Short fiction inspired by the Damascene Helmet and Shield, in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. In this piece of writing I imagine a connection between a widow from the Great War and a “Persian”/Iranian warrior from 1750.
Mrs Wetherby’s sugar bowl sits, as sure as a cat, on the table.
The light glints amberish from the golden trim – real gold no less – in jigsaw lines around the rim. Mrs Wetherby is pleased with the sugar bowl. It was not a cheap purchase; her father was quick to remind her, but he’d bought it for her anyway. A guinea no less, from Perrin and Fletcher up in the part of town where they made such things. Perhaps in Mother’s absence it was an attempt to do what mothers do; buying homely things to make a home.
Mrs Wetherby’s sugar bowl is round and squat, with a lid which curves, and it matches nothing. She sometimes wonders if the rest of the set could still be found; cups, saucers and whatnot. Damascene the name of the set, it’s possible she could find a catalogue, find the maker, even go up town back to the store – but there’s more to life than sugar bowls, and pussycats, come to that and so the bowl remains alone.
She looks up the word Damascene in Father’s Cyclopedia when his things became hers. Relating to Arabia – a country. She thinks this sounds rather romantic. A beautiful colourplate catches the light – a lone warrior in 1750. Helmet and shield, iron-chiselled and inlaid with gold wire and adorned with a feather, apparently. Prayers scribed into the metal, for what good they’d have done. Lions and kings wrought around with vines and leaves like Mr Morris’s. At least he’ll have been with his pals, she thinks, he wouldn’t have been alone. Just a boy, she thinks. But then that’s what happens to boys isn’t it?
Scrutinising the sugar bowl, after tea with the priest, it seems to her that the pattern on her sugar bowl is not like a jigsaw – it’s a labyrinth with no escape – that trim around the rim. Like the legend of the minotaur – she can’t recall how it ended – not well, she presumes.
Mrs Wetherby lives alone. It hasn’t always been so but that’s life isn’t it, there’s no sense in dwelling on it. There had been a husband, and children. She may still even have a husband, somewhere in France, tending a vineyard and keeping a low profile. She wouldn’t be in the least surprised if this turned out to be the case, because that’s what he was like. The army hadn’t supposed this to be possible and instead surmised him to be dead, of course, like all the others.
After she’d buried the last of them it occurs to her that children learn the word sad but only adult human beings understand what it means. Terrifying and infinite in its depth, sadness. She recalls being a child, and, alone with her Grandmother the lady became morose then tearful and then oh heavens the aching sobs about how she was alone always so alone and no one could understand, no one. Only you, Mary, you’re the only one who understand don’t you? Mrs Wetherby had, as a child enjoyed picking flowers in posies for Grandmother, unlike her older sisters who found the old lady tiresome. Small kindness was repaid in these tears, this gift of sadness.
This continuity – if not exactly comfort permits Mrs Wetherby to know that this is what life is like. Wars and death, and sunlight on the rim of a sugar bowl, where it sits, cat-like on the table. This is what life is like.
The stuff I write for Fun Kids, along with some terrific other content from the station, is available on iTunes for free download as podcasts. We had a nice review from The Radio Times last week – all the shorts mentioned are features I’ve written. There are hundreds of them on iTunes – around a hundred of my Dennis and Gnasher shows alone.
“As well as its all-day schedule of programmes — from 6am to 9pm with chill-out music for the grown-ups through the night — Fun Kids radio has since 2009 also created podcasts, and lively, intelligent offerings they are too. Programme-length podcasts — 25 minutes to 40 minutes — include Fun Kids Science Weekly and Fun Kids Book Club.
And then there are lots of shorts — three to four minutes on subjects that range from Age of the Dinosaurs to Amazing Inventions. Podcasts of the Beano with Dennis the Menace and Gnasher are a big draw. “
I’m pleased that my chapter book for children, Professor Hallux and the Lalalas has finally made it into the world. It’s been a long journey and one which has taught me an awful lot about writing.
Yonks and yonks ago I devised the characters of Professor Hallux for Fun Kids. We wanted a character who could explain science and medical matters to our young listeners. Originally the boss suggested he could be a stereotypical dotty old professor but I suggested someone more like Doctor Who – younger, and more unhinged. I also added a sidekick pink robot Nurse Nanobot, who I’ve been changing to plain Nanobot over the years – a girlie sidekick is, after all, rather sexist, and that she’s a subordinate makes it worse. (In my defence I’ve invented a county shit ton of female science characters: Techno Mum, Amy Aviation, Marina Venturer, K-Mistry Chemistry Superhero to name a few).
So there he was, and I wrote dozens and dozens of scripts for him to explain all sorts of things from vaccinations to why we have belly buttons. I still do. He’s got his own YouTube channel where Fun Kids visualise the scripts and you can listen to lots of the episodes for free on iTunes (just do a search on Hallux).
Chickenshed Children’s Theatre even wrote a stage play based on the characters and it was staged in London. Attending with my sons and my parents was a very proud moment.
2008 came and so did NaNoWriMo. If you’re not aware of this, it’s a challenge to write 50,000 words in a month. I’ve done it three times in total and enjoyed the challenge. In that year I asked Fun Kids if I could use the characters of Hallux and Nanobot to write a longer story. They said that was fine so off I went. I wrote the book.
It sat on my hard drive for a couple of years because it’s a pain in the arse to sell children’s books to publishers at the best of times and I was more interested in my grown up projects. The e-book revolution started to gather pace and I began to toy with the idea of self-publishing. It just seemed to save so much time – (one agent sat on the Challah Tin for TWENTY MONTHS before rejecting it). I was fully aware that even with a book deal I was unlikely to become an instant millionaire, so didn’t care about missing out on advances or even worried about making money – this just seemed to cut through the crap and set the book free.
The company behind Fun Kids gamely agreed that I could publish it, with the appropriate acknowledgements, and even suggested they take it in house to publish it. I know some cool writers and Paige agreed to proof it for me in exchange for a bottle of wine. I was excited.
Insert tumbleweed here. The short version is that until comparatively recently it was a devilish job to figure out how to get an e-book uploaded which worked on all readers, and which looked nice and properly formatted and basically didn’t suck. Or to do all that without sticking pens in your own eyes out of frustration. A version limped into the world on Amazon but sadly it sucked because it wouldn’t display correctly in e-readers. It gained a one-star review based on the sucky formatting, which made me wince every time I saw it. Not unlike the formatting itself.
The existence of The Version Which Sucked was a constant source of disappointment for me but I’d tried to get e-books uploaded before and hadn’t been able to fathom it all out so its not like I could do any better.
Thankfully – did I mention I know some really cool writers? – and one of them had recently asked me to beta read his co-written book all about… how to publish an e-book. (He’s planning his own launch at the moment so I’ll write more about that when it’s out in the world).
It gave me the confidence to take back control back of the manuscript and in three days, using his beta version as my bible, whipped it into shape. I barely ate, I barely left my room and my confused children wondered if their mother had gone insane. And when dinner was going to be.
As the stars aligned and the book began to leap through the aggregator channels, I bought some ISBN numbers and created my own imprint. This means that I can publish more of my own books – or other people’s – with relative ease and bring them out into the world under the same umbrella.
The version online was deleted out of existence and the new, properly formatted version was uploaded. Luke, my writing wing-man of many years and a talented graphic designer put together wrap-around cover artwork and a paperback version will be available very soon – as I’m just working through the proof copy.
So I got there in the end and the sense of satisfaction is off the scale. As I said to a friend – “this is what happy feels like” – to know that I have produced a book and made it available to buy – and it’s a good book! I’m proud of it!
Professor Hallux and the Lalalas is available to buy at the following stores:
There is a funny viral video doing the rounds at the moment of a young boy cracking open a bottle he has found on the beach. Excitingly, it has a message inside. The message inside turns out to be from a pissed up coke-head and there’s a lovely moment where the kid says, dead-pan, “Beautiful” – “Not a treasure map”.
I expect this is an appalling comparison to make, but I think that video has something in common with a film I saw last week at the New York Film Festival. It’s called Kékszakállú, by Argentinian director Gaston Solniki. There is something moving about the everyday loss of innocence and transition to adulthood, and that’s what the film is about.
It starts slowly, with leisurely scenes of children and teens caught in private moments – hesitating at the brink of the diving board, or casting furtive glances at older peers. A teenage boy buttons his shirt the wrong way two times which I found particularly touching.
I enjoyed the film more as the pace picked up a little, and we began to get snatched narrative, combined with surreal touches. Kékszakállú means Bluebeard – a reference to the one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle, by Béla Bartók. The score punctuates the film although the reason for this reference is somewhat opaque to me. In the opera Bluebeard’s wife forces Bluebeard to open doors in his castle, which reveal his shameful secrets so perhaps it reflects the vulnerability of the young people as we observe their intimate moments.
There’s an ensemble of characters; the girl who confidently has her first flat share and prepares meals for her girlfriends, the girl working in a factory, and the rich and beautiful teenagers who have nothing much to do but arrange parties and steal kisses.
As the film progresses we begin to follow one girl in particular. Berated by her father for running up bills, she is pushed to leave the nest. The trouble is she has no idea what to be. She investigates studying at college but can’t choose a course, factory work bewilders her, and she’s out of step with the rich kids. She prangs her car and cries like a child, not knowing what to do. A young mother with a baby causes her to smile momentarily but the only real plan she harbours, of leaving the country on the ferry is met with stark advice from one of the few adults that she can’t. She just can’t. The ferry doesn’t go where she thinks it does.
The film is a cinematograph’s delight and very beautiful to watch. Every single scene is art – from the girl walking along the side of the building (as pictured above) to the factory turning out polystyrene, and the cyan and mint green swimming pools.
I feel the speed of my own children’s transition out of innocence and, whilst they appear largely unbothered, it induces in me a kind of temporal travel sickness and I worry for them. I suppose this is why I found the film oddly comforting. The conclusion of the film is uplifting and hopeful. I am reminded to be hopeful too.
Here’s some flash fiction inspired by my novel manuscript, and around the word “Perfect”.
We could do that she says and in a moment the wall is broken, or rather the wall isn’t broken immediately but three days later in JOE’S CABS, it breaks and they kiss. Except it doesn’t say JOE’S CABS because the C fell off so it says JOE’S ABS and Polish Joe the owner loudly complains that people will think he’s a bloodyfuck gym but by that point they have kissed and the whole issue of the signage is entirely irrelevant to them.
Paul and Zoe are now kissing whenever Joe’s back is turned. She with her hen’s bum hair and he sweaty. They grope and rut in the rank kitchen. She catches sight of herself reflected on a cupboard door and wonders about perfect worlds. Paul is not as clean as Joe.
Paul drives a minicab and Zoe does the phones. They’ve been circling for years. Years and years. Things could have been so different they agree, if that first day back in 1984 he’d been brave enough to flirt and she’d raised her eyes to meet his. Life isn’t perfect she observes and although he did A Level English and thinks it’s a cliché it sounds like the cleverest thing he ever heard.
Joe meanwhile has been preoccupied with a BROMLEY IN BLOOM local initiative, which necessitates the installation of large planters up and down the high street, filled with bizzy lizzies and pansies in paintbox colours. As a respected member of the Local Traders Association Joe is furious about this. Ostensibly this is because the fat squat tubs block the pavements for local mums with buggies but in reality it is because cupcake-making middle class women have been largely involved in the initiative and if that on its own was not enough, the silly bitches have made jolly bunting and (inexplicably) knitted things around the planters.
This makes him angry in ways that he doesn’t even know how to express in Polish.
He drinks too much whiskey later and gets belligerent in front of Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares – starting a fight just to win and not even over something relevant like mice droppings under the servery. Zoe lowers her eyes and goes to bed. He slides a hand around her later but she says life doesn’t work like that, turning her back. Joe wonders how it came to be like this as he ruminates in the bath, thoughts congealing in the cooling water as he touches himself at the memory of a girl he saw onetime in the Aldi. Her scent is still in his nose.
The next day he resolves to do better. There’s a pub quiz. I’ll buy you dinner before. Come on doll, we could do that suggests Joe. And they do. I’ll even buy you one of them cupcakes he joshes and she curls her lip then smiles. Paul and Zoe stop circling like sharks now they circle repelled mild with revulsion. The sign remains broken.