#Secondthoughts: The Next [Insert Name]

“Where were you when…?”
There are some things that stick in your mind: the dates are indelibly imprinted on your memory, together with what you were doing when they happended.  In some respects you can define a generation by the memory.  “Where were you when JFK was shot?” “What were you doing when they landed on the Moon?”

One of the ones for me is the London bombings of the 7th July, 2005.  That summer I was writing up my thesis, ready to defend it later in the year.  I was returning from a supervisory meeting.  I must have had my phone turned off or something, because it was only when I was on the bus on my way home that someone got through to me to say that my girlfriend at the time was ok.  Why wouldn’t she be ok?  I hadn’t heard anything about the coordinated terrorist attacks so I hadn’t had any reason to be worried.  She was working in London, and had been caught up in the subsequent problems facing the transport system.  I don’t think she even made it to work, but instead came straight home – although even that took several hours longer than it should have done.

I’m not going to go off on one about encoding memories or anything like that, but I find it interesting that there are few things that I remember in quite that much detail.  One of the other ones is more interesting for me on a personal level because it marked a major watershed for me in how and what I read.

I was in my early teens and had been reading Terry Pratchett books for a few years, and absolutely loving them.  When this anecdote takes place, some of my very favourites had been published, and when we were given the opportunity to study one of our own choices for English, I chose Reaper Man, which retains a special affection.  Given the title of this #secondthoughts, you can probably see where this is going…

I went to the library one day and I picked up “Colin the Librarian” by Rich Parsons and Tony Keaveney.  I had a passing knowldege of Conan etc, aware of their existance, but I hadn’t read any of the Robert E Howard classics (and now that I think about it, I still haven’t).  Anyway.  I was browsing the shelves for some stuff to take out, and I came across this book, obvious pun for the title, which for me was a selling point.  Pick it up, on the back was a a blurb, which included the phrase “the next Terry Pratchett”.  Sold!

It was bound to happen sooner or later, but this was the first book that I did not finish – I use this term loosley.  If we’re more precise, then it is the first book that I skipped to the end to see if it was worth reading, and that I skipped through to find any good bits.  I did not find any.

Work progresses on the shared project with Debs and on a couple of other projects, to the point that selling them is becoming an increasingly important factor.  When you are writing to agents or publishers or editors or whoever, you are supposed to provide some examples of what your work is like.  You can understand the rationale: on the one hand particular people specialise in particular genres and they want to have an idea about whether than can be passionate about it and sell it, whether that be to the publisher or the general public.  On the other, is there a market for this book?  Are there people who will buy it just because it is like something that they’ve enjoyed previously?  If it is not like anything else, is it too niche?  How will you get the word out about the book?

But I can’t help feeling that being compared to someone is a bit of a poisoned chalice: there are authors who are a bit derivative, but it feels unfair to compare any author to someone who might be considered a giant in their field.  And then of course, what if you don’t like a top author, but might have liked the new person, but were put off.   Unpopular opinion, perhaps, but I’ve been put off a lot of Dickens by the sheer size of his work, which is ironic given the epic fantasy novels that I’ve worked my way through.  I’ve not read all of Agatha Christie’s stuff, because some of the ones that I have read have been a bit repetitive – although there are some stories that I love immensly.

A closing thought, because I’m not sure that there is an answer to the paradox, but on the back of Reaper Man is a quote:

I’m beginning to think that Terry Pratchett is the best humorist this country has seen since P. G. Wodehouse – less coarse than Tom Sharpe, less cynical than Douglas Adams, simply a pure joy.’

David Pringle, White Dwarf
Perhaps comparisons are inevitable, a link in the chain.  Still, caveat emptor.
© David Jesson, 2019
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Shirlyn

Named by my grandfather for his wife and daughter, Shirlyn may have been a vast, white colonial edifice, but it was also a much loved family home.

With covered verandahs stretching the length of the house, a car porch extended the upstairs verandah, providing us with the perfect location to sit out on cool, dry evenings. There, during family visits, we’d chat or listen to the BBC world service, while my grandfather got to smoke his pipe in peace.

The main body of the house was split into three. The rooms on the outer edges were cavernously long, while the middle ones were square and positively homely in comparison. I say in comparison, as each comfortably housed four large sofas, giving my sister and I every opportunity to bicker over who could sit where.

Downstairs provided the perfect base for entertaining – a favourite pastime of my grandparents. That middle room held not only those four sofas, but a magnificent sideboard for turntable and speakers, coupled with a gorgeous dark wood sprung dance floor. Absolutely perfect for a time when having the waltz, foxtrot and quickstep in your repetoire was commonplace; of course my sister and I preferred to experience the spring as we jumped on and off the sofas while playing badminton.

One cavernous room contained a vast dining table, the other my grandfather’s bar. The bar had been made in rattan and dark red leather, and held every drink you could possibly imagine – and then a few more. Six or eight matching bar stools ranged in front of the bar, where family lore places my mother drinking Martinis on her 21st birthday, two days before my birth. This was my grandfather’s domain, where relaxed entertaining took place, where he could wear a bush shirt, and mix drinks as he chatted and laughed with his guests.

My grandmother favoured the formal dinner party, although the size of their dining table and her preferred grand style, meant these were more akin to banquets. Off the kitchen was a locked storeroom, bursting at the seams with wooden packing chests. Inside those chests was the most extraordinary array of crockery, silver and glassware, everything painstakingly packed away in straw between uses. During each family stay, my grandmother would arrange a storeroom visit, imperiously instructing staff to unpack different items for our careful and awed inspection. As a child I remember most the sparkle – everything from from the gilding on the dinner service, the buffed and polished silverware, to the carved facets of the crystal glasses. With age and the passage of time, grand dinning happened only rarely, and I came to realise that my grandmother loved her beautiful things and needed an appreciative audience for them.

The kitchen was the domain of Cookie – a one-legged master chef. He ruled the staff with a rod of iron, yet was patient with my mother despite the hours she spent by his side, painstakingly transcribing recipes. Those hand-written recipes were scribbled over and much amended, for Cookie wasn’t traditionally trained. A pinch of this and a handful of that was easy enough to translate, but his method of indicating measures using the knuckles on his fingers caused my mother many a headache.

Shirlyn provided the perfect venue for the reception when my parents married. The long staircase with its intricately carved dark wooden balusters was the ideal backdrop for those traditional shots of father and bride.  The long verandahs proved a wonderful venue for photographs of the wedding party, and the car porch the perfect place for their wedding gift – a small black car tied with a large white bow.  Yellowing pages found decades later in an old leather suitcase contained local press reports of the grand event.

It was a different time. It was a very different life.


© Debra Carey, 2019

#FlashFiction: Project Gutenberg inspired stories

A day with Ludwig Beethoven

Bob was a writer.  One of these days he was going to make it with his own stuff, under his own name.  Any day now.  Any day.  But for now, and indeed for the last couple of years, he’d made his living as a ghost writer.  Or, to be strictly accurate, as a ghost composer.  Ghost writers were two a penny, even the best of them, but Bob really was in a league of his own.  We’re not talking about the in-house composers who delivered up jingles or incidental music or, Heavens preserve us, muzak.  No, Bob provided high-class material that would blend seamlessly with existing scores.  Perhaps a last minute edit needed a whole new piece of music and the original composer was no longer available, or someone wanted a piece of music that sounded like it could have been by someone famous, albeit an obscure and forgotten one, but couldn’t afford the fees to get something kosher: Bob would be there to help you out, via the dozen or so people who knew how to get hold of him.  And then of course there were the people who thought they could compose music, but really couldn’t, or who were a genius in one genre, but were about to lose a hard-won reputation by attempting something completely, as they say, different.  Bob would be there.  It didn’t matter if it was as simple as a spit-polish to a piece that was nearly there, but not quite, or starting from scratch on something that was never going to work otherwise.

Bob was also unusual in that he was a ‘method composer’.  When working in the style of one of the greats, he would adopt their practices in order to help him enter the spirit in which they wrote their original pieces.  There were several jobs that he had on hand at the moment, but the most pressing was that of one to be completed in the style of Beethoven.  Normally Bob would have allowed himself a week to acclimatise, but there really was not enough time: he threw himself into things whole heartedly. He finished off the piece that he was working on with a flourish and set it aside to review once the new ‘Beethoven’ was safely away to the client.

Properly he should have a housekeeper to truly emulate the great man, but that was out of the question in the modern world, and so he would just have to prepare his meal himself as usual.  Supposedly Beethoven favoured something akin to macaroni cheese, and whilst Bob fretted slightly that his recipe was not truly authentic, his own recipe was more than acceptable, and so he got on with it, and ate it with some grilled sardines and some runnerbeans picked from the garden.  This he ate accompanied by a generous flagon of – cold water.  Supposedly his desire for water in copious quantities bordered on a mania.

Bob checked his notes, and allowed himself a brief pause, before setting out on a brisk walk into the country.   Living on the outskirts of Milton Keynes in the 21st Century was…different to what late 17th/early 18th Century Vienna and the rural environs must have been like, but a country walk is a country walk.

A light supper, a philosophical treatise, vaguely related to the commission,  and he felt equal to the task.  As he headed to bed rather earlier than usual, his last job of the day was to count out exactly sixty coffee-beans.

He woke at dawn, ground the coffee beans, made coffee, and picked up his pen.

© David Jesson, 2019


 

The Englishwoman in Egypt

“Blast!” Jonathan swore under his breath. Freshly back from a period of home leave, he’d been about to pop over to Tristan’s, only to find a messenger from the Consulate at his door. Seems they’d had an urgent chit about an Englishwoman said to be in some distress who lived just a couple of roads over from him, so could he look into it … sharpish.

Hastening to the address given, Jonathan could hear the commotion as he approached, and broke into a run. He had to push through a number of weeping and wailing women before he could reach the door where two men were struggling; it appeared one was attempting to gain entry while the other was holding him back.

Using his best parade ground bark, Jonathan shouted for silence. Much to his surprise, the noise did reduce, and the men stopped fighting … if only for a moment. Sadly, their attention was only re-directed, as each and every one started shouting at the top of their voices … this time, at him. A few more barked out commands and the shouting subsided to a muttering.

Deciding that he would hear what they had to say in strict order or age seniority, Jonathan briskly introduced himself and instructed the most elderly woman present have her say, having first sternly instructed all, especially the two men, to hold their tongues and wait their turn.

It didn’t take long to hear the sorry tale. They were members of the same family; the family of the man attempting to gain entry to the house who, they all insisted, was having an affair with the Englishwoman within. The main in question repeatedly and with increasing desperation, declared otherwise. Jonathan took notes, obtaining full names and addresses of each person (information which was reluctantly given) before assuring them the matter would be dealt with by the British Consulate. He then firmly escorted them off the property.

When all but the man in question had moved into the street, the door opened and Jonathan got his first sight of the Englishwoman in question. Valerie stood framed in the doorway, her long honey-coloured hair tied back with a vibrant scarf. Tall and broad, she shook his hand firmly before shoo-ing them both into the living room. Jonathan introduced himself and briefly explained his mission. Using surprisingly colourful language, Valerie expressed her frustration with busybodies, do-gooders, and people who leapt to conclusions, all in rapid succession.

“My husband … he died … after a short illness a few months ago” Valerie took a deep breath and surreptitiously wiped away a tear “and I’ve not known what to do with myself, especially as I’ve been unable to paint since it happened. Then I had a letter from Tristan – you know Tristan Dawes, right? He’s an old friend who’s been terribly kind. When I told him about being unable to paint, he suggested a change of scene might help and invited me to stay. He was right, I took to Egypt like a duck to water, so he helped me find this place soon afterwards.”

“And …?” Jonathan, waved his hand casually in the direction of the other man.

“Ah yes, of course as a lone Englishwoman in Egypt, I can’t wander freely as Tristan does, so he introduced me to his friend Nasser to act my chaperone. Sadly, Nasser had a road accident a little while back which left him with a brain injury and has struggled to return to his old job, so this seemed to be the ideal solution for us both, until …” Valerie’s voice tailed away as she gestured to the front door.

Nasser started to apologise over and over again about the behaviour of his family. He was clearly deeply distressed by what had happened and Jonathan could see by their body language that while both were grateful the arrangement worked, there was no inappropriate relationship there. Jonathan believed them and promised to intervene on their behalf.

Having instructed Nasser’s family to attend a meeting the following day at the Consulate, and after issuing a stern warning they would be held responsible for Nasser’s physical safety, Jonathan returned Nasser to the bosom of his family and went back to Valerie.

Pouring them both a gin, Valerie tucked her legs up underneath her on a comfortable divan and started to talk. She’d arrived during the three months Jonathan had been on leave. At first she’d sketched a lot, figures mostly. She showed Jonathan some of her work, and he made a mental note to enquire if any were for sale as soon as was polite. Sketching in charcoal, her strokes gave that same impression of movement contained in Tristan’s watercolours. Jonathan commented as much, which caused her to clap her hands “oh goody, that’s exactly what I was trying to achieve, but I’m useless with watercolour!”

Uncurling, she invited him into her studio. The room was dominated by a large figure in oil which had the same sense of movement and vibrancy as contained in her sketches, and this time Jonathan didn’t hesitate … “Can I buy it?”

© Debra Carey, 2018

#FF Prompt – Project Gutenberg

We’ve kept you waiting long enough for your favourite #FlashFiction prompt from Fiction Can Be Fun – yes, it’s time to pick a new release of an old (out of copyright) book at Project Gutenberg.

To select your prompt, go to the Recent Books section of the Project Gutenberg website. Pick a book whose title makes you go ‘ooooh I know what I want to write about …’ and there you have it – your #flashfiction prompt for this month.

Do have a good browse while you’re there – you could find even more reads to add to your massive TBR lists – and all at no cost!

 

Word count: 500-750 words
Deadline: 2pm GMT on Friday 7th June 2019

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


Post your story on your site and link to it here in the comments below, or drop us a line via the contact us page and we’ll post it for you.

Experimental Writing: Part 5

Meredith began the shlep to Crickhowell by leaving Llangynidr on Cyffredyn Lane, which at this point was wide enough for traffic to flow easily in both directions.  The road was bounded by high hedge on both sides, with a decent verge.  A little further on one of the verges petered out and the other narrowed.  People travelling the road  began to feel hemmed in as trees grew up behind the hedge on one side and the river narrowed; traffic still flowed in both directions but two large things, such as a bus and a lorry had a ticklish time passing.

Meredith groaned.  The sub-routine had indeed developed proto-sentience and had started referring to itself as Bunter for some reason.  Words would be had with the mission controllers and with the AI programmers when all this was over… Still (groan) Bunter was doing a decent enough job.  Whilst the road was not perfect for pedestrians, Bunter advised that the verge on this side did not get narrow; stay on this road, it becomes Cwm Crawnon Road; up head there is a bridge over a small stream, the road kinks, but there is a footpath.  Hang on…recalculating…find a break in the hedge on the left, the stream is the other side and the footpath will be there…

The intermittant sounds of sporadic traffic were dulled by the shielding vegetation.  Meredith made reasonably good progress along the foot path and the traffic noises were muted still further as the stream parted company with the road for a while.  It was surprisingly reassuring when the noise of these backward vehicles increased again: still on track.  The two finally came together at the thing that Bunter had described as a kink. Here, for some reason, the road crossed over the river on a small, rather primitive stone bridge.  The path by the river continued under the bridge and Meredith was confronted by a choice: stay on the path beside the river and head further into the countryside, or stay closer to the road on an uncertain verge.  The river path was certainly the more scenic, and would perhaps provide better cover- the moment of indecision was ended by a large green car pulling over.  Meredith thought the driver looked a bit too young to be allowed out, but he was leaning out of the window and shouting something.  Meredith couldn’t quite make out what it was, but a (thankfully) non-sentient routine picked up the sound and ran a translation.

“Bore da!  Going to Crickhowell are you?  Need a lift?

*****

The Land Rover was a long-wheel base Series I dating from 1957 – late in the production run, but one of the first to be fitted with a diesel engine.  Mostly loving care over the last 62 years meant that it was in surprisingly good condition.  Owain had found it after a relatively brief period of neglect.  A farmer had died, his feckless son had come home from his towny job and tried to make a go of it, but really hadn’t had the first clue about farming.  In then end he’d sold the farm to one of his neighbours for, if not a fraction of its real worth then certainly not full whack.  The neighbour had then proceeded to make quite a lot of that money back by selling off the ancient farmhouse and a small parcel of land to Owain and his family.  They’d moved in when Owain was fifteen, and he’d quickly found the vehicle, quietly mouldering in one of the barns.

His first emotion had been one of delight, and then he’d wondered where the keys might be.  They’d found them a couple of days later when sorting through various detritus clogging up a lovely antique oak dresser in the kitchen.  His da had let him try the engine which spluttered in a rather sick way, but did start, albeit with various unhealthy sounds as the engine cycled. They’d turned it off again, but both had been caught by the dream: despite the inevitable tensions that arise between a teenager and their parents, they commited to the joint project of restoring it.  Neither had any previous experience in this regard, but YouTube had been a great teacher.  On and off it had taken the best part of two years to get it back up and running smoothly.  It had been left muddy in the damp shed and this had done the body no good at all.  It had been left standing for several years and the tyres had perished.

The final job had been to repaint the Land Rover: everyone else in the family had felt they had the right to a say in what colour it should be.  Ma said Canary Yellow; Nerys, two years younger, and drifting towards becoming a goth wanted black; Esther, his youngest sister, pink; even Dylan, the youngest and shyest of the siblings, put forward an opinion – Dragon Red.  Owain and his da refused to listen though, united in a belief that there was only one colour suitable for a car – British Racing Green (although they’d never call it that in front of the neighbours).

Owain spent many happy hours learning to drive in the Land Rover: because he had access to the farmyard, and permission from Mr Kendrick, the farmer who had sold them the farmhouse to use his land, Owain was ready to take his test on his 17th birthday – which he passed with three minor faults.  When he returned home the house was festooned with streamers and balloons and there was a big party.  Afterwards, when his friends had gone home, his da took him aside and had handed him the keys to the Landie.

“It’s yours,” he said, simply, “you’ve earned it.  Now, we’ll have to think about what we can do for your sister.”

*****

Crickhowell was a small town as such conurbations go, but decidedly larger than Llangynidr, and indeed one of the larger communities within the boundaries of the Brecon National Park.  It was something of a focus for tourists, despite the less than imppresive remains of a castle.  There were excellent B&Bs and other hostelries.  Owain was headed that way to pick up Nerys who had been at a sleep over, and since he was going Esther tagged along to go to the book shop (although truth be told she needed little excuse to tag along with Owain, especially if a drive in the Landie was on offer).  Ma, too, had pressed a shopping list into his hand as he picked up the keys, ‘since you’re going, love’.

Esther was carefully pecking out a message to Nerys on Owain’s mobile, to let her know they were coming, when they spotted the strange figure at the side of the road.

“That poor soul looks lost, Owain.”

“Yeah…shall offer him a lift?”

“I’m not sure what Ma would think” Esther said doubtfully, “but they’re only little!”

They pulled over.

© David Jesson, 2019


 

During 2019, I’m going to be undertaking a writing experiment, as described here.

The shape of story was formed through a four-part prologue: the first part of the prologue is here, if you want to start right at the beginning.  All through, I’m hoping that you’ll help me shape the story.  Every month there is a poll on some feature or another.  Last month’s did not come to a clear decision, but I promise coffee features in the future, I just got a bit carried away with the back story to the random encounter.

Moving on; this moths poll:

Option 1: Aliens love coffee!  Who knew?

Option 2: Coffee does not love aliens – ew!

Option 3: What is all this caffeine nonsense anyway?

Also, if you’re in favour of coffee, let me know what you think Meredith should try in the comments.

I‘ll leave the Twitter poll open for one week, and will add in any votes on here that come in during that time.  Feel free to expand on the options in the comments!  I’m not promising to incorporate anything but always good to hear where you think this is heading!

See you next month!

#Secondthoughts : Raised Expectations

When something is hyped, is that the kiss of death for you?

Something happened recently which made me ponder a while on this subject. For one reason or another, more time than usual has been spent chez nous, resulting in much catching up on TV box sets, a fair bit of reading, a whole slew of YouTubes and the odd film. One of those films has caused many a friend to spout superlatives so, when Himself unveiled it, my mood took a little lift. Sadly, that didn’t last long. I’ll return later to the who and the why, but first I’d like to take a look at the subject of raised expectations as a whole.

Where books are concerned, I feel I’m generally pretty good at managing my expectations, because I’m well used to not liking the same books as most of the people I know. That said, I have to admit having recently written a couple of reviews where I’ve admitted being disappointed … following high expectations. Two which fell into this category – where I was the only guilty party in the expectation raising – were Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage & C J Samson’s Tombland. I’m a big fan of Murakami and just love his crazy style and I’ve found every one of Samson’s Shardlake books to date a real treat. Yet both, somehow, lacked. Could it be that – in both cases – I’d spent too much time in anticipation, something neither could really live up to?

Live events are another area where there can be hype and expectations. Not a fan of football, I’ve nevertheless had excellent experiences on the only occasions I’ve attended live games. Manchester United featured in both, so you could posit that the play wasn’t at all shabby, or was it that I found much to praise about the experience because I went expecting so little?

Therefore, I have to ask, is disappointment a foregone conclusion when expectations are raised? Not always it seems. I caught up with modern classics All Quiet on the Western Front and Things Fall Apart absolutely eons after everyone else.  Yet both totally & utterly blew me away.

On then to The Greatest Showman – where Hugh Jackman plays the great P T Barnum. A successful stage musical, now transferred to celluloid, this is the film which trigged my train of thought. Multiple friends professed their love for it, posted about attending the cinema multiple times to watch it, to have purchased the soundtrack for repeated listening … yet I found it entirely forgettable. And I consider myself a fan of musicals.

So, what was wrong with it? Leaving aside the fact the film did nothing to develop the stage show visually (by which I mean that the scenes still looked like theatre sets) the songs were unremarkable, as were the singers, and the choreography was simply frantic. Worse, the story was pure hokum. Whilst I don’t object to some bending of the truth, this played fast & loose with the true story, was utterly laden with trite tropes and filled with plot holes. I’m sure the aim was for it to be fluffy, feel-good, family entertainment – so perhaps as a 60-something wannabe writer, I’m not the target audience.

Still, I’m glad I’ve seen it. It reminded me that taste is very personal and to trust reviews only from those I know share mine. I’ve given considerable thought to whether I’d have enjoyed it without having my expectations raised … and the answer is still no. But it would probably be true to say that I wouldn’t have felt so deeply disappointed.


© Debra Carey, 2019

My mother’s home

There’s a muffled sound, rhythmic and regular, but I’m still in that land between sleep and awake. There’s also a light breeze drifting over my left cheek, my left shoulder, my left arm. My eyes open and close, just a crack, but enough to allow a faint glow of light to enter. The light is bright, but with a covering of haze. I close my eyes and turn over, turning my back to it. That light breeze drifts over my right cheek, shoulder and arm instead. But the light is fighting its way in and forcing my eyes to open more and close less.

I’m lying in a small iron bed right under an overhead fan. Ah, that’s the source of the muffled sound and the light breeze. But what of that light? When I turn again and open my eyes for a few seconds, I see that white wooden shutters are still covering the windows. Slowly, I roll onto my back and open my eyes once more. This time I see that small upper windows are uncovered. They are high, very high when you are only 10 years old and still lying in bed. But the sunlight is streaming in through them from two sides of the room. The light is coming into the room in what looks like beams – the sun is highlighting the dust in the air. I’m not at home, I’m in Shirlyn – in the house where my mother grew up, in the big upstairs bedroom.

Lying there is bed, covered with a sheet and a light blanket, all is peaceful. I watch the hazy light, the dancing dust which is whirled around by the air of the overhead fan as they mix. I become aware of the sound of my parents in the upstairs sitting room. They are probably having coffee waiting for my sister, or me, to wake, before we go downstairs to breakfast. My sister is still breathing regularly, as is my grandmother in her big bed behind me. My grandfather will have been up for some time and will probably already be at work. He will be back later to join us for breakfast, – he always is. I leave my parents to enjoy the early morning alone together. I know they are talking – I can hear the low hum of their voices through the huge tall wooden double doors – but I can’t hear what they’re saying.

So, I lie there and drift …


© Debra Carey, 2019