I placed my hands on the walls, closed my eyes and saw Grandad.

He stole in quietly from the garden in his gardening slacks, mud on the knees, holding a small bottle of golden liquid. Peering around like a burglar, he lifted the bottle, took a swig, and opened the hall cupboard. With supreme care the lid was screwed back on, the bottle lifted high and placed behind a tin of paint on the top shelf. Then he tiptoed back outside and came in again, this time full of noise. Stomping feet, sighing, swishing hands together. ‘Hey, Joan, put the kettle on, will you?”

When my grandma released me from the corner and I told her what I’d seen, her face drained of colour. She marched over to the hall cupboard, moved the tin of paint to one side and brought forth the half-empty bottle of golden liquid with a shaking hand. She surprised me with the force of the sobs that bent her in half.

When I saw Grandad that day, he had already been dead for two years from liver failure, and she continued to find hidden whisky all over the house for a long time to come, each bottle a painful slap in the face.


For more on ‘Appleheart’, which takes place in a haunted Art College :

APPLEHEART First Day Nerves

APPLEHEART Upside-Down

Thank you for reading!

How Music Can Help You Write

A lot of fiction writers find music a real distraction when writing, but here’s why I find it a real help…

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Look Out for the Shiny Things

After years of sticking rigidly to that long term goal, I started saying yes instead of no to those wonderful, fleeting opportunities on the periphery, and this is what happened…

I listened to Tim Minchin’s inspirational address, ‘Nine Life Lessons’, again a few weeks ago, and keep coming back to one thing in particular (and those of you who know me won’t be surprised that it wasn’t the ‘do more exercise’ one :-D)

It was concerning goals, and the realisation that his words didn’t strike a chord with me the first time I heard the speech, years ago. And that’s because of things that have happened between now and then to make me realise he’s absolutely right. Here’s what he said:

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One Great Photo: Skate Girls of Kabul

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‘Skate Girls of Kabul’ by Jessica Fulford-Dobson

I popped this photo in my Pictures folder a while ago now, and keep seeking it out because I love everything about it; the mix of colours, the cheeky grins, and the unexpected source of all the fun – the scribbled-on skateboards. Afghan Girl Power!

In her book, Jessica, the award-winning photographer, says: “It’s hard not to think of Afghan girls skateboarding as a remarkable and quirky clash of cultures. But when you see these girls in their beautiful, bright, flowing clothes tearing around the skate park, often yelping and shrieking with laughter, your preconceptions drop away. You realize that however unusual it may seem, they’re doing what comes naturally to them. As with girls anywhere in the world, once you give them the chance to do something they love, each one begins to discover her own personality, her sense of style and how to express it.”

Read more about Jessica Fulford-Dobson and ‘Skateistan’ here.

For the writers among you; it’s just begging for a great story to go with it 🙂

‘Write What You Know is the Stupidest Thing I Ever Heard’

And when it’s someone like Kazuo Ishiguro who’s telling you that, it’s definitely worth listening.

Kazuo

There was a great article on LitHub this week, with writing tips from the Nobel prize-winning author. Not only does he stick two fingers up at writing what you know – yay! – but he also tells of the CRASH approach to writing, which enabled him to write ‘Remains of the Day’ in just four weeks!

Many years ago, I took a writing night-class. I was about twenty years old and had a lot to learn about writing. Unfortunately, the people in the class were not the sort to learn lessons from. We were given a story prompt. Something innocuous like ‘The best day of my life’.

After listening to one elderly ladies story (the average age of the class was about sixty-five) about her trip to a sweet shop when she was a little girl, it was my turn. I stood up, absolutely petrified about reading out loud, and immersed them in a story of a first world war aeroplane designer who suddenly realised he was in love with his (male) mechanic.

When I finished, there was silence in the room. I balked and sat down, thinking I must have done it all wrong. And then one of the ladies coughed and said:

“It’s better to write about what you know, dear.”

 


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Creatives with Claws.. Gggrrr!

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PublishThe ‘Publish My Book’ button seems to be a multitasking piece of HTML. Not only does it somehow transfer all your words and pages into a proper book that people can buy on the other side of the world – wow! – BUT it also opens some kind of hidden tap in your brain through which all your creativity magically begins to drain away.

There you are thinking, ‘right then, onto the next book’… You have so many awesome ideas, all written down in a pile of ragged notebooks. There is even the odd chapter or three of a shiny, new project hidden away in your computer. It’s calling to you in a polite ‘excuse me’ kind of voice. You look at it. It doesn’t look quite as good as you thought it did, but you read to the end. You raise your fingers above the keyboard, ready to carry on. And…

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How long does a book take to cook?

The previous post – ‘First Day Nerves’ is connected to this one. Both come from the same story, which will probably be called APPLEHEART.

It will be a long time before I can call it a book, and, to be honest, it’s already been stewing for a good number of years. Checking back, I wrote the Appleheart excerpt in 2014, and First Day Nerves is from 2016. It’s now almost 2018 and I have the best part of four chapters. Four years to write four chapters!?

This is what I like to call a ‘slow-cook book’, and they’re often the best. I’ll keep adding to it, and all sorts of ideas will get mixed in along the way. It should make for lots of flavour, just like a long-simmered stew!

Appleheart

APPLEHEART

My mother said I would regret choosing art as a career. My father couldn’t care less what I chose. He was, however, worried about Ned and drama. If he’d ever seen any of Ned’s acting; if he’d bothered to go to the school plays or the drama group productions like I had, he wouldn’t have been so worried. My brother was a natural. We were still in nappies when he began to people his world with characters from his imagination. They occasionally took him over so that he became someone else entirely. Many times, over the years, his acting made me laugh so hard I was sick, or cry until I had a headache.

As kids, we would sit together in a tent pitched in the middle of the room we shared. It was like a wigwam, but one we’d made by haphazardly stitching old sheets together and stealing bamboo canes out of the garden. Only we two were allowed in. No family. No friends. Because, inside that tent, was our own little world. A stage for Ned, a studio for me. We would sit together for hours, forgetting empty tummies and full bladders and all the boring routines of life. I had my drawing pad and my coloured pencils on my knee. Ned told me all about the people in his world. I drew them for him.

“Draw an apple for Murphy. He loves apples more than anything.”

I drew an apple for Murphy and tilted the pad.

“No. He only likes red apples. Not green ones.”

I rubbed out the apple, picked up the red pencil, and started again. “What about Mia Emilia? What does she like best?”

“Mia Emilia doesn’t like anything anymore. She’s always sad. She has a face like this.” He pulled the saddest face I’d ever seen. “And she only ever talks in a whisper.” Continue reading

Me, Marie Antoinette and ‘The Moment’

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I remember we were at a friend’s house. I must have been about four. They had white blinds hanging in long strips at the windows, and I spent a long time pulling (‘Gently please, Jojo!”) at the plastic, beaded cord, twisting the strips open and closed. Letting the sunlight into the room in bright stripes across the beige carpet.

Then the TV came on. A children’s programme for us little ones to watch. We planted ourselves, cross-legged, on the carpet. The grown-ups were chatting, their existence stripped to knees and feet, hands holding steaming mugs of tea and reaching for biscuits. Faceless. Just background noise.

But on the screen… on the screen was a woman clothed in a dress of cream and gold that came out from her narrow hips and took over the whole corridor of a sumptuous palace. She was like a doll, with white hair piled up high and unmoving on the top of her head, red lips and a black spot painted on her lip. This, the narrator told us, was ‘Marry Ann-twan-ett’ Continue reading

INSPIRATION : The Perfect Gift

This time the inspiration is not a picture, but a whole chapter of history. This story is dedicated to all those who breathed their last breath in ‘the war to end all wars’ – if only that were true – and to the memory of Harry Redman, my great-grandfather, who managed to live through it all. Unlike so many of his fellow soldiers.

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INSPIRED

Half light. A mist shrouds the muddy trenches and banks in Harry’s small corner of France. In the perfect silence, skeletal trees stand still, holding their breath and playing dead. Like we all should be, thinks Harry. Especially today.

Harry is awake with only an inch of a cigarette and the relentless itch of lice for company. He is first up that day and every day, but only because he can’t sleep. Sixteen nights in a row now, with barely more than an hour or two at the most. And those fractured hours are filled with dreams. Whole passages of the day re-enacted in the dark theatre behind his eyelids. Last night it was Johnson, thrown six feet into the air by a shell, and landing, with his head missing, right on top of Harry. Again and again. Over and over. In his dreams, Harry has time to appreciate the precision of the shrapnel’s surgery, but when he wakes he is horrified by his unconscious thoughts. He misses Johnson’s smiling head, so full of jokes. They all do.

It’s not long before they go over the top into No Man’s Land, the playground of fate. Every time he climbs the ladder he says goodbye to his life, but it doesn’t seem to want to say goodbye back. His thoughts drift from family to sweetheart to all the friends he has lost on these battered fields, and all the friends he still will lose.

Now everyone is awake, and the stench of nervous sweat and cigarette smoke mixes with the sweat smell of death. Time has passed him by again. Maybe he slept after all. The soldiers are wide-eyed and scared. They smoke madly and talk about what they will do when they get back to England. It’s meant to be a lucky thing to do, but Harry can’t see how it makes any difference, so he never joins in.

“It’s my birthday today,” he tells them, uncomfortably aware of a nervous twitch just starting up in under his left eye. “I’m nineteen.”

They pass him a cigarette and clap him on the back. Pearce begins to sing the ritual song, but has trouble with the word ‘happy’, so only manages a couple of lines. Steadman’s watch still works, and he is glancing at it so frequently it must soon be time. Harry blinks hard, his twitchy eye becoming unbearable. He sucks the very last of the warm smoke from the birthday cigarette into his lungs, and stamps the butt into the mud. Perhaps the last butt.

“Right, men. Space out and wait for the signal. Steady pace. No running,” the officer calls out from the far end.

His voice is shaky and Harry thinks what a hard job he has, leading his men into such uncertainty. And for what? A few feet of land? Another hole in the ground?

“I don’t care about England anymore. I just want to live,” Pearce whispers to him.

“I don’t think this is about England anymore.”

“Then why are we here?”

Harry shrugs. He doesn’t know.

And then the officer is raising his hand and the first soldiers are on the ladders and up over the bank, exposing themselves bit by bit to the German guns. Heads, then shoulder, then torsos. ‘Shoot at me!’

Harry’s legs refuse to obey. This always happens. Every time. Pearce has to give him a gentle shove. He’s not sure what he will do if he loses Pearce, because he needs that shove. The momentum carries his body while his mind screams at him to stop. He feels naked as he walks fast, so keenly aware of being breakable. With his rifle clutched to his chest, he concentrates hard on the ice-cold metal of the weapon and tries to forget where he is. With one step he stumbles into a shell crater, with another he nearly falls over a rotting corpse. The sound of the guns is deafening and bullets zip past like angry hornets, inches from his ears.

The fog swirls and shifts, and Harry can see where it’s all coming from in the distance. The German trench, and the brigade’s objective, nearing rapidly. He stares around him. They have never got this far before. How far are they supposed to go? Are they meant to jump down into the German trenches? Of course they are – it’s the whole point of the exercise. And if so, then dear God, let him be hit now. Pounded with bullets is infinitely better than being bayoneted to death. Having to look the enemy in the eyes and discover they are just like you. Scared and shell-shocked, with a heart that beats like any English heart.

He begins to slow.

“It’s my bloody birthday,” he complains to himself.

He wants to put a hand up to the Germans and tell them what an important day it is. Perhaps they will invite him in for sausages and sauerkraut. A mug of beer.

He is smiling when his bullet finds him. It rips through the skin and muscle of his thigh and tears through his femur. It wipes the smile off his face. He feels it go in, looks down and sees a spurt of blood, falls over when his leg buckles. But he doesn’t feel any of the pain. After the initial surprise, he holds onto his tin hat and edges his way backwards, away from the German lines, on his bottom. As he does, his trousers start to work their way down. He stops to ease them up, and laughs out loud. Even when the pain comes, he laughs, flaked out with his head in a puddle of mud.

Pearce is suddenly beside him, crouched as low as he can get. He grabs Harry under the armpits and hauls him backwards. It’s a long way and the shells are screaming all around them, but they make it. Pearce, exhausted, almost throws him down into the trench, and into safety. They look at each other for a long while until the stretcher bearers come to take Harry away. Then Pearce, unable to delay any longer, climbs the ladder back into hell. He turns near the top.

“Happy birthday,” he grins.

Now he can say the ‘happy’ word. Now Harry is homeward-bound.

Harry closes his eyes as the stretcher rocks him back and forth, a baby in a cradle. He feels the fatigue borne of sixteen long nights lap over his body. Finally, he can sleep. His enemies have given him the most perfect of gifts.

(Photo by Frank Hurley)

Choose Happiness

Your ‘4 Agreements’. Read them, take them on board, work at them, make them habitual. Good advice for life from Don Miguel Ruiz. (Thanks Graham)

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