Listening for Echoes

The Martin Kids

The Martin Kids

When I get stuck with my writing – when I’m not sure how a scene plays out or what happens next – I walk the dog. And while I’m walking, I listen for echoes of my characters’ voices.

It feels like hunting for butterflies with a gossamer net. A scene, a visual, a story line, for me, nearly always starts with a fragment of dialogue.From the words, the tone, the attitude I hear, when the words appear in my mind, I can tell the mood and action of the character.

At the moment I’m finishing the first draft of my third Seren Kitty novel. I knew how the story was going to end (I do planning now, get me!) but sometimes that is more a burden than a blessing.

When I reach the climax my writing falls into, “And then Seren did this, then this happened, then this went wrong, then she fixed it like this…’ It’s all too fast and frantic.

So today I stopped, just as the rain stopped hammering on the plastic roof (My poor daughter has been on an outdoor school trip today through torrential rain. She’s going to be soaked!) I’ve come out to walk the dog (who isn’t happy because the vet has said she’s not allowed off-lead while her foot heals, after a bad sprain.)

Almost immediately after I left the house in sparkling afternoon sunshine and puddles, I could hear Seren’s voice. She was calling her mum from the phone she just borrowed from the baddies. She’s explaining what’s just happened. Her voice is clear in my head. She’s scared, but she’s come through a lot already and she’s a plucky girl. And, besides, the rain has stopped falling on her too (which is even more important when you’re sometimes a cat).

Seren has spoken and I have heard the echo. Now I need to go home and make it real. After I’ve taken a towel to the school pick up, that is.

Dear World; SAHMs and Writers Still Work, You Know

Reminding myself that I do work

Reminding myself that I do work

I took my children to a play date this morning and had a fabulous few hours watching them enjoy new toys, sunshine and company while I enjoyed a comfortable chat and plenty of hot tea. The talk, as often happens with parents you don’t know very well, turned to work.

The other three were teachers and when I explained that I was at home writing I got the dreaded response, “So you don’t work then?” followed by the embarrassed proviso of the working mum: “Except of course looking after these,” with a smile towards the children.

The funny thing was I was more bothered by writing not being considered a proper job than being a SAHM, even though looking after the children is much harder and takes up more of my time. There was another comment later, along the lines of, “You’re doing what we’d all love to be doing,” and again I wasn’t sure whether it referred to being able to pick my kids up from school, being about to do my hobby as a job or having endless free time to do laundry or, you know, drink coffee and paint my nails. 😉

I don’t know the other parents very well but I know they’re lovely people and it was clear that nothing was intended maliciously or even said with a great deal of thought. Much as I used to think being a teacher must be easy – short days, long holidays – before I spent any time with teachers and realised it’s the hardest job in the world and you couldn’t pay me enough to do it: we none of us have a blinking clue what’s really involved until it’s our job. And even then we all approach life differently.

Some of my light reading

Some of my light reading

I have to be working; I feel guilty if I don’t. So if I’m not writing I must either be cleaning, doing social media (which I don’t love) or reading (which I’m only just accepting as training for writers). It doesn’t feel like a hobby, but of course I do have a choice whether to work or be a housewife, which many don’t. I know I’m extremely fortunate.

Equally when I said to them that I loathed the school run (their children aren’t yet at school so they have that joy to look forward to) I’m sure they were envious that I have the luxury of doing it, as their children are in childcare all week. We all want what we can’t have.

There’s a lovely post on Facebook – two letters from a Stay at Home Mum and a working mum – which actually sympathises with the differences rather than finding reasons to hate. I’ve done a bit of both and I know they each suck in some way. (Incidentally, for a completely different take on the Facebook post, and why we parents should all STFU and stop moaning, read this). I preferred working (or, I should say, I preferred being employed, getting paid and knowing what I was meant to be doing from one minute to the next and not feeling guilty) but I only did it for a short time and before I had a child at school, so childcare was easier. Writing is a lot less stressful in many ways, of course, but it’s not always an easy way to spend your day. And the pay is lousy 😉

There’s another meme on Facebook – a quote from Katrina Monroe – that sums it up:

“Writing is like giving yourself homework, really hard homework, every day, for the rest of your life. You want glamorous? Throw glitter at the computer screen.”

Amen to that. You don’t get a day off, even when – like today – the only writing that gets done is on a phone in the dark while walking the dog at 6.15pm after hubbie gets home. You lie awake at 2am wondering what your character should do next or – as I have been lately after reading too many blog posts about how self-published authors are a scourge on decent literature – whether you should even be a writer. Can you call yourself a writer with a hundred sales to your name and more one star reviews than fives? (Well, almost. Hyperbole is accepted to make a point.) You’re never an aspiring teacher, no one ever called a teacher at home marking books ‘not working’. (Well, not to their face anyway!) I choose to be a writer, and to take all that entails, but it’s not a walk in the park (even when you’re walking in the park).

So, next time you’re chatting to a writer, or a SAHM, just nod and smile and maybe keep the phrase “So you don’t work then?” to share with your husband once you get home and vent on how the others have it easy. Much appreciated! 😀

2013 365 Challenge: Some Lessons Learned

Conquering mountains

Conquering mountains

For anyone new to the blog (where have you been? *grin*) I spent last year undertaking a writing experiment I called the 2013 365 Challenge.

I set myself a tri-fold task: I would write a blog post everyday, I would include pictures in every post (mostly from what I had been doing that day) and I would write an installment of a novel every day. Not just serialise a novel already written, or write 10,000 words at the beginning of the month and parcel it up, but sit down every single day and think of something new to happen in my novel.

I set myself rules, too. I would try and post by 10am every day (which I mostly did!) I would collate each set of installments into a free monthly ebook and publish it by the last day of the month (which I mostly did). And, most importantly, I would not go back and change things (which I didn’t, aside from typos and spelling mistakes, which slipped through due to tiredness, and – once – when I accidentally changed the name of a character to one in the novel I was also editing at the time. I changed that for the sake of readers’ sanity. But I never changed more than a word at a time).

I think reaching the end of my challenge, the end of Claire’s (my protagonist’s) story, and realising I had written 285,000 words in a year and published them, counts as one of my greatest life achievements.

Me before kids (when I got sleep!)

Me before kids (when I got sleep!)

It isn’t Pulitzer Prize winning fiction. In some places it rambles. In many places I’m sure the lack of editing is obvious. But, still, hundreds of people read it and enjoyed it (as far as I can tell, by almost as many copies of the later volumes being downloaded as the first one). I felt like I reached the mountain top and the view was amazing.

Most importantly, I learned so much about being a writer that, even if I hadn’t had a single download, I think I would consider it time well spent. (Although, if I hadn’t had a single download I probably wouldn’t have made it past January, as knowing people were expecting the next installment was often the only thing giving me the motivation to write when all I wanted to do was sleep.)

I’m still processing all the things I learned from my challenge, but I promised in yesterday’s post that I would write some of them down. So these are the things that occur to me right now:

  • It really is important to write every day. That is probably more true for the blogging than the novel challenge, actually. I’m working on my current novel only three days a week (as I used to before the 2013 365 Challenge) but writing something everyday keeps the words flowing
  • You can write great prose even when you’re tired and uninspired (in fact, sometimes having half my brain worried about other things kept my conscious brain busy and left my creative sub-consciousness to get on with it)
  • Writing to a deadline sharpens the mind. Knowing you have to write something, anything, in the next hour, frees you from restraint.
  • Writing to a deadline can also cause terrible writer’s block. Knowing you have to write something, anything, in the next hour can make the white screen the most terrifying thing in the world
  • If the white screen scares you, turn it off and write somewhere else. Tap out a text message, scribble on an envelope. Once the words start flowing, it’s easy
  • Walking sets a great rhythm for dialogue. If I ever got stuck with a scene of dialogue, getting outside and walking the dog helped the words come. The conversation would run in my head in time to my footsteps and all I had to do was write it down
  • Research can spark off new and exciting ideas. Many of my best installments were triggered from a Tripadvisor review. Reading about other people’s experiences can set off a train of thought that leads to a new story, character, or source of conflict.
  • Keep your characters moving. If they must have internal dialogue or introspection, having the protagonist physically moving can give interest and momentum. Claire did some of her best thinking while hiking along cliffs or driving country lanes. It also makes it easier to match scene to mood: a lashing thunderstorm made a great backdrop for a moment of angst
  • Weather is important. It isn’t always sunny. Using Google StreetView to look at different parts of the UK also gave me impetus to write about different types of weather. Now I know to think about the weather and make sure it’s appropriate both for the time of year and mood of scene (see above)
  • Character arcs are fun. Having Claire change from a shallow work-driven career woman into a nature-loving, child-hugging, self-aware woman was very satisfying.
  • Nasty characters can be fun, too. When Claire’s brother turned out to be an utter git (which I hadn’t completely anticipated) I absolutely loved writing his scenes. We don’t often get to say mean things in real life and not feel guilty afterwards. Writing is cathartic
  • Your own experiences are a limitless resource. I used many things from my own life, including (but not exclusively) my time in hospital having my second child; my father’s cancer; my breakdown and subsequent depression; my year living, working and travelling around New Zealand; summers spent in Swanage with my father; hiking holidays in the Lake District, my time working as a Marketing Manager
  • Friends are also great resources. Two examples that spring to mind are when I used emotional anecdotes (not the details) from my paediatrician friend to get inside Josh’s mind, and an accidental conversation with a friend who used to live in the Lake District that greatly enhanced my Grasmere episode.
  • The mind is a well that can run dry. Whether I write 1,000 words a day for a week or 8,000 words in a day, my overall work rate stays fairly level. I just can’t generate the ideas to write more than 10,000 words in a week. The brain needs time to refill and replenish
  • Coffee shops and town centres are great places to refill the mind. Eavesdropping on conversations and watching how people interact can help to create stories
  • Reading is just as important as writing. Immersing yourself in a well-written book can fill the word-well in the mind and reinvigorate an exhausted muse
  • Formatting for Smashwords and Kindle are really boring but actually fairly straightforward. It helps to format as you draft, if it isn’t too distracting. I’ve learned to do it when I’m waiting for the next idea to come, or while watching TV
  • People don’t leave reviews for free books

I’m sure there are loads more things I’ve learned and I’m equally sure that some of these things only apply to me and not to all writers. Looking at the list, though, it makes me realise how far I have come as a writer and how much my confidence has grown. Turning up to work every day, whether I wanted to or not, moved me from “aspiring writer” to “writer”. I just need to make sure I keep it going! This year’s (unofficial) challenge is to build on my learning and concentrate on the craft of writing. Quality over quantity. I’ll keep you posted.

Rainy Day of the Soul: 2013 365 Challenge #326

More rain

More rain

The school run home was miserable yesterday; the town snarled with traffic. A chat with mums at the school gate had me worried about what I’m meant to be doing for a dozen things, and my son sat through out his entire fencing class, refusing to join in, even though it was paid for. I broke. Again.

Anyway, I wrote this, while walking the dog. I wasn’t going to post it, as I feel I’ve written enough ‘raging against being a housewife’ posts recently. But I hate letting powerful words go to waste, however snivelling they might be in retrospect (and, of course, as a writer it’s all good stuff for future reference). So, this is what I wrote:

“Is it terrible that I want to say to my daughter, Don’t have kids. Or if you want them, don’t have a life first. Don’t go to university and get those degrees, don’t live on your own for a decade. Have your children young, while you still have the energy and the sense of humour, before you realise what you’re giving up. Before you reach a point when you’re out walking the dog and you don’t want to go home.

Before you work out that seven years of marriage means you’ve cooked dinner more or less every night over 2500 times without respite. That your loving husband will want to make it better, as your stare down the barrel of another twenty years of school run and homework and worry, and you’ll have to tell him there is no way to make it better. That you’re starting to wonder if it was all a big mistake and whether being lonely was as bad as you thought it was back then.

I want to tell my daughter, You have my genes, child, and you were raised by me. You won’t know how to nurture, you won’t know how to be a loving mother. You will spend all day trying to smile and be nice and gentle when inside you’re screaming. You’ll feel trapped by love and there will be days when you hate it and everyone it encompasses.

And then the guilt will drive you crazy until you’re walking in the dark, sobbing, with no where to go except home, where dinner isn’t cooked and the homework hasn’t been done and the dog needs feeding and the dishwasher emptying and you know hubbie will be playing on the iPad while the kids watch more TV. And you know they all love you and that just makes you the most selfish, ungrateful person on earth. That’s what I want to say.”

And then, when I told hubbie all this, he told me it was okay, cleaned the kitchen and offered to take responsibility for cooking. I told you he’d try to fix things. I settled for him doing dinner one night a week, because we have to be realistic! Then we just need to survive Christmas, come up with a plan for dealing with school communications and the school run, and everything will be fine. For now.

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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 considered the boy trailing ten paces behind, hands still buried deep in his pockets, and chewed out a curse.

“Problems?”

Claire looked over at Conor, who was watching Jack pretending to sink imaginary ships through a gap in the wall.

“What am I going to do with the moody teenager? A fortnight of that and I’ll go bonkers.”

“Do you want me to have a chat with him?” Conor said quietly, all brashness gone from his voice.

“And say what? He’s no more likely to open up to you than me, is he?”

“Well, I am at least a bloke.”

“Really, I hadn’t noticed?” She smiled, her cheeks tight with tension, before her face dropped back into the frown it had worn all morning.

“I didn’t think you had,” Conor said. Before she could respond he walked on to answer a question from Jack.

Claire watched as Conor leant over to hear Jack’s words. The answer he gave was animated; his hands waving in explanation. Conor had been the proverbial uncle since they’d entered the castle grounds; playing with the boys, listening to the audio tour and sharing the interesting parts, complete with actions. It was obvious – watching him – that he was used to being around children.

As she approached, Conor gave her a slight nod before walking past her back to where Alex stood leaning against the castle wall, surreptitiously tapping into his phone.

“I like your friend, Auntie Claire,” Jack said, after Conor had left. “He’s funny. Did you know he has four brothers and a sister, all younger than him! He says he has loads of nephews and nieces, but they all live in Ireland. Have you been to Ireland? It sounds great. They all live near each other and play at each other’s houses and stuff, and they go to school down the road.”

He stopped suddenly and his cheeks flushed, as if embarrassed by his candour. Claire’s heart went out to this young boy who wanted nothing more than to be with his family and have a proper home.

Maybe that’s what going to a Boarding school does to you. Maybe you spend your life trying to find the home you never had.

She thought about her own schooling. Her parents hadn’t made them board, but they might as well have done. The school ran from 8am to 6pm with extra activities at the weekend. Between hockey and homework Claire thought she’d probably only seen her parents a couple of hours a week from the age of eleven onwards.

The sound of laughter floated across on the wind whistling around the castle walls, and Claire turned in surprise. It sounded like Alex.

It was. He and Conor were walking slowly towards them and, for the first time, Alex’s hands weren’t in his pockets, but rather were waving around in front of him as he chatted animatedly with her boss.

How the hell did he do that? What did he find to talk about to make Alex laugh like that?

She remembered some of their phone conversation the previous night and rather felt she didn’t want to know.

Who cares? If he can turn Alex into a human being, if only for a day or so, I don’t really care if he’s reciting the Miller’s Tale to him.

Alex approached almost shyly, looking up at Conor for confirmation. Conor nodded in encouragement, before suggesting to Jack that they go hunt for the canons.

“Conor said I should talk to you.”

Alex’s face had lost its humour, but he kept his head raised, even if he didn’t make eye contact.

“I’m sorry I’ve been a pain. Conor says he’ll tell you to send us home, if I make life difficult for you when you’re working. I didn’t mean to be an arse.” He flushed at the word and quickly amended it, “a git, I meant. Sorry.” He paused, staring out over the wall at the ocean beyond, as if he could see all the way back to Geneva.

“I don’t want to be here. Father didn’t even ask, he just told us. And, well, I have friends. And stuff.” His voice trailed off and he looked down at his trainers, scuffing at the stone as if he’d like to run away.

Claire wanted to interject that they were only staying with her for a fortnight, but something made her hold her tongue. She watched Alex as he struggled with his words, trying to maintain an air of supportive concern.

“Conor said I needed to man up and stop giving you a hard time. He said it wasn’t your fault that Father’s a…” He stopped again, and a faint blush put colour in his pale cheeks. He looked up then, his eyes wary.

Claire wanted to pull the boy into a hug, but she kept her distance. “It’s okay,” she said, instead, “I know what my brother can be like. I hadn’t realised quite what a pompous arse he’d become,” – Alex grinned at her choice of word – “and I don’t blame you for being grumpy at him shipping you boys over here without warning. It’s only two weeks. That probably seems like a lifetime to you, but it will fly by, I promise.” There was so much more she wanted to say, but she could see already that Alex wanted to escape. So she held out her hand and tried to catch his eye.

“Friends?”

Alex gave her hand a shake and gave a quick nod. Then he hurried off towards Conor and Jack.

***

Stilling the Voices: 2013 365 Challenge #293

The sun at last

The sun at last

I finally got to take the dog for a long walk today. It seems to have been raining for a fortnight and I confess the dog only gets the twenty-minute walk when it’s wet.

Today the sun shone and I happily strode around the 45 minute circuit enjoying the feeling of warmth on my face and a breeze on my skin. When I’ve been too much indoors my skin feels like it can’t breathe.

The challenge for me at such times is being able to still the voices in my head.

It sometimes feels like I’m walking around with a radio on my shoulder, like the kids you used to see on the high street with a ghetto blaster, in the days before iPods and tiny headphones. Freed from the constant chatter of the children, the kids’ TV, the family, the emails, texts and tweets, my brain runs like it’s on rails. A dozen different monologues chunter on, as I mentally write a blog post, plan my next novel and come up with a dozen marketing ideas I’ll never find time for.

Enjoying the evening sun

Enjoying the evening sun

Usually I take my phone, so I can write one thing down and silence the cacophony. Today I left my phone behind, hoping to get free from the noise, from the endless words. Too much time indoors, more children than I’m used to, and a serious bout of sleep deprivation, has left me full up to the brim.

Unfortunately the voices don’t stop. Try as I might to focus on the autumn leaves, the sun shining in puddles or the dog frolicking across the fields, the inner voice doesn’t shut up.

Sometimes when I walk I end up with a children’s song stuck in my mind. A repetitive marching one, like Grand Old Duke of York or Nelly the Elephant. It drives me nuts. Like someone tuned the radio to the most annoying channel possible before removing the dial.

Today I wondered if actually it’s my brain’s way of switching off. The equivalent of putting my fingers in my ears and going “la la la la” to drown out the voices. Is that why people chant when they meditate? I’ve never tried meditation, but it occurs to me that the chanting might serve to block the endless chatter of the mind. If only my brain could settle on something less maddening than a nursery rhyme.

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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 fireball sun hovered low in the sky, painting the clouds in lavish strokes of indigo and scarlet.

Claire followed her feet around the harbour, her mind moving as restlessly as the boats moored in the water. Beneath each straining white craft the sea rose and fell in gentle swells.

The scene was not the picture-postcard view of perfect reflections, that she’d seen hanging in a shop window during her evening stroll. Somehow, though, the endless motion of the tethered boats matched her mood. She could empathise with their constant urge to pull free and leave the safety of the shallow waters.

Around her an eclectic mix of buildings climbed the hillsides to overlook the town. A two-tone church watched paternally from above, while apartments and villas gathered to gossip on the opposite hill.

The moniker of English Riviera suited the place. It lacked the polished style of the Mediterranean, but still sat resplendent in its English charm.

The sun sank lower in the sky, its dimming brilliance picked up by streetlights and hotels, as if the baton for luminescence had been passed down to the them.

Calm fell over the water and, like children finally exhausted by their play, the boats ceased their bobbing and lay still. Gradually the surface of the harbour flattened until Claire could see the yachts and buildings reflected in perfect symmetry.

Her wandering steps led her out towards the sea which stretched not to the horizon but to more lights in the distance. She tried to work out what place she could see, but the geography of the area had yet to settle in her mind.

Turning her head back towards the town, Claire was surprised to see a bright white wheel dominating the skyline. The Ferris wheel hadn’t been noticeable in the daylight, with the houses and hillside behind it. Now it illuminated the harbour like a giant watching eye.

Around her Claire heard the sounds of Friday night revelry notching up a gear.

I guess in some ways we will never be like the Mediterranean.

From what she could remember of trips to Italy, night-time revelry mostly consisted of walking up and down the main street catching up with friends, followed by a late meal and even later celebrations at some nightclub in the hills.

Not drunk and rowdy teenagers collecting in groups and vomiting on the pavement.

As if to punctuate the thought, a huddle of bodies stumbled past and several people tumbled into the gutter amidst howls of laughter.

Her skin prickled as she sensed one of the men watching her. Aware of how far she had walked from the hostel, Claire forced herself to turn slowly and amble back towards town.

“Hey, pretty lady, wanna have some fun?”

Claire ducked her head and pretended not to hear. She felt his gaze piercing her shoulder blades, and every nerve zinged with the need to run. Reminding herself she wasn’t in a dark lane, but out in the open with plenty of witnesses, Claire concentrated on keeping her steps measured.

With a silent bark of derision she realised how soft she’d become in the months since leaving Manchester.

Once upon a time I would have told him where to go. She sighed. It seemed there was no end to what she had lost thanks to Carl’s machinations.

As soon as she was some distance from the group she lengthened her stride until the buildings came forward to greet her, providing the illusion of safety.

She tried to take in the details dispassionately; to generate ideas for her tourism report for Conor. Instead a wave of sadness washed around her, as if the harbour water had risen in a sudden squall to drench her tranquillity.

Ringing loud in her mind, as clear as if she had shouted it out to the hidden ocean, came the thought that she didn’t want to be here. No matter how beautiful the view or how peaceful the sounds of boats settling together like a flock of roosting birds, it was just another step in her endless journey.

What the hell am I doing? All I know about being a tourist is that I don’t want to be one anymore.

Folding her arms across her chest, Claire ducked her head and let her urgent feet carry her back to her borrowed bed.

***

Being ‘That’ Parent: 2013 365 Challenge #258

'Fixing the bikes'

‘Fixing the bikes’

I’m afraid I have no more words today than yesterday. Hubbie went to Newcastle this morning, leaving me home with the kids. Not normally a daunting prospect, but a night of broken sleep and, shall we say, a hormonal time of the month, has left me a little fragile.

Today I was that parent. We spent two hours watching Heffalump at breakfast while I set up my free promo for Dragon Wraiths (I’m only doing it in a vain hope it might result in a couple of Baby Blues sales).

After dropping Daddy at the train station we paid a visit to the golden arches, where I surfed the free WiFi and ignored the kids while they ate unhealthy food and fought noisily over their free plastic toys.

More TV, a bit of shouting, a bike trip to the park and some healthy pasta and I survived to hubbie home time. Actually we were playing a happy game of ball in the garden when he arrived, which is always nice for the returning parent, even if tears came soon after.

Now I’m walking the dog while wracking my brain for something to cook us for dinner, and searching my mind for some conflict for tonight’s Claire scene. Oh and praying for bed. So, like yesterday, I’m going to include another of my poems from the Postcards set. I may share them all this week, because they were written about my father and I don’t think about him often enough. He is missed.

Not sure about the saw!

Not sure about the saw!

Postcards from an English Summer – June

The narrow winding lane is dapple-dark,
and ends abruptly in a sun-lit scene.
Upon the village green, a cricket pitch
where men in white stand round the batting crease.
 
Checked picnic blankets in the leafy shade 
are weighed down with their sumptuous summer fare.
A breeze of quiet talk weaves round the trees,
pierced by the cries from children climbing there.
 
An eddy in the languid lazy calm –
An eager bowler marking out his run:
then crack, bails fall, a ripple of applause.
The umpire takes a walk from stumps to leg.
 
The bowler paces, pauses, thunders in,
throws out his arm: releases the red sphere
at waiting willow. Thwack! Your favourite sound.
The ball sails high into the chestnut leaves.
 
My senses become dulled in sultry sun,
and as I mourn the space here at my side,
I’m glad that England brought their Ashes home
six months before yours scattered on the wind.

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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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“Come on, Claire, wake up. You’re coming on an adventure.”

Claire rolled over and peered at the source of the voice through sticky eyes.

“Go away, Bethan.”

“Nope. You don’t want to miss this. Sell your fancy boots if you have to, this is a once in a lifetime trip. The sun has even put in an appearance. Come on.”

Claire pulled the covers over her head, then shivered and swore as Bethan dragged them off. Her skin goosebumped as freezing air rushed across her body.

“You are not a good friend, Bethan.” Claire frowned, but swung her legs round and stood up. “How long have I got?”

“Ten minutes. Don’t bother with a shower: you’ll be too wrapped up for anyone to notice, and our tickets get us a free dip in the hot springs tonight. Besides, if you go up with wet hair you’ll freeze.”

“Am I at least allowed breakfast?”

“You can grab something in town. Come on!” Bethan hopped on the spot, finally making Claire laugh.

“What’s got you so excited?”

“What do you mean? This is the trip of New Zealand. Forget swimming with dolphins and chucking yourself off a bridge: this is it. It’s going to be amazing.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

Claire pulled on her warmest clothes and tried not to find her friend’s enthusiasm irritating.

*

As the helicopter thrummed into life, Claire regretted letting Bethan bully her into taking part in the trip. They were squeezed into a tiny box and were about to launch into the air: claustrophobia and fear of heights all packaged up in one neat parcel of misery.

Claire turned to face Bethan and wasn’t surprised to see her grinning. With a shake of the head, Claire focussed on keeping her breathing even and urging the greasy pastry and burnt coffee she’d consumed for breakfast to stay put in her stomach.

Glancing out the window, Claire’s tummy flipped as she realised they were already a long way off the ground. She hadn’t felt the helicopter take off at all. The cab was all windows, and she could see the ground over the pilot’s shoulder as the landscape quickly went from flat glacial plain to climbing mountains and then the dirty grey ice of the glacier itself.

They climbed higher and higher, until everything was white. The ground came in to meet them as the helicopter settled down on the ice with barely a bump. As they jumped down from the helicopter and ran across the snow, Claire felt like a spy in a movie, and the excitement began to build inside her.

With a blast of air, the helicopter rose and flew away, leaving them abandoned with nothing in view but white. Then Claire spotted another helicopter depositing hikers in the distance: tiny black specks against the vista. Until then she hadn’t appreciated how vast the glacier was.

“Okay, Bethan, you were right. This is a bit cool.”

Bethan grinned, then bent to help the guide attach crampons to her boots. Claire did the same, cursing at her numb and clumsy fingers. She hoped the hiking wasn’t too strenuous.

When everyone had the proper kit, the group followed the guide across the ice. Claire had little idea what to expect. She knew the caves were a must-see, but didn’t really know why.

When the guide stopped outside a narrow fissure, she almost laughed. Then she watched as the group wriggled inside, one at a time.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. I’ve done my small-space terror-inducing experiences already, thanks. Caving, weaselling, I don’t need this.”

“Don’t be a scaredy-cat, Claire,” Bethan called, as she took her place in the queue. “You can’t see the blue ice properly from the outside. Come on!”

Feeling like a small child being continually chided by their parent, Claire did as she was told. The familiar blackness of fear swept over her as the walls closed in. Pushing herself through, glad of the thick jacket and warm clothing, Claire concentrated on forcing oxygen in and out of her lungs.

The cave opened up and all around shone blue. Fear evaporated as Claire drank in the scene, before fumbling for her camera.

“Wow.” Her voice sounded subdued, not echoing as it would in a rocky cave. A shaft of sunlight pierced through the blue, lighting up a dozen different shades. It was like being immersed in an abstract painting.

Claire realised with a start that the rest of the group had walked on and she shuffled after them, nearly dropping her camera in her haste. This was not a place to be left behind.

Back outside, the view of the glacier surprised her. She’d imagined it would be smooth, like a long sheet of ice. Instead it rose in pinnacles, reminiscent of a spiky plant or coral or something seen under a microscope. Fissures and caves could be seen revealing the blue of the oxygen starved ice inside. She wondered how safe it was for them to be hiking around up in the ice and how many people they lost.

Eventually the thrum of the helicopter returning rolled around the mountain. Claire felt a mixture of sadness and relief. It had been an amazing experience but the alien feel of the landscape left her on edge and longing for a steaming mug of hot chocolate.

Bethan chattered away about the awesomeness of it all and her gratitude that Claire had shared it with her. Claire only half heard the words: they triggered thoughts for her that she didn’t want to hear. Just experiencing such beauty didn’t seem enough. The important part was being able to share it: to tell someone and recreate the experience for them; to re-live it through their enthusiasm and eager questioning.

Oh, she had the blog and that was fun, although half the time it felt like her words were dropping into the ether, heard by no one. But this – this amazing once-in-a-lifetime not-to-be-missed adventure – didn’t feel real, any more than if she’d read it herself on someone else’s blog. Yes, her nose tingled from the cold, and her mind fizzed with the imagery. But already it was fading.

By the time they landed she felt as if the experience had evaporated completely, leaving only emptiness behind.

***

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Random Thoughts: 2013 365 Challenge #249

Random image for random thoughts

Random image for random thoughts

I don’t really have a post topic for today, for the first time in a long time. Ideas have been floating around in my brain, but none have consolidated into a post. This is partly because we walked the dog as a family this evening, rather than just me and my mobile phone (which is when most blog posts are written). Despite little man’s frequent crying fits – a combination of little sleep last night and a long day – it was a lovely walk. We picked and ate blackberries; well worth the sacrifice of a blog post.

So, instead, I thought I’d list the random thoughts, some of which may become blog posts as and when time, sleep and muse are aligned.

1. My son went to Forest school for the first time today. Basically a preschool session held in a local woodland, surrounded by stinging nettles and with no facilities, it’s a great opportunity for kids to get outdoors. He didn’t cry and I was very proud. I wish all schools had a classroom in the forest (we actually wanted our kids to go to the school the classroom belongs to, but decided against it because all our daughter’s friends were going to a different one.) In my view children don’t spend enough time outdoors learning how to avoid stinging nettles and discovering which berries they can eat.

2. My daughter had her first proper play-date friend over this afternoon, as one of my baby group mums is suffering – as we are – from the slow start to the school year for our particular school. The children played together brilliantly; much better than they do when all the parents are present. Why do kids feel the need to act up when their parents are watching and behave like angels when they’re not?

3. Related to the above point, I do much of my parenting through the kitchen window these days. It means I can ensure the children’s safety without having to tell them off every five minutes for things that are technically against the rules but harming no one. My kids and the play date friend emptied the sandpit into the paddling pool today – most definitely against the rules. But it’s the end of summer, it was a hot day and they were in the shade, and – best of all – they were co-operating and having fun. Sometimes you have to turn a blind eye to the rule breaking. I think of it like plausible deniability.

4. I went to the doctors today in my on-going saga to understand if I have depression or am merely suffering from exhaustion. The GP I saw was the same one my hubbie saw last week about his anxiety. She was not helpful. The only thing she wanted to do anything about was my hubbie’s snoring: that was something real she could fix. I hate speaking to doctors who don’t understand or refuse to admit that mental illness is as real as diabetes or high blood pressure, even though just as invisible on the outside (although, I admit, harder to measure). She basically told me that I have to get several good nights of sleep “For the sake of my family.” I came away with the impression that I was willfully choosing to get up to the kids in the night and sleep in the same bed as my snoring husband even though it made me a bad wife and mother in the day time. Grrrr. Time to see a different GP.

Oh look, my random thoughts have reached the magical 500 words. Thank you for listening and good night! I’m doing as I am told and going to bed before 11pm 🙂

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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 read the text message and beamed at the empty dorm room, wanting to share the jest. Trust Conor to have something stupid to say to lighten the heaviness she’d been carrying since Wellington. She looked at the message again, marvelling that Conor’s humour was so like her own.

Thank the lovesick puppy for me; sounds like I’ve got more chance of getting you to work for me now. Nothing will send you home quicker than needing to leg it from a clingy bloke with baggage.

It seemed strange to think she would be back in the UK in a couple of weeks, or that it had only been three weeks since her interview for the Dorset job. Her time away felt crammed with a lifetime of experiences.

I suppose something good came of losing my best friend: I would never have run away to New Zealand if Kim hadn’t accused me of killing her baby.

The thought set her heart hammering, and she realised it wasn’t something she could joke about, even in her own mind. What if she had caused the miscarriage, by letting slip Kim’s news to Michael? Suddenly all the lightness slipped away and her mind returned to the dark.

And now I have needy Josh, my new shadow, as penance. I guess I deserve it. Thou shalt not covet another woman’s husband and all that. Just as I was horrified that Kim was throwing her career away for a baby. Why do my stupid thoughts have to come back to bite me.

“Claire?”

Looking up at the door, Claire exhaled at the sight of Bethan. She didn’t want Josh cornering her in an empty room.

“There you are. It’s time to go kayaking, if you’re still coming? Some of the guys are catching the taxi boat, but I want to have a go out on the water.”

Claire stuffed her phone in her bag and nodded. “I’m coming.” She shouldered the rucksack and followed Bethan from the room.

“What were you doing by yourself in there, anyway? Texting loverboy? He’s waiting for you downstairs.” Bethan grinned.

Claire merely rolled her eyes.

*

Claire twisted her fingers while the tour guide allocated them into pairs for the double kayaks they would paddle down the coast. She shuffled nearer to Bethan, conscious of Josh sidling up on her other side. Claire tried to exude her best ‘I’m invisible do not speak to me’ vibe, that she used to use on the Metro. It didn’t work.

The guide, a tanned woman in her twenties, looked directly at them. “You, Bethan? You can come with me. Claire, is it? You’re with Josh. Simon and Lee, you two are together, and, Sally was it? You’re with Matt.”

Claire swore under her breath, conscious of Josh grinning behind her. Bethan threw her an apologetic look and went to stand by the tour guide.

“Why are you avoiding me, Claire?” Josh spoke quietly into her ear, making her shiver. “I’m not about to force myself on you. If you’re not interested, that’s fine, although I must have got my wires crossed.”

The hurt in his voice made her heart clench and she turned to say something, but he was already striding towards their kayak. Her mind churned with conflicting emotions. This Josh confused her, but she couldn’t deny she was still attracted to him. Maybe Bethan was right, perhaps she should let down her guard and see what happened. Or at least try and talk to him, tell him to go back to Fiona. What did she really want? And what was right?

With a sigh, she crossed the sand towards the craft waiting by the water. Blind to the beauty of the sparkling sea, the endless white sand, she took a deep breath and pushed her shoulders back.

It feels like my job in life is to reunite this man with his family.

***