In a doorway, John unfolds himself from his newspaper bed. A flash of orange catches his eye. One two. One two. The jogger always disturbs his sleep, regular as clock work. Each day John ponders what the chap in the orange trainers does for a living, he never looks at John, never puts a penny in the hat although it’s obvious he could afford it. No, it’s generally the have nots who spare a few pence. Once John had a good job, felt he was climbing the ladder, but then the recession hit like a fat snake. Swallowed him up and dumped him at the bottom of the pile. One error of judgement, one wrong roll of life’s dice, lost him his house, his family; everything.
John tries to make a plan for the day, where he’ll go to find the choicest pickings from bins, where best to sit and beg a few quid. ‘If I get enough money I’ll buy a coffee’, he thinks, but then changes his mind. He’ll buy cider, of course. The coffee would be warm but the fancy lattes and the like are more expensive than a bottle of cider which could last most of the day.
Norman Smith climbs into bed shattered after a long night on the road. “Night love,” he says to Tracey. “Night love” she responds. Tracey is getting up and dressing in her polyester uniform ready for work. She keeps the curtains closed, though daylight is spilling in where the fabric panels don’t meet properly. Quietly she leaves the room, glad to escape the stale smell of lorry cab that clings to her husband. Every time she goes out, Norman goes in and vice versa. Like a weather house, she thinks. Norman is asleep by the time Tracey is getting breakfast. He dreams of road maps winding their way through space. An endless maze that he must escape from.
Tracey puts out cereal, the box a cheap version of the best brand. It always tastes soggy. When she married she thought she’d go up in the world. Well, she has in the physical sense, living on the tenth floor of a concrete block.
She knocks on her daughter’s bedroom door, “Come on Norma, you’ll be late for school.”
However long Norma takes to get ready, she always appears bedraggled. But Tracey remembers thirteen is an awkward age. As Tracey leaves the flat on her way to the supermarket, the postie arrives, hands her a letter. A brown envelope with a bold headline, ‘FINAL REMINDER’. Tracey can see the glimpse of red writing within, which can only mean one thing. Tracey sighs. That’s her life, two steps forward, one step back.
Reginald Longbottom tries to move out of the path of the jogger he can hear pounding the paving behind him. It’s awkward with the rollator. Reginald likes to get out early; it’s in his blood from his years in the army. A life of discipline. He used to be like that jogger in his flashy trainers; a man with the world at his feet. Now every step is a struggle. Still, he thanks God for each extra day he gets through. After all he’ll be ninety nine next year. And to his mind, each year after three score years and ten is a bonus. He wonders whether he’ll make his hundredth. That sounds good. A century. Like a cricket score worthy of applause.
On Sundays Reginald goes to church. He can’t bend to kneel anymore, but thinks God probably has better things to concern himself with. He prays and asks forgiveness for shooting a man in the war. It is the one memory which haunts him. As a soldier he was told “Kill or be killed”. And his life turned on that moment, like the random toss of a coin. It could so easily have been him who lost.
Robert Blewitt, called Bobby Blue by his colleagues, likes the sound of his trainers hitting the paving. One two. One two. He sees the familiar people and things on his run but they don’t impinge on his conscience. There’s the beggar, the bus queue, the corner shop displaying another torrid headline. And then on Hampstead Heath the same dog walkers, the old guy with his frame. But they blur into insignificance. He views the distant city, the tall buildings which are shrouded in haze this morning. That’s where he works, creating wealth. He sees light glinting off skyscrapers. That is the hub; the beating heart. Though the masses don’t appreciate it, Bobby knows it is he and his colleagues, dealing on the stock market, who underpin the whole success of Britain. Bobby stands for a moment stretching his back, hands on his hips. Takes a few deep breaths. This is my city he muses. He knows he’s winning at life.
John marks the passage of days by how cold he is, how quickly the dark comes, the mass of people going to and from homes. Today is a weekday because children are in school uniform. Oh, here’s the little lass, always looks scared as if somebody might jump out and say ‘Boo!’ Occasionally, he thinks he might do it, see her jump like a scared rabbit, but that would be mean and he doesn’t have the energy for leaping.
A ten pence piece lands at his feet; Norma always donates this as payment to ward off bad things happening to her. She walks to the bus stop, avoiding cracks in the pavement and keeping to the shadows hoping that she won’t be visible to the bullies who patrol the open spaces.
At the bus stop, Norma hides beside the bulk of a woman; large and with a screaming child in a buggy, carrier bags hanging off the handles. “Shut up, Jayden,” the woman shouts, pushing a dummy into the infant’s mouth. The woman looks at Norma and smiles as if Norma might have some idea of what it’s like to be a mother. Norma looks away.
Every day is like an obstacle course, Misha thinks, as she adjusts the carrier bags. It doesn’t matter how many times she does it; just getting out of the house and then onto and off the bus with a pushchair is difficult. Who designs these things; buses and buggies anyway? Somebody who’s never had a screaming child, a pregnant belly and three carrier bags of stuff.
Norma sidles into the classroom and takes her usual seat at the front corner. She looks forward. Today’s topic, ‘The Norman Conquest’ is written in red pen across the white board. Already the second ‘n’ has been smeared to a bloody streak. Norma’s stomach flips and groans, ‘No this will be bad’. She can hear sniggering from the back of the class as other pupils enter. She can hear them murmuring, trying to think up insults which will hurt Norma most, hear them scrabbling for strips of paper they can use to bombard her with.
Why did her parents have to call her Norma? They said it was tradition, to be handed down to the eldest child. But it’s a heavy burden.
A moist pellet lands by her ear with the cry of, “Strike!” Norma brushes it off, hoping teacher will arrive soon. One day she’ll stand up to the bullies. But she always puts it off until tomorrow.
On the bus Misha watches London streets go by, reminding her of a Monopoly board. But she feels she’ll never ‘Pass Go,’ never ‘Collect two hundred pounds.’ Misha’s unborn baby kicks, catching her under her rib cage, so she has to take a deep breath. She wants a girl, then she can stop. A boy and a girl is the perfect number. She’ll call the baby Beyoncé, an empowering name.
Inside her womb baby-to-be Beyoncé, is a boy. He turns and twists unaware of his future; his name, the house, the school; and his mother’s regret at having another boy.
Gamemaker, leans back and surveys the creation. Amazed how a simple idea flourished. When it began it was based on the cutting edge technology available but now has developed a whole new complexity and just keeps on growing. Grown beyond Gamemaker’s control. More brilliant, more intricate than had ever been thought possible. The initial coding has progressed into a universe of planets and stars and life. One planet is populated with sentient beings; humans, who are trying to understand the origins of the Game. It amuses Gamemaker to see them struggle to grasp the concept. Gamemaker hasn’t named this creation but humans appear to like labelling things. They might call it Quest… But would be wrong; there was never a point to the Game, no end point, no grail or prize.
Perhaps Conquest would be better. These humans have caused so many conflicts and obstacles to overcome. Gamemaker shrugs. The Game is worthy of admiration… but now it’s time to move on to the next challenge.
The title of this blog post is a question a friend asked me after I’d published a short story on my web page. That story was inspired by a TV documentary which I wanted to respond to.
More recently I’ve had to consider the question again.
When I got a date and place for the launch of my latest novel, ‘the matter,’ I was delighted and excited. It seemed a long time since the start of the process. In fact I had taken the first chapter to a writing retreat in early 2015 and after positive feedback worked hard to complete it.
The novel centres on 11 year-old Simeon Isherwood, who has a genetic disorder. This makes him unable to communicate. His scientist parents have the opportunity to let Simeon undergo genetic replacement therapy. After making the difficult decision to go ahead, the results are not quite as expected.
As I started the process of how to introduce ‘the matter’ at the launch I realised it was going to take a bit of thought.
I have published two other novels, ‘The Memory of Wood,’ and ‘The Kim’s Game.’ However, ‘the matter,’ developed in a different way.
For those first two novels, the starting point had been a definitive moment when ‘the story’ emerged.
For ‘The Memory of Wood’ I‘d been having a drink in the bar of a hotel and heard about the legend of the ghost of Mary Queen of Scots descending the staircase. The book’s theme centres on this tale.
The trigger for ‘The Kim’s Game’ was meeting a person who’d had a leg amputation. Thinking about the character took me on a path of ‘What else has this man lost?’ The answer: a relationship, his mother, his home…and these losses reminded me of the memory game I had played as a child, which we called ‘Kim’s Game.’
Rather than a single occurrence or character ‘the matter’ evolved gradually. Because though the story centres round Simeon and his parents, there is another character, a mysterious ‘entity.’ As I considered how it sneaked in, I had a memory of visiting a science exhibition back in 1973. On a screen was a visual display of an atom: the nucleus central and electrons moving around it, a bit like moons orbiting a planet. This was a time before the World Wide Web, mobile phones and even calculators. I was just starting my secondary education and it was a real eye opener.
The thing that still amazes me was the amount of space between those subatomic particles. And I think that must still underpin my world view. There is a lot of current research into dark matter but it remains a mystery. In fact, scientists can only account for 5% of matter in the universe, the other 95% is dark matter and dark energy.
The other strand of the story is Simeon’s operation. This theme for the book developed after I met an eight year old girl with a terrible genetic disorder. Again I asked the question, “What if…she could have an operation that would cure her?” and then “What if…that operation changed her, so though considered a success by the medical world, she was unhappy at becoming a different individual?”
The “What if..?” question is one that most of us will arrive at when developing a new idea for our writing. But some subjects though triggered by a recent topic or occurrence may actually go much further back to a previous event, a character that made an impression on us, or a strange tale that piques an interest.
Wherever they start, I sense they have something to do with the space between the atoms somewhere in the depths of the neural circuits in the brain. And just as I get dizzy from thinking about Infinity, this is also another topic that gives my brain ache…just where do those words come from? So I can’t fully answer my friend’s question but I hope ‘the matter’ is thought provoking and pertinent to the world today. The publisher, Cinnamon Press says it…‘is a unique and headspinning speculation.’
P.S. If you are concerned that ‘the matter’ is some kind of pseudo-science book, please be reassured…in fact it begins in the jungle of ‘I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here!’ (Don’t let that put you off either.)
Thanks, Stephanie! Ideas can materialise all at once or nurtured over time, but best founded in real life experience.
If it looks like a phoenix…
This piece was written as a response to the programme, ‘The Truth about the menopause’. Shown on BBC1 Nov 2018. It was presented by Mariella Frostrup and although it raised the taboo of the subject of menopause, I thought it was rather a one-sided approach, looking at medical intervention alone…forever…You can still watch the ‘The Truth about the menopause‘ on BBC iPlayer.
My advice to aspiring authors; a short story on my journey to becoming a published author.
Thinking back, I guess it was a competition that started my writing career. Sometime around 1970 at the age of 9, I entered a competition on the back of a cereal packet, ‘Win a Mini for Mum’. This involved completing a booklet of advertising slogans. The one that sticks in my memory is “I am a knight…..Like Dettol I guard and fight.” How’s that for an auspicious start.
Anyway, I didn’t win the Mini, but as third place, I did win a Kodak camera. So I took up photography and although I entered numerous competitions, which sometimes involved coming up with a slogan, I didn’t look to writing competitions for a number of years.
It wasn’t until 2004 that I got around to entering a creative writing competition. This was called End of Story and was launched by BBC Three. It involved a booklet containing the beginnings of eight short stories written by well-known authors, like Ian Rankin, Marian Keyes and Faye Weldon. All you had to do was complete one of them in fewer than 1200 words. It was the Joanne Harris story that I was attracted to, titled ‘Dryad.’
Those were still days of posting entries. I felt very pleased to have actually completed my entry and there was a certain satisfaction as it dropped into the post box. I thought no more about it. A few months later I received a phone call whilst sitting on a windy courtside watching my daughter play netball. I assumed they were doing market research and told them to phone back when it was more convenient!
The overall number of entries across the categories was over 17,000, so I felt proud to be on the short-list. I was videoed at home and work for my appearance on TV and then had to overnight in London for the filming of the final programme. The initial euphoria of being short-listed and videoed for the TV show was quickly eradicated when the panel (on a screen), proceeded to rip apart all the entries (not just mine).
However, on returning home I decided I could either use my experience of the competition to improve my writing or just give up. I decided on the former and joined a writing course. This put in place the foundations for a piece of work that not only was I proud of writing but one which I thought could be a published novel.
In 2007 I sent the first 3 chapters to Cinnamon Press Annual Debut Novel/novella prize and was delighted to be long listed. This achievement motivated me to keep going and I self-published “The Memory of Wood” in 2011.
My next success came after attending a writers’ week in Wales with Cinnamon Press. I had taken a piece of writing to share; this was an entry for a Writers and Artists competition with the theme ‘Freedom’. I really appreciated the feedback from the other writers on the course, and ended up with a better and more polished piece of work. I was a runner up in the competition.
I also learnt another invaluable lesson from that writers’ week, which was that if you are only dependent on competitions for your writing feedback then most of the time you are going to be disappointed and discouraged.
It was time to find a writing group. Again I have Cinnamon Press to thank, because they had their 10th anniversary event in Northampton, which is close to my home town of Rushden. One of the workshops was run by Creative Writers’ at the Museum, (CW@M). This group meets at Abington Park Museum, Northampton, and uses the exhibitions and objects to inspire work for a portfolio. The best thing about it was it happened to fall on my day off. (That’s how fate works!) I now write regularly on a wide range of subjects and have real people to give me feedback on my writing.
I’m sure being part of that group also led to a short story win, run by Writers’ and Artists for Firewords, an independent literary magazine combining art and words. The competition was to write a short story based on a painting. This was exactly the type of prompt I had been using for two years with CW@M. And I won! The prize was publication in the lovely Firewords magazine.
Cinnamon Press have also continued being a central part of my writing. My second novel, “The Kim’s Game” was published by them, having been on their long-list for the annual novel prize. And in February 2019 my novella, “the matter” is due for publication having been runner up in 2015.
I continue to love entering writing competitions, especially those with a theme; I can get overwhelmed if I have to start with my own idea.
My latest success was winning the Hastings Lit Fest short story competition this summer. The theme was, ‘Conquest’.
The best thing about the win was that for the first time, I actually won a trophy and a prize voucher for a writing course. I also have a free pass to next year’s Hastings Lit Fest events. Unfortunately they did not publish my winning story or the runners up which was a shame.
(Hastings Lit Fest is also running a short story competition for 2019; details can be found here, https://hastingslitfest.org/competitions/2019-competitions/ Being on a short list is great, being published is even better, and a prize is a bonus! I may not always win or get a mention, however I do enjoy the feeling when I’ve put time and effort into a piece of writing and the sense of anticipation that I might just get a positive e-mail.
If I’m at a loss for what to write there’s always a competition to enter. Whether it’s a mini competition for Cinnamon press, or one on the Writers & Artists websites. Often there are competitions linked to a literary festival or event. The HE Bates Competition is an annual competition run by the Northamptonshire Writers Group. HE Bates was born and brought up in Rushden, and I often walk in the local park which inspired his famous novel, “Love for Lydia.”
At present I’ve 3 pieces in various competitions. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I hope a competition might inspire you. Good Luck!