‘Twas the night after Christmas

…and all through the house, the snores of the over-indulgent could be heard.

There was no unison in the sounds though – it was one awful discordant mess. Hugh was the loudest – wasn’t he always – for he insisted on sleeping on his back and never allowed a whiff of fresh air into his nominated bedroom. Although he slept alone up in the attic, the rest of the house were certain they could feel the vibrations. Whenever Hugh stood up and announced “bed, I think” there was a mass rush to get to sleep before he did. Fortunately, he had a rather lengthy bedtime ritual, so there was plenty of time for his siblings and their partners to fall asleep first. Of course, if they awoke in the night, there was no getting away from the dreadful racket, which is why there was always a little middle-of-the-night gathering in the kitchen.

Sylvie had been the first – always the lightest sleeper in the family, she was granted the room furthest away from the attic. But it was no good. If she timed her final drink of water too late, she always had to get up – and then she was lost. Over the years, she’d tried earplugs of every shape, size and design, then reading – or rather being read to while wearing earbuds – meditating, taking a hot bath and having a warm drink. Nothing worked, so now she jumped straight to dressing in warm casual clothes – not being one for dressing gowns and slippers – before heading downstairs to wait for the others to join her.

She couldn’t do any washing up as that was too noisy, but the kettle would go on, the favourite mugs of the usual suspects were laid out on the countertop, milk would be poured into pans and hot chocolate, cocoa and a range of teas were laid out ready and waiting. Sylvie would always start with a herbal tea in an attempt to calm down – Hugh’s snoring had always made her feel wound tight as a spring and tonight had been no exception.

By the time she was joined by her favourite sister’s husband, Malcolm, it was time to warm up some milk. Malcolm’s preferred hot drink was cocoa, but Sylvie had brought some rather fine Italian hot chocolate, so both poured themselves a mug. Their drinks had barely cooled enough for them to start sipping, when the remaining members of the kitchen club started to trail in. Alan and Clare came together, as ever, Sylvie wondering if they ever did anything alone. Alan tucked a blanket around Clare’s lap after settling her into the sole comfy chair, before making them both tea with lots of honey. Sylvie was somewhat disconcerted to note they were wearing matching dressing gowns, pyjamas and slippers this year – was their no end to their togetherness?

Her own husband, Rob, was – as ever – sleeping like the dead. He also snored, if less loudly than Hugh. Hugh made the noise of a motorcycle – one with a very large engine which was running rough – whereas Rob’s snoring was an altogether gentler affair. He only snored on those occasions when there’d been a heavy meal and lots of drink taken. Other than their family Christmas gatherings, he was known to snore after big Lodge dinners, but slept in the spare room at home on those occasions. Here, for the Robinson family gatherings, there wasn’t enough room for them not to share – but then she’d no cause to complain when there was already Hugh.

Ma joined them too, but not because of the snoring – she never slept well these days, not since Dad died. She’d insisted on keeping the old house and while it was useful for their regular family get togethers, Sylvie and Hugh – as the oldest children – had wondered when they should try again to persuade her to sell up and move somewhere smaller. The idea had been muted that first year, but she’d been surprisingly angry at the suggestion, and they’d been too afraid of upsetting her again. She seemed to be doing better in the past year, going to church again, re-joining the flower arranging rota, she’d even been on a few trips – like that one with the flower group to Holland in the Spring. But she always insisted how happy she was to be home after each one – insisting that she could only stand people for so long. She had made friends with a couple of local widows, each taking it in turns to plan outings. But she liked them because they were like her “independent old ducks who like their own homes and their own company”. If they did persuade her to sell up, it would have to be somewhere local, and the pickings were very slim hereabouts.

Just as they’d all got settled with their hot drinks and the chat was going strong, Ma held up her hand. Yes, her sharp ears had heard something – there was a timid knock at the door. As one they called out “come in” and in came Sylvie’s newest sister-in-law. They’d none of them particularly taken to her, as she’d replaced a much loved sister-in-law after a very messy divorce. It didn’t help that she was very quiet and clung to Craig like a limpet, so much so that they were really surprised to see her here.

Alan made her some tea with honey while Clare tried not to look too perturbed at the attention he was paying to her sister-in-law, for she was dressed in extremely glamorous silk pyjamas, dressing gown and silly little fluffy mules. The chat had returned to their usual this and that, when the mouse broke in – Melissa, that was her name – saying she had something special to ask of them all, but especially Ma. Sylvie suspected everyone around the table shared her worry that they’d been less than kind and welcoming to her on her first Robinson family gathering after the wedding. The family hadn’t attended their wedding either, but that’s because Craig had arranged for them to get married on a beach somewhere in the Caribbean.

With murmurs of encouragement from around the table, Melissa started. It was quite a tale of woe. Craig’s business was in trouble, although the details weren’t entirely clear. Naturally, she received sympathetic noises over that news, but when she moved onto the subject of the maintenance Craig was paying to his ex-wife and their children, she was on rocky ground. Not that she seemed to realise, for she went on at some considerable length about their greed causing Craig and herself to make cutbacks. Perhaps feeling she wasn’t getting the sympathy she deserved for this, she dabbed ostentatiously at her eyes, even though Sylvie was quite certain there wasn’t a drop of water to be found there. Alan gamely tried to change the subject, but Melissa wasn’t finished yet. Turning to Ma, with a worryingly winsome look, she said “Craig suggested we move in here with you to save a bit of money. Wouldn’t that be lovely for you to have some company?”

Everyone around the table gaped at her – all except for Ma that is. She got up briskly from the table to put her cup in the sink before saying “Aye, that’d be lovely. Except I’ve arranged to have lots of work done on the house to tart it up before putting it on the market, so you couldn’t live here through all that, what with the mess and the noise.” She turned and smiled sweetly at Sylvie, “you know love, like you and Hugh have been at me to do for ages.”

Sylvie smiled. Her mother might be an old duck, but there was no doubting she was a smart one. She knew full well what Craig was up to. But it wasn’t going to work, and he’d be getting a good ticking off from Ma later. Oh to be a fly on that particular wall.

© Debra Carey, 2021


May your holiday gatherings be more fine Italian hot chocolate than Machiavellian misdeeds but, most important of all, may 2022 be when you fulfil your writerly intentions.

Utopia Avenue: a #SecondThoughts book review

If asked to name my favourite authors, David Mitchell’s name would appear – the author, I always stress, not the comedian. As someone whose preference is for literary fiction, Mitchell is a sound call having had 5 novels Booker Prize nominated – 3 longlisted and 2 shortlisted. But their subject matter is quite the mix, for you’ll find out & out fantasy, along with good old fashioned story telling, on top of simply beautiful writing.

It’s been a long time since I read it, but I was introduced to Mitchell via Cloud Atlas. A random paperback tucked in with a parental birthday gift of money, the choice of book based on a sibling’s suggestion, Cloud Atlas isn’t something either the parent or any of the siblings would read – but it’s an utterly me sort of book, and I loved it. I went back to his earlier offerings of Ghostwritten and Number 9 Dream, then bought (in hardback no less) his semi-autobiographical novel Black Swan Green. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, The Bone Clocks and Slade House were each purchased and read upon release. So, when he released his latest novel Utopia Avenue back in the dark pandemic days of 2020, you’d have expected me to jump at it. But…. I read the blurb, and it just didn’t grab me. I have to acknowledge there is this problem for David Mitchell – a nice one to have, but a problem nevertheless – that his greatest work Cloud Atlas was so mind-bogglingly clever, that everything else can be seen to pale by comparison (a problem ably expressed by this Guardian reviewer‘s take on the new novel).

It’s now the final month of 2021 and I’ve finally purchased and read Utopia Avenue. Is is great? No, but it is good, possibly even very good. I absolutely raced through it, thoroughly enjoying the multiple point-of-view tale of the life and death of a new band during 1967 & 1968. I really liked the structure – the way each chapter was presented as a series of tracks, formed into three sections, each being one of their 3 albums. I don’t especially enjoy it when multiple POVs cover the same bit of the story, unless there is genuinely something new to learn from each viewpoint, but I do really like to hear the voices of the multiple protagonists – even the secondary ones – as is done here, and done well.

I was born in the late fifties and grew up in the third world, so my experience of that seminal time was very different. Viewing the centre of London through this book as a place where (relatively) ordinary people lived, was most enjoyable. It’s a part of London I know well – if from a later time – so joining each of the characters are they move from coffee shop or cafes, past book shops, from flats, to pubs and clubs, and to Soho offices, brought the area back to life.

Were there too many famous name-checks? Maybe. I feel fewer would’ve been better, but the music scene was probably like that back then. Some of the real life characters could’ve simply been described rather than name-checked, which could’ve made it a fun guessing game. For example, was it necessary to have name-checked David Bowie, when the description of  “an elegant odd-eyed gentleman in a trenchcoat” was enough for even me to identify him?

I wondered if – and how – Mitchell would link this novel to others he’s written, something he’s known for…. even though it was a while before I caught on to this practice 😉 Some links are subtle such as the band’s Canadian manager who appears briefly in The Bone Clocks, and the lead guitarist, Jesper, being descended from the titular character of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. But the biggest overlap is when we re-visit the world of The Bone Clocks during the portion when Jesper’s psychosis causes a breakdown.

I often have problems with endings – but felt this was a good one, for a crash ‘n burn would’ve been too much of a cliché. So, while no Cloud Atlas, this was a most enjoyable read. Read it without heightened expectations, and I believe you could think so too.


© Debra Carey, 2021

#FF: Project Gutenberg’s Birthday- The Stories

Gentlemen prefer blondes: the diary of a professional lady

I can see the raised eyebrows – yes, even here from the page – and I can sense judgement made being that the words professional lady have nothing ladylike about them. But, that simply isn’t the case. I married into an old moneyed family. My husband was a darling man, he fell for me for the way I looked but, when he got to know me, to know my personality, my mind, my qualities – that’s when he got down on one knee. I’d struggled with my decision, for I’d sensed what was coming. He thought he was being clever asking to see my rings and putting each of them on his pinkie to test for size. But I knew… That said, my did that man have good taste in jewellery. His mother I found out later, she’d insisted on having him spend as much time with her as with his father, and she’d schooled him in many useful ways.

Yes, my husband was almost perfect. Intelligent, well-read, erudite, cultured, and kind – oh so kind. People said I married for money, but I didn’t, it was a love match. I’d have followed him into the anywhere, truly I would. And we were happy, ridiculously so, even though the family curse loomed over our happiness. It struck, of course, one day, after his morning ride. They shouted for me from the stable yard, and I was able to get to his side so I could be with him in his final moments. I withdrew from society after that, for I had nothing left of him, as we’d not been blessed with children.

Instead of spending my time raising children, he’d taken pleasure in schooling me – in business. He wanted to make sure I would have more than what he left me, for he was determined I would be my own woman and not dependant upon another man for my future security. It was he who told me not to be afraid to use my wiles. Not that he was suggesting I trade my person, oh no. Only that I shouldn’t be shy about using my looks – and my striking blonde hair especially – to get my foot in the door.

He also left me with one hugely valuable asset – an address book of the highest quality. Not lords and ladies, but rather business professionals of the highest standing and scruples. These were all men of course – for women are not taken seriously in business yet. But I always knew I’d want to work with women in due course, and set about making my fortune, so I’d have no-one tell me how unwise my plans were. It took time and now my locks are more white than blonde – still striking, I’m told, but no longer needed to get through those doors. For money talks, and I have a lot of it.

My ladies don’t have to be blonde, not have they needed to trade on their looks. I teach them not to be shy though. There’s more than looks to use with gentlemen in order to gain an advantage. Some have turned me down, assuming me to be something that I am not. Not one of them got a second chance, for I won’t be judged by those I work with. I don’t doubt there were some who thought the same but, by keeping their thoughts to themselves and acting on their ambition to succeed – have found success and, in most cases, a friend and mentor to both like and respect. We are a rare breed – successful business women.

I am writing my story so that others who come after me will know how best to obtain the advantage in a world where women are not taken seriously. Voting is permitted now, of course, and women are working – but it’s usually doing jobs men don’t want, or in lower paid professions. I’m certain that things will change in the generations to come, but I want women to know how to gain an advantage in a business world populated primarily by gentlemen. Being blonde certainly helps, but I’ve put pen to paper to capture all my knowledge and expertise. My words will help an advantage to be gained in business, whether you be blonde, redhead or brunette. But remember, your don’t have to be a natural blonde, you can become blonde if you’d like to use that edge!

© Debra Carey, 2021

A warning to the curious, and other ghost stories

The day had gone well for 2 section. Out of the whole company, they were the only ones to achieve all their objectives, and they’d had the lightest casualties. It had only been an exercise, but given where these raw recruits had been a matter of months ago, they had every right to swagger a bit. The captain had been complimentary to the rupert, and whilst as green as they come, he was humble enough to know that their success was mainly down to the NCOs, particularly Corporal Baker.

Baker had been one of the stars of the last intake and had earned his first stripe during training. The second had come after their passing out parade, and he’d been posted to training the next lot. Where the officers were posh and came from all over the place, Baker was every inch a Gloucestershire boy, and the lads revered him as one of their own. He spoke their language and got the best out of them. In training he patiently explained everything in his slow country cadence, stepping up the tempo as they moved from the classroom and parade ground and onto the rifle range and into the field. Here, his barked instructions were acted on instantly.

Tomorrow they’d be back in barracks, but for tonight they’d be given permission to bivouac without setting a guard. A couple of crates of beer had been dropped off and the fixings for a camp fire meal. Isaac smiled to himself at the enthusiasm the lads showed for this which, if they had known, was another training exercise. He also smiled at the thought that the brass imagined there was anything these West Country boys needed to learn about living off the land.

He’d got them started and then gone off to report to the rupert and the captain and take part in the debrief on the exercise. He mostly stayed quiet in the company of his peers and superiors, but there were a couple of things he felt it important to pass on, ideas which he believed would lead to a better outcome in a similar situation.

When he got back to his section, he found them settled in, and telling ghost stories round the campfire, waiting for the grub to be ready. They’d even waited to open the beer until he got back. He started opening bottles and passing them around whilst he listened to the stories. There were a couple of good yarns he’d not heard before and some of the boys had a real gift for telling a story. On the other hand, young Appleby was really struggling with his story, losing the thread and getting the characters mixed up. The rest of the section were getting restless and starting to heckle the unfortunate speaker.

“Come on Corp, your turn!”

“Well now, me ‘andsomes, are you sure? You’m don’t be standing guard tonight, but you’m still be needing your beauty sleep – early start and a busy day tomorrow.”

”The food’s not ready yet Corp. We’ve all told a story – of sorts.” Everyone looked at Appleby who blushed and pulled his head in like a shy turtle.

“Well then, if you’m sure, but I warn ‘un, this is a true story. This happened to me when I was on training.” The section settled themselves back again, with two of them dividing their attention between Baker and the fire where their meal was cooking.

“In fact, ’twas a night much like tonight: cold, clear and with the promise of frost. In’t middle of night, I got woken up to stand my duty and was sad to leave my nice warm sleeping bag, I can tell you.

“Well, my hour passed peacefully enough, and I went to get my replacement. After I’d done that, I thought I’d not get back to sleep until I’d emptied my bladder, so I took myself off past the guard. My night sight was pretty sharp by now, so I had no problem picking my way over to an appropriate tree.

“I’d just buttoned my fly back up when I spotted a glim of light bobbing away amongst the trees further in. What I probably should have done was to report it to the guard or the corporal or perhaps even the sergeant, but I were young and foolish and I thought I’d be checking it out for myself.

“Well, I followed that blessed light around and about for nigh on half an hour, nearly got myself lost I was so turned around, but I never caught up with th’ light and whatever was causing it. In th’ end I found myself back where I had started and deciding to get on to my bed. I picked my way back and checked in with the guard. The corporal was checking on them and asked me where I’d been. When I explained, he laughed.

‘Oh, you’ve seen the ghost have you? Nothing to worry about their, although he do be taking a shine to some people. Follow ’em about he do, if’un be too curious about his doings.”

He laughed again, and I pretty much decided he’d been having me on. But… He didn’t seem to be too worried about whatever was out there… I got back to my sleeping bag, but struggled to sleep. I were tired a’right, but my mind were all awake with this business of ghosts.

About an hour later, I reckon, I was just starting to drowse, when I realised I could see a glim of light bobbing around outside moi bivvy. The light seemed to be circling around moi bivvy…but getting closer with each pass. I wanted to cry out but moi voice was frozen, like. Closer and closer this light came, until I could start to make out features. It looked like a soldier, but from an earlier time. He still clutched his Brown Bess, but he knelt and laid aside his rifle and reached out his hands.

” I tried to say ‘What do you want?’ but it just came out like a creak.

“The hands were reaching out, reaching out, reaching out, until they clasped around my leg and started tugging.” Isaac paused and took a swig of his beer. The attention of the whole section was on him now.

“Where was I? Oh yes, they clutching hands pulling my leg – just like I’m pulling yours!”

© David Jesson, 2021

Author’s note: How could I not go with MR James and a ghost story this close to Christmas? The stories I normally write from the PG prompt focus on a trio of brothers that first came on the scene in a little second bookshop that may or may not be haunted, but as I’ve been spending a lot of time with the characters of the November Deadline (the book Debs and I are writing) recently, that I decided to explore Isaac’s background a little. I also need to say a thank you to Mr Dodge who gave me the bones of the story many years ago.

#FlashFiction Prompt: Project Gutenberg’s Birthday

cupcakes

Once again, it’s time to celebrate the anniversary of Project Gutenberg being unleashed on the world on 1st December.

 

The aim of Project Gutenberg is to help people access books that they might not otherwise be able to get hold of.  This can get a bit tricky because of copyright issues, but in some ways it becomes easier, because there are some fantastic books that are now out of copyright which would get lost forever if it weren’t for PG.

For this month’s #FlashFiction prompt, head on over by clicking to Project Gutenberg, trying not to get distracted by the 50,000 or so books on the site!  Take a look at the Recent Books section and pick one that you like the look of – the title of the book is the title/prompt of your story.


Tell us you tale – any style any genre, just nothing NSFW.

Word limit: 500-750 words
Deadline : Sunday 12th December @ 8am GMT

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page

A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line.  

Two caveats if you want to go down this route: if you want to retain the copyright, then you will need to state this, and this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.

#IWSG: Does writing stress or delight you?

The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. It’s an opportunity to talk about doubts and fears you have conquered. To discuss your struggles and triumphs and to offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling.


December 1 question – In your writing, what stresses you the most? What delights you?

The only thing about writing which causes me stress is when I have a deadline and am not feeling the inspiration. Fortunately it happens rarely. Editing can be stressful, especially as I’m rarely able to do it in multiple continuous sessions, so cannot avoid worrying about consistency while I struggle to keep my head in the story.

The aspects of writing which delight me are many – building a new character, getting an idea to move the story along, doing background research which can provide a spark of inspiration for my story or by gaining satisfaction that I’ve found some piece of information or fact which will add to the believability of what I’m writing, feeling the words simply flow through my fingers onto the keyboard, reading it back afterwards while thinking “I can’t believe I did that!” That last part has never been less than a buzz, even if someone else doesn’t like it as much as I do, I’m just constantly staggered that an old lady who came to writing late in life can actually string stuff together, so – like I said – it’s a delight 🙂

The awesome co-hosts areare PJ Colando, Diane Burton, Louise – Fundy Blue, Natalie Aguirre, and Jacqui Murray – do take a moment to visit them.


While you’re here, can I tempt you with a #FlashFiction prompt?

Every month, we run a different #FF prompt. This month it’s time for one of our regular features when we celebrate the anniversary of Project Gutenberg being unleashed on the world today, 1st December. The aim of Project Gutenberg is to help people access books that they might not otherwise be able to get hold of.  This can get a bit tricky because of copyright issues, but in some ways it becomes easier, because there are some fantastic books that are now out of copyright which would get lost forever if it weren’t for PG.

The prompt goes live on 5th December, for this month’s #FlashFiction prompt, head on over to Project Gutenberg, trying not to get distracted by the 50,000 or so books on the site!  Take a look at the Recent Books section and pick one that you like the look of – the title of the book is the title/prompt of your story.

Tell us your tale – any style any genre, just nothing NSFW.

Word limit: 500-750 words
Deadline : Sunday 12th December @ 8am GMT

If you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page


© Debra Carey, 2021