Monday, 8 December 2014

A Village Full of Stories

Yesterday one of the younger women in the village knocked at the door – very sweetly, she’d bought three copies of The Diamond Thief as Christmas presents for her friends’ children and asked me if I’d sign them. I went along to drop them back this evening. On the way back, Major Jim was putting out his rubbish for tomorrow morning. He convinced me (all right, I’ll be honest: I didn’t need much convincing) to come in for a bit for what he described as a ‘warming’ whisky and ginger. As we chatted, among other things, he asked me what I was working on at the moment. Figuring that he wouldn’t be particularly interested in the YA supernatural Scandi-noir murder mystery I’m currently at second draft with, I described the novella I am planning that is loosely set in our village and even more loosely set around the plane crash that happened on the fell in 1957. (One of several, in fact: there is the lost wreckage of a handful of unrecovered aircraft still hidden in this pockmarked, expansive landscape).

“Ahh,” said Jim. “Yes, I headed the inquest into that. We held it in the village hall.”

This was news to me. He went on to tell me that it was very likely John Thirlwell (the farmer I see on the fell almost every day, and who always stops to say hello) who brought the bodies down on the back of his tractor and that there was someone connected to the village in the crash who is buried in the graveyard.

“But you’ll have to ask Gladys more about that,” he said. “She’ll remember better.”

Gladys is one of the oldest, and most sprightly, inhabitants of the village: I last saw her at the village book club outing on Saturday, in which we sat through a tediously paced yet beautifully staged production of Peter Pan. She’d just returned from an impromptu trip to the Isle of Bute. ‘Glad’, as she’s known, is in her 70s. Her mother is still alive and, at 95, is also still a resident of the village. Gladys has a memory like an elephant. I know from experience, for example, that she remembers the Hungarian family that came to live in the village after the revolution in 1956. There was a husband and wife and a little girl of about three who spoke no English who came out to play with the village children every once in a while. There was also an older teenage boy, who wasn’t of the family but who seemed to have come with them from Hungary in an attempt to escape whatever horrors his own family had experienced there. The two men worked in the coal mines above the village, but it was evident that even in this most rural, most silent corner of the Pennines this boy could not heal from his trauma, because one day he blew himself up with dynamite just to escape whatever demons had followed him from his home country.

For such a tiny, inaccessible place, this place has such stories. I can’t help but think that the older generation, who are fast approaching their final years, will be taking with them an entire library of them as one by one they take their place in our tiny graveyard. Which is why, as soon as I get back after Christmas, I’m going to start constructing an aural history of the village, starting with Gladys and Major Jim.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Power of a Picture

My current read is 'Here I Am', Alan Huffman's biography of the war photographer Tim Hetherington, who met his death while covering the fall of Gaddafi in Misrata, Libya in 2011. I had been meaning to read the book for a while and a few weeks ago a copy came into the shop, so I nabbed it - one of the advantages of having a second hand bookshop in the family.

I've always been interested in war reportage. When I was younger, it was my main reason for starting my first degree in Serbo-Croatian Language and Literature: at that time the civil war was still raging in the former Yugoslavia. I wanted to understand the historical reasons behind the war, but more than that I wanted to be there during the conflict, to talk to the people caught up in it and to hear their stories: I thought I wanted to be a war journalist. I thought that if I spoke the language, coupled with the experience I already had as a published writer, someone might be willing to take me on. It didn't happen - I struggled with the course and ended up transferring to do English Literature at Sussex. Now, I think that if I had ended up in a war zone, I probably wouldn't have dealt with the realities of it at all well, although I was far more bullish about my own security back then. But it has left me with an enduring respect and fascination for those who repeatedly put themselves in harm's way to let the rest of the world see what's happening in conflicts we can barely imagine - and often don't want to.

War reportage is one potent example of a situation where photographs can often be so much more effective than words. The words of a report can easily be drowned out or skimmed over, but an image can stick in the brain after nothing more than a glance. This happened to me with the following photograph:

I first came across it while visiting South Africa in (I think) 2006. It was taken in Liberia some years earlier, at the height of that country's second civil war. A large print of it was was part of a small exhibition in an artsy cafe in Muizenberg, Cape Town. It was framed and for sale, and I was very tempted to buy it. Something about it drew me in - the weird beauty of all that metal turned to lace by bullets, the strange tranquility of the resting rebel beneath the shell holes in the wall, his colourful clothing… it seems to me to capture the many juxtapositions to be found in wartime. The friend I was with at the time couldn't understand why I would want such an image - with its inherent context - on my wall. I think to her, buying it would have somehow meant I was finding something attractive in an entire people's misfortune. Perhaps she was right. Anyway, I didn't buy it. But that image always stayed with me.

Some years later, I searched for it online, starting with the name of the cafe where I first saw it and then looking through hundreds of images of the Liberian conflict. Eventually I found it, but inevitably, if I wrote down the photographer's name, I forgot it sometime later. Reading 'Here I Am' made me think of it again, for Hetherington started his career in Liberia, photographing rebels exactly like the one in this picture. I wondered whether it was him who had taken the shot that had so captured my attention all those years ago, and searched for it.

In fact, this picture wasn't by Hetherington - it was taken by a journalist called Nick Bothma, who is still alive and well - his website, and many galleries of his beautiful images, can be found here. Now he photographs subjects as diverse as honey bees and Usain Bolt. I would love to speak to him, to see if he remembers taking this photograph, and whether how he sees it matches up to how it effected - and still effects - me.

Thursday, 6 November 2014


A new (very) short story of mine is being published by the Extract(s) literary website today. It's based on a fictionalised memory from my childhood. I vividly remember those cherry blossoms, but I only have one brother, not three, and he isn't any of these boys.

The story is here, if you'd like to read it: Shibboleth.

In other news, I have finally managed to read all the way through my complete WiP, making a fair few edits throughout. I'm still terrified about sending it to Ella, but I think I will be doing so sooner rather than later. Fingers crossed…

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

To begin, begin

This week, I have set aside today and tomorrow to do a complete re-read of the full text of the manuscript I finished last week, in preparation for sending it off to my agent, Ella. Having been completely immersed in it for the past couple of months, and intermittently for a year before that, I took most of Sunday and all of yesterday off in the hope that it would clear my mind ready to be able to read it afresh. Now, sitting here at my laptop, I find myself in distinct procrastination mode. I'm finding it very difficult to begin the read-through. I keep finding other things to do instead, like the washing up and making cinder toffee for the village bonfire tomorrow night.

There's a sense of genuine fear bubbling in my gut. This isn't new: confronting my own work is always daunting. What if I read it and despair, thinking it's terrible and unsalvageable? This is a terror I always have, indeed have always had since the very first time I handed in an English essay at school and was completely unable to tell whether it was good or an utter pile of un-markable tosh. This manuscript marks the first time I will have handed a completed manuscript to my agent, and it feels rather like being back at school.

And oh look: this blog has provided another method of procrastination. Sigh.

Monday, 3 November 2014

The Adoration of Colonel Spink

Today a very short story of mine is being featured on, a blog that uploads a new piece of flash fiction every day. It's called 'The Adoration of Colonel Spink'.

I'm very new to flash fiction, but I'm really enjoying the challenge of writing so concisely.

Friday, 31 October 2014

A short, nasty story for Halloween!

The Nature of the Beast

She looked up from the cellar-below-a-cellar, a folded-double white grub that should not have been possible, but somehow was. Crouching in one corner, staring up at us through the shelter of her hands with eyes that were all pupil: black, like the deed that had put her there. God only knew the last time she’d seen light.

The reek from the hole was enough to make me retch. Usually that’d set the boys giggling, but not today. I saw Harrison getting out of the way sharpish, his Egg McMuffin making its way back up as the stench forced its way into his mouth. The smell wasn’t just her filth alone. It took about ten seconds to work that out. It was shit and bile, but it was blood and gore too. It was caked over the walls of that tiny room like wallpaper paste.

We’d come looking for dead prostitutes. It looked as if we’d found them.

We hauled the child out, my jacket over her head for fear of hurting her eyes. My first day as Inspector and this was what fate had dealt me: a hideously damaged child and a ruined suit. Oh, and the black eye he’d seen fit to germinate last night. As a reminder, he’d said, though don’t ask me of what because I didn’t enquire. I never do.

We asked the kid her name, but she didn’t answer. A girl of six, maybe older if she was malnourished. She smiled instead of speaking and that was when we saw her teeth, pearly white and all filed into points as sharp as nails.

We took her to the station. Once we were there I retrieved my jacket but she screamed blue murder. I tried to give it back, but she kept on until we turned all but one of the lights off in the interview room. We left her there, in the dark – water and a sandwich on the table, a blanket around her shoulders until Child Services could arrive with clothes, someone in the observation room to keep an eye on her. The social workers were slow to arrive, but then what else is new? Understaffed, they said. Aren’t we all? Not that they would have known what to do with her any better than we did. How do you deal with a child pulled right out of the belly of hell?

Forensics reckoned they found the pieces of sixteen women down there. Two were the ones we’d gone looking for. The rest, god only knew. My guess was they were all toms. When a prostitute goes missing, it takes a lot for anyone to notice and even more for anyone to mention it to us.

Some of the bigger pieces were bone, forensics said. The thing that puzzled them, though, was that they’d all been chewed. There were marks consistent with gnawing, the sort of thing you’d find on a skeleton dumped in a forest. Animal disturbance, they called it, as if some creature had been down there, but it wasn’t one they could identify. Not a rat. Not a fox.

I got the girl’s teeth photographed and showed it to them. Yes, they said. That would just about do it. Moulds would be better, of course, to make sure. But yes, it was likely. Jesus.

We had the duty doctor take a look at her. She wasn’t malnourished. In surprisingly good health, apparently, considering. Anything wrong, doc? I asked, once he was done. You’re awfully quiet. She’s so calm, he said. Shock, I suggested. Trauma. Psychological as well as physical. He gave me a look. It drifted over my right eye. Next time, he said, why not give the bastard as good as you get?

I went to the bathroom and pasted on more foundation. A bit of cover up too, to be on the safe side. Then I went into the observation room. Matthews was on watch and had been for too long, so I told her to go and get a cup of coffee. On the other side of the glass, the girl was sitting on the bench, knees drawn up to her chest, twisting her head from side to side like she was trying to ease a crick in her neck. As I watched, she stopped. She put one foot down and then the other, slowly, as if carefully considering each move as she unfolded herself. She gripped the edge of the bench with one hand and then the other. She stood up and stayed there for a moment. It was dim in there, but I think she was sniffing the air. Testing it. Then she walked toward me, in a straight line that began where she had been sitting on the bench and ended where I stood on the other side of the glass.

She pressed in close, until her nose was flush against the pane. Her breath burst against it in little puffs that pooled on the glass and then gradually dissipated. It took me a moment but then I realised. For her, the glass wasn’t one way. With her eyes, her huge, black, all-pupil eyes, it was perfectly transparent. She was looking directly at me. She cocked her head to one side. She opened her mouth and she smiled. A shark in an aquarium, baring its teeth.

Matthews came back a few minutes later, so I left.

It wasn’t difficult to catch him. He came back a few nights later, juxtaposed in rumpled leather – muscled arms, scrawny body. He turned out to be someone we’d had reports about for a few months. He liked to go around with a crossbow strapped over his grubby biker’s jacket, scaring the locals. When he walked into the warehouse, he was holding one of the arrows. The shaft was threaded with the carcasses of squirrels: six of them, skewered in a line like moles on a barbed wire fence.  

We were waiting in the cellar and nabbed him when he bent down to open the hatch. He didn’t put up much of a fight. He surrendered his weapon easily enough, though he tried to keep hold of the squirrels. He kept looking at the cellar-below-the-cellar, the hell hole where he’d kept his little girl.

I put the cuffs on him myself. As I clicked them shut, he asked where she was. Safe, I told him.

He nodded. Don’t let her out, he said.

Really? I said. Is that because, according to you, that’s where defenceless children belong? I nodded at the tiny hole of hell at our feet, the one we’d rescued her from.

He blinked, as if waking from a long sleep. It’s the nature of the beast, he said. That’s all. It’s just the nature of the beast.