In Response to Coffee and Conversation

Culture Monk Blog

Culture Monk Blog

One of my favourite blogs, Culture Monk now called Coffee and Conversation, is written by Kenneth Justice. He discusses many big themes, such as community, culture and religion, and I often find myself nodding in agreement (although as an agnostic I don’t necessarily agree with everything he writes).

Today he published a post called Adulthood no longer exists…. I had to read it, because it has occurred to me many times since becoming a grownup that there aren’t really any grownups and we’re all winging it. In fact there’s a quote to that effect going around Facebook at the moment (I’ll link when I find it).

I think you become most aware of it when you have children and you realise you have to start being the adult. I often look at my parents and my father-in-law and think they seem so grown-up, but I know that they don’t feel any different inside than they did when they were in their teens or twenties, just the same as me.

I also read the article because recently I’ve felt that my husband and I need to grow up a bit more, take a bit more responsibility, spend a bit less time playing computer games and more time cleaning the house and taking the children swimming. But then I read Kenneth’s article and, instead of confirming my view, it made me reconsider. Mostly it made me reconsider what we mean by Adulthood. Does there have to be a demarcation between child and adult? I look at my children and they’re amazing. They see the world with such fresh eyes, they are open to endless possibilities, they live in the now and rarely dwell on the past or grievances or things they don’t have. Why would we want to be different to that?

Also, as I read more of the article, which focussed on people playing games on their phones instead of interacting in coffee shops, I realised that such behaviour might be that of a teenager but it certainly isn’t that of a child. A child would be in there, introducing themselves to everyone and discussing what they had for breakfast. We train that out of them when we tell them to grow up and behave, to be wary of strangers, to stay out of other people’s business.

This was my comment on Kenneth’s blog: It focusses mainly on the gaming aspect (and by gaming I mean computer games, not gambling. I have a whole different view on that!) I’d like to discuss this further but I have a dog to walk and children to collect, so I’ve just pasted the comment here. I would love to know what you think!

For once I’m not sure I agree with you. I have had many similar discussions with my husband recently because a) he and I would rather be gaming in the evening than reading (and I’m a writer of fiction, there’s nothing wrong with my intellect and I love to read, whether it’s YA or Hemingway) and b) our six year old daughter would rather play computer games and watch youtube videos than read. Again, she’s a very bright child and I don’t see the games as diminishing her intellect. If anything, they are stretching her far more than the drivel her school send her home to read. She is discussing strategy and learning about the world.

Obviously I monitor closely the games she plays, and make sure they aren’t sapping the life out of her. But I despair of getting her to read through choice. I did nothing but read at her age and I explained that to her the other day (in a mother-guild panic because not reading is equated with going to hell in the middle-class world I live in), and she said, “but, Mummy, do I have to grow up to be like you?”

Those were her exact words and they floored me. No, of course she doesn’t. I hope she doesn’t, because she lives in a completely different world to the one I grew up in. I read to escape at her age. Enid Blyton and Sweet Valley High books, even Lord of the Rings and other weightier tomes (for an eight year old) were my friends and family. But do I look back and think that was healthy? Not really. I was escaping life. My daughter doesn’t read I believe because she doesn’t need to escape life. She loves life. She doesn’t need to be entertained – she is entertained, by her drawing, her brother, her toys, and by the ipad.

My children discuss their games together, they strategise and plan and compete and learn and help each other. Even on a ‘mindless’ game like Minion Rush I see them getting so much from it. And me, too. I’ve never felt so alive – since becoming a work from home mum – as when I started playing strategy games. I am using my brain like never before. I have something to discuss with my husband: we talk far more than we used to when I was buried in my books all the time. We have few points of contact in our choices of books and films but we found a common point in games.

I don’t disagree that culture is becoming fragmented, that people are spending more time in their virtual worlds and less time making human contact. I worry that empathy is disappearing (and then I read some posts on Humans of New York and my faith is restored.) I quite often only speak to people at the school gate, and not even then if I’m tired.

But I certainly wasn’t having deeply intellectual conversations before becoming a SAHM or before playing games on my ipad. My friends and I talked about clothes and handbags and restaurants and movies and a bunch of other things I couldn’t always relate to. Even my husband and I don’t talk politics because we don’t have the same beliefs. I’ve found my own tribe online. Facebook is my coffee shop where I hang out with friends and discuss the political views I subscribe to. My blog is where I chat and swap parenting stories and work things out.

Maybe culture isn’t failing, maybe it’s just shifting. Maybe we’re no longer restricted by trying to find common ground with the people we happen to exist alongside geographically, maybe we can reach out to a whole world and find people who are like us, wherever they exist (or even whether they are real, I guess).

Anyway, something for me to think on when I have my coffee! 🙂 Great and thought-provoking article.

Reading is Working, Honest

A Doorstop of a Book

A Doorstop of a Book

I had a bit of a hiccup this morning; the first biggy since starting on the tablets a week ago. I had hoped the tablets would help reduce my insomnia, but they seem to have made it worse instead. I’m waking at 2am and 5am every night, unable to close my eyes. In retaliation I’m back to napping as soon as the kids are asleep which only exacerbates the issue.

I woke up fretful and panicked, with palpitations and a strong desire not to have to face the school run. I made it through the chattering and the tears and the “Mummy I’m going to miss you” but by the time I got home I was shattered and most definitely unfit for work.

Add to lack of sleep the presence of hubbie at home on a rare day off and writing just wasn’t going to happen. I find it extremely hard to write with someone else in the house, almost as if I feel guilty that I’m not doing something more productive with my time, like laundry or housework. It stems from childhood and it drives hubbie potty, not least because a lazy day on my part without guilt makes it much easier for him to do the same (not that writing is a lazy day).

Anyway, for a whole host of reasons I decided it was a day for reading. I’m ploughing my way through a doorstop of a fantasy book I found in my old bedroom at my mother’s house – The Curse of the Mistwraith by Janny Wurts. If I’ve read it before I blocked the painful experience from my memory. I’m not sure why it’s gripped me now because it’s a fiendishly difficult read. As opaque in language as The Raven Boys, but lacking Maggie’s poetry and passion, it’s dense and unfathomable but clearly with enough story to maintain my interest. I’ve given up on much easier reads.

The book sprung to mind when I read Rinelle Grey’s recent post on world building in Sci Fi and Fantasy (Is Simple Ever Better? My answer is yes!). The world building in this book is elusive and complicated, but promises unicorns and dragons so appeals to the fairy princess in my soul. And as I curled up in bed reading I suddenly found myself opening my laptop and tapping out 500 difficult words to get me to the next place in Class Act. Clearly just the act of reading can free up words in a muddled mind, connect those pesky twenty-six characters into something with vague meaning.

So, there you go, reading is working if you’re a writer. I have proof. I never need feel guilty again. (Though of course I will. Who wouldn’t feel guilty reading and calling it working for a living?) Next time though I might just choose something easier to read. Like War and Peace.

2013 365 Challenge Aftermath

Life Since Claire

Life Since Claire

Last night I realised it’s been nearly a month since I finished my 2013 365 Challenge (although I’m still blogging daily). Twenty-four days since I had to hold a story in my head every day; to remember who was in scene, all the strands of plot that needed completion, all the characters and their stories and flaws and mannerisms.

Four weeks since I had to format a word document for Smashwords, search for the perfect cover image or wonder what the weather was like on a random day last summer. To worry if I was taking Claire through a development arc as well as a physical journey.

I felt a bit sad, especially as I no longer get any downloads on Smashwords – checking my stats always picked up a gloomy day. I wondered if some of my sense of being adrift is due to not having that thread of continuity with me all the time. like leaving work or finishing a university course, or breaking up with a partner.

Then, in my new spirit of Happiness, I thought I would list all the great things about finishing Two-Hundred Steps Home.

  • Finally being able to read all the novels I’ve wanted to read for ages, rather than just reading Tripadvisor reviews and the YHA website
  • Catching up on blogs and actually leaving comments. Okay I’m still behind on my aim of three comments a day, but I probably managed fewer than three a month last year
  • Eating lunch while watching Bargain Hunt instead of researching tourist attractions or driving routes with Google Streetview
  • Going to bed before midnight
  • Getting stuck into crafting a novel, including all the pain of fixing continuity errors and plot holes, and being able to work on any chapter rather than having to stick to a strict linear timeline
  • Writing poor prose, just to write something, and knowing I can change it!
  • Walking the dog without tapping out dialogue into my phone: feeling the wind on my face and not falling into rabbit holes
  • Sitting down after dinner and the kids-to-bed routine without that lead weight in my stomach and the dread words “I have to write my post”
  • Spending time after the school run; getting my head straight, listening to the radio, drinking tea, and not feeling guilty that I’m not writing
  • Going out. I actually went to the cinema this evening for the first time in years, and afterwards talked about something other than my blog and Claire
  • Spending time with new characters and getting to know them

My work rate has dropped off as a result – I’ve only written around 12,000 words this month instead of the usual 20,000-25,000 (uncrafted words, too, whereas I proofread every Claire installment) – but I barely feel like I’ve done any writing and still the words pile up. I wrote 600 words on my iPad while waiting for an appointment yesterday. Before the challenge, I would have seen anything less than 5,000 words in a day a failure, but I could go days without writing anything. I have now learned that daily 600-word scenes quickly add up to a significant amount.

I learned so much from the challenge, although I’ll probably save that for another post. But, in some ways, I’m having to learn to live without it. It’s good to realise there are loads of positives. Mostly I feel there is time to breathe.

Now, time for another cup of tea.

Reading as a Writer: 2013 365 Challenge #350

A fraction of the unread books on my Kindle

A fraction of the unread books on my Kindle

I read an article today, on Sally Jenkins’ blog, about reading as a writer and how it can destroy the magic of reading. I have to agree. These days, reading feels like a lot like work rather than pleasure.

Back when I was at university I read very little for fun. During my history degree it was lack of time, combined with strained eyesight, after reading dry historical works all day. During my English courses and Masters degree it was because I analysed everything, wondered about the author’s intention or tried to map character motivations. (And after reading the entirety of Clarissa, I never wanted to see a novel ever ever again!)

But at least that still kept me within the story: thinking about the action and the people. I was on the stage with the puppets. Now I’m a puppet master, above it all, seeing the strings, if not always understanding fully how they all work. And it has lost its magic. Like knowing how a illusionist’s trick is done I am super analytical and, if I’m honest, critical. It isn’t confined to the characters, plot or flow of the story either, but right down into the nuts and bolts of word choice, dialogue, even consistent formatting.

I’m reading two books at the moment that I’ve been looking forward to and I’m struggling to get swept away by either. It makes reading painfully slow and hard work, although whether it’s improving my craft remains to be seen. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I’m not enjoying them, so I don’t know how much I’m learning. At the moment I feel like the only time I’ll enjoy a story again is when I’m drafting it for the first time (because, quite frankly, if reading the well-crafted stories of masters like Terry Pratchett is giving me a headache, reading my own efforts is excruciating!)

Thank goodness I don’t write music is all I can say.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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“Hello, Jeff speaking.”

Claire listened to the deep voice answering her call and went blank. Blood rushed loudly in her ears. What was she doing?

“Hello?”

The voice now held a tinge of irritation. If she didn’t speak she would only have succeeded in making things worse

“Jeff, hi, it’s Claire.”

“Claire! I was starting to think I had some creepy stalker. How are you? Are you still in the UK?”

The warmth in his voice helped to lessen the quivering in her knees. She wondered whether to chat or jump straight in with what she wanted to say, before she chickened out.

“I’m fine, thanks. Good. I’m in Devon. With Kim and Helena, actually.”

“Kim and Helena?”

“Your wife and her sister?” Claire injected a humour she didn’t feel into her voice. This wasn’t going to plan at all. When she’d rehearsed the conversation in her head, during her surfing session with Conor, there had been no awkward silences and unanswerable questions.

I guess it’s easier when you provide both sides of the dialogue.

She wondered whether to abandon the attempt and make up some reason for her call. Jeff was going to think her an interfering cow at best, and if she made things worse between him and Kim, her friend was likely to fly off the rails again.

“I know who they are, I just didn’t realise Helena was back from Hong Kong.”

“When did you last speak to Kim?” Her voice was wary now.

“A week or so, I guess. Maybe a bit more. I’ve been very busy at work.”

“Maybe you should take time to speak to her now and then. She is your wife. Then you would know that her pregnant sister is home.”

“Helena’s pregnant?”

Jeff’s shock was palpable and Claire felt relieved that it meant he missed the antagonism in her voice. She hadn’t meant to pick a fight with him; but to find out he hadn’t spoken to Kim for weeks really stunned her. They were married. Surely husband and wife spoke every day? At least that’s how she’d always imagined it would be.

“Yes, apparently some indiscretion meant she was sent home under a cloud. Kim needed moral support, so she and Helena are staying with me in Devon for the weekend.” She stopped, unsure what to say next. She didn’t think she needed to spell out to Jeff why spending time with her pregnant sister was hard on Kim, but then she didn’t think she’d have to tell him anything.

Is this what it means to get married: to drift apart at the first crisis? I think I’d rather stay single and know that no one is there for me, rather than find out at the worst possible time.

She tried to picture Conor abandoning her, and smiled. He’d proved already that he was the most reliable friend: collecting her from the airport, taking her to see Kim in hospital. The memory pulled her back to the purpose of her call, and she pushed the pictures of Conor away.

“Anyway, I wondered if you wanted to come down and stay with us for a day or two. I realise it’s short notice, but it would mean the world to Kim.”

The line remained silent, and Claire wondered if Jeff had hung up or put the phone down and walked away. She held her breath; the pulse throbbing in her temples keeping time, counting down the seconds.

Eventually he inhaled audibly and said in a stilted voice, “I would love to, Claire, but I have to work.”

“On a Sunday? I know it’s a long way, but you could be down and back in the day, or you could come tonight.”

“It’s just not possible.” His tone indicated the conversation was over.

Hot blood flooded beneath Claire’s skin. “That’s utter bollocks, and you know it. You guys have been married three months. Three months! Kim needs you. What happened, Jeff? When I last saw you, you couldn’t do enough for her. And now you barely talk? What gives? Are you having a bloody affair, is that it? Your wife is broken and instead of trying to put her back together you sod off and bed someone new?”

Claire ran out of breath and stopped, panting, wondering what had come over her. She waited for Jeff to start shouting, or hang up, but he did neither. She could hear him breathing and it sounded as if he was labouring under strong emotion. When he spoke, his voice wavered.

“It was my child, too. I never knew I wanted to be a dad until that damned blue line. And then the wedding, and the uproar, and the miscarriage. No, I’m not blaming you, before you think I am. The doctors said the pregnancy wasn’t viable. And now they think she can’t get pregnant again. But there are doctors that will help, I’ve looked into it. I spent hours reading up, while Kim was low, and then after she tried to kill herself.”

He took a deep breath, and Claire waited, stunned.

“When you took her to her mother’s, it meant I could do something about it. I’ve got another job, evenings and weekends, to raise money for the procedures. I didn’t want to tell Kim, get her hopes up only to have them dashed again. I didn’t think she could handle that. I didn’t mean not to call, but I’m so tired: if I’m not working I’m asleep.”

He went silent, suddenly, as if his outburst had cost him too much. Claire’s mind whirled while she processed the words.

Poor Jeff.

“You have to tell her,” she said, quietly. “Please. She needs something to live for, to hope for. Otherwise you’ll raise the money, turn around, and she’ll be gone.”

“Oh God, she isn’t depressed again, is she?” Jeff sounded stricken.

“No, not really. But sharp, edgy, brittle. Spending time with Helena is not doing her any good. The girl is glowing and, although she doesn’t say much in front of me and Conor, I know the relationship the two of them have. I don’t doubt she makes little digs. If Kim could reassure herself that she has a solid marriage and hope for the future, she’ll have one over on her sister.”

Jeff sighed. “What a bloody mess.”

Claire could imagine him running his hands through his hair, and she yearned to give him a friendly hug. How lonely must it be, in the flat alone, working all hours.

“Just give her a call. You don’t need to mention we’ve spoken. She and Helena are downstairs with Conor. They think I’m working.”

“Okay, I will. And thank you, Claire.”

“Don’t mention it. I just want my friend back.”

She hung up the phone and hoped it was that simple.

***

A Need to Read: 2013 365 Challenge #269

A fraction of the unread books on my Kindle

A fraction of the unread books on my Kindle

Apologies if this post is a little late today: I finally hit ‘approve proof’ on the print version of Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes this morning, after ploughing through the online proofer (I can’t afford to get another physical proof).

I had a small scare last night, as I downloaded the PDF on my iPad as soon as I got the email from CreateSpace to say it was ready, and half the letters were missing. For example “William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116″ read ”  illi   Sh  ke  re, So    et 116″. I didn’t have time to fire up the laptop last night, so the first thing I did this morning was check it all on the big PC. It was fine. Phew.

However, all the weeks and months I’ve spent on editing and formatting recently has resulted in my creativity taking a holiday. Oh, not the creativity that formats book covers or designs bookmarks: that’s fine. But the right-brain creativity that lets me think up an ending to Two Hundred Steps Home, both for this month and for the entire year, is missing in action.

Books that gripped me

Books that gripped me

All the proofreading and editing I’ve done (including a couple of novels for someone else) has also resulted in me being unable to read a book without critiquing it as I read. Even with old beloved books (or maybe especially those, because I know the story), I find myself checking for typos or grammar errors, or rewording sentences that feature the same word twice. It’s no fun.

Reading used to be my downtime, my lifeline, my escapism. It also used to be the source of my creativity – filling the well of ideas that gets exhausted with writing thousands of words every week.

I have probably two dozen books on my iPad that I want to read, or that I’ve started and can’t finish. I don’t want to take books apart. I wouldn’t even mind if I was analysing them as I did as an English Literature graduate: looking for character motivations or themes. At least then I would still be immersed in the story. But questioning the word choice or the grammar and punctuation is just plain anal. And rude.

After all, who am I to judge someone else’s book when I know mine aren’t going to win any literary awards? I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe I need to read a paperback rather than on the kindle. Or maybe I need to read a fast-paced thriller, that won’t give me time to analyse because I’ll be desperate for the story. It needs to grip from beginning to end, but without any blood or dead bodies (I don’t do gore, even in books).

Any ideas? How can I put my left-brain back in its box and get back to enjoying reading once more?

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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Claire stared at the underside of the top bunk and searched her brain for ideas. This was harder than the worst pitch Carl had ever thrown her way. Harder than choosing an apartment or selecting which shoes to wear for Kim’s wedding. How to raise several hundred dollars in a few hours, so she could fly to Queenstown and catch the bus to Christchurch to get her flight home?

The list of people who might lend her the money was less than one. Those with the resources – Michael, Josh, her brother, her parents – were not the ones she wanted to approach in an emergency. The people who might take pity on her – her sister Ruth was the only one who came to mind – couldn’t afford it. Even if her best friend Kim was still speaking to her, their financial relationship existed on the fact that Claire was the one with a well-paid job and Kim, as the newbie actress, didn’t have two pennies to rub together.

How ironic that it’s me who is stranded in the back of beyond without the resources to get home, even though – assuming I do get back – I will have a salary coming in soon enough to clear the debt.

A tiny thought that Conor might advance her first month’s salary was quickly quashed. Not only had he already put his neck out for her by making the job a short-term contract, she didn’t want to start out beholden to her boss.

Come on Claire, think. There must be a way of raising some cash. An online loan, a new credit card.

The ideas came only to be dismissed. Even if she could get the internet to work, such things took time. And she wasn’t entirely convinced she’d pass a credit score anyway, with no home address or job and her credit card full to the max.

A dark lassitude crept over her and she had to push away the tears. Escaping to New Zealand had seemed the only option at the time: a chance to flee the mess her life had become and enjoy a fresh start. Instead had never felt so alone.

Through the black, a glimmer of light sparkled. Something someone had said to her in passing, a joke to be laughed off, crept into her mind. Something Bethan had said. What was it? Claire searched through her brain, wishing Bethan were there to come up with an amazing solution or fill the room with her endless optimism. Then it came to her. “Sell your fancy boots if you have to.”

I’m going home, hopefully, so what does it matter if I sell some stuff. I have boxes of clothes back home.

The thought made her uncomfortable, nonetheless. Could she sell of her second hand stuff to the other people in the hostel? Would they buy it? It seemed a bit icky. But what choice did she have?

Running through her possessions in her mind, Claire realised the thing of most value was her tablet. Selling it felt like cutting off her right arm, especially as it was full of data she wouldn’t be able to back up without access to a computer. Was it worth losing all her photos, her memories of the trip across New Zealand, to get home?

With a heavy sigh, Claire rolled off the bed and pulled her rucksack over. Searching through, she found the iPad and charger, some jewellery and her Helly Hansen boots. Ignoring the trembling in her hands, Claire gathered them together and left the room.

***

Sleepy Thursday: 2013 365 Challenge #199

My new 'keep the kids cool' weapon

My new ‘keep the kids cool’ weapon

Ah hello Summer cold, we’ve been expecting you.

Little man coughed every 30 seconds for most of the night. I went and gave him milk, calpol and a cuddle on his new (child sized) sofa for as long as I could, to no avail. I thought he was asleep until he climbed into our bed ten minutes later and coughed and wriggled for the remainder of the night. Yawn. Pass the coffee.

At least the oppressive night-time heat broke like a fever around 2am, leaving a calm cool breeze washing through the open windows.

I was going to write today’s post about some old blog posts of mine I stumbled across yesterday, on how to write a novel with children underfoot, back in the day when I thought this would be a writing-advice blog, rather than a diary-cum-confessional. I will have to save that for tomorrow as I can barely keep my eyes open and I have an hour to get kids to nursery and write Claire’s showdown with Carl.

Even baby Annabelle's had enough (or is she drunk?)

Even baby Annabelle’s had enough (or is she drunk?)

These hot days are sapping more than my energy and good humour, they’re wiping away any remaining vocabulary left in my addled Mummy brain.

The thing I noticed most about my first posts on WriterMummy, written last March? They were penned with a sharpness of phrase I can only dream of. I don’t know how: I imagine I was getting less sleep then than now. Maybe only blogging every couple of weeks meant I stored up good phrases, or I was less self-conscious about my writing, knowing no one was reading it.

I also had more time to read other people’s posts back then – funny parenting posts, mostly – and that style of writing rubs of. It just proves the point that writers must read as much as write.

I think that might be my ‘homework’ today! I’ve just started reading a recommended book, Emotional Geology, which is reminding me of Virginia Woolf in style, as it’s quite stream-of-consciousness in the way it jumps about. Enjoying it though. Now I just need to tackle Carl, and consume some caffeine!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Despite quivering limbs, Claire felt happiness bubble deep inside. The look in Carl’s eyes, as he gazed at her across the desk, reminded her of a hunted animal finally cornered and aware there is nowhere left to run. It strengthened her resolve and calmed some of the jitters.

“Hello, Claire. This is an unexpected pleasure.” Carl’s mouth worked silently, as if more words wanted to be spoken but were under restraint.

“Yes, isn’t it. How are you? Are you well?”

Carl’s eyebrows flickered up almost imperceptibly, flummoxed by Claire’s affable conversation.

“Yes, very well. The Birds Eye account renewed, and we’ve secured three new clients this month already.” He sat back in his chair, his elbows resting on the arms of the large leather seat that diminished his stature rather than enlarging it as intended.

Sitting forward, Claire glanced sideways at the door. A flicker only, but Carl detected it, and shifted uncomfortably. Claire watched him squirm with indecision. If he called Julia in to take a drinks order, he would be treating Claire as a welcome visitor, despite her impromptu visit. On the other hand, if he didn’t follow normal protocol, he would communicate to the rest of the office that she was not there at his bidding. Claire nearly laughed out loud as the thoughts waged war across his face.

You should take some lessons from your receptionist; she’s a much better poker player than you are.

After a moment that stretched to eternity, Carl leant forwards and pressed the intercom on his desk.

“Julia, can you come in, please?”

The door opened immediately, and Claire suspected Carl’s PA had been hovering with her fingers already round the handle.

“There you are, Julia. Coffee for me, if you will.” He tilted his head in question at Claire, and she turned to face her erstwhile tormentor.

“Hello, Julia. Earl Grey, thank you.” She smiled sweetly, keeping her expression neutral.

Julia’s mouth dropped open and she shut it with a snap, before spinning away. Claire took the opportunity to inhale deeply and rub her sweaty hands down her dress, while Carl was distracted.

“So.” Carl turned, resting his arms on the desk. “To business.”

“It’s always business, isn’t it.”

Claire reached into the bag at her side, before Carl could answer, and retrieved a pristine white envelope, which she slid across the desk.

“I think you’ll find this self-explanatory.”

Carl looked at it and the colour drained from his face. A sheen of sweat made his brow sparkle in the office lights.

“You’re resigning?”

“I thought you’d be pleased.” Claire frowned, her poise slipping for the first time. “Isn’t that what you’ve been striving for since February?” She closed her lips, unwilling to give any more away.

“Yes, well, no. Of course not.” Flustered, Carl stumbled over his words.

“Oh, come on, Carl. There’s no need to play the game any longer. Not with me. You’ve won. That should make you happy.”

“Why? Why now, I mean.”

“I’ve had a better offer.” No need to mention she hadn’t even had an interview for the new role Linda had called her about. The potential had been enough to convince her of her next move.

“How much?”

Claire felt the heat rise in her cheeks at the audacity of Carl’s question. Refusing to rise to the bait, she crossed her legs, gazing coolly at him. “That’s all it is to you, isn’t it? Money. I pity you.”

Carl sat back as if she had spat at him. “If it’s not the money, why are you leaving?”

“Need you ask? You sent me on some fool’s errand, fit only for a manager at best, to force me to leave. No, don’t tell me that bullshit story of proving myself fit to the directors. We both know that was tosh.”

Carl shrugged. “The deal was real.”

“But the idea to send me was yours? Was I treading on your toes? Making you nervous? Well, you can relax. I wouldn’t have your job if you paid me double whatever exorbitant salary you’re on.” She paused, as Julia re-entered with their drinks.

The PA hovered, sensing the atmosphere and desperate to leave with some gossip. She glanced at the white envelope untouched on Carl’s desk, and Claire knew that was fuel enough for the rumour machine.

“Thank you, Julia, you may go.” Julia flinched at the icy tones, and scuttled from the room.

“What do you want, then, if not money? Prestige? A new car?”

“Nothing you can buy. In fact, I have to thank you. If you hadn’t sent me on that stupid assignment, I might still think cars and titles were worth something.”

It was Carl’s turn to sneer. “Oh, come on. You can’t tell me you’ve turned hippy. Look at you, still the heels and sharp suit. You haven’t changed. You’ve met some bloke, that’s it, isn’t it?” He jeered lasciviously and Claire crossed her arms, resisting the urge to throw her tea over him.

“No. No man, no money, no shiny car or bigger office. Just an opportunity to make a difference; to be me. To live a little in the real world.” She looked round his minimalist office, with the tinted windows obscuring the view outside. “You should try it sometime.”

Draining the last of her tea, Claire stood up. “I still have three weeks holiday, with what I carried over from last year. I’ll work to the end of the week.”

“What? You can’t. You’re on three months’ notice, and you took that week last week.” Panic raised his voice to a squeak.

“No. You gave me last week in lieu of the weekends I have worked, and if you check my contract I’m only on a month’s notice. I would like to say it’s been a pleasure, but I’ve had enough of lying.”

Leaving her boss gaping like a landed fish, Claire placed her cup on his desk, and glided from the room.

***

Croquet and Colouring: 2013 365 Challenge #127

Mastering the art of croquet

Mastering the art of croquet

It’s Bank Holiday Monday here today and we’ve spent a lovely time catching up with family over in Cambridge. The sun shone down from a sparkling blue sky and it was shorts all round for the first time this year.

I love going to my father-in-law’s when all the family gathers. There are eyes aplenty to watch the children, who love to play with their smashing big cousin, and I get to catch up and natter with some grown-ups for a change. Good food, fine wine, great company and plenty of time to sit and read my on my iPad: I feel like I’ve had a holiday.

I intended to write my post while the kids were happily entertained, because I knew I’d be too tired when we got home. Unfortunately I downloaded the second in The Divide Trilogy – Back to the Divide – this morning and was too easily distracted from working by following Felix and Betony’s adventures again. I fear the cost of buying the iPad might be only the beginning of the expense!

Colouring with Aunty

Colouring with Aunty

I came across an interesting dilemma today when one of the books I wanted was only a pound cheaper for the kindle than for a paper copy. My heart still belongs to the paper book, but there’s no doubt it is much easier to read on the iPad with the children around (I can cuddle two children and sit, iPad on my knee, with just a wriggle needed to swipe the page over. Genius. If only I’d had one for all those boring months of breastfeeding at 2am!)

Still, an ebook is horribly intangible and I love to have a pretty row of paperbacks on the shelves reminding me of all the great stories recently read. Maybe I’ll just bookmark that one for future reading: there are plenty on my list!

As an aside, Two-Hundred Steps Home reached the 100,000 word mark with today’s post. If it ever becomes a novel it will need editing by half, but it still feels like a nice achievement.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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The road stretched relentlessly ahead of Claire, solid with Sunday evening traffic. To either side, fields as flat as glass met a distant horizon, with flocks of clouds filling the space in between.  She tried not to let the lines of red lights make her impatient. There was one road home and the only thing to be gained by chaffing at the traffic was anger that had nowhere to go.

Sky slumped in the passenger seat, sleeping after her long day on the sunny beach. A tiny smile illuminated her face, giving her the look of a cherub. You sleep my little angel. Enjoy your happy dreams while you can.

A sharp sound rang through the silence of the car. Claire looked at the phone on the dash and mused whether to answer it. With a quick glance in the mirrors to make sure there were no blue sirens or panda cars around, Claire reached for the phone and raised it to her ear.

“Hello, yes? I’m driving.”

“So you are coming back then? Your father said you’d be home by now.”

Claire bit back an angry retort. Challenging her mother at any time was an exercise in futility and for once she had reason enough to be curt, with her daughter in hospital.

“Sorry, Mum, I’m not the only person heading back from the coast. The traffic has been horrendous. We won’t be much longer. Sky’s asleep.” She hesitated, afraid to ask her next question. Gripping the wheel with her free hand, she inhaled, her nostrils filling with the scent of sand and sun cream. “How is Ruth?”

“Not good.” Her mother fell silent and Claire wondered if she wanted to know any more. She was about to hang up when her mother drew an audible breath and let it out in a long sigh. When she spoke again her voice was low, and gentler than Claire could ever remember hearing it.

“Oh, Claire, the doctors think the tumour must have spread before they caught it. They say the chemo will help, but they’re fighting the wrong battle. They need to understand how far it has spread and adjust her treatment.”

The words rang through Claire’s mind without making sense. Her mother sounded tired, beaten, but her words suggested hope. She wanted to ask more, but driving one handed in heavy traffic on the A47 was not the time.

“I’m sure she’ll be fine, Mum. Ruth’s a fighter and she’s in safe hands.”

There was silence, and Claire wondered if her Mother was drawing breath for a new sarcastic come back. When she did speak, her words were so unexpected Claire nearly drove into the tail-lights of the car in front.

“You’re the fighter, Claire. You’re the one who has gone out and taken on the world. Ruth, well, she’s not strong like you.”

Heat rushed to Claire’s face at the unexpected compliment. It rattled her more than her mother’s unaccustomed gentleness, more than Ruth’s illness. She felt wrong-footed by it, as if it was easier to know that her mother loathed her than to believe she really cared.

As if needing to restore the balance, Claire heard her mother cluck her tongue. “Goodness, look at the time. Are you going to be much longer? I need you to take over at the hospital so I can go home and feed your father. You know he’s incapable of boiling an egg for his supper.”

“What about Sky? I’m not taking her to see Ruth tonight. She’s exhausted and needs to be in bed.” She heard her mother chuckle and wondered what could possibly be funny.

“Listen to you. Thought you didn’t have a maternal bone in your body. I’ll take her back with me, we can tuck her up in her bed. I’ll bring her in with me in the morning.”

It took a moment for Claire to realise the implication of her words. So I’m spending the night at the hospital am I? I guess it makes a change from a hostel bed. Stifling a yawn, Claire focused on the sleeping face beside her, reminding her of what was important.

“Okay, Mum, see you soon.”

***

Lessons from The Wee Free Men: 2013 365 Challenge #119

Lessons to be Learned

Lessons to be Learned

I finished rereading The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett today and it was wonderful to realise it lost nothing on a second (possibly third) reading. In fact, since I’ve had a daughter of my own, I think the book has changed and grown in significance. It’s up there in the books I’d like my daughter to read as she comes into an awareness of herself.

If you don’t know Terry Pratchatt’s Discworld novels, they are based in a world that’s like a warped mirror of our own, with magic in place of science and technology. Witches hold a special place in the world: they are both central and outside life, revered and feared in equal measure. As their greatest witch – Granny Weatherwax – puts it, they guard the Edges between Dark and Light, Good and Evil, Life and Death. They have First Sight and Second Thoughts. They see what’s really there. Above all, they’re cool. I love them.

Granny Weatherwax is possibly one of the greatest characters ever invented. She gets inside your head and makes you question everything. (If you want to see Granny at her finest, read Carpe Jugulum.)

The Wee Free Men isn’t about Granny, it’s about Tiffany: a nine-year-old girl who lives on a farm on the Chalk, makes cheese and minds are younger brother. She also has First Sight and Second – even Third – Thoughts. And she has to rescue her brother from the Fairy Queen, even though she doesn’t like him very much. I won’t go into the story, just recommend you read it in words much better than mine.

My reason for writing about it here is to explain why I think it’s a must-read for any little girl (or boy possibly) coming to a sense of herself: It explores the voices that exist inside a person’s head, and the difficulty of understanding which of the many voices is Me.

Tiffany is the kind of girl who sits just outside life, watching. The Discworld Witches always are. And Terry Pratchett says That’s okay. In our society, the people in the kitchen at parties – the ones not drinking or joining in, the ones just observing – are a little bit wrong. They are considered aloof, boring, shy, weird, cold. I know because I am that person And all those labels have been applied to me. I’ve been ridiculed for not wanting to get drunk, for not letting go.

There has always been a little voice in my head that watches me and comments on my behaviour. It’s hard to get drunk and be silly when there’s a sober person in your head telling you what a pratt you’re making of yourself. As a result I don’t often drink and I’m rarely the one telling jokes. At my last place of work, and in many other situations in my life, that has meant almost complete exclusion. It’s not a nice place to be, feeling like a freak or someone who didn’t get the memo on how to have fun.

Growing up I read endlessly to live in my own world. I read Sweet Valley High and Lord of the Rings, Famous Five and Mills and Boon. Romance and action/adventure. For some reason ‘thinking’ books – what might be called literary books – didn’t come my way. I don’t know why, although I often feel the need to apologise for it, as if a ten-year-old can control the books they’re exposed to. So I read nothing that told me that having a cacophony of voices in my head was okay, was normal, whatever that is.

What The Wee Free Men explores is the notion that it’s okay to be different. That people who sit outside the group and watch – who listen to the voices in their heads – are the kind of people who speak up for things without a voice, who save the day, even if no one acknowledges it. They are strong people who won’t be beaten. I suspect my daughter may grow up to be a girl who watches, one who doesn’t follow the pack. I want her to know that’s okay. I think she’ll learn that from this book.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: [Warning today’s post contains strong language.]

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The car felt warm and comforting after the chill of Lavender Farm and the unexpected encounter. Claire looked across at Sky eating her ice cream; her face still showed red mottling from crying, but her eyes were calm. Kids are amazing. I’d still be crying now, if that wanker was my father. She could see her niece’s eyes were heavy and thought a sleep in the car would do her good.

Claire programmed in the SatNav and reached forwards to attach it to the windscreen. Movement in the rear-view mirror caught her eye: It was Chris. She tried to ignore his gestures, but his demeanour dragged her attention. He looked as if he was signalling for her to come out the car by herself. Intrigued – and not unwilling to go and give him a piece of her mind away from listening ears – Claire sat back in the seat and dramatically slapped her forehead.

“Sorry, Sky. I just remembered I left my mobile phone in the shop. Will you be alright here in the car for a moment, if I just run in and get it?”

Sky looked across with fear in her eyes and Claire’s stomach lurched. I really shouldn’t leave her alone, after the shock she’s had. I can hardly take her with me and use all the words I want to use though.

“How about if I lock the doors? I’ll be back before you finish your ice cream.”

After a moment, Sky nodded tentatively and pushed down the button on the door next to her. Sky reached over and locked the others, making sure she had the keys in her hand before she left the car.

It felt good to stalk over to the man who had broken her sister and niece’s hearts. Words of heat and wrath built like fire in her throat. She felt tempted to start shouting before she reached him, but he stood with his arms at his side and his head low. I want to look in his eyes and see that he’s hearing me. Besides, if I start screaming like a fishwife across the car park, Sky might hear.

She stopped three feet away from him, arms folded. Let him start. I want to hear what the bastard has to say to excuse his behaviour. Silence stretched and Claire ached to fill it with hot words. Somehow she knew the quiet was hurting Chris more, so she maintained eye contact and waited for him to speak.

“I had no choice.” His words fell between them, as if he’d pushed them out with effort.

“Bollocks. Everyone has a choice.”

“I…” He stopped and ran his hand through his hair. Claire noticed it was thinner than it used to be. “I wanted it to work. With Ruth. And Sky. And I loved them both, really. But Ruth –”

Suddenly Claire didn’t want to hear it. She’d only ever heard Ruth’s side of the story; honesty compelled her to confess that might have been skewed. Her body language must have given her away because Chris reached out a hand, before letting it drop once more to his side.

“Don’t go. Hear me out, please. Maybe you can help Sky, a little. I saw the pain I caused her.”

“Then why did you reject her? Not stay in touch? Run off with her fucking ballet teacher.” It felt good to shout at this weak man standing before her. To swear with precision and relish and watch him flinch as the truth struck him like pellets of ice.

“Because I wanted to be a Dad more than anything!” The words came out in a rush. “And Ruth wouldn’t let me. Sky was her precious daughter. From the minute she was born it was her and Sky. There was no room for me. She wouldn’t let me do anything – feed her, bathe her – I was barely allowed to touch her. Then, when she started school, Ruth became paranoid something was going to happen to her. I don’t know what she thought would happen. She went almost crazy with it.”

He stopped. Whether because he had run out of words, or because he realised telling Claire her sister was crazy was not perhaps the best move, wasn’t clear.

“Then I met Bryony. She understood. She taught Sky, knew how clingy Ruth was. I asked her for advice, initially. Then we got talking and, well. You know the rest. We have a little girl of our own now, and she’s mine.

“Sky’s still your daughter.” Claire didn’t know what else to say. She didn’t want to feel sympathy for this man. She didn’t want him to have a reason that made sense. She just wanted him to hurt and be sorry.

“Ruth didn’t want me to stay in touch. She said it would be better just the two of them. I send Sky birthday cards and Christmas cards but I don’t know if they get to her.” He inhaled deeply and wiped his hand across his face as if rubbing away the pain. “She’s looking well. I’m glad to see you taking her out in the world. Ruth keeps her too close. Sky doesn’t need me.”

Claire tried to think before speaking, to decide what to do, to interpret how she felt. Despite her best efforts, she could relate to what Chris had said. It wasn’t a stretch of the imagination to see Ruth in that role. Their own parents had been so distant and uncaring, it seemed highly plausible that Ruth wouldn’t want to let Sky out of her sight. She turned and looked back at the car, but couldn’t see inside.

“I have to go, Sky will wonder where I am. Try again, Chris. Try harder. Ruth…” She inhaled, then made a decision. “Ruth’s sick. Real sick. Sky might have need of you. Don’t make her an orphan if it comes to that.”

She watched as all the blood drained from Chris’s face, much as it had from Sky’s earlier, and felt a certain satisfaction. Digging into her purse, Claire retrieved a business card and held it out to Sky’s father. He looked into her eyes as if trying to understand her actions, then took the card and held it without looking at it.

“If you need to reach me, or want to speak to Sky – at least for the next week – you have my number. We’re staying in Hunstanton for the weekend.”

Before he could say anything, find an excuse or backtrack, Claire turned and strode back to the car, her heartbeat hammering loudly in her ears.

***

 

Maurice and Man-Flu: 2013 365 Challenge #104

Poorly Little Martin

Poorly Little Martin

Today is a day when I wish I’d done less cleaning on my last nursery day and remained a Claire post ahead. Because – although the clean house is nice – Family Martin has Man-Flu.

All of us.

We’ve never ALL been struck down simultaneously before. I’ve had to write drug distribution on the chalk board because my brain is fuddled. It hasn’t been divide and conquer so much as Divide and Survive.

Still, being the heroic one who took the kids to the Farm – after a quiet morning and some calpol meant they were too full of beans to be indoors – I got to go back to bed mid afternoon and finish my book. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. A marvellous book. I love Terry Pratchett. I love the sophistication of his world building and the insidious nature of his social commentary.

This children’s Discworld novel discusses morality and religion in a way that hasn’t affected me since Granny Weatherwax in Carpe Jugulum. I’m not very good at reviewing books because I can’t tiptoe around spoilers (and I hate spoilers). All I’ll say is this is a book I really hope my children read, as it approaches philosophical questions of what makes me me; ideas and beliefs, shadows and darkness, in an accessible and compelling way. It also deals with Stories: what constitutes a story, the difference between stories and the real world, including a ‘real world’ rather than ‘fairy tale’ ending. Terry Pratchett at his best.

I don’t think it gives anything away to include this quotation, which I believe encapsulates what religion should be about (as someone who isn’t particularly religious):

If there is a Big Rat [God], and I hope there is, it would not talk of war and death. It would be made of the best we could be, not the worst that we are. No, I will not join you, liar in the dark. I prefer our way. We are silly and weak, sometimes. But together we are strong. You have plans for rats? Well, I have dreams for them.

Love it.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Auntie Claire, look!”

Claire turned her head at the unexpected sound of Sky giggling. After an hour moaning in the car that the iPad battery was flat and twenty minutes of shoe shuffling and whining in the queue, Claire had forgotten that her niece could laugh. The decision to come to Merrivale Model Village already seemed a bad one, and they’d only been inside ten minutes.

We should have done Sea Life. I could have bought a coffee and left her to it knowing she couldn’t damage anything. If I leave her in here she’ll probably trample on the exhibits or start playing with them. Seeing her niece still waving and jiggling up and down, Claire swallowed a sigh and went to investigate.

“What is it, Sky?”

“Look!” She pointed at the scene in front of them. “That little woman is…” she lowered her voice to a whisper that probably carried to the edge of the village, “showing her boobies! See?”

Claire peered at the tiny model people. Oh god. There’s a half-naked woman being arrested at a football match. Seriously? Don’t these people know kids come here?

As if confirming Claire’s worst fears, Sky took a deep breath and said, too loudly, “why is she showing her boobies, Claire? What are the policemen doing? Did someone steal her clothes?”

Looking round wildly for assistance or guidance, all Claire could see were other parents trying not to smile. Avoiding eye contact, Claire wrapped her arm around Sky’s shoulder. “Don’t talk so loud, darling.”

“Why not?” Sky’s voice would have filled the O2 Arena.

“Other people are trying to enjoy their afternoon out, that’s all.” She hoped her niece had forgotten the interrogation about the streaker, but she was out of luck.

“Why didn’t she have a top on? Was she sunbathing? Sometimes Mummy sunbathes without her top on in the garden.”

“Um. I’m not sure. Why don’t we go and look at the train? Or the high street?” She pulled at her niece’s hand and led her away from the traitorous football match.

“Oh, look Sky, the hospital, let’s go there.”

The Whys didn’t stop: It turned out the hospital was full of realistic details, like some poor man having his leg sawn off. “Why are they cutting his leg, Claire? Is he poorly?” Then, “Why is there smoke coming from that house? Is it on fire? Why haven’t the firemen put it out?” Even the castle let Claire down. “Why does the princess have a pointy hat, Claire?” Unable to remember whether it was called a wimple or a hennin, Claire once more resorted to her stock phrase, “I don’t know, darling,” all the while cursing the quirky nature of the model village.

I guess you have to have a sense of humour to run a place like this. Claire looked at the Boggitt and Scarper builder’s sign and the Lord Help Us Hall and smiled. How much time does it take to put all these people in position? If you couldn’t have a laugh you’d go bonkers. Claire read a tiny sign declaring, “Keep off Grass, Guard Ducks Patrol this Garden, Survivors will be Prosecuted,” and laughed out loud. Maybe the sick humour is to keep the adults amused. God knows it must be boring to be a parent at a place like this. Or anywhere.

She tried to tune out the Whys, but discovered if she didn’t answer quickly enough, Sky’s voice became louder and more shrill. As the question was usually one Claire didn’t want to hear echoing amongst the milling families she had to respond swiftly and with detail. ‘I don’t know, sweetheart,’ had apparently lost its effectiveness.

Claire felt drained and defeated, as if she’d been wrangling in a Board Meeting for two hours, rather than wandering with a six-year-old for twenty minutes. In desperation she gazed round the site, longing for something safe to distract Sky’s inquisitive mind. She caught sight of a sign and her heart lifted.

“Oh look, Sky: A Penny Arcade, why don’t we go there?”

“What’s an arcade?”

Claire thought about the rare visits to Uncle Jim when she was Sky’s age. He would take his nephew and nieces to the amusement arcades, a bag of tuppences hanging heavy in their pockets, gleaming highlights in their eyes knowing their parents would definitely not approve. They would gorge themselves on candy floss and stand at the machines for hours, feet welded to the sticky floor, the smell of cigarette smoke in their nostrils from Uncle Jim’s rolling tobacco.

With her mind and heart full of happy memories, Claire shone a sparkling grin at Sky.

“You’re in for a real treat.”

***

Sleepy day and Stone Heart: 2013 365 Challenge #95

A gripping tale after a slow start

A gripping tale after a slow start

I spent today – my first day without the kids in a week – stuck in bed with a poorly tummy. I think it was caused by dehydration from the wind and lack of water during my day out with the kids yesterday. I can be prone to dehydration, especially when I’m writing – forgetting to eat and drink because I’m so engrossed – and I end up with a twisted gut and a sore head. Or I might just have girl flu.

Whatever it was, it floored me. I slept until 2pm, after cobbling together yesterday’s rather rubbish Claire installment, then spent the afternoon engrossed in Stone Heart by Charlie Fletcher.

I initially stopped reading the book after the first couple of chapters, as I found the writing style opaque and overly-cryptic and the main protagonist unlikeable. But when I finished Shadow Forest I ran out of things to read and picked it up again. I’m glad I persisted. It is hard to read – especially for a children’s book – but the characters are endearing and develop beautifully. It’s always a challenge when a character starts out annoying and then grows throughout the book. They have to be annoying in order to have room to grow, but it’s hard to read through the early part when you just want to give them a slap.

It turns out there’s a sequel so I shall be looking for that next time I go to the library. So far it’s two out of two for my random charity shop purchases. Just the Wendy Holden to go.

I’m still feeling ropy so my Claire installment today is likely to be a bit shaky. I’m taking her to Hamerton Zoo – it’s near where she and Sky stayed last night and I should be able to write it without any research. Hopefully normal service will resume tomorrow, although I have an obscenely early kids party so will have to get the post written before bedtime!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire stared at the tiger. The massive white head faced away from her, as if ignoring her scrutiny. Then it swung round and seemed to acknowledge her gaze, before its flat eyes slid away and his attention moved on to the other side of the enclosure.

You poor old brute. What a life, sitting on a platform being watched by things you’d rather eat. Like sitting in a cake shop while the Belgium Buns take photographs. She shivered as the timeless eyes swung round to face her again. The tiger looked down his proud nose at Claire and stood, stretching like a domestic cat, before jumping silently off the platform to walk outside. On the far side of the enclosure Claire could see the orange tiger dozing in the sun. Between them was a giant red football. The sign said they spent hours knocking the ball to each other, but clearly not today. I’d give something to see that. I bet you do it when the zoo is closed right? Why perform for these strangers? You’d like us all to sod off, I bet.

“Auntie Claire?” A hand tugged at her jacket, reminding Claire she wasn’t at the zoo alone. Bugger. That’s going to take some getting used to. What if she’d wandered off, or been snatched, while I was communing with tigers? She turned and squatted down so her face was nearer Sky’s. “Yes poppet?”

“Can we go through the Tiger Tunnel? Can we, please?” She pointed through some pampas grass to a man-made tunnel that looked like it had been constructed from shipping containers.

“Sure, sweetheart. Although the tigers are here, darling.” She gestured to the specks of white and orange; all that could be seen of Blizzard and Lady-Belle.

“The map says there are sheep and goats through there though. And camels.”

Sheep and goats? We could have gone to a farm to see them, instead of this wind-swept, freezing zoo. Not camels, though, don’t remember seeing camels at any farm nearby. Claire stood up, ignoring the protesting creak in her knees and back. The hotel bed had done enough damage; she didn’t want to think about it anymore. Bad enough waking in a different bed to the one she’d gone to sleep in. As far as she could work out, Sky must have crawled in with her in the night and she’d crawled out the other side to sleep in the child’s bed.

I hope Musical Beds isn’t going to be a nightly occurrence. It’s hard enough dealing with all that chatter, without a head full of cotton wool and a broken and bruised body.

Claire let the girl drag her into the tunnel, which had been painted a vile sort of green with pictures to alleviate the metal expanse. They stopped at glass windows to search for Maned Wolves and more tigers but saw only scrubby grass and grey skies.

At the end of the tunnel, wooden gates opened into a small grassed area surrounded by animal enclosures: from reindeer on their right, past rheas, alpacas, sheep and goats, to camels far away to their left. They stood for a moment to get their bearings, when a flash of white and a bleating noise announced the arrival of a mob of miniature sheep, which flocked around their feet.

“Look, Claire, we can feed them. Can we, please?” Sky turned her sweetest smile on Claire and she nodded, pushing through the sheep to reach the food dispenser. As she inserted a twenty-pence piece and turned the dial, another flash of colour alerted her to new arrivals. Four short, fat, black goats came leaping across the grass and, before the food was even cupped in her hand, started jumping and head-butting her legs.

Sky shrieked, as the goats shoved her so hard she fell backwards into a muddy puddle. Oh great, Claire groaned. I hope there is somewhere here we can change. Though I don’t know what I’m going to change her into. What was Mum thinking, packing dresses and tights? Did she think we were only going to do little girl things, or did she hope rich Claire would take poor little Sky shopping? Claire swallowed the bitter taste in her mouth before reaching over to scoop her niece out of the gloop and onto a bench. She worried that Sky would shirk from the boisterous goats butting at her hands, demanding food. Instead the girl giggled with glee, seized the tiny horns and pushed the heads away.

Standing there, mud dripping from her pink dress and leggings, with her once-pink coat flapping in the arctic wind and her hair flying behind her in a stream of gold, she looked like a superhero, saving the world from vicious horned beasties. Claire felt a strange sensation in the pit of her tummy as she stood watching her niece. Something warm and almost maternal; something she didn’t remember feeling for another human being before. It felt like pride.

***