Friday, 14 June 2019

The Best (And Worst) Of Times

I can honestly say that I love the research phase of writing. Indeed, so much so that I struggle to stop. After all, when is enough-enough?
When I came up with the concept of Stoker, I was forced to acknowledge the depth of my ignorance in regards to all things Victorian. Of course I had a vague notion based on  distant history lessons in high school and from fictional works, particularly Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Some marvellous television adaptations of Dickens’s works have been a welcome addition. But, sadly, it was not enough. So, down the rabbit hole I plunged.

As my hero is a working man, a stoker, this is where I started. What was/is a stoker? Where would a stoker work on the Lincolnshire Fens? Where did Leon Odling live? How did he live? What did he eat? Earn? Enjoy? What is a steam engine? So many questions. My young heroine, Eliza Elvidge, was a little more straightforward. As the indulged daughter of a self-made industrialist, I was concerned with the more general facets of privileged life.  I needed to understand her home and environment. Education. Dress. Diet. Etiquette. Pleasure. And problems. 

I discovered that which many others had discovered before me; the Victorian Era is fascinating. Navvyman by Dick Sullivan was a particularly enlightening read; a vivid and empathetic account of the lives and deaths of navvies. Liza Picard's Victorian London helped formulate a lush life for my heroine. And - for balance - Henry Mayhew’s splendid London Labour And London Poor offered a graphic picture of life on the wrong side of the river. Today no research is complete without  a surf on the net, there's some fantastic stuff out there all for free!

But research isn’t just about filling the gaps. It does have a way of introducing ideas or concepts unlooked for. As I wrote Stoker a number of unsettling thoughts flitted through my mind. It was not until I finished however that I took the time for consideration. Ultimately, I came to the odd conclusion that Victorian England was not entirely unfamiliar. 
A family trip to London recently reinforced this phenomenon. It was a wonderful night at the Coliseum Theatre to experience the English National Ballet’s performance of Swan Lake. Truly a breathtakingly beautiful production. Such splendour. Such opulence. Deeply satisfying to the senses. 
Photo by Oziel Gomez on Unsplash
And yet, just a few footsteps away, in an alley, a group of displaced people hunkered down on the concrete. They made little noise. Drew no attention to themselves. Yet the pungent scent of human waste (in every sense of the word) clung to the cold night air. Here, then, was Mayhew’s London, where behind great palaces and grand houses, the destitute eked out a desperate existence in mean streets and alleys

In a city spending upwards of 4.2 billion pounds on the Thames Tideway Tunnel, would it not make sense to provide adequate public facilities and accomadation for it’s inhabitants? Is there no small change left over from the Tideway? 
Victorian England had other parallels to the present. Today we also have an ever-growing gap between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. Job insecurity. A revolution in technology. A revolution in communication. A tendency to ascribe to the concept of the 'deserving poor’ and the 'undeserving poor’. A belief that each man is the master of his own destiny. 
But then, as now, homelessness and poverty is rarely (if ever) a lifestyle choice.
 It was Mayhew’s hope that his book would highlight to the 'haves’ the intimate sufferings of the 'have nots’, and consequently stir the privileged to improve the lot of the poor.

I wonder what Mayhew would make of London in this- the best (and worst) of times.

Monday, 24 December 2018

Let It Snow by Jenny Brigalow

 Kaye peered at the wintry scene inside the globe. At the solitary, skeletal tree atop a bare snowbound hill. Perched on the highest branch a lone raven stared at a snowman huddled at the foot of the steep slope. He presented a strangely woebegone figure. Dressed in nought but a black top hat and red scarf, the snowman had a mouth of grey pebbles and a thin carrot nose. The tip of the carrot protruded beneath the sagging rim of the hat. One eye was visible. No more than a shallow indent in the snow.

“Hello, you,” said Kaye. But the man of snow made no reply. She knew that it was only her imagination that made his twiglet arms wave ever-so-slightly. It was super silly, but tears welled up in her eyes. “Poor man,” she said. Sillier still was the notion that he seemed even lonelier than herself. 

She shook the glass and watched the storm inside. She could almost hear the shrieking of the wind and the crystalline flakes of snow battering the glass sphere. Then her breath caught in her throat and she bought the globe up close  to her nose. It was crackers, but she could have sworn that the black bird had lifted off and flown away. Heart racing like hoofbeats in her chest, Kaye waited. Slowly, slowly the white haze cleared. Kaye breathed once more as she espied the corvid firmly affixed to his place.

Chilled, Kaye shifted a little to adjust the quilt that swaddled her on the stained, shabby sofa. The room was cold despite the ancient radiator that grumbled and groaned like a rheumatic beast of burden. Condensation ran down the faded wall paper and pooled on the window ledges. Kaye leant forward and rubbed a porthole on the foggy pane of glass. She let out a small sigh of pleasure as she watched soft flakes of snow glide through the sulphuric glow of the street lamp below.

“It’s snowing!” she said. “Look.”  And so saying, she lifted the globe so that the snowman could see. Then she set him on the driest spot on the sill, and shuffled closer. For a long time, she sat, entranced. She tried to picture what the tiny front lawn looked like.  The snow seemed thick and fast, but maybe it was melting when it hit the ground. Finally, her curiosity overcame her. She just had to know.

“Come on,” she said, and grabbed the globe. Rising, she shed the cover and hastened across the brittle lino to her wardrobe. And, as she perused the contents, Kaye was overwhelmed by an acute desire to build a snowman. She grabbed her anorak and a beanie, threw them on and thrust the globe into a pocket. Excited now, she hastened out the flat onto the landing. She bounded down the stairs, paused to thrust her feet into wellies at the front door and stepped outside. 

She smiled in delight at the smooth expanse of white. It was perfect, like a freshly iced Christmas cake. For a moment Kaye hesitated, breath fogging before her. It seemed a shame to mar the virgin scene. But then her tingling fingers closed around the globe. Kaye let go her inhabitations like gas filled balloons and stepped out onto the snow. 

Filled with purpose, she began packing snow feverishly into her frozen fingers. Soon the round body was formed, closely followed by a head. She paused to caste around for props. Eager for arms, Kaye headed over to the edge of the garden to the leafless poplar and took hold of a slender branch. It snapped but didn’t give. Not to be denied, she gripped harder and leaned back with all her weight. And  fell.

She landed with a thud. Winded, Kaye lay and gasped, horribly aware of snow on her bare neck. Then a face materialised above her. A young man, wearing a tall black hat.

He bent down and his scarf tickled Kaye’s cheek. “I say, are you alright?” he said.  

She nodded, still unable to speak. 

A pair of strong hands took a hold and pulled her to her feet. Black, merry eyes laughed down at her above a long bony nose, red as Rudolph’s. “Hi, I’m Chris. I’ve just moved in.” He waved a gloved hand toward the house. “Ground floor.”

Kaye brushed snow from her collar and tried not to feel foolish. “I’m Kaye, from upstairs.”

He nodded. “Yes, I saw you earlier.” Then he looked at the snowman.

Kaye could feel her cheeks flush with embarrassment. What an idiot he must think her. “I was building a snowman.” The words seemed to sculpt themselves into the air like a sparkler trail.

He laughed. “So I see.” Then he lifted his hat and put it on the snowman’s head, closely followed by his red scarf. “That’s better!” he said. He turned to Kaye, his curly black hair flecked with white. “I don’t suppose you’d fancy a cup of coffee? I just moved here and don’t know a soul.”

He looked so adorable with snowflakes settling on his black eye lashes that Kaye’s heart melted. “Sure,” she said. As they walked back to the house, Kaye remembered her snow globe. In the light of the hallway she inspected it anxiously. To her relief it appeared undamaged. She peered inside and frowned. She twisted and turned the globe frantically. How peculiar. The snowman wasn’t there.

Chris paused, his key in the lock of his door. “Are you OK?”

She smiled. “Just a bit cold.” It wasn’t a lie.

He opened the door. “Do you like mince pies?” he called, over his shoulder.

“I do,” she said, “I love them.”

“Brilliant,” he said.

Kaye followed Chris shyly into his flat. A warmer, cosier copy of her own. And, as she watched him lift a bright red kettle off the hob, she knew, with absolute certainty, exactly where her snowman had gone. He was free. And he was right here making her a cup of coffee. Call her crazy, she didn’t care. It was going to be, a very, happy Christmas.

Art courtesy of Tess Gilligan

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Silk Road by Jenny Brigalow

                                         The Silk Road by Jenny Brigalow

The sky was bright with diamante light and a silvery moon.  A sly breeze slipped through a gap in the warped window frame.  A curtain flicked and brushed across Jack’s face. He sat bolt upright in bed, senses on red alert. A cry of dismay slipped through his teeth as  blackness spread over the window pane. 
Inside his chest, his heart raced like a hot-rod. It was back! His teeth clenched at the sound of the moth’s frantic, desperate tap, tap, tap, tapping. On and on it went as the beast gyrated up and down. He felt as if its wings were in his head brushing across his brain. It drove him mental. Completely crackers. Then his mind conjured up his father’s gun. A flush of relief rippled through him. Of course. He would shoot the little shite.
The moth froze. Jack observed it nervously. Was it his imagination or was it bigger? His eyes swept over the thick furry body, the groping, slender feelers and wide wings.  The brilliant pink tip of its abdomen scraped over the glass, swollen, glistening and pulsating.  Gross.  It was bigger; the velvety wings extended past the glass and beat their crazy tattoo on the wooden frames.
 And then it was gone.
Jack let out his breath and sagged down onto the bed. His whole body quivered like a spot lit wallaby.  Then his spine stiffened as the moonlight blotted out. Like a cannon ball, the moth came back. It hit the window like a missile. The pane cracked.
“Shit!”  Jack shot back and slithered over the edge of his bed.  For one mad moment he considered waking his dad. But he swallowed the idea like an undissolved aspirin. That would be an embarrassing conversation. “Hey, Dad, will you just come and kill this scary moth for me please?” A man had his pride. No. He’d just have to sort this himself.
Before he lost his nerve he slid out the bedroom door, padded barefoot down the creaking boards and onto the back veranda. There he paused, senses probing the familiar landscape. All seemed quiet. Gum trees slumbered and cast long moon shadows over the paddock.  The only sound was his breath rasping in and out of his lips. A pulse hammered in his neck and Jack slapped a hand over the spot, scared the moth would hear. He nearly pissed himself when a soulful howl slapped the silence.  Dingo.  He forced his feet down the steps, leapt across the gravel path and flew inside the shed door. Too scared to switch on the light, he fumbled and stumbled until his fingers found the smooth comforting length of the rifle. He lifted it, broke it down, and peered down the sights. Loaded.
Jack stepped back outside and raced down the long length of the house. At the corner he paused, suddenly unsure. Maybe he’d just sneak back in and kip on the sofa. But then his ears caught the familiar sound of wings buffeting his window. Frustration and fury ignited in his belly and he set off with newfound determination. Rifle ready, he moved swiftly, circling around. With luck it’d never see him and he would blast it with both barrels.
And, for one deeply satisfying minute, Jack felt an anticipatory wave of victory. The moth seemed insensible to all but its own frenzied quest. Smoothly, carefully, he lifted the rifle and took aim. But, as his finger squeezed the trigger, the moth dropped away and took flight. Jack swore violently. He lost sight of it. And then he spotted it silhouetted against the sky. He took off, racing across the garden and  the paddock. At the boundary fence he paused.  He peered into the forest. It was dark. The moth, if it was there, was hidden.  As Jack turned to go, his eye caught a glistening thread of light upon the forest floor. Curious, he wiggled  through the sagging strands of barbed wire and crouched down to see. It was a silk road.  A long string of caterpillars moved sinuously along the silk strand away into the trees. Without hesitation he followed.
On and on it wondered, through clumps of lantana, down dry creek beds and across dusty dirt roads. A burned out shell of a house loomed like a cluster of broken teeth. The MacDonald’s old place. For a moment he wavered. The old ruin was a long way from home.  It was then that he realised that he no longer had the gun.   He continued on.  Finally, behind the ruined homestead, the trail ended. Jack looked up at the ghost gum that gleamed softly in the moon light. His eyes roved up its smooth skin and into the gnarled and ancient head, adorned with mistletoe and stag horns.  Cicadas strummed a ghostly serenade and the wind whispered secrets into the ears of leaves. He looked down at the forest floor. At his feet the ground dappled. Half hidden in shadow, a shimmering metallic mound hugged the bole of the tree. Jack sucked in a lungful of eucalyptus air and stepped back, sweat bursting from his pores as the mound split apart.
His mouth opened wide as a dark shadow emerged from the cocoon. He waited, taut as high tensile wire.  She stretched, and her feelers unfurled. Beneath the dark, downy skin her sinews flexed and rippled. On thin, bony feet she came. Jack could smell her. Like fruit and honey.
Sharp fingers flickered across his chest. Jack held his breath. Shadow fell across his face as her wings unfolded and wrapped him in a velveteen embrace. Jack looked up into eyes that glittered like wet coal. And he waited to see if this was heaven or if this was hell.
                                                The End?
979 words

Friday, 22 July 2016

The Other Side Of The River

Photo by Nick Manning


The Other Side Of The River by Jenny Brigalow

The rain had gone.  Anita Patel observed the wide expanse of water that sparkled and rippled beneath a clear blue sky. Water lapped and frolicked on the muddy river bank as it raced to the sea. She breathed in the freshly laundered scent of the world. Drops of water glistened like jewels, shivered and dived from the blue canvas roof of her tent. She smiled and dug around in a canvas bag with fingers sculpted by arthritis. The biscuit tin rattled as she drew it out.
A small shadow fell.  Anita looked at her visitor. Without a word she held out the tin. Little Joanne put in a grubby hand and took two bits of pale, crumbly shortbread. The child stuffed one piece in her mouth and disappeared. Far away to the west, thunder growled.    
Samantha Thornton lifted an earring in each hand. The pearls were tempting. They screamed "culture". But the diamonds shouted "success". Tricky. In the end she opted for diamonds.  She leant in close to the mirror that dominated one wall of her dressing room.  Then, earrings swinging like chandeliers, she slipped on her shoes and went to her bedroom. A shaft of sunlight blinded her and she rushed to smother it. As the drape swished shut she glanced across the river and her pretty, painted lips tightened.
But time pressed on. She grabbed her clutch and keys, clip-clopped out onto the deck and sped down to the garage. The Mercedes engine roared into life, the automatic door opened and she was away. As the wheels ate up the bitumen she made a mental note to contact her local MP. She hadn't paid four million for a riverside mansion with a view of scabrous tents and the great unwashed. It was an outrage.
In the deep of the night raindrops drummed on the tent roof and ran in a rivulet through one corner. But Anita was unperturbed. She listened to the frog's love sick calls and remembered. John had walked all the way to the farm in their courting days, come rain or shine. She had been young then. Now she was old. All she had now was the river. Until they moved her on.

Wet, weary but well pleased, Samantha shut the door and headed for bed. She was glad she'd worn the diamonds. She had been in sparkling form. The deal was practically done. 
Hour after hour the rain fell in silver sheets and lightening cracked apart a pregnant sky. The river rose. Water fretted at the jetties and clawed greedily at the soil. To the west a dam shuddered into surrender. A tsunami tore through a valley and finally met the swollen waterway.  Like a surgical scalpel the raging river sliced through the land.  Mansions swirled and shattered. Small tents sagged and were swallowed. It was all the same to the river. It was all one land. 
Silent and serene in their grave, Anita and Samantha were drawn irrevocably toward the sea. 

Photo by Nick Manning

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

WEP entry August 2015. Spectacular Settings - Like Lantana

                                                 Like Lantana.

This is Australia. The place that I live. But not my "island home". That's at the far side of the planet. A green dot on the landscape. England. It is forever in my mind. Sometimes I go back. I feel complete. Effortlessly my self. For a while. Then I begin to long for dust and the cackle of kookaburras. Long for the sharp scent of eucalypt. For  shimmering heat waves on scorched earth. The secret, brooding silence of the bush. It calls to me.
So I come back. I sink fence posts into the ground and wonder if I'm desecrating sacred ground. I dig my roots deep into the rusty red soil. I turn my face to the brilliant blue of the sky. I am alien. An invader. Like lantana.


Many thanks to Denise and Yolanda for making it happen. To see more go to... 


Word count 130:FCA

Sunday, 22 March 2015

A Pitch For Paranormal

A Pitch For Paranormal.

First of all, I must confess that I didn’t set out to write a paranormal. It just came out that way. Like many people I have enjoyed paranormal novels such as Vampire Academy and Twilight. And it’s hard to ignore the whole paranormal phenomenon on the screen. So, subconsciously at least, I must have been soaking it up!
Paranormal means different things to different people. Indeed, I had to do a bit of research to establish the boundaries between fantasy and paranormal. And, I must confess, that the lines are still a little hazy. Paranormal seems to encapsulate anything that defies scientific explanation whereas fantasy seems to hinge on the idea of magic.  To me there seems plenty of overlap. After all, surely magic defies scientific explanation, if it didn’t, would it be magic? Tricky one that.
So, do I believe in paranormal? Do I believe in magic? The simple answer is that I want to believe. Trust me; I spent years trying to spot fairies at the bottom of the garden and searching the woods for the Magic Faraway tree.  But I can honestly say that I have experienced paranormal for real.  When I was ten years old my family moved into a 16th century house in Wolverhampton. It was rumoured to be haunted. A white figure would often walk briskly past the kitchen window. At first we would go to open the front door, anticipating a visitor. But no one would be there. We learned to ignore it, but guests were always telling us someone had arrived! It wasn’t scary. Just a bit irritating. And at Christmas (and this was spooky) you could smell pipe smoke in the house. No one smoked a pipe. Spookier still was the giant cedar tree in the back garden. It dominated the landscape and couldn't be touched as it was placed under a preservation order. I never played near it. We moved after just a few years and I’ve never experienced this again. Of course many people scoff and put it down to an overactive, young imagination. 
If I didn’t harbour the belief that paranormal is - at the very least - a possibility, I don’t think I could have written the NightShifters series. In The MacGregor I found a forum for fantasy and paranormal. Best of both worlds perhaps! For me these stories  reflect a life time of longing to be - even a little bit - magic. And I still haven’t given up hope.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Whatever Happened To Alison?

                                                         Whatever Happened To Alison?

Sometimes the past drifts back. Places, people and sepia snippets of life. You know how it is. Something stirs my subconscious like an eddy of air through mist. A scent resurrects a memory. Pipe smoke or the scent of Pears soap.  Or a sound. The distant hoot of a diesel train. A storm bird. Today it’s  the glimpse of a young girl with long red hair. My mind winds back like a tape recorder.
It’s summer. England. Blackbirds warble in the hedgerows and dogs bark at the postman. Alison and I sit astride a tall brick wall, an imaginary pony between our long, skinny legs. We giggle and snort sherbet down our noses. Powder fountains into the air like snow. Alison’s red hair is warm in the soft sunlight. She is my Ann Of Green Gables. My bosom pal.
One day they come to me and ask me strange things. About Alison. Did she have a secret? A friend? Had I seen a stranger? A man?
I shake my head. “No,” I say. And I am bemused.
Alison’s parents buy her a real pony.  I look out for her and wait.  But we don’t play anymore. And I move far away.
The decades roll by and my hair is streaked by frost.  Many things are forgotten. But I never stop wondering - whatever happened to Alison?
Alison, are you out there?