June Journals #15 ~ Run Rescue

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Image from Pixabay

Goodness me, I’m halfway through my June Journals. Thank goodness for daily blogging or I might be going a bit bonkers.

I’m just so tired. Ever since a crazy day on Saturday, when I did two runs as well as painting a load of fencing, I’ve been exhausted.

I don’t think I overdid it: My two runs probably only amounted to about ten total minutes of running, and I’m used to clocking up 10-15,000 steps a day.

Even so, I can’t stop yawning.

Perhaps it’s the humidity. Although it’s rained non-stop (or perhaps because it’s rained; although this isn’t the Indian Monsoon season it feels pretty near), and the temperature is only 18C to around 22C, it feels hot and sticky and horrible.

Maybe it’s being premenstrual. Sorry, it has to be spoken of. I do slow down and get sluggish. And eat carbs. And chocolate. And drink lots of coffee. But I’ve been trying to eat plenty of fruit and drink water. Honest.

It might be a bug. My parents have had the horrible flu I had at Easter and I wonder if I’m fighting it off.

Or maybe it’s ennui*. Or hayfever. Or depression. Or laziness.

Whatever the cause, I feel like a cat in a sunbeam. I. Just. Can’t. Move.

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Image from Pixabay

I had a nap today, if four hours in bed counts as a nap, and felt 100% worse. Usually I’m good at naps. I wake up a bit groggy but full of energy. Today I had bad dreams, those half-awake sort, where you’re not quite sure whether you’re really shopping with your daughter and spending £100 on a pair of jeans in Topshop or it’s actually just a nightmare.

When my alarm went off to walk the dog I couldn’t open my eyes. Just couldn’t.

It was awful.

So I pulled on my running clothes. I don’t think I actually thought I’d manage a run, but I couldn’t walk the dog in the rain in an East dress (the coolest thing I own in both senses of the term!).

Then I strapped on the iPhone. And opened the app. I’m in week 4 of the 8-week Couch to 5k and I don’t want to stop now.

And then I ran. Like a slug. Slower than I normally walk, with those shuffley steps that aren’t really running. Week 4 starts stepping up the running time, and it was hot and sticky. Plus the fields are so overgrown it’s like doing mini-hurdles, getting over nettles and cow parsley.

But I ran.

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Troll. Pixabay

And afterwards I felt better. I had some energy. I stopped yawning and almost felt awake.

Before you super-fit people start gloating, and nodding, and thinking, ‘We knew it. Exercise is always the answer,’ it lasted about half an hour.

By the time I’d done the school run in the rain, cooked tea and fed the dog, I was crawling back into bed, dizzy and yawning and with eyes half closed.

I slept for two hours.

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe I’m a troll. Like in Terry Pratchett Discworld novels. Perhaps I only function when it’s cold.

Unlike the flesh and blood Troll of Scandinavian folklore that turn to stone only when exposed to daylight, Disc trolls are stone all the time, but become dormant and sluggish during daylight. […] Though apparently unintelligent, this is due to heat negatively affecting the conductivity of their silicon brains – Wikipedia

Whatever the answer is, I wish it would just sod off. I liked the energetic productive me of a week ago. And, while we’re at it, the rain can sod off too. It’s cricket Wednesday.

*Ennui: “A feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.”

Stuck and Sahara Dust

Under a dust cloud

Under a dust cloud

I got stuck on my WIP today, despite flying along this week. Yesterday was a 6,000 word day – my first for a year or so I should think – and I managed 2,500 in 90 minutes this morning. And then stuck. Not from writer’s block but from world-building block.

I don’t have a particularly active imagination – a funny thing to admit for a writer. Or, I should say, I don’t have a world-building imagination. I can do characters and dialogue, but scene building is tougher. When I wrote Dragon Wraiths the details of the world and its history kept me puzzled for weeks. I would wander round the fields walking the dog trying to figure out how it all worked; what happened to the body, how did the mind transfer to Taycee and so on. I’m not entirely sure I figured it all out but, shhh, don’t tell anyone!

And now I’m having the same problems with my children’s book. The world is a mishmash of all the books I’ve read recently – not intentionally I hasten to add. I never set out to steal an idea – I’m a pantser, I very much make it up as I go. But when I review what I’ve written, I can see the influences coming through my subconsciousness. A world covered in cloud? That’ll come from The Curse of The Mistwraith (Janny Wurts). A world like ours but different, where the animals can speak? That’s The Divide (Elizabeth Kay). A missing father? That could be The Extincts (Veronica Cossanteli) or To Be A Cat (Matt Haig). A bunch of boys who mess around? That’s probably from Johnny and The Bomb (Terry Pratchett).

We live in the purple bit...

We live in the purple bit…

But now we get to the nitty gritty of my story – where my characters are themselves, not parodies or plagiarisms – and I’m stuck. Merula’s a fairy who goes through blending when she’s twelve (or younger, haven’t nailed down ages yet), but what is blending? And when she’s banished she visits the wild ones, but who the hell are they? A baddy called Vulpini has cast the spell to cover the sky in cloud, but whatever for? And why have all the parents disappeared and where are they?

I love pantsing – I write to find out what happens next (as my husband often says) – but sometimes the drive in the dark is along a nice straight road and sometimes you sense there are cliffs and chasms either side. It’s the same road but one is easy and the other terrifying, even though you’re equally blind.

I tried my usual trick of wandering round the field with the dog, asking and trying to answer questions, but we’re currently sitting under a cloud of Sahara dust and the view is as hazy as my mind. With eyes full of grit and a throat clogged with dust, I returned home defeated. Maybe there’s a reason I write Chick Lit. World building? Give me one that’s already made, please.

Terry Pratchett: Fact and Fantasy

Snuff - About Dickensian London

Dodger – About Dickensian London

Those of you who regularly follow this blog will know that I don’t generally write book reviews. In fact I subscribe to the view that it’s very difficult for a writer to review a book as a reader might.

However, partly because I want to carry on with the daily blogging, and partly through self-interest (as one of my most visited posts this year is a book review) I’m going to try and write a few on the blog in 2014. I want to concentrate on books where I have no connection to the author – those people I have met through the blog or who I have beta-read for – because I read those books differently. I don’t enjoy them less (probably more, actually) but I’m usually too close to be objective.

But books I’ve picked up at the library, or authors I’ve read for years, well I’ll happily pass on any observations that occur to me and we’ll see how it goes. I suspect it will be more a ramble than a review, such is my style! As a happy coincidence I’ve just finished two books by my favourite author of all time, Terry Pratchett, so that’s a good place to start.

Of the two books – Snuff, A Discworld novel, and Dodger – Snuff was by far the most enjoyable for me. I’ll admit I may not even have read Dodger if I’d bothered to check the blurb and seen that it wasn’t a Discworld novel. I’m glad I did read it, even though it was a struggle to finish, because it made me appreciate Snuff all the more. I also discovered that it isn’t just Terry Pratchett I love, but Fantasy as a genre; particularly his form of Fantasy.

Dodger is set in 19th Century London and includes characters such as Charles Dickens, Disraeli (former UK Prime Minister) and Henry Mayhew (a nineteenth-century English social researcher), based on their real life counterparts. One can then easily imagine that the lead protagonist is meant to be the model for the Artful Dodger and the story feels more about showing the inspiration for Dickens as a writer (at one point Dodger finishes his soup and asks for more), than exploring Dodger as a character, or what it really meant to live in Nineteenth-Century London.

For me, the novel lacked Pratchett’s usual flair for appealing characters, suspense-driven plot or great humour and dialogue. I struggled to finish it even though, as a super fan, I really wanted to like it. The novel felt like a vehicle for some ideas that had been bubbling in the author’s brain, that were then shoe-horned into a story. Or *shudder* like an Eighteenth-Century Bildungsroman novel, like Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. The book seemed to try too hard to be clever, with the references to historical figures and real places. But I may be biased in this view because, when it comes to blending fact and fiction in a novel, I hate it.

I consider myself something of a reluctant historian, as a result of doing both A Level and Degree History, despite discovering a real love for English Literature that resulted in me switching camps in my third year and then for my Masters. As a result I find historical fiction to be too much stuck in both camps. Do I suspend disbelief, as a reader and student of fiction, or do I concentrate on the factual representation, as a Historian? When I read books like this, I find the urge to check details and constantly ask “Is that true?” Or I feel ignorant for not knowing what is and isn’t historical fact.

Snuff - A Discworld Novel

Snuff – A Discworld Novel

Give me allegorical fantasy any day. Because the beauty of the Discworld novels is that they are also based on our society, albeit one that is viewed through some twisted prism (as a former Insurance Manager, the introduction of Inn-sewer-ants in Colour of Magic remains one of my favourites). Quirm for example is based on France, with it’s avec food and it’s rue de Wakening (read it out loud). Some of the best laugh out loud moments are due to recognising the parody, but the stories work without it and therefore don’t make you feel stupid.

That said, I found Snuff harder going than previous Discworld novels, and a bit darker and more heavy handed in the social commentary, focussing as it does on the race of Goblins, and whether they are considered sapient beings or vermin. This might be evidence of an author who despairs of the world, but it’s the social commentary in all the books that makes them so brilliant and poignant.

Samuel Vimes – the lead protagonist in Snuff – is a wonderfully complicated protagonist. Having read all the Discworld novels, I feel I have tracked his progress from a mere Captain of the Watch in Guards! Guards! to Commander Vimes, Sir Samuel, Duke of Ankh, married to Lady Sybil (also a brilliant character) in this book. Alongside my other favourite Discworld character, Granny Weatherwax, Vimes is fascinating for his level of self-awareness and his inner turmoil. Both are characters who battle with personal demons constantly and defeat the bad guys because they know (or at least fear) they’re no different underneath.

Although it took longer to get going, once I was immersed in the story I was swept along to the finish. Some of it was a little predictable (when you’ve read eight or nine books featuring the same character you do learn how they work) but being allowed inside Vimes’ head as he battled his past and his instincts resonated with me. Powerful, brave stuff.

Terry Pratchett has a writing style that doesn’t spell anything out. The nuances are there for the alert, and sometimes that can be frustrating (when you’re not alert, running on a few hours’ sleep!) As a writer, though, I feel it’s an important lesson in treating the reader as someone smart or, as one of my writing books puts it, Resisting the Urge to Explain (RUE). It also means you can interpret the characters and their actions, and be left wondering if you really know them all that well (particularly a character like Vetinari, the tyrant of Ankh-Morpork).

I find the Discworld novels always stay with me after I’ve finished them, with questions and challenges and difficult subjects (something I didn’t feel at all with Dodger). Snuff may not have been up there with the best, but it was still a rollicking good read. Bring on Raising Steam!

Self-Publishing Teaches you to Ship: 2013 365 Challenge #355

None of this would have existed if I'd given up in January

None of this would have existed if I’d given up in January

I’ve discussed before about the importance of learning to ship. It’s a term I’ve learned from Kristen Lamb‘s blog. As a writer (or any kind of artist) you can’t stress over a piece of work forever. At some point you have to release it into the world, because otherwise you never start on the next project. This is so true for me.

This time last year, I was waiting to hear if Dragon Wraiths had been shortlisted for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition. My life was on hold. Having been long-listed, there was a part of me that really believed I would get shortlisted (because what is life without a pipe dream?) When I wasn’t, everything crashed in for a moment. Not because I thought Dragon Wraiths would win – I wasn’t that deluded – but because the shortlisted authors got to meet agents.

After the initial mourning (which wasn’t long) I decided to seize the moment and send out queries to as many agents as possible, while my belief was still high. I know myself so well. Of course none of those queries resulted in anything – I didn’t really expect them to, because the slush pile is huge, my opening chapter weaker than it should be, and my query letter dull. That was why I’d pinned my hopes on getting shortlisted, because getting an agent to pay attention is the hardest part of writing.

Without self-publishing, Dragon Wraiths would still be this

Without self-publishing, Dragon Wraiths would still be this

Then I started the daily challenge, and had other things to think about. I kept writing (part of the reason for doing the challenge). My family encouraged me to self-publish Dragon Wraiths and, as my belief in the book was still high, I did.

Best decision ever.

Even though it’s had some bad reviews, and sells only a handful of copies, it gave me the impetus to get Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes self-published too. That hasn’t had any reviews in the UK and only one in the US and has sold even fewer copies. But it’s out there.

The important thing with writing is to keep writing. I could not have done that if I was still trying to get an agent for Dragon Wraiths. My brain would have been on hold. I would have spent all my energy and used up all my fragile confidence sending out queries, waiting for replies, getting excited, getting depressed. It would not have suited me at all.

Yes, I think the ability to ship is too easy with Self-Publishing. Books are released too early, when perhaps they’re not as good as they could be. But I don’t really think it matters (as long as, you know, they’re not awful. With no grammar and full of typos. There has to be a minimum level!)

Lovely reviews make it all worth while

Lovely reviews make it all worth while

I believe you can over-work something: I definitely did with my artwork, towards the end. Made my paintings into what I thought others expected them to be, rather than just going with the artistic flow. My pictures became bland and lost their edge.

I’m not saying my novels wouldn’t be better for a strict edit, for going through the write and rewrite process of being traditionally published. But they might not be my books anymore. And, knowing me as I do, my faith in my writing might not survive the journey.

Besides, we live in a throwaway culture. I’m not writing books to last forever. If someone reads my book, shrugs, says “meh?” and moves on, so what? I do that to traditionally published books all the time (even books by favourite authors like Terry Pratchett. More on that in another post). At least they haven’t spent a fortune on it.

And for every person who leaves me a one-star review that says I wasted hours of their life, there will be someone eagerly hanging on my next release. And there will be a next release, because of those people.

I would have given up on Claire months ago, if I didn’t know people were reading it. I would have given up after three months of querying Dragon Wraiths and gone searching for a day job, if I hadn’t had enthusiastic reviews. I certainly wouldn’t have thought about writing a sequel.

Self publishing isn’t for everyone. I read for and against arguments all the time (usually by interested parties, arguing for their own chosen route!) But, for me, it has been a salvation. Reading posts like these (Are you waiting for permission?) about the waiting and worry of the traditional route, I know now that I would have given up too soon. My self belief was a tiny spark in the dark and, with nothing to fan it into life, it would have died out completely.

Only time will tell if I will make it as an author. All I know is, without my blog, without self-publishing, without getting some kind of positive feedback, I wouldn’t have come even this far. Everyone knows the key to becoming a better author is writing more books. What they forget to say is that you need to ship them too! 🙂

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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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“How do you like the south west?”

Maggie’s question sounded innocent enough, but Claire frowned at her, wondering if she had somehow picked up on her dilemma: Dorset or Cornwall?

“It’s a beautiful part of the world,” she replied in a noncommittal voice. “I think of all the places I’ve been too, Cornwall feels most like home.”

Maggie’s face became wistful. “I was like that with the Lake District.” Then she brightened. “You can always find a new home, though.”

Claire wondered at her meaning and a memory surfaced in her mind. “I thought you hated moving away from the Lakes? Didn’t you say you moved south to be with your husband – Steve, was it? But you went back to the Lakes whenever you could.”

Maggie’s eyes opened wide. “You have a good memory! Yes, that’s true, I missed the Lake District. Kent is pretty, but it lacks the drama of the northern counties. Cornwall has its own drama though, as I’m sure you’ve discovered.”

With a nod, Claire took a sip of her Earl Grey and tried to understand the change in Maggie. There was a radiance about her that she didn’t remember from before.

“Tell me about your friend and her activity centre. It sounds like a big project?”

“His.”

“Sorry?” Claire looked puzzled.

“My friend is a he.” Maggie flushed and looked down at the table, her hands cupped around a steaming mug of teak-brown tea.

Claire stared at Maggie and a suspicion began to seep into her consciousness. But how to ask? Suppressing a smile she said nonchalantly. “So, he is opening this activity centre. Where do I come in?”

“Like I said, Timothy needs assistance with the marketing and promotional side of things. He’s done all the set up and renovations himself. You should see the place, it’s amazing.” Her eyes glittered with enthusiasm. “It really is a wonderful thing he’s doing. He has lottery money to help get him started, but there is so much to do.”

“And are you helping too?” Claire drew circles on the wooden table with one finger.

“Yes, I go when I can. I still have commitments at home.” She seemed to realise where the questions were leading and looked up sheepishly at Claire, who wondered if she was brave enough to pry.

Trying to pour all her curiosity into her gaze, Claire rested her eyes on Maggie and waited.

“Oh, alright then, if you must!” Maggie exclaimed, as if Claire had spoken. “Steve and I broke up. I couldn’t take it anymore. Then I met Timothy, and he told me about his dream.”

Claire sat back and listened as Maggie explained all about her new romance, about how amazing it was to have something to pour herself into, now her children had left home. How Steve had seemed relieved when she ended their thirty-year marriage and how she felt they had never really understood each other.

Claire thought about Conor. Who hated silence, who would rather be in a crowded bar listening to loud music than striding across empty hills. Conor who had invited her to a weekend in Ireland for a family celebration, a thought she was desperately trying to forget. There was nothing like going to a church to give an eager man ideas.

Eventually Maggie seemed to sense Claire’s lack of attention and her flow of words trickled to a halt. “I’m so sorry, wittering on like this. You must be bored stiff.”

With a stab of guilt, Claire sat forward. “Sorry, Maggie, I am listening. It’s just I have a new man, too, and he’s invited me to a Baptism on Saturday. In his home town, near Cork. My mind wandered for a moment, because I don’t know if I should go.”

And it all poured out. Everything that had happened since she’d last spoken to Maggie. About Conor not wanting to leave Swanage, and her urge to stay in Cornwall. How she didn’t want to work for him, and wasn’t sure they had enough in common to be together.

“My goodness,” Maggie said, when Claire had finished. She looked as if she was about to say something else when a general commotion around them heralded the arrival of the Brownies for afternoon tea. With a look that said, we’ll talk later, Maggie rose and went to serve juice and cake.

*

“Hey gorgeous, are you all set for the weekend?”

Claire heard the hesitation in Conor’s voice, as she cradled the phone to her ear and tried to block out the sound of endless chatter from the room next door.

“Where are you?” He added before she could answer; his tone somewhere between amusement and frustration. “I can barely hear you.”

“Sorry, I’m staying with Maggie at the hostel in Exmoor National Park. Don’t you remember? I said I was coming up here to pick her brains about the Guide Association. The children are currently getting ready for bed, if you can call it that!” She laughed. For all her initial horror, she’d enjoyed spending the afternoon with the Brownies. They were at a nice age, between childish dependence and teenage sass.

“Yes, I remember. Will you be back to catch the flight on Friday night? Only the service is Saturday afternoon so we need to be there in time.”

Claire chewed her cheek. Conor had mentioned the Baptism in passing on Sunday, before he returned to his apartment. It hadn’t sounded a big deal, more an excuse to go away together for the weekend. She wasn’t sure she was ready for it, but didn’t have a good excuse to say no. Now, though, he sounded anxious.

“Am I missing something?” She asked, deciding honesty was the only way. “The last time your family tried to get you to go to a Baptism you chose to take two boys out to a castle instead. I thought you avoided these family affairs?”

“That was some distant cousin. This is my niece and I’m one of the godparents.”

Claire gasped. “You didn’t mention that on Sunday.”

There was silence followed by Conor clearing his throat. “I was afraid to. I thought you wouldn’t come if you knew we’d be right in the middle of it. My family can be a bit full on. But I’ve been thinking about it, and it didn’t seem fair to spring it on you when we got there.”

He sounded like a small boy explaining the muddy footprints on the white carpet. Claire was forced to smile, although she still felt sick.

“I don’t have to do anything, do I? As your guest? I thought godparents were usually couples?”

“No and not always. You just sit in the pew and try to stay awake. You might want to wear a frock.”

Claire slumped back on the bed and groaned. A formal meet the family affair, two weeks into a new relationship. Just what she needed.

***

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.

***

Faith and Father Christmas: 2013 365 Challenge #347

Meeting the man last Christmas

Meeting the man last Christmas

At dinner last night my friends and I discussed the challenge of maintaining the Christmas magic with our children. Do you lie? Evade, prevaricate? Are robins secretly Santa’s spies, identified by their red breasts? Or is the red flashing light of the security system Saint Nic keeping an eye on who is being naughty or nice? Do you have an elf on the shelf to watch over and guarantee belief and good behaviour?

And it got me thinking. In the end is it about magic, or is it about faith? Or even control. We talk of the magic of Christmas but it does seem it comes hand in hand with mild threats to ensure good behaviour. I read a quote on Goodreads once that compared belief in Father Christmas to belief in God:

“Be sure to lie to your kids about the benevolent, all-seeing Santa Claus. It will prepare them for an adulthood of believing in God.”
― Scott DikkersYou Are Worthless: Depressing Nuggets of Wisdom Sure to Ruin Your Day

I was reminded of the quote during my daughter’s Nativity this week. Towards the end, the audience stood to sing along with two carols. I love carols normally, and thought I knew them all, but was surprised by a verse in Once In Royal David’s City that I hadn’t seen before, containing these lines:

“Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as he.”
What's not to love?

What’s not to love?

 

Interestingly as I googled it for this post I found some versions of the lyrics without this verse, and some saying “should be” rather than “must be”. I’m clearly not the only person who struggles with the concept of telling my children to model their behaviour on baby Jesus, who had a helping hand in being a good child because he was the son of God and all that. And yet we tell our children to be obedient, mild, good, if they want Father Christmas to come. What mother won’t use everything at her disposal in those frantic weeks leading up to the big day?

Maybe that’s my problem with it all. I’m agnostic. My belief tends towards Nature or the Universe or some Spirit of Humanity, rather than an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful being. I respect the idea of Faith in God – envy it sometimes – but don’t have it. My husband is atheist. So, between us, we don’t believe in invisible beings watching and controlling our lives.

Of course that didn’t stop me, last Christmas, saying a dozen times a day “Father Christmas is watching” although my aim was only to get them to smile. So, “Father Christmas is watching, show him your best cheesy grin.” It worked like a charm and staved off the teary tantrums of this time of year.

My daughter goes to a Church of England school and I’m okay with that. Christianity is more than a religion. It’s part of my country’s heritage. She should know the tenets of the faith so she can choose later what she believes, armed with some knowledge.

I make sure the kids know the real meaning of Christmas too

I make sure the kids know the real meaning of Christmas too

I went to a non CofE primary school until I was eight years old, and moved to where I live now. I didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer or any hymns, and my school friends were amazed. I’m glad that my daughter will learn them, if only for when she goes to weddings as an adult!

Besides, religion teaches forgiveness and love and good deeds, and who doesn’t want their child to learn all that? My role, as I see it, is to temper the school’s teachings by allowing her to question what she learns (not that I’m even remotely qualified to answer her questions!)

However, if I let her challenge the stories of the bible, should I let her question the existence of Father Christmas? Already she doesn’t really seem to believe all that much. She said of her letter from Santa, “That’s really from you, Mummy, isn’t it?” and thankfully I didn’t actually have to lie because it came from a charity. Still it’s close to lying. She’s only four but I sense it won’t be long before she asks me outright if it’s all true. When that time comes, should I destroy faith, destroy the magic, or deceive a child and potentially break her faith in the honesty of a parent?

Daughter learns about Jesus at school

Daughter learns about Jesus at school

My good friend solved the dilemma by taking her child, at five years old, to Lapland to meet the man himself. Pricey but maybe worth it to preserve the magic. I wonder if even that would work for my little girl (particularly as she hates the cold and snow!) even if we could afford it.

And, if belief in Father Christmas is like religion, surely meeting the man defeats the object? Isn’t the whole point to have faith without evidence? Like the ironic line from Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, “Your faith was strong but you needed proof.”

(Incidentally, for some great discussions on faith and religion you can’t do better than Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, particularly Carpe Jugulum. Granny Weatherwax’s best quote is this one:

“You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people anymore, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it. That’s religion. Anything else is just . . . is just bein’ nice. And a way of keepin’ in touch with the neighbors.” )

Anyway, we seem to be okay for now. She accepts the existence of baby Jesus, she accepts the concept of Father Christmas. She’s excited about getting gifts and spending time with the family, but mostly she looks forward to opening her chocolate advent calendar every day and can’t wait until the end of term. Exhausted and tearful and tired, I think she’s approaching the arrival of Christmas pretty much as I am: with relief!

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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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“Can I come and see you this weekend?”

There was an air of forced casualness in Conor’s words. Claire cradled the phone to her ear and looked out her bedroom window at the view down the hill to the sea. The hostel was a million miles away from the one in Swanage: clean, bright, modern, with comfy beds and duvets, and en-suite facilities. Despite the ache in her chest that told her she missed Conor, she was happy to be there by herself. Still the weekend was a few days away, who knew how she might feel by then.

“I don’t have to come, if you’d rather be alone.” Conor’s voice sounded strained and Claire felt a shiver run across her skin.

“Yes, of course you can come this weekend. Sorry, I didn’t mean to hesitate; I was just trying to work out which hostel I’ll be in by then.” A small white lie to take away the hurt.

“Why don’t you ring around for a private room and let me know what you find?”

Now his words made her shiver in anticipation and she smiled. “You’re on.”

“Grand. So, tell me about your day.”

Claire leant against the wall and chatted about surfing, and the hostel, and her call home to catch up with her nephews. It felt strange, talking about things outside work. Conor listened attentively, asking questions and adding his opinion. Claire realised it had been a long time since she’d had a grown-up conversation with someone other than Kim. As the thought drifted through her mind, she remembered that Kim had wanted to catch up with her after the Carnival.

“Damn.” Her outburst cut through Conor’s review of a band he had seen the week before.

“What is it?”

“I just remembered that Kim wanted me to visit her this weekend, because her sister is home from Hong Kong. What with everything, I completely forgot. She’s going to kill me, I haven’t even called. That’s two lots of people I’ve let down in as many weeks.”

“Sure but it’s my fault, Claire. I kept you busy with work for the Carnival and then, well…” He trailed off.

Claire put a hand to her forehead, trying to subdue the stabbing pain in her temples. “Look, I need to call Kim. Can I get back to you about the weekend?”

“Of course. Your friends need to come first, I’ll still be here.”

Claire couldn’t quite read his words. Was he not classing himself as a friend, or making a dig that she wasn’t putting him first? She shook her head. It was too hard to fathom. Wishing him a quick farewell, she hung up the phone then scrolled through for Kim’s number.

“Hello, stranger.” Kim answered the phone on the second ring.

“Hi, Kim. I’m so sorry I haven’t called sooner. The Carnival was manic.” She hesitated, unsure what to say about Conor. Before she could decide whether to mention it or not, Kim started talking again.

“It’s alright for some. I’d give anything to get back to work. I’m still waiting for the doctor to say I’m fit.” She gave an irate snort and Claire felt her heart sink into her stomach. The happy Kim she had spoken to a week before seemed to have vanished again.

“I’m sure it won’t be long,” she said in a soothing voice, wary of annoying Kim further. “Is Helena home yet?”

“Oh yes. The prodigal daughter returned this weekend, proudly displaying her bump.” Kim cackled and Claire thought the sound didn’t suit her. She didn’t like to hear her friend being nasty, even about her sister.

I guess it’s no different than how I feel about Robert.

“So she is pregnant then. How do you feel about that?”

“Sodding angry, to be honest. I lose my baby and get told I can’t have another one, and my sister gets up the duff with some bloke she barely knows. At least she’s decided to keep it. I don’t think I could stand it if she’d had a termination, whoever the fella is.”

The pain in Claire’s head stabbed sharper. She wanted to empathise with Kim, but what did she know of babies and wanting to become a mother? She wasn’t even sure she wanted to be a girlfriend, never mind anything else. And the bitter jealousy in Kim’s voice was hard to take, however much she knew and sympathised with the cause.

“Do you still want me to come and visit?” Claire held her breath, hoping for an answer in the negative.

“Good God, yes. Come and save me from her sanctimonious preaching, please.”

Claire inhaled silently and deeply, and then had a brainwave. “Why don’t you both come down here? I’m in a charming hostel, five minutes from the beach, and the forecast for the weekend is gorgeous.” She hesitated, then plunged on. “And you can come hang out with my new man, if you like.” If Conor came to stay, she wouldn’t have to share a room with Kim and Helena.

“Claire, you old dog, you’ve been keeping secrets. Is that the real reason you’ve abandoned me. Come on, spill the beans. Who is it? Is it your boss? It is, isn’t it. You’re shagging the boss. Ha ha that’s priceless.”

Claire winced at Kim’s tone. “Yes, it’s Conor. If that’s how you feel, though, I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to stay all in the same place. It’s not like we work in the same office or anything, so it’s not how you make it sound.”

“Oh get off your high horse, you muppet. If you like him then good on you. From what I can remember he was pretty dishy. Mind you, that might have been the drugs.” She laughed. “I’ll have a chat with Helena, but I’m sure she’ll agree. Anything to get away from Mum’s fussing.”

As Claire hung up the phone she wondered if it was too late to get a flight to the Maldives before the weekend.

***

Ode to Autumn: 2013 365 Challenge #250

Cobwebs

Cobwebs

Ah autumn how I love thee. The season of jeans and jumpers, pyjamas and slippers, hot chocolate and stew with dumplings. Dewy cobwebs and the smell of wood smoke. Misty fields and blackberries in the hedgerows.

It turns out that the 28C heat of yesterday was summer’s swansong: it was 16C today. I had to put a jumper on and close the doors. I was also reminded how much longer the day feels when the children spend most of it indoors. We rushed around for three hours this morning, desperately cleaning before my daughter’s teacher came for the home visit. I swear the house was dirtier within minutes of her leaving than it’s been in weeks.

Time to buy spare wellies and waterproofs so relentless rainy days don’t leave me scuppered (at least until the heating goes back on and boots can be dried over night). Children are easier to manage outdoors.

Meeting Spencer the school bear

Meeting Spencer the school bear

After spring, autumn is my favourite season. The days are just long enough, without the sun nudging in unwanted at 5am. The weather is warm enough for a t-shirt but not so hot I have to shave my legs and find some shorts. In autumn it becomes cool enough to think (I’m like a troll from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels: my brain stops working in the heat) and I don’t hear the children telling people, “Mummy gets grumpy when it’s hot”.

The good stuff starts on TV in the autumn, (Strictly Come Dancing, bring it on!) and the kids’ demands for toys can be fobbed off to Father Christmas. Curling up with a good book becomes an acceptable way to pass the time, without feeling guilty for not making the most of the sun.

I just need to find new ways to wear out my kids and find time to walk the dog before six o’clock, when the fields become treacherous underfoot in the gloom. And, in the interests of fairness to the other seasons, there are some things I don’t like about autumn: mostly they are muddy paws, daddy long legs and extra laundry. But I can live with it, after weeks of sun cream battles, lost hats, dehydration and muggy sleepless nights.

I’ve had an amazing, sticky hot, summer, and the kids have loved it. But all hail autumn; you are most welcome.

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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 kayak felt like it was floating in the air rather than resting on the water. Beneath her, the transparent sea concealed nothing of the sandy depths. Claire felt as if she could reach down a hand and touch the bottom, even though the tour guide had told her the water was several feet deep.

Around them, seals swam and bobbed, some coming over to stare at the newcomers or show off their tricks. Claire turned her head left and right, trying to take it all in and feel connected. Her head told her it was breath-taking, beautiful, something to be treasured in her memory forever. Her heart and her body were too concerned with the silent figure in front of her to have time for anything else.

Josh had barely spoken since they’d left the beach. A double kayak wasn’t the place for intimate conversation. Claire realised that it was the perfect way to avoid a confrontation: more so than if he’d been in another craft, where she could have seen his face.

She found herself trying to read his shoulders. Were they tense? Disapproving? Disappointed? Resigned? He seemed to have got the message that she didn’t want a fling, and now the thought that she had wounded him twisted her stomach.

It also seemed that, now she had made her decision, she wanted nothing more than to bury her fingers in his hair and pull him in for a kiss. Claire sighed and reached down for her camera.

I’d better take some pictures so I can at least look back and remember how gorgeous it all was.

She hated the feeling of disconnectedness: of watching the world from inside a bubble. Of knowing she should be moved but feeling nothing.

If this is what obsessing over a bloke does to me, I think I prefer being alone. In fact, I didn’t feel lonely before, when it was just me, with the occasional text from Conor.

Now, even though the man she had loved for months was sitting mere feet in front of her, she felt close to tears.

Life sucks. Why can’t I just have no morals? Then I could have him, and not care about Fiona or the sprogs.

She tried to imagine what that might be like, as Josh dipped his paddle in to steer the kayak after the rest of the group.

When all’s said and done, I’ve only known him for a few weeks. And, now, I’m not sure I knew him at all. The Josh in England wasn’t clingy and needy, sulky and pushy. Or maybe he was and I just didn’t notice.

Claire tried to remember what travelling with him had been like, but her memories were a blur. There had been laughter but, now she thought about it, most of it seemed to be directed at her: at her fear of heights, at her getting drunk and singing in a bar.

And then, of course, when she’d seen him with Fiona and the kids, she’d fallen for the family man, the husband, the life partner. He was none of those things now: he was a potential cheat and a coward.

She shivered at the relentless thoughts. Desperate to get out of the kayak and away from the cause of her disquiet, Claire dug her paddle hard into the water. The kayak rocked sharply and, before she knew what was happening, Claire felt herself submerged in icy water.

There was no time to remember what she’d been told to do. Her only thought was to free her tangled legs and find a way to breathe.

Through the clear water, she saw Josh free himself and turn to see if she was out. He hesitated, as if unsure whether to free her or go for help. He disappeared from view and Claire gasped, losing the last of her air. Panic rose inside her as water filled her mouth and she struggled against the boat, desperate to be free.

A wrenching movement made her swallow water and she felt as if she was drowning. Then she realised she was upright, as her sight cleared and the wind froze her wet skin.

Coughing up water, Claire collapsed forwards over the craft. A hand patted her back hard, and she wanted to ask it to stop, but her lungs didn’t contain any air.

At last she could breathe. Tears streamed down her face and the sobbing made her ribs hurt.

“Christ, Claire, what were you doing?”

Josh’s voice cut harshly through her pain.

“If you wanted me to go, you could have just asked. You didn’t need to drown me.”

Claire looked up, ready to defend herself, and saw the concern in his eyes. He was standing waist deep in the water, his lips blue from the cold. She managed a weak smile, and Josh’s face twisted. He reached for her and pulled her close.

“Don’t do that again. I couldn’t bear to lose you.”

And then he, too, began to cry.

***