I’d spotted him by chance, the day I was bunking off last-lesson PE. I was having a smoke in the woods at the back of the school, down by the canal, when I saw someone in uniform – maroon sweatshirt and black trousers ­– walking along the towpath. That had to mean school was over for the day.

As he got closer I recognised him. It was the fat kid that Rudi had it in for. After school we’d hang about at the bus stop and give him a hard time. He always stood apart from everyone else, head down, looking at the floor. Not even looking at a phone, for fuck’s sake. Rudi always managed to come up with something to say that made him look as though he was going to cry. He was probably thirteen or fourteen but he looked older on account of him being big. Big baby was one of the kinder things Rudi called him. It looked to me as though his Mum was feeding him up every night to cheer him up: ‘Go on, have another spoonful. A bit more rice. I’ve got your favourite ice cream for later.’

He had a sister in the sixth form – slim, long glossy dark hair that she swung in your face. She was clever – I’d heard she’d be going to uni next year. She always stood with the girls at the bus stop and I wondered why she didn’t stick up for her kid brother. I guess no-one wanted to take on Rudi. He was tall and even at his age he looked as though he worked out. Diamond studs in his ears, uniform always stuffed in his bag and a right gob on him. He didn’t care what he said to anyone. School had given up on sanctioning him. Think they’d been told they had to keep him there ‘cos no-one else would have him.

My Dad said he’d give me what for if he caught me hanging around with Rudi and his crowd. Said I could forget about any plans to go to college if I got in with that lot. That was after parent’s evening – think Mr McIntyre must have said something to him. Can’t see how he would have known otherwise. I told him I didn’t care about college. I reckoned I’d get a job at Maccy D’s or Nando’s.

Anyway, there I was, watching the fat kid. I realised now we hadn’t seen him for a while at the bus stop. He must have started walking home along the canal to avoid us. I thought about texting Rudi – he could be here in less than five and the kid wasn’t exactly moving fast. He must have felt safe here. Hardly anyone came this way, not even dog walkers.

I figured I could do this on my own and wapp the proof to Rudi. I wanted to show him that I didn’t care, just like him. I stepped out in front of the kid.
‘Found a new way home, have we?’
He was concentrating on the Cheesy Wotsits he was stuffing into his face and looked up in shock.
‘Well?’ I was blocking his path and took a step forwards. He took a couple of steps back and clutched at his school bag.
‘What have we got here?’ I pointed at the bag. ‘Hand it over.’
He spoke – the first time I’d ever heard him speak. His voice hadn’t broken yet – it still had a bit of a squeak to it. ‘Course work.’ He clutched the bag tightly to his chest.

I snatched it, ripped it open and chucked the contents into the canal. Folders flew open, sheets of paper scattered over the surface, soaking up the slime, turning grey before slowly starting to sink.
He let out a cry. ‘What did you do that for?’ He turned to me, his lip trembling and with such a look of rage in his eyes that I thought for a minute he was going to run at me.
‘What are you going to do about it, fat boy?’ I laughed, liking the feeling this was giving me.
‘Want your books back?’ I asked.
He nodded, biting his lip and holding back tears. He looked almost hopeful.
‘Here, let me help you.’ I gave him a hard shove and he fell backwards into the canal. I waited for him to come up – I had my phone out, ready. His head broke the surface and he was shouting and flailing his arms, papers all around him. It was a great shot. I took a couple to be on the safe side. I figured the water wasn’t very deep and he’d be able to stand up but his head had gone under again. When he came up he was spluttering and crying, snot everywhere, arms out flat, beating the water.

‘Swim, you stupid bastard,’ I yelled, then I turned away. I’d only walked a few steps when I heard the thud of running feet, the scattering of gravel and a splash. I looked back and there was Kezia in the water. Where had she come from, I wondered. Had she been looking for me? She’d got fat boy under the chin and was half swimming, half dragging him back to the bank. She was yelling something at me, but what with all the splashing I couldn’t hear. I thought about taking another photo but I really liked Kezia. She was sharp and bright and she didn’t take any shit from anyone. She didn’t like Rudi. I had thought she liked me but from the look on her face she didn’t any more.

My phone pinged in my pocket. I took a look. It was Rudi. ‘Respect!’ he said. I shrugged, smiled and walked away. Kezia’s loss.

This piece is in response to the Thanet Creative Writers prompt ‘Who do I admire?’

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Why I write in my genre

 

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The view from my desk at Lumb Bank

I didn’t set out to write in any particular genre – it just happened. About five years ago I went on a week-long Arvon writing course at Lumb Bank, Ted Hughes’ old house in Yorkshire. The course topic was Starting to write, and it was divided between poetry and fiction. I thought I’d be drawn to poetry as that was what I’d enjoyed writing all those years ago at school but, despite having a fabulous tutor, Jo Shapcott, I found I loved writing fiction with the equally fabulous Susanna Jones.

I wrote a short piece there, inspired by an exercise focusing on placing a character within the landscape around me and this went on to become the opening of my first novel, a novel I had never planned to write. On the sunny June day that I arrived home, feeling bereft at leaving Yorkshire and the lovely people I’d met on the course, I wandered around my local carnival and bought a couple of cakes from the aptly named Celestial Cake Company. The seed was sown – I worked my historical and tragic piece about a young mill worker in Yorkshire into the emerging contemporary story of her descendant – a London girl with a penchant for cake making, who longed to escape from the rat race.

From there a second novel was born. I’d got stuck with the first (I’d been over-ambitious for a novice) and so decided as an exercise to write a bit about one of the other characters in it, out of which a full-blown storyline developed. In between, when the plot ground to a halt or my timeline unravelled, I wrote poetry as an escape.

Apart from historical commercial fiction I’ve also tried my hand at romantic fiction and a YA crossover novella – neither of which have left my computer as yet. I’m now halfway through the third volume of what has become a family saga whilst doing the first edits on the second, which is destined to see the light of day with digital publication scheduled for October this year. Watch this space…

For Week Four of the Thanet Creative Writers competition.

Theocentric thoughts

‘Control,’ he said. ‘Domination. Subjugation if we want.’
‘Uh-huh,’ I said, trying to sound enthusiastic. My face would have made my true feelings apparent but he was striding about the room as he warmed to his theme and paid me little attention.
‘Yes, we’ll have rituals that will bind them to us, to our god. For the newborn, for those reaching puberty and again as adults, when they join to one another in marriage. We’ll be with them every step of the way, guiding them through their lives, reminding them of our message. We’ll be there for them in death, too.’
He swung round to face me. ‘Of course, we’ll need a set of rules for them to follow. I want you to organise that, and the website. We’ll start with an app; can you get onto Christian to get his team working on that? Tablets and ipads at our gatherings of course, so we can do regular updates on high achievers in each locality. A personal touch: everyone loves that. The kids will like the techy stuff – it’s important that we keep them on board.’

He paced some more. ‘Branding. Speak to Saul. We need an identity that will blow the competition out of the water. I want initial designs on my desk first thing Monday.’
He paused, thinking. ‘Get him to look at how to apply it to a range of merchandise too. T-shirts, a range of robes maybe – ask Mary to speak to one of the fashion houses. Mugs, stuff for the house. We need to make sure that we touch every area of their life.’
‘Songs?’ I ventured?
‘Of course. Speak to Mohammed at S.O.P. We want anthems. Only the biggest stars. He’ll know who to contact. And we’ll know what to do if any of them refuse.’
‘And if the public don’t want us?’
His face darkened, brows knitted as he turned to face me. ‘There can be no dissension; we won’t tolerate it. Everyone must understand that.’
‘But if they resist?’
‘We have no option.’
‘We wouldn’t try to negotiate? Get them to see our point of view? Bring them on side?’
‘No.’ He paced some more, in silence. ‘Imagine if they asked you to join them: to follow their beliefs instead of ours. Would you?’
He didn’t wait for my answer. ‘They won’t be persuaded. Trust me; I know how it works. The only answer is to crush them.’
‘But if there is only one god,’ I ventured, ‘then he is everyone’s god, no matter what form he takes. Shouldn’t we tolerate these other religions? Aren’t they entitled to their beliefs?’
‘You really don’t get it, do you?’ he said. ‘One god and one god alone. Our god.’

Invent my own religion? Let’s face it, I wouldn’t.

For Week Three of the Thanet Creative Writers Competition.

 

Home

Across the fields from me
a clouded leopard sleeps.
The roar of the traffic is stilled,
the road – so close–
now silent and dark.

Where he comes from,
he would be awake
and hunting.
Eyes huge and watchful, whiskers alert;
ready to make his move
on stealthy silent paws.

Does he raise his nose in sleep
and sniff the air
for the hot wet mulch of the forest,
or the scent of wood smoke,
brought on a breeze from the valley,
catching instead only the salt tang of the sea
borne on the cold wind that sweeps across
fields of winter wheat?

Does he listen for tree frogs and cicadas,
hearing only the unanswered call
of a solitary owl?

Does he dream of escape?

If I had a Time Machine…

My time machine will not be something physical, like Doctor Who’s Tardis. Instead I imagine it to be more like Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility. I can wrap myself in its secret veil and use it to spin me back through the stars, calibrating the Earth to pause just where I want.

I will stop by a Sussex stream to observe my medieval swineherd, camping out with his pigs at pannage time in the woods. I can sniff at his dinner cooking over the fire, taste the texture of meat and gristle in his rabbit stew, note the way he wears his cloak casually flung about his shoulder and the colour of the rough stone in the clasp that secures it around his neck.

He will have no hint of his presence before I leave his side to journey in a gnat’s breath, the blink of an eye, the hoot of an owl to a Yorkshire valley where I come upon my mill girl as she walks the rough path to work early in the morning. I know why she is sad, why the stream in the valley is high and foaming brown with the rain coming off the moors, but why is her basket so heavy and what does it hold by way of lunch? At Christmas, is her cottage decorated? If she weds, will it be in a church? Can she write and if so, would her letter be in an envelope or folded? Does she post it in a box and if so, where?

When her servant sister goes to work in York in 1903, what sort of train carriage does she travel in? When her sweetheart goes to the Front in the Great War, what does he expect to find there? And what does he actually find? Can I travel with him to see for myself?

I do have a time machine, of course. It sits on my desk, slim and silver, and I can be drawn into it and lose a minute or two, an hour or a whole day travelling back into the past. If I so wish I can find answers to all those questions without leaving my chair. And for the answers I can’t find it can put me in touch with people all over the word who might be able to help. It can lead me to places that I really need to visit to add authenticity to my work and help me discover things that I would never even have thought of including.

My time machine for travel into the future is different. I carry it around with me wherever I go and the best thing about it is that no-one can tell me (yet) that I’ve got my facts wrong. It’s the best type of time machine of all, for past and future, and one that we all have: our imagination.

This is my entry for Week 2 Thanet Creative Writers Competition

February ramblings

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The month got off to a cold and gloomy start, although not for me as I was in India… Wondering where the sun had gone I went to Snowdrop Day at Goodnestone House, which probably came a week or two too early. Half the snowdrops were stoutly refusing to show themselves and the winter aconites sensibly kept their petals closed against the wintry chill. I’ll return again, though, to admire the garden in its unspoilt setting; still, perhaps, much as Jane Austen might have seen it when she walked there.

A few days later and I was too warm in my winter jacket as I walked by the sea at Ramsgate; sparkling sun reflecting off a flat calm sea. By the middle of the month the blackthorn was bursting into flower, even on the exposed windy ridge of Beacon Hill.

The month’s end saw the grass on the lawn get its first cut of the year and I had cause to regret not planting the beautiful miniature iris somewhere closer to the house where I could actually appreciate it. March, though, brought the welcome sight of an early primrose on a sunny bank near the Stour. The birds are in nesting mood, gathering moss, feathers and occasionally inappropriate and outsize pieces of foliage. Pairs of blackbirds, sparrows and robins have staked their claim on the ivy hedge and the house eaves, while those species preferring to nest in trees or bushes are going to have to wait just a little bit longer for them to put on leaf.

What gets me writing?

If I didn’t write
at night the words would force themselves
out between my lips in sleep.
They would creep across the pillow,
trickle down the stairs,
burst through the front door and out into the street,
or jostle through the back door
to festoon themselves in the tree branches.

To save them from this I sit, put pen to paper,
gaze out of the window at the birds in the tree,
or put on my boots and walk through the rain
in search of a story, to give them a voice.

My first blog post, a lot of blood, sweat and tears to create the platform, and an entry for Week 1 Thanet Creative Writers competition