Category Archives: Reading

Aunty’s Bloopers

I’m here today to restore the good name of aunties!

Why do I feel the need to do this? Ah… you may well ask.

Well, something in children’s literature struck me lately. Struck me like a ten tonne truck. And that something is that aunties get rather a bad name in children’s literature. At least they do in the children’s literature I’ve been reading to my nephew over the past six months.

To put this in to context for those of you who don’t know, I am long-term foster carer for my seven year old nephew. He came to live with me four years ago. Previously to this my sister (his other aunt) took him in on a short term fostering basis until the paperwork for me had gone through for permanency. The whys and wherefores of these circumstances are not relevant to this post, but let’s just say, mental illness is a bugger and can have far reaching consequences most of us never really think about.

Anyway, back to the point of this blog post.

I am an aunt who loves my nephew more than anything, and it is a privilege to be able to watch him grow and learn and to be able to bring him up whilst he still maintains a good relationship with at least one of his parents. So yes, I’m a good aunt. Well at least I hope so!

However, recently we’ve read quite a few children’s books together where aunts are cast as the bad guys. The really bad guys.

It started with reading Matilda by Roald Dahl back in the summer.

I remember my nephew wasn’t especially comfortable when, as we read, it turned out that the horrendous headteacher, Miss Trunchbull, was the lovely Miss Honey’s guardian. Miss Honey, it transpires as the book progresses, was bought up by her aunt who was nothing but hostile towards her and even when she is an adult is manipulating and emotionally abusing her niece. In fact my nephew was horrified. “It’s good you’re not a nasty aunt like Miss Trunchbull,” he said. Always nice to be made a comparison with evil characters! But it seemed to play on his mind. I thought nothing much of it and assured him that Miss Trunchbull was just a character made up from imagination, just as the characters he makes up are.

A few months later we were reading James and the Giant Peach. And who does James have to go and live with when he is orphaned? Yes, his two atrocious aunts: Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge. Well there my nephew made an immediate connection about there being more nasty aunts in a Dahl novel. We began to wonder if Roald Dahl himself had vicious cruel aunts, and I had to assure my nephew that no, not all aunts are mean. “No, because you’re not,” he said thoughtfully. “You’re nice and kind and loving.” (Yes, he can be that cheesy! 🙂 ) Phew. Not scarred yet then?!

Of course, I thought not much of all this until more recently when we acquired all of David Walliams’ children’s books. We started with Mr Stink and Billionaire Boy, before moving onto Awful Auntie.

 

Well, we do not need to delve too deeply past the title to know that yet again we were to encounter an aunt so truly terrible, she makes the previous three literary aunts,  all rolled into one, seem like Miss Honey. The title character, Aunt Alberta, is responsible for the custody of her niece, Stella, when she is orphaned. Now, okay, it’s probably natural that the horrible aunt character would be used, as I would imagine Dahl’s books are so ingrained in British psyche – characters such as Miss Trunchbull and the aunts in James and the Giant Peach  – that it may be a natural route for an author to take.

But then the other night I started reading A Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig.

 

Now everyone who follows me on Twitter will know I love (with a capital L)  Matt Haig’s writing. I think he writes with great insight into the human mind and can make just one line within a story tell a whole human truth. So to be clear this post is not an author bashing of Haig, Walliams or Dahl  because to me they all write wonderful stories and are all geniuses in their field. I  aspire to write as well as they, though I’m a long way off that yet!

Gushing ramble aside, I felt my heart sink and a loud sigh did emit from my lungs at around Chapter 3, when it is announced Nikolas’ aunt will be coming to ‘look after him’ whilst his father is away for three months. And of course Aunt Carlota turns out to be a Grade A bitch of an aunt who the young Niklolas is subsequently mistreated by. I know as a writer why this is the case. Why she is so wicked and cruel; there has to be an inciting incident for what’s to come next for our hero, and his aunt being the equivalent to the wicked witch of the west is just that. My sigh wasn’t for that, no. I understood this perfectly. My sigh was more for the fact of thinking – “oh no, not ANOTHER cruel, malicious, abusive aunt in a story that I want to read to my little boy! This is doing the aunt stereotype no favours at all!” I mean when he gets to his teenage years I’ll be labelled mean, cruel and told I’m hated as it is. That’s natural. All parents are. But when you have the added thing that you’re not actually their parent and then all aunties he reads about in books are cowbags, well I can see me being in for a tough time come six years time or so!

Reading this latest bad aunty character got me wondering about why Aunt Carlota/Miss Trunchbull/Aunt’s Sponge and Spiker couldn’t have been uncles, or cousins or well…just anyone rather than another aunt. I’m not being sensitive as an aunt, it’s just an observation which has made me curious as to why aunts get such a bad press. And I can’t help but think the wicked stepmother trope of traditional tales seems to have given way to the wicked aunt trope.  I mean not that I know exactly how many awful literary aunts there are out there. I’m possibly not as widely read as I should be. Maybe there are just as many unscrupulous uncles adorning our children’s bookshelves as there are aunts. It’s only I personally haven’t come across any.  To add to these though, I got to thinking of other children’s books I’ve read. For example I read recently a book by a new author, Susan McNally. In her “Morrow Secrets” trilogy it is Great Aunt Agatha, a tyrannical matriarch, who holds power over, not only her great niece, but all the other women in the family too.  Then, even in the mighty Harry Potter stories, it is Harry’s maternal aunt, Petunia, who he has to go and live with and is mistreated by (albeit it equally with Uncle Vernon and dastardly Dudley) throughout his childhood. (The uncle and cousin are incidental though I feel really, as it is the blood relative, the aunt, who is the reason he is in that family in the first place.)

So now I’ve  been trying to scour the recesses of my childhood book memories (and the internet) to find a balance. To find equally evil uncles and examples of awesome aunts who look after children once their parents have left the scene for whatever reason. So far I’ve come up with Lemony Snickett Series of Unfortunate Events books. I’ve not read them, but Wikipedia leads me to believe the orphaned children are sent to live with a dreadful distant male relative who then tries to steal their fortune. Amongst other despicable deeds. Oh and of course there’s the wicked ‘uncle’ in Aladdin.

But that’s all I’ve come up with. Grandparents (with the exception of the Grandma in George’s Marvellous Medicine) always seem to come off well. Kindly, caring, wise, gentle. But aunts? Hmmmm. I’ve yet to come across a nice kindly one in literature yet. At least in the children’s literature I’m reading to my 7 year old nephew.

So I haven’t read A Boy Called Christmas to him yet. In a way I am glad I started it without him. I think he may well begin to wonder about me! He might start to think I’m going to steal from him, or lock him cellars or make him sleep outside!

No, not really! I’m not really concerned that my nephew may  get a complex about how abominable aunts are. Simply because I am an amazing aunt, (‘amazing’ used for alliterative purposes not because I’m a big-headed arse!) who looks after him well and loves him unconditionally! As is my sister an awesome aunt to him too. Also I know so many other wonderful aunts who all go out of their way for their nieces and nephews all the time in fantastic ways. Yes, kids I’m here to tell you not all aunties are bloopers! Some of us are good people who don’t feed children rotten turnips or bandage them up and lock them in rooms!

I’m just curious as to why the awful aunty character seems to pop up quite a lot…And this is where you come in, my lovely readers.

Is there a slightly cultural bias thing going on? I mean uncles are generally seen as cool and fun. (or at least portrayed that way?) Aunts possibly more serious and ‘old’. (That might just be me though as all my brothers are younger and so as uncles to nephews always going to be cooler than older aunts – maybe!) But I also can’t help but think there’s that element of being a bachelor is seen as positive thing whilst being a spinster is seen as negative tied in somehow with this too. Maybe its the fact aunts are so great in reality that writers can play around with them and make them atrocious!

Cultural stereotypes are always very interesting, but this is one I hadn’t even considered this one before this year.

Of course, as always, this is a bit of me rambling and throwing down my initial brain gunk out into the ether, but I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on this.

Can you think of any examples in kid’s literature (especially the middle grade sort of age range), whereby aunts are portrayed in a more positive light. Or perhaps where uncles are not? (I’ve just brought to mind Uncle Andrew in CS Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. He wasn’t that great I vaguely seem to recall.)

Anyway, over to you folks. Let me know your thoughts. 🙂

Cheers!

 

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Reflections of a Fantasist (Part 2)

This is the second of my series reflecting on this book I was bought…

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In my previous post, two weeks ago, I focused on the value reading Fantasy has for children’s development and for their understanding of the world around them. You can read that post here if you missed it.

This week, I’m going to reflect more on the writing of children’s Fantasy fiction and how what I read in Diana Wynne Jone’s book has influenced my thinking on my own novel.

Part 2:

The Structure of Writing a Fantasy Novel.

Let me start by saying that when  started writing my novel, Prophecy of Innocence, I had no idea how to write a novel, let alone one in a specific genre. One, which I have since learnt, is a much loved genre, a genre which readers and writers can be very precious about. There are purists and then there are progressionists and I have discovered no writer of Fantasy will please both factions.

Dianna Wynne Jones seems to my mind (having read none of her novels, yet having read Reflections) to be very much a progressionist with a touch of the classical about her. In Reflections there is a whole chapter entitled ‘The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings’, (a wonderfully inspiring read). In it she reflects deeply on the clever and classical narrative shape Tolkien’s book takes. She writes about ‘movements’ and ‘codas’, things I know absolutely nothing about when it comes to writing. I’ve never studied writing as she did, and she had the great fortune to attend lectures by the great Tolkien himself (even if he did stand mumbling at the board for the most part…apparently).

Later on in Reflections she talks about the ‘Value of Learning Anglo Saxon’ and she speaks with an authority on texts (original texts that is) of such greats as Beowulf and how it taught her about how to orchestrate and shape a narrative more than anything else she’s ever read. This from the original poem, not, as she say,s from any translations. From this and other chapters in Reflections you discover an extremely intelligent well read woman to be admired and listened to. A woman who knows how to weave a narrative in the correct way.

Me? Well it seems I’ve just been going on pot luck. I knew my story and most importantly its end point first of all. (The end is always in mind first.) However, I do not, and never have, consciously think about how, for example, the weather in the first ‘movement’ might foreshadow an event in the third, (as it seems Tolkien did.) I wonder if, in this modern age of writing, anyone does? (Waits for droves of writers to set me straight and tell me they do.)

Both chapters in Reflections which I refer to above could probably explain why I love both of those stories (despite my never having read the original Anglo Saxon version of Beowulf) and why they have had so much influence on why I write the type of Fantasy I do. In fact, is was Beowulf and other quest stories of a similar ilk which  led me down the writing of hero quest Fantasy for children in the first place.

During the winter of 2009/2010, I was teaching writing quest stories to a class of 10 year olds. We had studied a translated version of Beowulf. (I remember a particularly fun drama lesson where tables were turned upside down to create still image scenes of when Beowulf first appears at the Great Mead Hall at Heorot and chaos ensues.)  Anyway, once we got to the writing process, I had to model writing an opening to a quest type story, as is the normal process in teaching writing at primary level. I found a title prompt on a teaching website entitled ‘Land of the Forgotten.’ I ended up, with the help of the children through various modelled and shared writing sessions, writing a whole short story rather than just the beginning. It was very Anglo -Saxon/Celtic /Medieval in its feel. (I blame my obsession with Robin Hood for my tendencies towards the medieval.)

In the story I had a giant half-fish, half-snake like monster called a Flotsaith which had hollowed out eyes. If a person looked into these eyes then the person would lose all memories.

The said Flotsaith (or at least its head)

Of course our hero, Balathar, has been sent, with his companions, to a remote island, (a version of the tiny Isle of Staffa off the West Coast of Scotland) where the beast dwells, on orders to slay it. The beast has caused the Princess Pathadtch (with a silent d) to lose her memory, and, as the hero loves the princess, he risks all on the quest to save her. Yes, it’s full of every Fantasy trope and cliche you can think of, and the characters are completely two dimensional, but the point of the exercise was to help children build a narrative and a plot. (I may still take the story and build it into a full blown novel, now I know what I’m doing more. I’ll see. It wouldn’t be original enough to sell, but I wonder whether children might just enjoy stories of monsters, whatever the cliches involved!)

Anyway, six months later, having enjoyed the process of writing ‘Land of The Forgotten‘ so much, I reached into the depths of my psyche and started writing Prophecy of Innocence from the glimmer of an idea I’d had when I was twelve.

Now, I know my novel and ideas are heavily influenced by the likes of reading The Lord Of the Rings and Beowulf and the Narnia stories and so forth, although the story itself is quite different and unique in premise. Some may think the fact I have characters who are two inches tall is borrowed from The Borrowers. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve never read it and couldn’t tell you what it was about other than there are little people in it. If the idea of small creatures living under the ground came from anywhere it came from Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock, so there! (I used to imagine we had Fraggles living through the split in the wood between the skirting board and door frame of our lounge when I was growing up.)

Reflections however, made me question everything I’ve written in Prophecy as being almost fraudulent, because it seems, completely unwittingly, I have committed cardinal cliched sin after cardinal cliched sin. Oh dear.

Jones says in Reflections that she wrote a book called The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land because she was “exasperated with the way too many fantasy books, deriving ultimately from Tolkien, were so much the same.” She says her book “pretends to be a tourist guide and starts with a map – like all the conventional fantasies do.” (Oh dear, strike one Joanne! Oh and George R.R. Martin, but we’ll skim over his huge success.) Jones’ book is laid out very much like a dictionary or encyclopedia, and is based on highlighting, in a satirical manner, the tropes and cliches that some Fantasy writers put into their books. From the excerpts I read in the two essays ‘Inventing the Middle Ages’ and ‘Freedom to Write‘,  it seems to me quite scathing in places, rather than simply “poking fun” as she says.  Her vitriol (for this is how it came across to me) seems to have come about from stereotypes writers were making in adult fantasy novels about the Middle Ages. However, maybe stereotypes about fields been burnt by armies and monasteries with thick walls set high on hills aren’t stereotypes at all but used in adult Fantasy books because traditionally Fantasy books (Tolkien’s included) have leaned towards Medieval setting and culture. Those things did happen and were there in the Middle Ages.

So I have another problem as some of my novel leans towards this time culturally (albeit with completely made up characters, i.e the elflings. Probably not entirely made up as you know there are elves in traditional Fantasy stories, so there would be something else to slate me for. Ho hum.)

Anyway, this leads me to my disappointment in reading about her derisive attitude towards adult Fantasy writers who write in this purist, “conventional” form. First of all she mocks books written in trilogies. “Aren’t they always trilogies?” – oh damn, another ‘rule’ broken by yours truly.

I then read more and realised I’d followed quite a lot of the same cliches she so berates these other writers of adult fantasy.

Here are just a few:

1) Clothing: “Apart from robes, no garment thicker than a shirt has sleeves”. (Guilt flooded me as I wrote about my character’s robes and tunics and braise. Oh goodness, did they wear such things in Medieval times? Am I allowed to dress them in such or am I being too cliched?)

2) Colour Coding: section 3: eyes. There is a whole section, too long to write in here, about how colour of eyes means something, but the one which stuck out was: “Black eyes are invariably evil.” Oh well darn, darn, darny darn. My antagonist has onyx eyes. I did not do this on purpose. It suited him to have small, dark, mysterious eyes. He has a lot of stuff to hide!

Also eye colour and eyes as a physicality are important in my book. My characters are two inch high elflings. They live under the ground. Their eyesight is, as such, adapted to the darkness of the underground and to reflect this fact I used gemstones to describe eye colour. I did this also as gemstones are an important part of the magic in the novel and so there is that element. I’ve not gone on about it and repeated the eye colour stuff continually in heavy description. (I did, but I’ve culled a lot…one lives and learns. ) Nevertheless, their eyes are important. They do shimmer and sparkle like gemstones because if they didn’t then the elfings wouldn’t be able to see.

3) Crystals: Oh crap, I have crystonal which is a  made up compound of various crushed gemstones which give longevity of life to the elflings and is central to part of the plot.

4) Missing heirs: “blah blah blah de blah”….Oh ooops. Now mine’s not missing strictly speaking. They (for there are two of them) just don’t know they are heirs. (Oh dear, now I’ve strayed into Star Wars territory.)

5) Slaves. Oh I give up! Damn it!  I do have some of my characters end up becoming sort of slaves in Book 3. (Not yet written, so could change.)

Despite all this use of tropes she berates, I do hope I’ve not overdone any of them. They are afterall just stuff from my subconscious. So much of that background stuff is. Subconscious from my own cultural references. (Maybe that’s the problem, perhaps I need to work harder as a writer to take out any cultural references and be completely original. Though I’m not sure true originality exists anymore.)

One chapter in Reflections goes into great detail about a time when Jones was judging for an International book award. She talks about one particular Fantasy book, using words such as “absurdities” and “worrying”, as though her type of fantasy writing holds more merit than any other and this really got my back up. I’m not excusing sloppy writing, not at all but, as she says herself though this didn’t seem to be the main issue for her. It was more to do with the use of cliches of the genre. This despite conceding that “many readers of Fantasy would expect them [the same cliches] and be highly dismayed not to have them. The fashion for so called heroic fantasy, derived ultimately from Tolkien, has been going so long  it seems quite unalterable.” As though this is a bad thing? She goes on to say: “The unalterable convention is now getting incorporated into books for children and young adults.”  Oh no! Whatever shall we do? Bring back some tradition to children who may never have read this type of book? (Let’s face it The Lord of the Rings may be heavy going for your average ten year old these days!) “Oh dear”, she says. I say why shouldn’t it spread to children’s books?

Finally and more importantly for my writing, Jones speaks about why she doesn’t write historical fiction for children, and this includes this medieval conventional type of fantasy. Oh no, I thought. My book is set at the time of the Industrial Revolution and the underground world of my elflings is almost medieval in feel as they are a more ancient species. I’m about to break another sacred rule of Fantasy writing by actually following the rules of fantasy writing. Jones argues that, as children are forward thinking they are “not going to be interested in anything other than the here and now and moving forward to what will be.”  (I can see the point as a valid one, yes. But do all children not like history, even if they don’t fully have a sense of it as she suggests?) I, for one,  loved books set in the past when I was a child, so I don’t think her argument holds too much weight. Anyhow, this is why she wrote Fantasy as she did, without the conventions of adult fantasy or a historical slant (despite, it seems, many of her cultural references coming from Greek mythology, Chaucer,  and Anglo Saxon legends such as Beowulf amongst others….Hmmmm. ) In “the guide” she says:

“History [in medieval fantasy] is generally patchy and unreliable. Any real information about the past is either lost…” (oh here we go again; I’ve done that in my book too, for good reason related to plot..) “or in a scroll… jealously guarded…” (uh oh…). “All that can be ascertained is…that there was once an Empire” (monarchy in my case, damn!)  “…that ruled the continent…” (Trelflande) “and…that there was once a wizards… (tribal) “…war that occurred earlier still.”

Oh deary deary me. My book is doomed it seems. However, my view is this: It was exactly like that for historical records  in Medieval times or before. It was patchy, of course it was, by very nature of not having much of it recorded. I can’t see her issue here at all. Also those of us who write about times set in the past do so because it allows us to play around more. As science fiction writers or dystopian/ futuristic Fantasy writers do. There are things which historical culture and settings allow us to do as writers as is the case with other forms of writing. Take detective fiction written by Agatha Christie. Very different to modern detective fiction as there were no computers, mobile phones, ways of tracing DNA. Not even finger printing it seems in the 1930’s, so what you get is a very different feel to the same genre. And anyway, when writing fantasy who says history has to be completely accurate? Especially when simply referencing fields, castles, shacks, clothing etc.. You are writing fantasy! The reader knows this.

But of course all this made me feel as though my novel is doomed.

First because of the fact I have written in this ‘conventional’ style FOR CHILDREN! For children who must be protected from medieval fantasy tropes as all cost!

Furthermore, I have written in some actual history, which of course Jones says children “are not going to be interested in books that are not about the here and now or what is to come.” (I’d argue sometimes you have to understand exactly what’s been before to understand what’s happening now and what will come, er…surely this is how The Lord of the Rings works, but then I’m a historian and believe in the power of history, so I would say that wouldn’t I?)

Thirdly of course I go and write every medieval Fantasy trope going into the story. Jones would rip my book apart if she was still alive and it’d been entered for an International book award as the one she slates was.

She seems to basically be saying that: anyone who writes fantasy for adults is trying to write Lord of the Rings and that it is a travesty if we do this for children too. Now I’ve never written a fantasy like LOTR intentionally, but I like the fantasy hero quest genre. For me it has a neat, familiar structure and I don’t think authors can help being influenced by what they’ve read. She was, but she seems to damn other writers for the same. She took names of characters from Dante, I take mine from UK motorway service stations. Does this make me any less of a writer? Okay perhaps it does. Perhaps Jones was just an incredibly skilled author at taking what she read and what she learnt from her Oxford University Education in English and being able to mould them into progressionalist, original Fantasy works for children.

And I’m not. But that’s perhaps because I can only take what I can from my readings and from my bog- standard Secondary State Education and very small University of Birmingham Bachelor of Education degree with honours in History. Perhaps I’m only capable of  writing tropey Medieval traditional fantasy as that’s what I enjoy.

Hopefully some children will enjoy it too.

Thanks, as ever for reading. Phew, that was a long one!

 

 

 

 

 

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Reflections of a Fantasist (Part 1)

I’ve just finished reading this book:

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Reflections by the (predominantly) children’s fantasy author, Diana Wynne Jones.

Reflections is a collection of… well, her reflections on writing and, in particular, writing fantasy fiction and writing it for children.

The book was a wonderful surprise gift from a Twitter friend from across the pond who chose perfectly. Thank you again, Siofra Alexander! 🙂

Now before you groan and shut down the blog thinking ‘this is going to be a book review’, please allow me to assure you it is not.

I wanted to blog about this book because, having read it, it has become a great big missing part of the jigsaw puzzle of this journey I’ve embarked on of writing a children’s fantasy novel.

Reading this book made me fall in love with Jones and then despise her all within the turn of a page! Reading this book made me fall in love with my writing, gave me inspiration and hope and then, in the next breath, snatched it away, making me doubt virtually everything I’ve put down in the last 132,000 words. Quite a powerful book, wouldn’t you say?

Now, I have never, much to my chagrin, read any of  Jones’ novels. I  will confess I am not widely read in general compared to most people I know who enjoy reading, not by any stretch of the imagination. Reading Reflections made me realise just how little I have actually ever read. In terms of ‘pure’ children’s fantasy I’ve read the most obvious as a child: The Chronicles of Narnia (and then only three of them as I got bored half way through Prince Caspian. ) The Harry Potter series and of course The Lord of the Rings. Oh, and I used to read those Choose Your Own Adventure books which were around in the 1980s. Other than that, my fantasy reading is pretty much limited to the above. Shocking considering what I am writing now. I did, however, gorge on fairy tales as a child. I owned a large number of Ladybird books which I cherished and read over and over and over, delighting in the beautiful illustrations. Cinderella, Chicken Licken, Snow White… the list goes on. How I loved those books! I also was the lucky recipent (I bought it with some birthday money one year if I remember correctly) a huge volume of The Brothers’ Grimm Fairy Tales which I also loved to pieces. It was a brick of a book and I have no idea  what happened to it. However, five years ago I was staying in a B&B in Loch Lomond and in the guest lounge was an exact same copy of the volume I had. It was like coming home. I sat and read as many as I could that evening. I wish I’d asked the owner now if I could have bought it from her. But oh, well never mind. I think that demonstrates the power and magic of the early reading of fantasy stories before I even get much into this post.  Anyway, I intend to read some of  Jones’ books as, I feel as though I ought, given she’s a bit of an authority on the subject.

So the main reason for this post is because I wanted to highlight some of the points Jones made in relation to writing Fantasy and how that relates to what I’ve written so far. Also to comment on what she has to say about writing for children specifically and how that relates not only to writing but also to teaching children. There were many places in the book I was shouting “YES! YES! This woman talks sense; she knows children; she knows writing! I love her!” At other points I found myself shaking my head at the condescending attitude she appeared to have towards teachers and actually towards other writers of Fantasy. (More on this in another post.) She came across as quite narrow minded in some respects. She also came across as extremely intelligent and well read, but narrow minded in some instances, nevertheless.

Anyway, I’m going to break this post into a few posts as I have quite a lot of thoughts and reflections of my own, so here goes with Part 1:

On Children, and the Value of Fantasy

In the first essay in Reflections, ‘The Children in the Wood,’ Jones writes about overlooking the woods near her home and watching the local children play there. She says they always played some version of ‘Let’s Pretend’, i.e the children were being knights or princesses, or soldiers or what have you. She says she noted how often they played that type of game: “it seems to be something they need to do. You can see they need to because they are all so happy.”   She writes about how these games always involves the children splitting off into groups to be the ones dying or killing or just ambling though the action, taking little notice. (though she acknowledges that children play Let’s Pretend games on their own in their heads all the time too.) She notes how, when engaged in this type of play, there are no quarrels. “quarrels happen when….the children are trying to play a game like hide and seek or building a tree house, which does not involve make-believe.” She surmises that they need Let’s Pretend to make them combine together as a group.

Now, as a primary school teacher who has stood on countless playgrounds over the last seventeen plus years and watched children, I can absolutely vouch for this. The times I have had to settle disputes are when the games with rules are played. Like football. Oh, football! How I despair. But never have I had to speak to a child (other than to say ‘get up off the wet floor or else your mother will be cross with you having dirty trousers‘ [it’s always boys rolling around on the damp tarmac, never girls I’ve found!]) when they have been “killed” by another whilst they are involved in ‘make believe’ games.

So what does this mean? Why do children need to play these games and why don’t they fall out over them like in other, more structured, games?

Well, I believe, as does Jones, that fantasy and make believe is the one way children learn to understand the confusion of the world around them. So many adults worry that children cannot separate reality from fantasy. Many adults belittle or make fun of their children for indulging in make believe games beyond a certain age. Many adults are keen for their children to grow up and get a grip on the real world and real life far too soon. Some even actively discourage reading or watching of Fantasy saying it will confuse their minds as to what is real and what is not. Well what a load of hogwash that is.

This idea that Fantasy feeds into reality and becomes a blurred boundary becomes evident these days in the headlines where the effect of computer games and violent films is discussed widely. “Oh that boy/girl committed those awful crimes because they couldn’t separate fantasy from reality.” True, they couldn’t. However, I would suggest, strongly argue, that this may be because these children can’t separate the two simply because they didn’t partake in make believe or Let’s Pretend games at an early age. Their first dalliance with fantasy most likely was to be dumped in front of a computer or TV screen, in front of age inappropriate material, with no adult interaction or explanation to guide them through the confusion. To tell them those graphics in Grand Theft Auto are not real.

However, to have read fairy stories from a young age, with an adult, a child knows it is a story. They know it is make believe. They know that it is safe. Then they are able to go and act it all out in play and explore the ideas safely with their peers. That is why I believe they need it and partake in Let’s Pretend play: to test the world out, to unravel its rules and confusions. As for the argument that this sort of indulgence in Fantasy will lead to a muddle of what is real and what is not, I say this: Do all young children who swish a wooden or plastic sword around as a knight, or aim a plastic blaster gun at a friend in play, go on to kill and maim all across the land? I don’t think so. I haven’t. Jones makes the point more eloquently than I ever could about this aspect to the value of fantasy reading:

“Your story [as a writer] can be violent, serious and funny, all at once….Fantasy can deal with death, malice and violence in the same way that the children playing in the wood are doing. You make it clear it is make believe. And by showing it applies to nobody, you show that it applies to everyone.”

Later on in Reflections, Jones goes on to talk about the influx of ‘Real Books’ for children which flooded the market on the back of new trends in children’s literature. ‘Real Books’ being those where the protagonist (a child of target age group) is real, lives in the real world and has had some social problem to deal with, for example, the divorce of parents, racism or bullying at school. In these ‘Real Books’ she says the rules stated: “you wrote about this Problem in stark, distressing terms. Then – this is the rule – you gave it to the child with that problem to read. The child was supposed to delight in the insight.”

Put like that it does seem ludicrous anyone would want to publish books for children which are like that. “Here you go. This is your distressing problem and here’s a fictional tale about it to tell you how to deal with it.” Quite preposterous really, when you think about it. What fairy tales and Fantasy fiction do is allow children to explore all these confusions of the world at a distance. Through a character or characters who are not them. They begin to understand the world as it is, a multifaceted place where there is good and there is evil and they then try to work out how to deal with that. In fact, isn’t this what we as adults do when reading fiction, really, truly, honestly? We often say we read to ‘escape’, but I often find I  solve problems from reading fiction. Not necessarily consciously, but I  truly don’t think we are looking to escape by reading, I think we are always searching for answers, trying to learn more about ourselves and the confusing mess of the world. Otherwise why would novels have common themes running through them?

Now, the sad fact is, many, mainly adults it must be said, still sneer at Fantasy as a genre and at writers who choose to write Fantasy novels, as though it is somehow a lesser craft than writing about “real” things.

To that I have to say: but we all start with Fantasy really, don’t we? The first stories we are introduced to are traditional fairy or folk tales, even if we don’t stick with them. Fantasy, as I’ve said above, which allows us to see that the world does indeed have bad present in it. (In stories bad is disguised as wolves or foxes, or witches or giants or similar.)  These portrayed ‘bad’ characters  which children know, or learn fairly quickly, don’t exist or are not actually ‘evil’. However, they learn that those evils are overcome and that the hero, whether that be prince, princess, wizard, ie, the children themselves (as that is who they identify with) are good and they are able overcome those bad things. Children don’t need the real version of anything they might be going through given to them in a story to work it through. Fantasy stories allow children to do just that at a distance as I’ve already said.

Furthermore (and I don’t know if any research has ever been done on this) but I’d reiterate my argument from before and say that perhaps it is the children who are devoid of Fantasy stories and Fairy Tales or this Let’s Pretend and make believe play using the innocent characters an early age, who may be the ones more likely to drift down into the darker alleyways of life. They may become the ones who cannot work through traumatic childhood issues such as parents divorcing if they arise, and they are more likely (to my mind at least) become the ones unable to separate fact and fiction and work out those confusions in much darker, sinister ways. Who knows? It’s just a theory. Perhaps there are studies. Perhaps I shall conduct one of my own.

However, for my part I know it was the stories I could escape into, the ones so far removed from my own childhood which are the ones which have stayed with me. The ones whereby I learned to imagine and play and pretend.  The ones where I learned most about the world and how to cope with it. Those are the same stories which have allowed me to write.

And if I have one wish as a teacher and as a parent it would be that all parents and teachers see the value in promoting Fantasy stories for children at an early age. I believe they hold more value and worth than many people realise. It’s why Jones says she wrote Fantasy for children, she utterly believed in its power. I know I write it for similar reasons. I understood the power and pleasure it gave me as a child. I understand the power and the pleasure it still gives children now.

In Part 2 I’ll look at the rules for writing Fantasy and writing for children and how many I’ve broken or not broken!

Thanks, as ever, for reading and feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments below.

 

*disclaimer: The  ‘Fantasist’ in the post’s title is in reference to me, not of Diana Wynne Jones. Just to clarify! 🙂

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Filed under Reading, Writing

Separate the Fiction from the Fact.

Currently on sabbatical from my WIP, I’ve written a new ‘short’ story (short as in at around 8000 it’s less than 10,000 words, but not as short as I originally intended).

Here it is

Instinct

“I lit the match, I lit the match
I saw another monster turn to ash.
Felt the burden lifting from my back.”

 

Instinct, a sixth sense, feminine intuition, call it what you will, but whatever it is I was certain the day Carl moved in next door, five years ago to the day, that my life was about to change. And not for the better.

I’d found my sleep prematurely disturbed around 9am on that sunlit Saturday morning in May by the guttural throttle of a car with one too many exhausts. Groggy from a hangover induced by too many gin and tonics the night before, I lurched out of bed. Dragging the duvet with me, I stumbled to the window and, in a well-practised move, lifted the flimsy venetian blind just enough to peak underneath it without been observed by those I was observing. The words of Simon, my work colleague and best friend since as long as I could remember, momentarily whispered to me as I peered through squinted eyes to the pavement below. “You’re like an old busybody Helen, always spying on people. What exactly do you expect to see?”

“Nothing, and everything,” was always my answer. Usually nothing, but it had become habit now. “You never know what you might see.”

And on this morning, I found my snooping finally validated.

The revving engine emanated from one of two cars which I saw parked outside below my front bedroom window. They were positioned back to back, both boots open, both half suspended over the kerb and one hanging across my own driveway.

The nerve.

Hunched over a tomato-red, souped-up 1989 Ford Escort, I saw Carl for the first time. No more than twenty-two years of age, his closely shaven head reflected the mid-morning sun. His baggy jeans hung dangerously low around his skinny frame revealing, not only the waistband of his underpants but, a typically English pale posterior. As he delved into the back of the Escort’s boot and retrieved something from the recesses, the too small, faded striped T-shirt he wore rode up his back to reveal a tattoo depicting crossed swords stamped just above the coccyx and displayed with pride.

Never a good sign.

A second man stood with his back to me between the Escort and an equally bright red, twin-exhausted Vauxhall Astra. Like Carl, he had the same low slung jeans which revealed too much underwear to be considered decent in public, but unlike Carl, his head was covered by a baseball cap, worn the wrong way round, no doubt to keep his pasty, freckly skin from burning in the sun.

Rooted to the spot, but being careful not to disturb the blinds any further, I watched Carl shift his eyes from side to side and then swiftly hand the package he had retrieved from his boot to the man in the baseball cap. Not wanting to draw any attention in the direction of my window, I hardly dared move as I tried to catch a glimpse of what Carl had in his hands. However, much to my annoyance, the second man, upon receiving the parcel, threw the package into the Astra’s boot and quickly slammed it shut. The engine of the Astra continued to turn over as the two men briefly exchanged fist bumps.  The next minute the second man had jumped into the Astra and sped off, tyres screeching as he reached the bend at the top of the road and performed a hand brake turn before careering back past Carl, blasting the horn as he went. Carl began unloading various boxes from his boot but by then I’d seen enough and I released the blind’s cord blocking the morning sun and Carl from view. My bladder called to be emptied and I only had one thought as I flung off the duvet and made for the bathroom. DrugsThey’ve just passed drugs to each other. For fuck’s sake, my new neighbour is a drug dealer.

*

“You can’t assume that just because he has a skinhead, a tattoo and his jeans are halfway to his ankles that he’s dealing,” Simon had looked at me with that knowing smirk he has when I say something he knows to be utterly ridiculous.

“What about the twin-exhaust, made to measure spoiler and ‘phat’ subwoofers thumping gangsta’ rap music out day in day out?” I argued, slamming my coffee cup down as though it were my trump card. The liquid splashed over the side and dripped down the Starbucks logo and onto my hand, scalding my knuckle.

“Damn!” I shook my hand and licked the sticky liquid from around the cup. Simon rolled his eyes.

“It still doesn’t make him a drug dealer, just a dick who looks out of place in the suburbs.”  Simon slowly sipped his cappuccino, taking deliberate care not to create a second moustache above his lip. “You know you really shouldn’t be so judgemental. You had the last one down as a private escort for crying out loud and I’ll bet she was just unlucky in love.”

“Woah, now hold on! She had a different bloke round that house every weekend!” I protested.

I’d been rather looking forward to having a new neighbour ever since the last one had decided to move on. Not that Marie had ever been a problem as such. Nevertheless her antics had caused me to partake in far too much curtain twitching than was healthy for a twenty-something single woman. The comings and goings of various ‘gentlemen’ each weekend had fuelled my curiosity far more than it should have done about a woman I only knew by name because I’d once taken a parcel in for her. Even that had aroused my inquisitiveness when I noticed the package was from Amsterdam. I couldn’t help putting two and two together and, in Simon’s words, “coming up with sex.”  So when she had put the house up for sale last December, and then when the sold sign was erected in March, I can’t say I was too disappointed. Perhaps, I had thought hopefully, I’ll get someone living next door who doesn’t cause me to be such a snooping busy body and one who isn’t participating in solicitous liaisons for payment on the other side of the paper-thin walls. But now what did I have? A drug dealing chav with the worst taste in music anyone could possibly possess? Great.

I drained what was left of my latte and rested my chin on my hands. I stared at Simon as he dabbed his mouth with the paper napkin taking utmost care not to actually wipe with the Starbucks logo, his bright green eyes fully focused on the task. Simon Tahler, always so calm and in control and sensible.

“So what do I do?” I asked, hopeful of some wondrous words of wisdom from my stalwart.

“What you always do,” he replied without looking up. “Watch him.”

*

Weeks turned to months and as Carl settled in, so too did the rituals which would prove to slowly drive me insane. The loud music which vibrated through the walls at 1am some nights soon became enough to drive me up those very same walls. The fact Carl clearly had no social conscience in this regard only served to compound in my mind that my initial appraisal of him being a low-life, good for nothing, drug dealer was the correct one and that Simon was being, as usual, far too benevolent. Carl not only disturbed my sleep with his never-ending playlist of the worst rap music the world had to offer, but also felt it perfectly acceptable to drink cans of Heineken in the middle of the day on the street, whilst taking his car apart, gunning the engine and polluting the air with the same ‘music’ thumping through the subwoofers. Then, inebriated, he’d razz it around the estate – those twin exhausts spluttering and roaring into life, together with the bass emanating from the speakers contaminating what once had been a quiet street where would-be female escorts could go about their business undisturbed.

“You should report him to the police,” suggested Simon one night when I, at the end of my tether, had called him, desperate for someone to understand what I was having to endure.

“But how can I?” I moaned down the phone which was cradled between my shoulder and my chin as I shuffled closer to the window to get a better look at what Carl was up to that particular evening.  “He’s my neighbour.”

“If he’s drink driving as you say, then you have every right, not to mention responsibility, to inform the police.” Simon sighed.

I could tell he’d be pursing his lips in annoyance. Carl was all we seemed to talk about these days.

“But what if he finds out it was me who grassed him up?” I was practically pouting; a child looking to a parent for the solution. “Besides which,” I gave Simon no time to answer with something sober and sensible. “They’d have to catch him at it red-handed, and you know how slow the police are to respond unless you’re being held at gunpoint. By the time they’d arrive, he’d be tucked up in bed fast asleep.”

To me there just seemed no practical solution without making the situation worse. The man had hit my life like a hurricane and there was nothing I could do.

“Did you get in touch with the council about the late night noise?” Simon changed tack, knowing instinctively when he was in a no-win situation with my lack of logic and reasoning.

“Hmmmm. I did actually,” I conceded. “Though how much good it’ll do, I don’t know.  They’ve told me to keep a diary over the next month and if it continues then to submit it. They have apparently threatened him via letter that they will confiscate his stereo equipment if he persists in playing it at high volume after 11pm; seems they have the power to do that.”

“Well that’s something at least.”

Simon yawned.

“Oh I’m sorry, am I keeping you awake? I thought it was me who was suffering from sleep deprivation due to the fact it’s me who has a loon for a next door neighbour!”

“No you’re not, but Helen, there are times I feel as though I live next door to him, you go on about him that much,” Simon retaliated.

“Well that’s just -“   I had no words. I felt so tired from it all. From nearly a year of living next door to the most inconsiderate person I’d ever had the misfortune to happen upon.

I banged the receiver down and Simon, quite rightly I supposed, didn’t call or speak to me at work for a week.

*

 “You are definitely going to have to report him to the police for this,” said Simon, as he surveyed the damage to my front lawn one Saturday afternoon a couple of months later. “It’s more than likely classed as criminal damage. Finally you might just get him for something concrete. You saw him do it after all, which makes you a witness.” Simon almost seemed relieved that this latest incident had happened.

The same niggling thought that I would still have to live next door to Carl if I reported him to the police, and what the repercussions might be, worried me greatly. I hesitated.

“Do you really think it’d be for the best?”

“Yes, Helen, I do. You can’t let him get away with it. Otherwise what’s next? He’ll only carry on, believing he is invincible and has the right to do as he pleases. No consequences. He has to know there are consequences.”

I knew deep down Simon was right. This time, Carl had left carnage in his wake. He had destroyed living things on my property. He’d crossed the line and made it personal. Yes, I thought.  The bastard would get all that was due to him. The thoughtless act of thumping bass at midnight was one thing, mindless acts of vandalism on my property was quite another. My home is my castle. The anger welled up inside. I wanted retribution. For everything from the past year. I found myself incensed enough to snatch up the phone and finally take Simon’s advice.

*

 I was pleasantly surprised, at the speed in which the local constabulary descended on my doorstep. It turned out that Carl Waters was very well-known to them and it seemed they’d had plenty of complaints about his musical midnight mischief.

“You see the damage he’s done?” I pressed on to the female constable who crouched next to the decimated dahlias, inspecting the ground.

“I suggest you take a photograph of the damage as evidence,” she said, as she took a notebook from her top pocket. “And you say he did this just a few hours ago?”

“Yes! And if it hadn’t have been for the fact I was coming down my stairs and saw him, through the glass in the front door, actually drive that clapped out heap of junk he calls a car over my garden, I’d never have believed it happened.”

“Right, well given that you saw it, I suggest we have a friendly word with Mr Waters and make it clear he offers to pay for your plants to be replaced so that this has to go no further. Does that allay your fears concerning talking to us Miss Shaw?”

“Yes… I think so,” I stammered and looked at Simon for reassurance. He glanced at the officer and fixed her with his piercing green eyes.

“I can assure you Miss Shaw, we will handle the situation delicately – given that you are neighbours,” the constable said scribbling into her notebook. “And please, don’t hesitate to contact us on this number should you have any more difficulties in the future with our friend Mr Waters.” She tore the piece of paper she had written on from her notebook and handed it to me. She returned the pad to her top pocket and gave Simon a small nod before retrieving her hat and leaving.

“See,” said Simon, unable to hide his smugness, once the PC returned to her colleague outside.  “I told you there was nothing to be concerned about. He’d have not known it was you making calls to the police about the noise if you had have done so; she said everyone’s been doing it.”

“That’s as maybe, but he’ll know it’s me who’s made this one, for damned sure.” I looked out at my destroyed flowerbed and sighed.

“You had to do it Helen. He can’t be allowed to just carry on doing as he pleases, living just outside the law. He’s like the bully who never gets caught in the act or who everyone’s too scared of retribution to do anything about it. But you’re not at school anymore.  This time he might just get some form of comeuppance, and it’ll serve him right. ”

Once again, I  knew Simon was right, but knowing we had the moral high ground didn’t stop the  knot which was forming in my stomach or the feeling of dread which descended on me that I’d just destroyed any hope of a peaceful life, once and for all.

*

When there was a knock at the door later that evening I knew who it would be.

Sure enough, Carl stood there, slouched on the doorpost as though he owned it. He smiled when I answered the door. Not a gesture I’d expected from someone I’d reported to the police that afternoon.

“Sorry about your plants,” he started. “I’ll pay for the damage.”

Admittedly it wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated from a drug-dealing, drunk-driving, plant wrecking hoodlum but people can surprise you I supposed. Taken aback, I raised my eyebrows at him, unable to find any words. He made my skin crawl. His beady, black eyes bored into me. Why is he pretending to be so nice? There has to be a catch.

“If you like, I’ll buy some new shrubs and plant them for you?” He added, clearly thrown by my silent stance and he shrugged as he said the words. “Really, it’s no biggie.” A cigarette balanced precariously behind his ear and he jangled his keys to and fro between each hand.

“Oh, that’s er… good of you,” I heard myself say without a trace of sarcasm coming out. I inwardly cursed myself for being so Simon-esque about the whole thing. What I actually wanted to say was: “I should damn well think so, what the hell do you think you were doing driving over my lawn and flower beds you crazy lunatic?”

I didn’t have time to ask the question before Carl started rambling through some excuse of a story about needing to visit his mother in hospital in  a rush and not been able to move the car which had been blocking his drive.

You’re lying, I automatically thought. Mainly because his eyes shifted from me to the road one too many times. You could have moved the other car. It’s your brother’s and he was at the house. I knew that much. However, as he’d offered to recompense me for the damage, and as I had to continue living next door to him I begrudgingly decided to let it go and said no more. Instead I nodded feigned sympathy for his fabricated sob story.

“So we’re good then?” Carl mumbled before he sloped off back towards his own front door, his jeans, as always, precariously hanging below his pelvis.

My weak response was in the affirmative. After all what else could I do?

*

I was woken abruptly at 4am by the sound of shuffling and scraping.

Blasted cats. I lay still for a few more moments listening.

Wait, that doesn’t sound like a cat.

The noise persisted. Annoyed at whatever had disturbed my sleep at such an ungodly hour, I tumbled out of bed and yanked at the cord of the blind, hoisting the venetians up in one swift movement.

“What the-?”

I had to do a double take. It certainly was not a cat. It wasn’t even a fox.

Below my window, kneeling down on my lawn, a can of Heineken propped next to his skinny body, was Carl.

No, he couldn’t be doing what he was doing… could he? Uh uh. No. I must be seeing things.

I squinted and peered into the lamplight which illuminated the strange nocturnal scene before me.

No, I thought again. He’s not… planting flowers into my flower bed? At four o’clock in the morning? Surely not?  I pressed my face to the glass and placed my hands close to block out the reflection from the street light.

The nutter! He is! He actually is.

I glared down at him through the glass, watching him open-mouthed. Gravel and stones were strewn everywhere. He rocked from side to side and whistled a tuneless tune. He didn’t appear to have any form of gardening tools with which to dig and instead scraped back the gravel covered compost with his bare hands. More gravel and stones flew into the air and it was then that I noticed a hole in the lawn. An actual hole in my lawn. Furious, I flung the window wide open and the warm night air hit me.

“What the hell do you think you are doing?” I shouted down, completely unconcerned with the fact it was 4am and that someone might hear me.

Carl staggered to his feet and raised his can up to me as if to say “cheers.”

“I’m replacing your plants,” he smirked, evidently pleased with himself. “I said would.”

“That was fucking eighteen months ago!” I screamed at him. “You fucking nutter! Who the hell starts planting fucking flowers in the dark at four in the morning? I’m trying to sleep. For fuck’s sake.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” he slurred. “There’s no need to swear. I thought you’d be pleased.”

I was actually, for once in my life, speechless. Wait until I tell Simon THISI knew it. I knew I should have trusted my instincts. I knew he was a low-life, good-for-nothing from the first day I clapped eyes on him and this just proved it.

“Get off my fucking property!” I yelled and slammed the window shut before releasing the blind. I climbed back into bed, shaking, unable to even comprehend what I’d just witnessed.

I lay there listening, my heart pounding, until a few minutes later I heard Carl’s door lock click. I breathed a sigh of relief and tried to return to sleep but it was no use. I was seething.

Eighteen months! Eighteen months and now he chooses to replace the plants! What kind of weirdo am I living next to? I couldn’t help but think that revenge is indeed a dish served best cold. Was this his idea of revenge or a joke?  

I lay there turning this new development over in my head.

Here was my next door neighbour, in the middle of the night, replacing plants which he’d destroyed a full eighteen months before. It made no sense. I just couldn’t fathom what would possess him to this latest act of madness. Revenge, subtle and planned was all I could think had driven him to the act.

When I did eventually drift off to sleep my dreams turned to nightmares involving Carl knocking a hole between the walls of our houses and then taking possession of my half, declaring it as his own and me becoming his prisoner.

I woke again, wearier than I’d ever felt before.

When I went out early the next morning to survey the damage the reality of what I’d witnessed only became more surreal.

To begin with, Carl had not planted the flowers at all. Instead they were shoved haphazardly into the ground, roots exposed and stalks bent and broken. Most of the flower heads were either damaged or dead and others were covered in soil.  On closer inspection, I deduced that these perhaps were not even plants which had been bought or acquired by any usual means. Rather, it appeared, they had been pulled up from elsewhere. A further investigation of the neighbourhood confirmed my suspicions. As unlikely as it seemed, Carl had uprooted plants from various neighbour’s beds and set about planting them in mine.

For the love of God, I am living next door to a complete and utter psychopath.

*

“Psychopath is a little bit strong don’t you think?” Simon said when I disclosed Carl’s most recent night-time escapades at work on Monday morning.

“Easy for you to say, you don’t have to live next door to the weirdo!” I perched myself on the edge of Simon’s desk and swung my legs back and forth, agitated. “Honestly. I can’t live next door to him anymore Simon! I don’t feel safe in my own home. Last month he could well have set fire to my house, and now this!”

I had woken at 11pm one humid night the month before to the sound of continuous banging emanating through the wall, accompanied by a flashing blue light glowing continuously through the flimsy bedroom blind. The blue light, I had discovered as I’d spied from my usual vantage point, belonged to a fire engine which had remained outside the house until 8am the following morning.

When a fire officer visited me later that day to inform me he’d need to check my loft for signs of embers, I couldn’t quite catch my breath.

“Your neighbour managed to set fire to the cavity walls which run through the back of your two houses and the side of your other neighbour’s house.” He informed me with startling gravity. “If the fire’s taken hold, it could spread as the roofs of all three properties are interconnected.”

It transpired that Carl had managed this feat after shoving a lit cannabis spliff in through an air vent in the outside wall along with spraying various aerosols through it, in an attempt to get rid of a wasp’s nest. The banging, I was told, had been a result of the fire brigade having to smash up Carl’s bathroom in order to get to the fire. A fire which had spread through the interior walls whilst he and his family, high on cannabis, had protested at the demolition of the bathroom. The incident had made me realise I should always trust my initial instincts about a person. What I’d seen on that first day he moved in, the shiftiness in which he had passed the package to his mate had told me all I needed to know about Carl. He did dabble in illegal drugs. I had been right. When would I learn to trust my own instinct?

And yet, despite this, despite the fire brigade knowing he had illegal drugs on the premises, still he remained unchecked. And now here he was, digging up my garden in the dark, in the early hours.

“So what are you going to do then?” Simon asked, tapping away at the keys, staring into the dim glow of the screen in front of him.

“I’ve decided, I have no choice,” I sniffed dramatically and paused for effect. “I’m going to have to sell up.”

Simon stopped typing and looked up. “Seems a bit drastic. I mean, you like it there. Don’t you?”

“Correction. I liked it there. Now I feel like I’m living in a war zone. When you think of everything that’s happened over the past few years. The constant loud music which, FYI, has started up again. The threats from the council clearly mean nothing to him. Not to mention the garden fiasco, the fire, and the continuous revving of his engine on my drive right outside my door. ALL. THE. TIME. Then there was that tyre slashing epidemic, which I’m still convinced he was behind.  My nerves are shot Simon. I have to move. I just have to.”

“Can you afford to move?” Simon regarded me, looking deep into my eyes as though he was searching my soul for some other truth. And for the first time in all the conversations we’d had about Carl, I felt his genuine concern for what I was experiencing.

“No.” I shook my head. “You know I can’t.  And even if I could afford it, I’d never sell the place.” I suddenly felt impotent. “Think about it. Who’d want to live next door to that? I’d have to disclose the fact he’s a psycho if someone asked what the neighbours are like. It’s the law isn’t it? I’d be done for if I lied. The situation’s hopeless.” I sank down into my chair and swivelled back to focus on the computer screen.

“I’m so sorry,” said Simon, coming over and placing his hand over mine. “I wish there was something I could do. I really do.”

“If I had another bedroom you could move in with me,” I said brightly.

“But you don’t,” he said and after holding on to my hand for a little longer than was necessary, he returned to his desk.

“No. I don’t,” I said.  More’s the pity.

I resigned myself miserably to the fact that I really had no choice but to endure living next door to Carl.  I slid out of my seat and took myself out of the fire exit and wandered over to the metal bins where the smokers would congregate soon for their scheduled, permitted smoking break, and slipped myself behind one.

And then I cried. For the first time I actually cried tears about the utter hopelessness of the situation and at how miserable it made me. Every day a living nightmare, never knowing whether that night I would get a full night’s sleep. Not knowing what carnage I might have to face next. Three years of living on the edge of my nerves had taken their toll and I sobbed for the simple fact of not knowing what to do next.

*

Voices, angry and visceral, deep and definitely both male, woke me from my slumber around midnight.

What now? More drunks coming home from a night out? I sighed, irritated at yet more sleep disturbance.

No. Not drunks. I looked down into the street from my usual vantage point through a small opening I’d made in the blind. To my horror, I could see Carl and another man circling each other in the middle of the road, like two wild animals marking their territory. Their words, though loud, were inaudible, and to my mind they were either obviously drunk or high on something or, more likely, both. I grabbed my phone, ready to call the direct line number I’d been given to the police after the plant debacle. Brawling on the street was definitely illegal. I made to dial the number when suddenly, Carl dived into his car and roared off down the street. I watched as he brought the Escort screeching to a halt at the top of the road before doing his trademark hand brake U-turn and speeding back down towards the other man who was caught, quite literally, like a rabbit in the headlights. The man jumped out of the path of the oncoming vehicle just in time and ran into Carl’s house, slamming the door shut behind him. Carl spun the car back onto the drive, neglecting to even close the door as he hunted down his prey.

My hand hovered over the dial, shaking, unsure of what to do next. They were no longer on the street. That changed things. Now it wasn’t a brawl in public. It was an indoor fight so what would be done? I heard crashing and banging emanating through the paper-thin walls and for the first time since Carl had moved in I feared for my own safety. What if I did report him now? What if he police came? Sure all the other incidents had been inconvenient or strange but this seemed…well, violent. Carl had never shown signs of violence before. If I reported him and he got off would he come for me?  I hesitated the phone still grasped tight in my sweating hand.

I turned to head back into bed when I heard his front door scrape open again and I dived back to the window, peering underneath the gap at the bottom. The second man came running out of the house pursued by Carl.

A shiver slithered down my spine when I saw what Carl was carrying and I froze.

Slung low, swinging by his side, he clutched a samurai sword. I had to do a double take to be sure of what it was but there was no mistaking the distinctive curves of the weapon. Carl, pushed past his own car, slamming the open door shut and focused in on his quarry who staggered in the road. Carl brandished the weapon, a menacing stare throbbing in his black eyes and he stalked towards his intended victim. The second man stumbled and then laughed, goading Carl.

If this is a game, it isn’t funny.  I shrank back in the darkness and dialled 999. This was no direct number, log a complaint kind of incident.

As I waited nervously for a response, I could only watch, terrified, as Carl lunged at the second man with the sword. With every swing the weapon glinted ominously in the low moonlight. I flinched, wondering if I was about to become a witness to a murder. I felt sick. I wanted to run out there and yell at him to stop it, but all I could see was my own decapitated head lying on the road. His adversary ducked and weaved in and out of every swing. If Carl hadn’t been so inebriated I had no doubt the guy he was attacking would be dead by now and I would be stood up in a court room in the not so distant future.

A male voice on the line suddenly broke my concentration from the unreal scene below me.  I whispered into the receiver, petrified that somehow Carl would hear me.

But I needn’t have feared. Within minutes the police were on the scene and I watched with relief as Carl and the other man were carted off in the back of a Ford Mondeo, its silent blue lights blinking in the suburban night sky.

The police asked, as I shivered clutching a cup of sweet tea, if I was willing to make a witness statement in court. I wasn’t, and I didn’t dare tell Simon I’d been asked. What if I gave evidence and Carl was let off? The old question came back to haunt me. There were no guarantees. He wouldn’t know it’d been me to call the police this time. Anyone could have witnessed the scene, but despite that I wasn’t about to put my life on the line.

I didn’t see Carl for some time after that. It turned out he’d had his car impounded due to being drunk in charge of the vehicle and although he wasn’t forced to face a magistrate after the samurai incident, he had spent two nights in the police cells which I could only assume had given him some food for thought as once he returned home the disturbances subsided.

At least for a while.

*

October the following year came round, cold and blustery. The leaves had fallen from the trees sooner than usual and a carpet of golden brown now covered the long since recovered flower bed and lawn.  Somehow, and I wasn’t sure how, I’d endured living next door to Carl for over four years.

It was a Friday night and I was due to travel to London the following day with Simon, meaning I needed to rise early to catch the 8:20 train. More than ever I needed a refreshing night’s sleep so I was relieved when I went to bed around 10pm to the sound of silence.

However, the peace was not destined to last long. The all too familiar ‘thump, thump, thump’ struck up from next door just as I was dropping off, promptly returning me unwillingly into the world. I tried to ignore the thrum of the bass but I knew there was every possibility it could continue until 6am. Perched on the edge of sanity, my senses heightened, I listened for the end of each track, praying that would be the last one. But the end never came. On and on the bass thudded vibrating through the floor and to my bed. I lay awake, a familiar anger bubbling inside me.  Simon and I were due to pitch an idea for a computer programme we’d developed to one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the country the next morning. The future of our business depended on it. To me, the contract could possibly mean the difference of being stuck next door to Carl for another four years or being able to up and move within months.

And yet, here he was, Carl, ironically about to ruin my chances of escape by simply stealing my sleep. If I couldn’t focus tomorrow on the pitch then we had no hope of winning the contract. Simon was the brains behind the operation but I was the salesperson. I had the gift of the gab when it came to dealing with hard faced business types but I needed to be fresh for it.

11:30pm arrived. My nerves rattled more than the wind through the venetian blind as I tossed and turned debating whether to confront Carl but the image of that samurai sword couldn’t be shifted and I procrastinated for a few minutes more. Ten minutes more and my seething anger won the battle over my nerves. In one decisive move, I stomped out of bed and reached for my dressing gown. A minute later I was out in the freezing autumn air banging on the glass of Carl’s front door. To my relief, his brother answered and, when I asked if it would be possible for them to turn the music down he was extremely apologetic and immediately went inside and the racket ceased.

Progress, I thought as I ascended the stairs back to my room. I slumped back in to bed and buried my head in the pillow, still infuriated at having had my sleeping time cut by an hour and a half.

Eventually, mercifully, thankfully, I dozed off.

A mere half an hour later I was woken by a voice shouting up at the window.

What the…?

“Oi! Helen,” the voice shouted.

Hearing my name, I climbed out of bed and raised the blind. I couldn’t see anyone at first as the roof of the porch blocked my view. Then I saw the voice’s owner. I watched Carl stagger back into the glow of the street lamp, drunk and high as usual.

“What is it?” I shouted down, doing everything to show my irritation through my tone.

“Have you got a problem?” his slurred words were vitriolic.

“No,” I replied honestly. “Not anymore.”

“I hear you wanted us to turn down the music?”

“Yes,” I said tersely. “But you’ve done it now, so there’s no problem. Thank you.”

“Well you obviously have got a problem,” Carl continued. Lager slopped onto the ground and hissed as he lurched forwards again.

“No.” I said more firmly.  “Like I say, I asked you to turn it down, you have. All’s fine. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to bed.” I closed the window tight against the bitter air and let go of the cord. The blind slithered back down into position blocking out Carl’s creepy face as well as the street light.

I clambered back into bed, my teeth chattering and shaken a little from the unexpected verbal altercation. The guy’s a complete nut job. What the hell does he mean “you obviously HAVE got a problem? Well yes actually, I have a problem. With you generally, but right now I just need to sleep.

I lay there for a couple more minutes, silently seething, and then there was an almighty bang.

A banging on my own front door.

“Helen! Open up!” Carl’s slurred drawl voice resounded through my letter box.

I pulled the covers up around me tighter. He’ll go away in a minute.

“There’s no need to be scared Helen, jus’ open up. I jus’ wanna to talk to you.” The image of the samurai sword flashed through my mind once more and a sudden terror took hold. I lay still and quiet, praying he’d leave but Carl continued banging his fist on the door.

I slipped one arm out from under the covers and hastily fumbled in the dark to locate my mobile phone. I dared not put it on for fear he would see the light. I needed the direct line number the police had given me but that was downstairs at the back of the house in a kitchen cupboard.  What was I going to do? To get to the kitchen I’d have to walk down the stairs which descended to rest directly opposite the front door. How the hell was I going to get down the stairs without Carl noticing me? The house might be dark but the street lamp outside would almost certainly cast a light on me and give me away.

What if he breaks my door downOh God! What do I do? Think Helen, think.

I hid deeper under the covers with my phone and dialled Simon’s number as the knocking and shouting from Carl continued more persistently.

Please answer. Please, please answer.

The ringing tone cut out and Simon’s voice, albeit it sleepy and grumpy, had never sounded so welcome.

“I’ll come straight over,” he said. Give me twenty minutes. In the meantime, if you are able to call the police, do so.”

I grasped the phone tight in my hand and crept out of bed, praying I wouldn’t step on any of those floorboards which were prone to creaking. I heard Carl’s voice trail off. Now’s my chance. I padded to the top of the stairwell and crouched down.

I couldn’t see Carl at the front door and so quickly began to make my descent. But as I reached the bottom I almost let out a cry as Carl’s face suddenly loomed at me pressed up against the glass panes and he shouted for me to open the door. My heart raced and I felt as though I might stop breathing.

If only I had another exit out of this place.

He’d seen me of that here was no doubt.  I sped through the lounge and into the kitchen, closing the door silently behind me and turned on the phone’s dim light. My bare feet on the cold lino caused me to shiver and I fumbled in the cupboard as I searched for the scrap piece of paper with. Upon finding it, with shaking fingers, I punched in the direct number to the local police station.

“Is he still there madam?” asked the woman on the other end of the phone. She couldn’t have sounded less interested if she’d tried and I felt my despair crowd me like never before. No-one is ever going to help me escape this man!  I inched open the kitchen door and peered round it. Carl was no longer there. He’d disappeared and when I heard his own front door slam shut I hoped to the gods he’d given up and gone back to his drinking.

“Well, we can log a complaint for you madam, but as no actual crime has been committed there’s not much we can do for now. You say your friend is coming over, is that right?”

I confirmed he was but wondered now whether I’d ever feel safe in my own home again even if I had an armed guard stationed at the door.

Simon arrived exactly twenty minutes later to be greeted to jeers of:  “Oh look, she’s got her boyfriend to come and protect her.”

I ushered Simon inside through the smallest opening I’d dared to allow as I inched open the door. Completely unconcerned, Simon eyed both brothers with his steely emeralds and said: “Why don’t you do everyone a favour and get in that car of yours and go drive it into a brick wall?”

He slammed the front door shut and locked it. Simon never slammed anything.  I looked at him, slightly scared of what might happen next but secretly proud he had the gall to stand up to them.

Simon’s words evidently gave them the idea to think it was perfectly acceptable to then start up the spluttery engine of the 1989 Ford Escort at 2am and rev it repeatedly, whilst shining the headlights through the leaded glass in the front door. I slumped down onto the sofa and sobbed. The nightmare was never-ending. Simon came over and sat down next to me. He put his hand tentatively on my shoulder and then pulled me close to him and held me as the tears flooded out.

“I hate what he’s done to you,” Simon said, his eyes watery and his face serious. “But you can’t let him intimidate you.”

“Too late,” I said. “It’s too late.”

*

Despite not winning the pharmaceuticals contract, I decided to put the house back on the market for sale when spring came round. Things had changed on a personal level, and I knew the time had come to finally rid myself of Carl.

Simon, ever the voice of reason, expressed his concerns about prospective buyers and what we would have to tell them if they were to ask about the neighbours, echoing my own fears from the first time I’d contemplated selling as an option out of the nightmare.

“We’ll just have to risk the lie if they ask. But we can’t live like this anymore, you know we can’t. Besides, this place is too small for two of us. As cosy and lovely as it is, we need more space for our stuff.” I was adamant.

More space was only the secondary driver to my final decision though. In truth, I felt drained. Worry, anxiety and lack of sleep, which hadn’t subsided even with Simon moving in, had dominated my life for too long.  Five years of living next door to Carl had aged me. I figured, selfishly, it was someone else’s turn.

Simon and I decorated every room with a fresh lick of paint and added a few new accessories here and there to help appeal to the widest demographic possible. There was nothing I hadn’t learned from watching endless house-doctoring TV shows.

Two weeks later we opened the house up for viewings, though I dreaded every time anyone made an appointment in case Carl would be around, blaring his rap music either from the house or from his car. Then they’d find out for themselves what my neighbour was like and be put off from buying. If the coast was clear, I was still on edge, hoping no one would ask about the neighbours, preparing to lie if they did, knowing I could be in trouble for doing so.

However, all my fears were unfounded. Strangely, ever since we’d decorated and prepared the house for sale, Carl had being conspicuously quiet. Did he know? Did he instinctively know I’d mention him if the issue of neighbours was raised and actually he was equally hopeful of seeing the back of me? No, Carl never thought past the moment he was in. What was I thinking?

The third person to view the house loved it and immediately put in an offer, much to my relief. She hadn’t even asked about the neighbours, apparently satisfied with what she saw during her viewings. Simon and I celebrated quietly with a bottle champagne. Together with the equity I’d made and Simon’s savings we could afford to make a move to a house we’d seen over the other side of the city.  However, I couldn’t rest until the contracts were signed.

But nothing went wrong.  Nothing. We hadn’t seen so much of a glimpse of Carl in weeks and I could only assume he’d gone on holiday. The day before we were due to exchange keys, Simon and I packed up our belongings, ready to move on to what I hoped would be a place where I could finally feel safe once more.

I held the steps to the ladder as Simon climbed in to the loft and passed down box after box.

“Are we leaving this old mattress up here?” he called.

“No, leave it. We’d only have to get the council to collect it anyway. The new owner probably won’t even notice. It’s shoved up at the back isn’t it? ”

Simon gave me a thumbs up.

“Oh, while you’re up there,” I called, “is the old bedroom blind anywhere? It’d fit perfectly in the new bathroom I think but haven’t seen it since we decorated. Did you put it up with the mattress and other large stuff?”

“Oh, no,” Simon’s voice echoed around the cavernous space above. His feet suddenly popped into view and he swung his muscular body down, pulling the hatch shut. “I er…broke the cord. Sorry. I took it to the dump with the old furniture and some other stuff which I needed to get rid of. I thought I’d told you.”

“Never mind. It was probably weakened from all those years of me pulling it up and down when I was spying on Carl!” I laughed. “Besides, it always was a bit useless at completely blocking out the light. We’re well shot of it.”

“Yes,” Simon agreed. “It’s better off in landfill.”

*

 Today, May 17th, exactly five years to the day since Carl moved in, I am saying goodbye to the old house once and for all and I can’t help but reflect on all its memories, both good and bad.

“I hope the new owner never has the same trouble with Carl that I did,” I say to Simon as we load up the white van we’ve hired for the day. “I feel guilty that she might have to put up with that. It doesn’t seem fair and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I just hope he stays as quiet as he has been lately.”

“Oh I think everything will be fine,” Simon says in his usual nonchalant, self-assured way, and slides the final box into the back of the van.

A sudden  uncomfortable, niggling thought, pushes its way to the forefront of my mind.

Trust your instinct Helen, you’re always right. I recall my own mantra.

“How can you be so sure?” I laugh. Sometimes I think Simon is just too confident about the future. He’d certainly had a quiet certainty we would end up together, not something I’d seen coming that was for sure.

“Let’s just call it instinct,” he says and kisses me before we climb into the van and leave the house for the last time.

I strap myself in and, as I cast one last glance at the two houses, I shove my own instinct to the back of my mind, hoping it won’t return to haunt me.

 

 

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A Life Just Ordinary

This week I’ve decided to bite the bullet and publish an excerpt of something else  I started writing last year alongside Prophecy on the blog. It is the seed of a story I have and have had for a while and it is very rough in its first draft. There’s no reason for putting it on here other than to allow myself to remember I have written other stuff which lurks on  USB memory sticks – ironically often forgotten. Perhaps some of you will enjoy it and that would be a bonus.

Its working title is “A Life Just Ordinary.”  Hope you enjoy.

Lily always felt she was different to everyone else. ‘Weirdo’, she would hear them whisper. But she knew it wasn’t because of the short, wavy mess of flaming auburn hair or liquid green eyes – though these features  alone struck her far from the madding crowd of dull and mousey mediocrity which surrounded her in the classroom. Lily wasn’t entirely sure why she always found herself alone at playtime, circling laps around the perimeter of the yard internally singing obscure  pop songs from the 1970’s, but she did. Most children her age wouldn’t even have heard of the songs she sung. If other children were singing it would certainly not be to the tunes Lily chose. No, they would be singing something by Michael Jackson or Madonna. Everyone knew they were the new stars. However inappropriate it was for a  ten year-old girl to be singing ‘Like a Virgin’ at full pelt, that’s what most girls would be doing –  had they been lapping the perimeter of the playground alone that is.  Lily’s peers would innocently sing along and  try to emulate their singers as only children can. ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood had been banned from radio play but ‘Like a Virgin’ hadn’t. The 1980’s were a time of contradictions and confusion. However Lily wasn’t involved in this confusing world because Lily occupied her very own world. Lily knew exactly what she was singing. Every lyric was clear and relevant in her mind. Sometimes she would sing them with such gusto and clarity in her head, she felt almost as if she were singing them aloud and that she would burst if she did not allow the song out. Could the other children tell? Did she even care?  Did she sometimes sing out loud without knowing it?  Perhaps that is why they called her weird. But it did not matter. She continued. She believed whole-heartedly in the sentiments behind the lyrics.

 

Round and round her head they danced like a ballerina pirouetting, weaving their magic and speaking to her like nothing else could. The wind rushed over her head as the autumn leaves tumbled down from the great sycamore tree which dominated the otherwise concrete yard. The tree was always a tricky spot to navigate on her circuit – the rest of the perimeter being so straightforward merely being a series of straight lines. Starting from the walls of the dining hall, Lily would stay as close to the massive grey breeze-block walls as she could. Upon reaching the infant’s small pebble-dashed dining hut she would turn right and follow it round to the point where double white lines painted on the playground meant the building could no longer be followed but instead she was forced to cut across to the perimeter fence.

The fence was bottle green and low with a criss-cross pattern ensuring that the busy road was visible. Lily couldn’t hear the road when she was head-singing, even though it was a main road leading into the city. Buses and cars, lorries and vans, motorcycles and pedestrians noisily passed by with a reassuring regularity. Ball games were banned on the playground because there had once been an incident (long before Lily could remember) when a boy had misjudged his own strength in throwing a tennis ball to his friend. The ball had catapulted over the fence smashing though the windscreen of a passing Ford Cortina, and hitting the driver in the face. The stunned driver had subsequently lost control of his car and crashed into a tree on the opposite side of the road. The head teacher had spoken gravely to the children the following day saying that, regrettably ball games were to be banned because, “even though the driver has not been badly injured and luckily there was nothing coming on the other side of the road when he lost control, I do not feel I could take such a risk again. Therefore it is with regret that all ball games are banned forthwith.” Most children knew the ban had been far more to do with the constant call on kindly passers-by to retrieve rogue balls from the pavement. It was common knowledge that complaints had often been lodged with the school, usually by aggrieved pensioners who could barely bend down as it was but never felt they could say no to the distraught school children hankering after their lost possession. The incident with the driver had been a good excuse for the head teacher to keep everyone happy; everyone that was except the children, who had resorted to many other forms of break time entertainment; most of which would, in the ensuing years of political correctness and health and safety, be themselves banned.

Lily was grateful that she didn’t have to navigate balls on her journeys around the playground. The sycamore tree was bad enough. Navigating other children who dared to get in her way was infinitely worse. If there were balls too then she really had no idea how she would ever complete even one circuit of the playground during a playtime. Why couldn’t the other children just stay in the middle of the yard? Why did they need to hang off the fence like monkeys in a zoo? Standing there, slouching, scowling – one leg up chattering and twittering on about Lord only knew what. Because she never heard what they were saying as she breezed past them, the lyrics of the same song dominating her thoughts; circling round and round in her brain. She stepped around her fellow faceless, nameless peers and then squeezed through the gap between the trunk of the sycamore and the fence, climbing over the exposed roots. The tarmac of the playground had started to crack. It would not be long before someone would see the need to chop the tree down lest its sprawling, untamed roots should completely destroy the yard. But for now the tree was a focal point for playing marbles. It made for perfect games having nooks and crannies which the marbles could snuggle safely into, rather than roll uncontrollably across the smooth, flat tarmac. Even Lily occasionally joined in – occasionally. The sycamore wasn’t so bad. She’d miss it if it was gone. But navigating it was still the bane of her life when she was in her own world.

Beyond the tree lay Lily’s favourite spot and here she would linger. No one really seemed to inhabit this spot very often – the furthest corner of the playground from the building. The corner where the main road met the small side road, lined with Edwardian terraced houses. The corner where the rusty old sign with the school’s name rose up high, perched upon two cylindrical metal posts – the royal blue paint peeling off them, weather-beaten and corroded. It was here Lily would linger – not stop moving but wrap her hands alternately between the two poles and skip round them as if dancing around a maypole – the melody of her songs still resonating in her head, until she did finally move away from her favourite spot.

It was at these times that Lily was her happiest. The road didn’t exist, the other children didn’t exist, the houses, the school building, the lunch time supervisors, the pensioners passing by; none of it existed. All she heard was the music in her head and all she saw was the blue sky or the towering cumulus clouds, the swirling leaves and the glory of the sun shining. All she felt was the sharp, cold wind whipping about her face and refreshing her soul before having to return to the real world of the classroom – the noisy wooden floor and the clitter-clatter of footsteps and the high-pitched Irish lilt of her teacher’s voice. The smell of musty old books lingered and the taste of chalk hung in the air choking those who passed the threshold. The wooden desks with the lift up tops and years of biro-ed graffiti with their long disused inkwells, some without the sliding metal cover told unspoken stories of times gone by. If Lily had to sit at a desk where the metal cover was damaged or missing, she felt unnerved. She couldn’t quite explain why, but knowing there was something missing that should be there did not sit well with Lily at all and it played on her mind. She could never quite work out why they couldn’t have ink and long feather quills to write with rather than the crude instrument of a yellow and black HB pencil they were made to use. The world Lily inhabited in reality was ordinary. The world Lily inhabited in her head was full of possibility. But the only escape from the ordinary world was in her mind. Not that there was anything to escape from. Lily had a very ordinary, normal life where nothing eventful ever really happened. She had a mum and a dad; a sister and two brothers. But it was only in her imagination that she felt truly happy; a melancholic kind of happiness; a happiness of what might be one day. Lily had no idea if other children felt like this. But she doubted it. They looked at her differently and so she felt different to them – unique in some way although not special. No definitely not special. She knew she was an outsider and she was happy to be so – for most of the time.

“Lily! Come and play ‘tig’!” Lily heard Claire shriek at her. She winced.

She hated playing ‘tig’. She was often asked to play. It was nice to be asked she thought and it was always Claire who asked her. Claire was all right Lily supposed and Lily had been to Claire’s house once or twice to play. Claire’s mum had fake brick wallpaper in the main sitting room on the chimney breast wall surrounding an electric fire with an even more fake coal effect and glowing red light. Lily felt quite depressed when she went to Claire’s home. It seemed darker than her own house – despite the fact the two buildings were essentially the same. Both were ‘two up two down’ Edwardian terraced houses. Each had a narrow back garden or yard with disused coal sheds and outside loos. Each had a galley style kitchen, neither of which was fitted. Lily’s kitchen may have seemed brighter simply because the cupboards were made of bright orange Formica; a throwback to the 1970’s, but still in a workable, usable condition. (Other than the third drawer down which had been broken for as long as Lily could remember.)

Everyone Lily knew lived in one of these types of houses; all a variation on a theme. She knew that other types of houses existed. If she climbed up and stood on the struts of her back fence, and craned her head over the top she could see two large semi-detached houses with long gardens and sweeping lawns. One of the houses even had patio doors. Lily knew she wanted one of these houses when she grew up and she spent endless hours sketching versions of the house over the fence on paper, dreaming of the day when she too would own a piece of the suburban dream – a semi-detached house. A roller blind would hang at the bathroom window; a green one she thought. Long curtains with tie-backs would adorn the patio doors from the lounge leading onto the garden. Lily lived the suburban dream in her head. It was, after all, only over the fence. Not too far a stretch of the imagination.

“Lily!!” Claire’s voice was coming closer and despite Lily’s best attempts to ignore it she knew that the inevitable outcome was a begrudged game of ‘tig’.

“So are you coming to play ‘tig’?” Claire was tugging at Lily’s arm.

“Only if I don’t have to be ‘on’ again, replied Lily scowling as she was led by Claire over towards the side of the playground where some of the other girls in her class were gathered. Rose and Jane, Sunnie and Misha and a couple of girls from the year below were standing up against the dining hall wall. Claire ignored this request and continued dragging Lily by the arm.

“Wicked!” remarked Misha as Lily approached alone; Claire having run ahead at the moment Lily had begrudgingly agreed to the game. “Silly Lily is here. Now we can finally play. You’re on,” Misha shouted at Lily as the group scattered to the far corners of the playground. This scenario had been repeated numerous times before. Lily was used to the name calling. She didn’t even particularly mind it because to her mind it lacked any imagination.  Think of an insult and rhyme it to your name – not too inventive. She felt sorry for Misha in many ways. She didn’t despise or hate her. You had to care about someone to despise or hate them. Lily was indifferent to Misha and Jane, Rose and Sara. It was the fact that Claire never stuck up for her that upset her more. Not the name calling. Despite the bullying nature of the girls, Lily complied with playing the game each time she was asked – partly because she wanted to feel included in a group (any group) and partly because she didn’t want to fall out with Claire. It was also partly because she couldn’t be bothered to argue and partly because she could out-run them all and knew that within seconds she wouldn’t be ‘on’ anymore anyway. But that day, for reasons unbeknown even to Lily, she didn’t run after them. She stood in the spot where they had left her and didn’t move. She stared after them and waited. Waited to see what they would do.

“Come on Lily!” Claire’s voice suddenly shrieked in Lily’s ears. “You’re on. Don’t just stand there.”

Lily stood there.

Claire stopped running and stood next to Lily. “You’re ‘it’ Lily. You have to chase us.”

“Why?” enquired Lily with cool detachment. “Why do I have to chase you?”

“Because that’s the game silly!” replied Claire.

“I understand the point of the game,” said Lily matter-of-factly. “I was just wondering why it’s always I chasing you; rather than the other way round.”

“Because that’s how we play,” replied Claire in her simple naivety. “Now come on, let’s get on with it,” she said, once more taking Lily by the arm.

“Get off me!” snapped Lily, shrugging her arm from Claire’s grasp. “Why me?” she shouted. “I am sick of always been on.” She almost spat the words out. “Of always being the one who you all think will just do as you want, with no thought for me or how I feel. I don’t even like the stupid game! You’re meant to be my friend but you only play with me if they aren’t around or you want me to be on. And I have had enough of it; enough. Do you hear? DO YOU HEAR?!” By now Lily was red in the face and shaking with the sheer effort of articulating her words out in a coherent sentence with the anger and emotion that had suddenly welled up inside of her and with the effort of saying all these things without giving way to tears. As she had spat out the final words, Lily had grabbed Claire by the collar of her dress and shoved her up against the wall next to the dustbin.

Claire shook in fear, yelling at Lily to let her go.

Claire had never known Lily like this. They had been all the way through infant school and junior school together and Lily was normally so placid; so calm. She did everything she was told to do by teachers, hated the idea of getting into trouble. There had been that time of course when Lily had run out of the classroom and hid in the cloakroom when she had been shouted at for not doing her homework. They had all thought it peculiar at the time but that had been different to this. That wasn’t anger or aggression like this was now being inflicted on Claire. Lily was kind. She was giving. Not violent or vindictive. She would do anything friends or peers asked her to do. Once, Claire remembered, she had even drawn pictures of the Thundercats cartoon characters at the request of all the boys in the class because she was the best in the class at drawing. She didn’t ask for any money or sweets for doing them. No one offered anyway. They just knew that if they asked she would say yes. That was Lily. She would do anything for anyone.

What they, and Claire, didn’t know though was Lily was not being benevolent or a saint out of the kindness of her heart. She complied simply because she wanted a quiet life. Doing as you were told, whoever might be doing the telling meant a quiet life. Lily never shouted or sulked or stamped her feet. She got on with her work and left people alone. She did exactly as the teachers told her and never told tales on other children, even those who would thoroughly have deserved to be told on.

Upon hearing somewhere in the distance, through her blood filled ears, the shrill scream of a dinner supervisor, Lily released Claire with another shove. Claire fell against the steel dustbin and the lid fell off and clattered noisily to the ground.

Lily stood on the spot, breathing hard as the usual yelps and screams and laughter of children came back into focus and echoed about her. Claire was sobbing on the shoulder of the kindly dinner lady who had come to her rescue. “She just lost it!” Lily could hear her saying. “Oh I don’t think I’ve ever been so frightened in my life!” A slight exaggeration thought Lily. Lily knew what Claire’s dad did to her mum. Lily knew Claire had definitely been more frightened than that.

“Is this true?” asked Miss McClenny gently, directing her soft Irish accent in Lily’s direction. Miss McClenny was notoriously the nicest dinner lady there was at the school. She was smaller in height than most of the children, always wore a soft lemon-yellow cardigan and had short, dark brown hair with a perm in keeping with the fashion of women who had been young during the war. The fact Miss McClenny’s hair was so dark often surprised Lily because Miss McClenny must have been at least 60 by Lily’s reckoning. Lily’s mum had some grey hair and she was only 30, so Miss McClenny must have grey hair Lily reasoned.

“Yes,” admitted Lily as the soft voice asked the same question of her again. “Yes I did do it.” She hung her head and couldn’t look up. All her previous anger had dissipated and she was suddenly regretting her outburst.

“Well then perhaps you could tell me what all this has been about.”

It was hard to feel anger when Miss McClenny was around. She was like a grandmother on the playground – kind and cuddly and understanding. Lily explained what had happened. The details of the incident went no further. Lily had to apologise to Claire of course and Claire had to accept of course. No more was ever said about that day. But Lily was in some ways glad she had lost her temper. She was never asked to play ‘tig’ again.

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I’m Only Human.

This wasn’t the next blog post I was intending to write.

However what happened to me today ties together thoughts from three of my previous blog posts and so I felt compelled to write about it and the next one can just wait.

First of all my last blog post “An Original is Worth More Than a Copy?” focused on the influences and inspirations I drew on for Prophecy of Innocence. In it I questioned whether writers ever really have a truly original idea. I suggested probably not, but after what I have read over the past four days, I will freely admit that I was wrong.

You see I have just finished reading a book called “The Humans” by Matt Haig.

A novel, which to me, at least, is like nothing else I have ever read in the world of fiction. It took only four days for me to eat my way through it (and that was only because I had all the mundane things life throws at you like a job and gardening and  ironing and homework and children’s birthday parties to  fit in. All those things we would rather not do but do nevertheless.) If it were not for all these ‘necessary’ chores I’d have read it in an evening.

I see the word “un -put-down-able” written about so many books, only to find that quite often I do put them down and then they sit staring at me from my bedside table for months on end making me feel guilty – as though I were betraying them by not finishing them. The words on their spines penetrating into my consciousness every time I see them. Sat there. Unloved. Having promised so much and delivered so little.

“The Humans” was nothing like this. It lived up to my expectations and then exceeded them one hundred fold. I have found myself over the past few days sneaking off to the bathroom when I didn’t need to use it just to have an excuse to sit and read a chapter in peace. And this is just one of the (more minor) great things about “The Humans”. The chapters are short and manageable and easy to digest in small bite-size chunks which glide down to the gut with the silkiness of a piece of creamy chocolate. And in your gut they stay. Slipping into every space there and satisfying you with every last bite.

As I mentioned in a blog post a few weeks ago “To Write One Must Read?” I talked about how I had become a little bit of a non reader just lately. How I was struggling to pay attention and didn’t think I particularly needed to keep on reading to write. I did end by asking whether I was just reading the wrong books. Turns out yes – yes I was. And Matt Haig would be one of the first to tell me you must read to write. So far this is not going too well to promote my earlier blog posts is it? How can you trust anything I say now? How can you trust my recommendation for Matt Haig’s “The Humans”?

Ah well because of the fact it is the first fiction book I have enjoyed and read all the way through, without stopping for too long in about 3 years. So this should tell you I’m a fussy so-and-so and do not make recommendations lightly.

Secondly, the fact of the matter is “The Humans” is, quite simply, sublime. It tackles the meaning of life, the meaning of what it is to be human and some of the wider issues around depression in a way which is not obvious or depressing. Unless you have been depressed in which case you will recognise some of the metaphors Haig uses.  If indeed they are metaphors. They were for me. Perhaps for some people they will not be metaphors at all. It’s just a damn good, well written, clever story. And it talks about prime numbers and their significance. A lot.  And I hate maths and do not understand the significance of prime numbers but with “The Humans” I began to and now find myself wanting to learn more about them. So that should also tell you I can’t be feeding you a bad review.

Another reason for sharing this blog was because for me reading “The Humans” came at exactly the right moment.  As a human being and as a writer. As a writer because I recently had an idea for writing another novel. This time not a children’s one. But I felt the idea was too absurd. Too “out there”. However, reading “The Humans” made me realise it’s not. It’s what I want to write and so i should do it. I do’t mind if it never gets published. It’s a book inside me that I know one day will be written. So reading “The Humans” is helping me on my writing journey and so a review of it seems completely relevant on this page.

As a human being, reading “The Humans” was so enlightening I did not want the book to end. Haig’s wisdom permeates through every sentence in such a real and honest way I felt like I had a life map in my hand which I dared not put down. Allow me to expand.

Recently I have had a real downer on the world. A real downer on the human race, myself included. I have started to become really angry towards and intolerant of the actions of others to the point of sinking into quite a depressed and frustrated state about our society and about myself. Anger towards the small acts of selfishness I witness on a daily basis; On the roads and in the car park on the school run. Anger at the neglectfulness of parents who allow their children to ride bikes on roads without helmets therefore putting themselves and drivers at risk. Anger towards homeless people who shout abuse when you don’t give money to them. Anger, to boiling point at the bigger issues surrounding the education policies of leaders in this country and frustration at working under a system I cannot reconcile my values towards. I have felt angry at myself for not being able to deal with things in a more positive way. In short I have felt despair and hopelessness for the future.

Enter “The Humans”.

As I chomped my way through the first third of the book, I found myself feeling quite smug about how I felt about my fellow man. I was right. Humans are despicable beings, capable of violence and terrible deeds. (Although generally I find selfishness is human-kind’s most despicable trait as it is what I witness first hand rather than out and out violence, thank goodness.) Even the everyday, mundane things we humans do seem absurd and are absurd if you really think about it. But I had grown to think of them as despicable rather than absurd. “The Humans” forces you think about these mundane things and the absurdity of them but also the joy within them and so it makes you laugh. Haig makes you see them for the complete ridiculousness they are. Never have I laughed so much at one word: Texaco. (You’ll see.)

I found myself, scary as it was, easily identifying with the main protagonist of the story to whom humans seem so alien. This is how I feel often about other people. They seem so alien to me and so unreal. When I suffered from depression and anxiety a few years ago (see my blog post DePress This) I felt this even more so. In fact, at that point, I found other humans positively threatening. I was scared to interact with another human being. Much like Haig’s protagonist.

I continued greedily through the second third of the book, digesting the uncomfortable truths of attempted suicide and suicide, human vanity, depression, fear, hate, love, hope, murder, food, bullies, mathematics and change. But I still felt angry at the world. I don’t know what I expected. I think I expected I was going to feel better by reading something I could  identify with so strongly but instead I just felt uncomfortable. Gripped but uncomfortable. With myself and my own feelings towards my fellow human beings.  I still felt anger towards humans because the book highlights how everything is so damn complicated for us and we are all so selfish and fallible and, well, insignificant.

You’re all now thinking: Seriously. You are not selling this book to me. I feel depressed just reading this. But please bear with me. Remember my post DePress This? You have to put up with the rain to get the rainbow.  I had a happy ending remember. And so…

Then today, just when I thought I was going to end the book feeling more confused and angry at the world than when I had began, I read the final few pages.

And I don’t know what happened or how Haig managed to do this, but I went on the school run today and I didn’t get angry at anyone. I didn’t mind nearly being run over by the children on scooters littering the narrow pavements coming at me from the opposite direction like a swarm of wasps. I smiled at a couple of people. I even spoke to another parent on the playground rather than shrinking against the fence, hoping no one would see me. And even when I had to deal with a very difficult issue with a five year old and an issue with my union, I knew I could deal with it all. Because the end of “The Humans” gives us some wonderful advice. It gives one piece of particularly wonderful insight, which above all matters more than anything. But I won’t give a way what it is. I think everyone should discover it for themselves. Because it may be different for everyone.

This is a book review of a sort,I suppose without telling you too much. Without a synopsis or star rating. But know this:

“The Humans” is totally original and completely refreshing. It made me laugh out loud and it made me weep inside. It made me question absolutely everything about life and humanity but understand absolutely everything about life and humanity. It has given me courage to try to climb out of a spiral of anger and despair I felt myself beginning to enter into. In short it gave me hope.

If you have ever suffered from depression, read “The Humans.”

If you have ever contemplated, or are contemplating, suicide, read “The Humans.”

If you find yourself hating other humans, read “The Humans”.

If you are human read “The Humans”.

If you are not human read “The Humans.”

And then spread the word. It’s like medicine for everything in book form and we need this one to go viral.

Finally, thank you Matt Haig. I have not enjoyed a book so much in what feels like an age.

 

“The Humans” by Matt Haig is out in paperback and on Kindle in the UK now and in the USA from July 2nd. 

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Fact or Fiction? To write, should one read?

I don’t necessarily subscribe to  the philosophy that in order to write you must also be constantly reading. Not if you have spent thirty odd years of your life doing just that. I used to read a lot. Actually I still read a lot; I just don’t read an awful lot of fiction these days. In fact, I can honestly say in the past two years I have read one fiction novel and a further two only part of the way through.

Now if you are a writer – and by that I mean an author of fiction – reading this blog then you have probably thrown your hands up in horror at the thought someone writing a novel has read just one in two years. After all, you’ll have read (some of you may have written) the blogs and advice from those well known authors who say:  “To write, and to write well, you must read, read, read and then read some more.” Of course in principle I entirely agree with this. In principle. But  in reality, and in the busy world I inhabit, I have found less and less time for reading novels. And truth be known, I have lost interest to a certain degree. As to why this is, I have a few theories. All I know now is, as a writer who is embarking on the writing of my first novel, I feel a little bit of a fraud among writers and certain blogs are making me feel inferior or like I am breaking the 11th commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Write Unless Thou Reads” (or else burn in author hell for all eternity). Will I be shunned by my peers for holding the view that I don’t necessarily think you need to be reading novels on a daily basis in order to write? Or will I not be taken seriously as an author when others realise I  am no longer an avid fan of the novel?

Before you reject me completely let me explain.

I have read a lot of novels in my life. I started as a nipper reading as many Enid Blyton books as I could get my hands on. I loved adventure and mystery and the idea of going to boarding school. I read the Narnia books, of which The Magician’s Nephew was always my favourite. The idea that a ring and jumping into a pool could transport you to another world fascinated me. I read pretty much everything by Roald Dahl and many other wonderful stories in between.

Later on, I studied  English Literature up to A level standard at school and as such read novels I would probably never have picked up otherwise. Many of them, demands of the course, were classics by the likes of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins and Thomas Hardy. Wuthering Heights remains my all time favourite work of fiction. I don’t think I will ever read anything to match its imagery or the sense of empathy I felt towards different characters or the strength of the theme of the sins of the fathers being revisited on their offspring. The book may have been written nearly 200 years ago but its themes transcend easily to the modern day. This is what I find is the mark of a truly outstanding story.Throughout my twenties and early thirties I continued to eat my way through novels. Other than romance or Science Fiction, neither of which particularly grab me, I read a wide variety of genres. The crime novels of Agatha Christie, Thomas Harris, Kate Atkinson, Kathy Reichs and Ian Rankin. I read dark comedies by Ben Elton and numerous novels by Nick Hornby, my favourite of which will always be High Fidelity. I read historical fiction such as the books by C.J Sansom as well as  modern classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, A Clockwork Orange, Animal Farm and Catcher In the Rye.  I read my fair share of trashy, throw away beach novels too, (age has seen me grow out of these though)! As the cinema world began to make the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films, I made it my mission to read the books before seeing the films and my love of and joy in children’s novels was renewed once more. I also do this the other way round. If I see a film, then discover it came from a book, I read the book too. So after I saw Casino Royale (Okay I already knew it was a book first,) I read the novel by Ian Fleming and after seeing Jurassic Park, I read Michael Crichton’s Lost World. Right now I am reading The Hobbit as I want to see the film. But I won’t see the films until I have read the book. However it is this  fact which has led me to writing this post because it is taking me forever to read J.R.R Tolkien’s children’s classic. (Perhaps I should stop blogging, maybe then I’d finish it!)

But seriously. Over the past couple of years (coincidentally in the time I have been writing my book, I might add) I have simply stopped enjoying reading novels. Is this an age thing I wondered at first? Has the magic of a story – the world of escapism it provides – become too familiar and stale to me?  I have read an awful lot of non-fiction books, on a variety of subjects, as well as autobiographies over the past few years but novels seem to have dropped off the radar. So why is this? Why have I suddenly lost the plot, so to speak? 

Firstly I know for a fact I have less time than I used to. The writing of my book co-coincided with taking on the full time guardianship of  my now 5 year old nephew. Having a child is time consuming and tiring in itself. By the time I get to reading at bedtime, I’m asleep before I can read a page! Reading a novel requires deep concentration to follow the plot, unlike non fiction which I find I can pick up and put down at whim more easily. Also I have a job. I am a teacher. Although I only work mornings in school, I  do a lot of work outside of school hours. Teaching is a very time consuming job. And then of course I started actually writing my own novel. And editing it and formatting it and getting ready to market it by blogging. All of these things take time.

However it is actually the process of writing a novel, more than lack of time, which I  think has more put me off reading novels, to a large extent. Simply because I find now, when I read –  a novel in particular – I am thinking about the process of how it is written, how the sentences are structured, how similes are used  etc etc etc… So I am finding, rather than enjoying the read for pleasure’s sake, my mind starts to tick over with how I can improve my own book and then I’m back to writing rather than reading!

Or the other thing happens. That thing where you read something so mind-blowingly excellent, you feel inferior and the doubt monsters in your own ability strike and knock you down so that you tell yourself you’re rubbish and you’ll never get anyone to enjoy your book: the plot is ridiculous, the characters are 2-dimensional and the dialogue dry. So the book I am reading is set down and put on the pile next to my bed.  I currently have 5 novels and an autobiography only part through read sitting there. I have a further three novels on Kindle partly read and another novel in the garage partly read. Meanwhile I walk around bookstores and think “Ooh I should read that.” Or I’ll be on Twitter and there are authors tweeting about their books and I read reviews for them and think “Oooh that sounds great, I must read that.” Or just the other day I was walking around the children’s section of a book store and thinking: “I must read some of these and see what kids enjoy these days.”

But the key word here is must rather then want. Do I want to read them or do I feel because I am writing I should read them? And then I read tweets from authors about the marvellous, must have, latest title  they are reading and I think: How do you find time to read? Do you really read as much as you profess to?

Is it just me? Have other writers/authors ever had the same problem?  Is it a first book crisis which will pass?

Or am I just choosing the wrong novels?

                                                                   

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